Fifteen years ago, I had a Mac II with a 19" monitor. Trying to move both the computer and the monitor at the same time usually resulted in damage and/or minor injuries. I now own an iPhone 4. Including the multi-touch retina display, it's 368 times smaller than the Mac II box, and weighs about twice as much and is half the size as a peanut butter sandwich. Oh, and it has cellular, GPS, wifi, bluetooth, gyro, compass, accelerometer, HD, hi-fi, LED flash, and so on. It's just a truly amazing feat of electronic miniaturization. If the trend continues, by 2025 you might be able to pop an intelligent super computer in your ear and a pair of 3D video specs on your face for less than the price of today's iPhone.
Computers - How small can they get?
I remember one day, at the height of a high tech boom way back in 1985 or thereabout. I was a young freelancer interviewing for a position at a start-up company in Massachusetts that was designing tiny hard drives that were not much bigger than my hand. The device had probably something like 4 megabytes of storage. I was truly amazed to see the prototype assemblies. It didn't even seem possible.
Today my iPhone has eight million times as much flash memory - with no moving parts. Think about that. An eight million-fold increase in 25 years. If that kind of progress continues, what might storage capacity be in 2035, after another 25 years under the spell of Moore's Law? I did the math and it comes to a whopping 256 million billion bytes of personal data storage. I'm not an expert on such things, but I believe that's far more computer storage than is currently in existence.
2025 Projection Chart
In the fourth column is the percentage of capability increase (or size/price reduction) between the two devices over a mere 15 year period.
In the fifth column are specifications for a fictional device that I might own 15 years from now with the same ratios of miniaturization. (Granted these are two arbitrary devices. I just want to illustrate the effect of exponential improvement.)
In this fictional example, projecting out to 2025 I could have a device that runs at a speed in the tens of gigahurtz. It might have hundreds of millions of megabytes of RAM and tens of thousands of gigabytes of data storage. The processor itself will take up one-tench of a cubic inch.
Built into a pair of glasses, it would be capable of running all the iPhone goodies like geolocation, gyro, accelerometer, HD, hi-fi, wifi, etc, plus some nice bells and whistles such as 3D photo and video recording, 24/7 3D life logging, a super smart artificial intelligent agent, health monitoring, global financial market and climate simulations and gosh knows what else all for the crazy low price of ... wait for it ...... $16.
It sounds like pure science fiction, but it could be reality in only a decade and a half. Personal computers are likely to pack on unimaginable powers while shrinking down to the size of a hearing aid battery.
|Processor Speed||16 MHz||1 GHz ||62.5 x faster ||62.5 GHz|
|Random Access Memory (RAM)||1 MB RAM||512 MB||512 x more RAM||260 million MB|
|Data Storage||40 meg hard drive ||32 GB flash drive ||800 x more storage||25,000 GB|
|Dimensions (inches) ||5.5 x 18.7 x 14.4||4.5 × 2.31 × 0.37 || 368 times smaller ||0.1 in.3 (housing size)|
|Size (Volume)||1400 in.3||3.8 in.3|
|Weight||10886 g (24 lbs) ||137 g (4.8 oz)||80 times lighter ||1.7 g (processor assembly)|
|Display||not included||960-by-640-pixel resolution at 326 ppi||3D full field of vision
|Battery Life||not included||10 hrs on Wi-Fi, 7 hrs talk time|| ||not required
|Serial Port ||
Wireless cellular technology, Wifi, Bluetooth,
All that plus:
$299not including cellular service
which costs about the same
as phone service for
dia-up, adjusted for inflation
|1/18th of the price||$16|
Displays - How small can they get?Not only are computers getting smaller and more powerful, unless you live in a cave you've probably noticed that mobile displays are getting bigger and higher in resolution. At the same time electronics companies are trying to squeeze more functionality into smaller screens (witness the wrist watch phone). Is there a way we can make displays even bigger - bet yet smaller??
In the future mobile experience, images might be displayed in a pair of video glasses to produce a full 3D augmented reality display that fills your field of vision. Eventually, we might have holographic projection built into our glasses that produce incredible 3D images in mid air. It's also possible that displays could shrink to even smaller than a wrist watch, say to the size of a contact lens. Don't snicker. Serious researchers believe it's possible and are working on it right now.
So, by 2025, a pair of 3D video display glasses might sport stereo microphones, multiple cameras, and a laser projector. Add a tiny super computer the size of a small button and you're good to go. Full immersion 3D augmented reality in a slick set of shades - for well under $100.
Interfaces - How small can they get?How do you interact with a computer if there's no keyboard or mouse or screen to touch? Various answers have already arrived with some innovative new technologies and products. Here are just a few of the ideas that are catching on, and I'm sure there are new schemes being hatched every day.
Nintendo broke new ground in 2007 with the Wii motion sensitive game controller. It was only a few years later that Mircrosoft's Kinect blew it out of the water. This field will continue to progress very quickly.
Kinect has stereoscopic vision, it can identify your head, hands and feet, it knows how fast they're moving and in what directions, and it has facial recognition. Kinect is still just a baby but people are already using it in all kinds of amazing hacks including controlling robots and acting as eyes for autonomous quadcopters.
Another example of gesture recognition is the invisible mouse which essentially tracks the motions of your hand and fingers as if you were manipulating a real mouse.
