Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Where will technology have taken us by 2037?

Sometimes, when I think about technology I feel like I have lived through more than one lifetime. Let me see if I can explain what I mean.


I am 35 years old and computers entered my life when I was 9 years old. I was given a ZX Spectrum by my parents for Christmas in 1983 nearly 27 years ago. I loved that computer and cut my gaming and programming teeth on it. I still look back on those days with a smile. I also now struggle to remember a time when computers were not an integral part of my life in one way or another as that computer followed by the subsequent ones (in parallel with a PC my parents got around 1987) ultimately led me to pursue a career in software development.

But the nature of the technology has changed beyond all recognition in those intervening 27 or so years.

My first computer had 48K of (random access) memory. It took 4 or 5 minutes to load a piece of software from a tape drive. You could only have one program in memory at any one time (well occasionally clever programmers got round this but with so little memory there was little point). I then moved through various other 8 bit machines and then through a 16 bit Atari ST in 1990 until eventually working with PCs during college and university.

Now I have a laptop for work and a pretty powerful PC at home both of which have many multiples of the processing power and storage space of that ZX Spectrum back in 1983.

When I was a kid I probably would have predicted that computers would get faster and would allow more storage space as well as give us much higher resolution displays. They were always the obvious limiting factors. Perhaps however the most surprising thing now though is that I carry around in my pocket a device in the form of a 16GB iPhone 3GS that:

  • Is around 170 times faster and has almost 350,000 times the storage space than my ZX Spectrum did (indeed there are games available for the iPhone that would have been amazing as arcade games just 20 years ago) whilst being less than a tenth of the volume and a quarter of the weight.
  • That I can use as a much better version of a Sony Walkman which can store hundreds of hours of audio.
  • On which I can watch many hours of video either downloaded or even streamed from e.g. the iPlayer.
  • That I can use to take photographs.
  • That I can store digital photographs taken on this and other devices for viewing any time I want.
  • That I can use to take live film including audio.
  • That I can use as a dictaphone.
  • That has GPS built in and a mapping application that will show me precisely where I am at any time just by tapping the screen a couple of times.
  • That has a built in compass.
  • That I can use to keep track of multiple electronic correspondence through e-mail, contact details for everyone I know and that I can use as a calendar/diary. All of these automatically sync up with accounts that are on my home and work PCs too.
  • That is always connected to the internet and that can rapidly look up any of hundreds of millions of pages including almost all print publications instantaneously.
  • That I can run applications on to do almost anything that you can think of including games, TV Guides, "What is near me" type apps, train timetable search apps, weather apps, etc. etc. etc. with thousands of new ones appearing every day.
  • Oh, and of course I nearly forgot that it can be used as a telephone!

When you start to write down the list of what a modern device like an iPhone can do you start to realise just how far we have come. Frankly if I had taken the 9 year old me to one side and shown him an iPhone and what it was capable of it would have blown his mind. Yet these devices and other similar ones are commonplace in 2010. Millions of people in this country have them.

What it makes me wonder though is where the technology will be in another 27 years. In 1983, my father was the age that I am now. So when I am 62, (the age he is now) where will the technology have taken us?

I risk looking a bit foolish trying to predict and looking like those old Tomorrow's World episodes that predicted hovering cars and pill meals on the moon but I will have a stab:

  • I think by then we will have devices that are augmented with the human body. Perhaps even linked into the brain. At the very least I expect them to link in with our vision system somehow to allow a fully immersive augmented reality experience to be readily available. AR is already here in some forms.
  • Communication technology will have advanced so far that Gigabytes or even Terabytes worth of data will be transmitted over the air in seconds. This will mean that massively high resolution images and videos will be able to be sent to these devices remotely in effectively real time on demand. How this will affect the structure of our media provider companies is unclear but the landscape will surely be utterly different to what it is now.
  • The technology to allow whole life recorders will be widely available within the next few years. That would put an end to arguments about who said what when but of course would have huge implications for civil liberties which might make their adoption problematic.
  • I expect within 27 years for the problem of Artificial Intelligence to either have been cracked or for the power of the processors and storage available to allow a close enough approximation of AI to be widely available.
  • I also expect voice recognition and synthesis to have evolved to the point where input devices such as keyboards are largely obsolete. I would still expect mice and touchscreens to be used though as there are some things that voice recognition will not be able to replace. However linked in with an earlier point, depending on how far the devices can be augmented with the human body they may be able to be controlled with the power of the mind alone. Scary but also very exciting.
  • We will have hover cars, pill meals and will all be living on the moon. In spangly jump suits.

OK that last bullet-point was a joke. Of course they could all turn out to be jokes. That is what is so exciting about technological advancement. And I have just really focused on one small area of portable computer equipment. There are many other areas including biology and chemistry for example that I haven't even touched upon here.

Whatever happens between now and 2037 I am certain that were the 62 year old me to appear today and show me it would blow my mind even more than I would blow the mind of the 9 year old me back in 1983.

The early 21st Century is a great time to be alive.

4 comments:

Jono said...

Fun thought experiment, but...

I also expect voice recognition and synthesis to have evolved to the point where input devices such as keyboards are largely obsolete. I would still expect mice and touchscreens to be used though as there are some things that voice recognition will not be able to replace. However linked in with an earlier point, depending on how far the devices can be augmented with the human body they may be able to be controlled with the power of the mind alone. Scary but also very exciting.

I suppose the control-by-mind scheme might answer my point, but in the absence of that I don't see keyboards going anywhere. I can potentially see them being replaced by keyboard sized (or larger) touch panels (think Star Trek TNG, et seq). There are 3 problems with voice control that I can see; one is that it isn't private (contra Star Trek, I don't see people wanting to shout out their passwords, even with voice prints), the second is that it is intrusive (it is one thing to dictate a log in your private ready room, it is quite another to write a presentation in a room with 30 other people), the third is that I can't see it lending itself to certain complex tasks (do you want to dictate a C++ program or, $deity preserve us, something in Haskell? I sure as hell don't).

I make no apologies for the frequent Star Trek references - I think the Star Trek TNG, DS9, Voyager era model of voice control is the more likely than replacing keyboards in their entirety.

Paul Seymour said...

Mark, so nice to hear something positive being written about the times we are in. I find it amazing that devices are taken for granted when they are so powerful these days.
This was a lovely article to read on a Monday morning when everyone else seems to be talking about BP, budgets, Fabio's England and all the other nasties in the world

daniel said...

Are you receiving a fee from Apple regarding your constant plugging of its iphone? As you probably know, the technological revolution has largely passed me by. I still view pc's and mobile phones as necessary evils!

Steve Borthwick said...

However if you show a 9 year old an iPhone now they just shrug and say "youtube's a bit slow"... :)