Computer technology has been one of the few industries to radically evolve
in short periods of time, orders of magnitude shorter than other common technologies.
Dramatic shifts in transportation technologies occur over generations, and happen
about every 50 years or so. It is no wonder that the fantastic advances in computer
technologies continue to overwhelm us when they not only occur in short periods
of time, but the time between advances diminishes as well. Most of us can sit
back and remember using 5 ¼" floppy disks and 120 Meg hard drives.
Fewer of us remember using 8" floppies and even less still remember using
punch cards. But these radical advances can indeed be remembered by many people
and occurred in less then one generation. How many of us remember taking a sailing
ship to the Americas? It amazes and causes some pause thinking about where this
rapid advance in technology will lead. One must take caution and approach with
skepticism when anyone attempts to present how things will be in the future.
We all know that Fusion technology has been ten years away for fifty years now,
and we would have flying cars by the eighties. And lets not forget the head
of the US Patent office who in 1890 resigned insisting that everything that
could be invented had. Soon to follow was the discovery of radioactivity, nuclear
reactors, Einstein's relativity, space travel and power and radio in every household
thanks to Nikola Tesla.
We all are familiar with Moore's law, and the trend in processor speed has followed pretty closely to this prediction. So where might these technologies lead? In 10 years we can expect to see common place expert systems, systems devoted to a certain task. These systems are somewhat common in industry now, but every time a major advance is accomplished in artificial intelligence it usually gets a name change. Such is the case with expert systems. The systems will be able to accomplish many of our mundane and repetitive tasks, such as driving our cars, flying our planes, managing our finances, reading and writing our email, and keeping contact with family members all in a compact portable unit. Less apparent to the public will be the possible advances in industry, in the biomedical field where drugs can be tested and refined in accurate computer models with, by our standards, supercomputers on the desktops. Engineering firms can test and design new materials with desired physical properties, manufacturing techniques can be developed and refined in computer models as well. And certainly our computer games will have computer controlled characters who interact with us almost as realistically as our human companions over the internet.
As we get farther from the present in predicting technologies the likelihood of being accurate rapidly diminishes. We can extrapolate safely some capabilities based on physical laws however. Physicist Michio Kaku in his book 'Visions, How science will revolutionize the 21st century' tells us about the 'Magic Mirror' from the story of Snow White. One day, perhaps in about 25 years he estimates, computer technology will have advanced to the point where we can easily and successfully interact with it much like it were another person. Mr. Kaku sees us walking up to this 'magic mirror' or taking out our handheld version and asking it any question we could possibly imagine. The system would react to us and respond by searching the immense information at its digital fingertips with amazing speed, finding the information we required quite rapidly and readily. We may ask questions of history, or of science, or of arts and literature. Any information we could imagine would be nearly instantly accessible at our slightest whim. What kind of revolutions will the accurate and rapid exchange of unlimited amounts of information lead to, what kind of technological hurdles will we be able to overcome. Perhaps with technology like this we may find cures to all of societies ailments, pain and suffering and death and aging, and one hopes boredom as well.
It is difficult to predict where the technology will be 100 years from now. It is highly probably that machines will be far faster and smarter than any human alive, and soon afterward they may be faster and smarter than ALL humans who have ever existed. But the prediction of machines being able to outsmart humans are wildly hyped. After all, calculators have been around for quite sometime that can do complex calculations far faster then any human, and you don't see people running around having nervous breakdowns and identity complexes. But one day in all probability it will happen, for the technology has nowhere to go but up. People my be made nervous by this, but such is true with any new technology. But when it becomes common place, it by definition is not even usually given a second thought.
It is worth mentioning that one hundred years from now we may be surrounded by nanotechnology. We have all probably heard the term and read an article or two about it. There are many problems associated with controlling and communicating and powering billions of billions of sub-microscopic machines. But these hurdles will likely be overcome, and one day, it is hard to tell when, but we will likely have a nanotech assembler. When that happens, it will be possible to build blazingly fast computers a thousand at a time. Eric Drexler, founder of the Foresight institute, (http://www.foresight.org/) in his book 'Engines of Creation: The coming era of nanotechnology' describes one of these machines which is stylistically depicted on the cover. The system would consist of a block of sapphire about the size of a coffee mug, honey combed with circuit lined cooling channels. This machine would be a million times faster than a human brain processing about 10,000,000 terraflops and would need to dissipate a million times as much heat. A high pressure water pipe of equal diameter is bolted to its top, forcing cooling water through the channels to a similar drain pipe below. Power cables supplying fifteen megawatts of energy hang from the front and back of the machine. Data cables drape from the sides moving tremendous amounts of data through the machine. The drain pipe carries away the resulting heat in a three ton per minute flow of boiling hot water. Every ten seconds the machine gobbles two kilowatt-days of electric energy and completes as much design work as a human engineer working eight hours a day for a year.
Such technological advancement right now seems unimaginable, but in all likely something like it will come along. Soon though we will be approaching the limits of conventional chip manufacturing technology. As the sizes are scaled down, the difficulty and importance of conducting heat away rapidly increases. And when the wires and transistors get small enough, quantum mechanical effects take over leaving unstable and unpredictable conventional electronic structures. Set to take the mantle when conventional chips hit that road block may very well be molecular computers. Computing systems that use single molecules for memory and processing, some of which may be organic in nature. Following in the molecular computer footsteps may be nanotechnology constructed computers, Soon after we may see feasible Feynman processors, quantum computers which will utilize inter-dimensional states simultaneously in a sort of wave function frenzy.
The Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once said that 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' Of all the things we can imagine today that will be available in the future, there may be a hundred or a thousand times more things that we can not even in our wildest dreams imagine. Science fiction stories in the forties depicted pilots of space ships with slide rules. They could not have fore seen the transistor, or what it would initiate. Likewise equivalent drastic changes may take place in existing fields such as computer technology, or entirely new fields may be born that we today can not even begin to understand. We are at the exciting crest of a wave of technological development, and when the wave recedes, if ever, we may indeed find some of the things that surround us to be indistinguishable from magic.
(c) 1999 Michael Dickey