MadSci Network: Computer Science

Re: What will be the future advances in communication technology?

Date: Sun Dec 19 22:01:48 1999
Posted By: Steve Czarnecki, senior technical staff member, Lockheed Martin
Area of science: Computer Science
ID: 940602157.Cs

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 

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 

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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