Projecting forward, it shouldn't take more than ten years to get to a point where gesture recognition is near flawless. We'll have cameras and sensors of all kinds built into our homes and our cars and our glasses and we'll all look like Harry Potter controlling our gadgets with the wave of a hand.
Just because you're mobile doesn't mean you can't have a full size virtual keyboard. A creative example, Pranav Mistry's Sixth Sense interface uses a tiny projector/camera combination worn on the chest. It projects a keyboard, keypad, or other interface on your hand or any flat surface and tracks your finger movements.
Fast forward fifteen years and we'll have highly sophisticated augmented reality interfaces that take any form you can imagine. We'll be able to project and manipulate maps, photos, videos, games, any kind of app that you can control using a multi-touch display.
You might think accuracy would be a problem with such a system, but with technologies such as Blind Type the keyboard itself isn't even necessary. We might all soon be typing on thin air.
Today we already have nearly flawless voice to text translation with Dragon Narurally Speaking. We also have pretty darn good digital voice synthesis. So we can talk to computers, and computers can talk back to us. I talk to my iPhone every day. But there's still one problem. Computers don't really understand what we're saying. They can only compare our utterances to sounds in a data base.
I think truly mastering verbal skills is going to be a much harder hurdle for computers to get over than any of the others I've mentioned so far, but I believe it's doable. Perhaps we can train computers to talk the same way humans learn - by babbling, building up a vocabulary, sitting through lessons, asking questions, practicing. I'm confident that one way or another, we'll figure it out.
I think natural language technology it's one of the most exciting prospects of computer technology, and I can hardly wait to carry on a conversation with my computer. I don't expect it will take more than 15 years to get it right.
So, what will it be?
I don't think any one of these interface technologies will dominate over the next decade. Each has it's benefits and drawbacks. Gesturing is great for moving things around and controlling specific features. Virtual keyboards might still be used for writing. Natural language is great for interacting with a computer in many ways, but not as good as gesturing for things like sorting photos.
I don't believe it will be hard at all to incorporate all of these technologies (projectors, gesturing, verbal skills) into a small package in mobile devices by 2025.
Smart phones - How smart can they getToday we have all kinds of artificial intelligence technologies that are getting better at very specific tasks like trading stocks or managing a warehouse. We also have semi intelligent apps such as Siri, which was recently bought by Apple. Eventually we'll combine a variety of AI modules such as vision and audio processing, natural language processing, emotional intelligence, spacial intelligence, social intelligence, and so on into one human-friendly intelligent system.
We don't even need to pack all that intelligence into a phone. Cloud computing will allow our mobile device to access the intelligence of super-smart computers remotely. We already have AI in the cloud thanks to Google. An intelligent agent in your phone might talk to any number of highly specialized smart systems in the cloud depending on your needs.
Some of the sharpest minds in futurology, such as Ray Kurzweil, who is currently working on a book entitled, "The Mind and How To Build One," believes that we'll be able to reverse engineer the human brain by the mid 2020's.
Imagine a day when every human being has 24/7 access to a fully conversive, intelligent computer companion which knows us better than we know ourselves and can advise us in all aspects of our lives not to mention provide us with a personalized education.
The combination of artificial intelligence, computer vision, and natural language ability is, I believe going to prove to be an incredibly powerful combination that is sure to change humanity.
One Step Beyond...
Ultimately we will probably end up communicating with computers - and each other - telepathically.
Basic brain-computer interface technology (BCI) is already a reality, but may take decades to develop to its full potential. The main hurdle being that the radio waves being produced by brain activity are extremely weak and it's hard to detect very specific mental activity such as thinking about words or letters.
Within 15-20 years, I believe that BCI technology could provide incredibly rich computer interface possibilities. Entertainment experiences such as video games will tap into our emotional states. We might be able to use mental gestures to browse images, control video, adjust audio, select between various display modes, and on and on, just by thinking about them.
As humans get better and better at controlling computers with their brains, we'll learn to communicate with computers and with each other in ways that we haven't even imagined yet. We might have sophisticated brain-controlled games, brain sports, brain art, brain-controlled musical instruments, brain building competitions, even brain-to-brain communication.
The next step in video and audio is to somehow beam images directly onto the retinas and pipe audio directly into the auditory nerves. I'm not sure how we'll get into the brain and nervous system, but it's inevitable. Perhaps nanotechnology can get us there.
But . . . I don't want to be a cyborg
Are we becoming cyborgs - a blend of human and machine? It's happening a little at a time.
Some experts such as cyborg anthoplogist Amber Case believe that by the power vested in our smart phones we are already cybogs. Eventually our personal know-it-all AI agents will become an invaluable second brain that we carry around for life. We might not even have to carry it physically. It might live in the cloud and follow us from place to place, device to device.
In the video following the article Ray Kurzweil argues that in a couple or three decades we'll seamlessly meld our own senses and perceptions with computer-generated video, audio, touch, scent, smell, and motion information and be able to experience just about anything our hearts desire. (I'm not sure I can stretch my imagination that far without my head exploding.)
But, what if you could lean back and close your eyes and be anyplace you can dream of, experience anything you can imagine, learn anything you want to learn, be with people that enrich your life? Would that really be so bad? For better or worse, you may not have to wait very long to find out.