|MadSci Network: Computer Science|
Ah, James, if only I knew... I read something yesterday that said if you asked a farmer 100 years ago what kind of advance he'd like to see in farming in the next century, he'd be likely to say something along the lines "a horse twice as strong that eats half as much oats". Little did farmers of the era realize that by the turn of next century in industrialized countries the draft horse would largely be a relic of picture books, a display animal at museurm farms, and a pet of hobby farmers, replaced by the diesel tractor, or that the "he" doing the farming would increasingly also be a "she". The point being that predicting the future of technology is notoriously risky business: the major advances are unseen until in hindsight, they are obvious. In 1899, the telegraph was old hat, and even the telephone was an invention of one's parent's generation. On the cutting edge was Marconi's work on a device that would communicate with the electromagnetic waves demonstrated by Hertz a few years previous, and predicted by Maxwell only a decade or two earlier. Planck was trying to puzzle out the mystery of energy distributions for black body radiation, which lead to the idea of the quantum. DeForest was still half a decade from inventing the vacuum tube, allowing amplification of weak electrical signals. It would take another 40 years for Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain harness the quantum to create the transistor, and another 15 for Schawlow and Townes to demonstrate the laser about the same time the first satellite (Sputnik) was launched. While the transistor was being invented, Turing was busy theorizing about the general purpose computer, and von Neumann was describing how to build one. By the end of the 1960s, satellite telephone and television began to create the global village we take for granted today. The U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Project Agency funded construction of a computer network called Arpanet. By the early 80s, experimental networks were combined to form the internet. Meanwhile, continuing advances in the manufacture of integrated circuits allowed digital signal processing to be implemented in small, cheap packages, giving rise to fast computer modems, the fax machine, and the cell telephone. Who, in 1899, would have predicted any of this? Who, in 1999, can confidently predict the world of communications in 2099? What fool will rush in where angels fear to tread? Well, OK, I'll try. First off, people who study trends and attempt to predict the future are called, quite unimaginatively, futurologists. These range from fluff-filled self-promoters (I won't name names) to serious students of history. Try doing an Altavista search on "futurology" to find some fascinating reading, along with a lot of hoo-ha. Another place to look is science fiction. Science fiction writers have a remarkably prescient view of the future, not being burdened too much by current-day constraints on technology. My prediction regarding communications is that having tasted the benefit of interconnection, we will continue the process until virtual reality is "real reality". That is, our senses will no longer be limited to the here and now. The ultimate user interface will be a direct neural stimulation and output. Our eyes will become cameras and our ears, microphones. We will touch, taste, and smell remotely. We will share direct brain-brain links, achieving "mind-meld" with others. The blind will see and the deaf will hear. We will have new sensory perceptions using wavelengths unaccessible to us today (what does the world "look" like at gamma ray frequencies? at microwave? what does it sound like at ultrasonic frequencies?) We will feel as joined to another person on the other side of the world as we do to a person sitting next to us on a couch. And that's not accounting for breakthroughs in electronics, which will continue to get smaller, faster, and cheaper. It's easy to see that communication bandwidth will continue to climb (what's the limit? Maybe it's when the per capita bandwith for each person in the world equals the total sensory information rate of sight, sound, touch, etc.?) The only scientific breakthrough in the scenario above is understanding how to relate neural impulses to sensory information (and the first crude steps are being researched today), and, with more difficulty, converting between thoughts and neural impulses. This kind of communications will change our sense of ourselves and the world, just as modern communications and jet travel has shaped our current perception of connectedness. Just as a photograph was once evidence of reality, we know now that computers can be used to alter photographs; indeed, they can create a credible reality independent of the physical world (go see "Toy Story II"). The world has only started to communicate. Last month I heard a statistic (and I wish I could give reference to a credible source) that only half of the people in the world have EVER made a phone call, and only 5 per cent of the world's population has ever accessed the Web or sent or received an e-mail. That's an awful lot of people, but we haven't seen anything yet! Hope this stimulates some thinking. Steve Czarnecki
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