Coming soon: Google on your brain
The pace of computing power gains is only getting faster and that means big changes in the way we live. Are you ready to become a mind-reader?
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Just thinking about likely near-term innovations in computing is exciting, but slowly a longer-term vision is coming into focus.
Down the road we're probably going to have access to something approaching all information all the time. Our lives - much longer by then because of the implications of this for medical care - will be enriched, even as our behavior will be very unlike how we live today.
Already much of our software and data is moving to giant remote servers connected to the Internet. Our photos, music, software applications like Microsoft Word, and just about everything else we use a computer for will be accessible to us wherever we go.
The other huge, and related, move of the moment is toward ultimate mobility. Several trends are taking us there. The cellphone is becoming more like a PC while the PC is becoming more like a cellphone. In short, the next great era of computing - succeeding the PC one - will likely be about smaller, cheaper, more-powerful portable devices.
If you wonder how devices can get smaller and yet replace the PC, keep in mind that a major innovation we're seeing right now is vastly-improved voice-recognition software. While it only works on the fast processors of a PC today, the inexorable growth of computing power will soon take that kind of power into your cellphone. So long keyboard!
In the next phase, the devices essentially disappear. An article in the new issue of Fortune by Peter Schwartz and Rita Koselka describes the amazing coming world of quantum computing.
Forget the technical details - quantum computing is tough for non-engineers to grasp. Suffice it to say that if you thought the increase in computing power was impressive during the past 20 years, the pace will likely speed up radically as quantum computing takes hold within the next decade.
In a short piece I wrote as part of a broader look at the future last September, I speculated that in the future we would feel that everything in life had become like an open-book test. "Any kind of information is available anytime you want it," I wrote. "Simply speak a question, or even think it. You will always be connected wirelessly to the network, and an answer will return from a vast, collectively-produced data matrix. Google queries will seem quaint."
At the time, I thought I was being a little wild, but less than a year later such talk is almost routine in the futurist camp. Chris Taylor at Business 2.0 this week published "Surfing the Web with Nothing but Brainwaves." Taylor explains that already quadriplegics can play videogames, control robotic arms, and turn a TV on and off, using only their minds. They are connected to a computer with an implant that reads electrical patterns in the brain.
Sony has already patented a game system that beams data directly into the brain without implants, reports Taylor.
In the future quantum-computing world which Schwartz and Koselka describe, we'd go way further. Computing power would be so great that we could easily have "network-enabled telepathy." We'd wear headbands with unimaginable computing power.
It's fascinating to consider some of the potential social and even political ramifications of such a turn toward ubiquitous information availability. The necessity to learn languages might disappear. If the devices necessary to participate in this information revolution were cheap enough, and the network truly ubiquitous and global, the economic playing field could be leveled. If information is power, everyone would have it. That's the kind of breakthrough the developing world needs.
Even moral codes and behavior might alter, if all that available information led to a profound transparency in human conduct. One of my beliefs is that people will routinely record their entire lives on some equivalent of video.
Sharing your personal history - warts and all - might then become routine, in order to improve your perceived trustworthiness. Computing is now so important that to talk of its future is inevitably to consider the future fate of mankind.
More from the Future of Computing
Get ready for a quantum leap: Futurist Peter Schwartz details changes we're in for during the next 25 years and explains the technology that makes it all possible.
The race to build the Internet: America's biggest tech companies are spending billions of dollars to make the pipes that power the Web.
What the Internet really looks like: See a secret world of concrete, cooper and diesel generators.