IT in Canada

'Riding the avalanche' of future technology

Alright technology professionals of the world, you’ve ushered in incredible changes over the last two decades. Take a break and congratulate yourselves on the impact you’ve made on virtually every facet of the world we live in. But don’t take too long. You’ve still got a lot of work to do.

In a recent Telepresence session with press and analysts across Canada, Dave Evans, Cisco Systems’ chief futurist, said that while technology has ramped impressively over the last 20 years, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. In fact, to Evans’ way of looking at it, we’re facing down a veritable avalanche of technology innovation over the near future.

“And as with a physical avalanche, it’s incredibly disruptive, and if you’re at the bottom of it, it’s the last thing you want to see,” Evans said. “But you’ve got a few choices: you can stay there and get crushed, get out of the way, or you can ride it to success.”

The soundness of the advice to attempt to ride an avalanche aside, Evans outlined some of the ramifications of the continued exponential increases in compute power, storage capacity, network bandwidth and data creation over the next 50 years.

“We are looking at a fundamental shift in how the species goes forward,” he said. “Fifty years from now, 90 per cent of everything we’ve ever known will have been discovered in those 50 years.”

Bigger, faster, better, more

In all measures, computing power is going to grow. Today, Evans said a $20 8 GB flash represents more storage than was available on the planet in 1960. Had such a capacity been available, the inflation-adjusted price tag for it would have been $64 million. Extrapolating that growth in storage capacity per dollar, Evans said that by 2029, $100 will buy 11 Petabytes of storage, about enough to store 104 years of Blu-Ray HD video. Evans said it’s only a matter of time until we’re essentially able to download the contents of our minds for backup.

The network likewise has gone from dial-up 300 bps to 50 Mps to the home since 1990. Following the trend, Evans predicated gigabit to the home by 2020, along with technology advances like Terabyte Ethernet and Gigabit WiFi.

But it’s the processor that may well see the most radical changes. Don’t worry, Moore’s Law will be kept alive and well by 3D chips and other technologies, but still, there’s a physics limitation, Evans explained. Today, most powerful processors are built at 32 nanometers. But the strategy of shrinking the transistors in silicon is about to reach its limit, Evans said, as energy leakage through gates becomes a huge problem below 16 nanometers.

“Silicon will be around for quite some time, but ultimately, the industry will move to other forms of computing,” Evans said.
Most notably, quantum computing, based on quantum particles, which throw out the old on/off, one/zero dichotomy in favour of a world where a Quantum bit can be “on and off and everything in between.”

Quantum computing also introduces the possibility of quantum entanglement, whereby two particles are linked regardless of space between them, and changes in one are inextricably linked to another. If one changes, the other one also changes, instantly, whether the particles are separated by inches or hundreds of thousands of miles. The effect? The ability to transmit unlimited data from point A to point B instantly, regardless of distance. This is heady stuff even for someone whose business card has the title “chief futurist” on it.

“We don’t know why it works, we just know that it does work,” Evans said.

In terms of price performance, consider this: forget when a computer will have more processing power than a human being. Evans said that by 2050, a $1,000 computer will have the same amount of processing power as all the human brains on the planet, powered by the quantum computing where a single molecule of computing power will have the equivalent power of the Earth covered in silicon 5,000 times over.
Bringing that kind of horsepower to the table, it’s not a question to Evans of whether or not we’re create self-aware and truly intelligent machines, it’s a question of when.

In the clouds

The cloud has been a contentious issue over the last few years, as organizations have struggled to determine how it fits into their IT strategy and weighing the benefits and risks of public vs. private cloud. Evans said that as the network gets faster and more ubiquitous, and computing power exponentially greater, a much more virtual model than even what we see today makes more sense.

“In the old IT world, you buy your equipment and you maximize the life of that equipment,” he said. “But now, things become virtual, in the cloud, and when you need more capacity, you just request more from the cloud.”

He said that the increasing humanization of technology will lead to new ways of dealing with the virtual world, including more crossover between the physical and virtual worlds.

“We’re not far off from artificial entities that are not just an avatar, but are new entities that think, have feelings and recognize our emotions,” he said. “The physical and virtual worlds are starting to come together finally.”

Knowledge is power, information is not knowledge

So the picture is that we’ll all able to store essentially infinite information in the cloud and access it instantaneously form anywhere. The problem is, given the chance to store infinite information, we probably will. Evans said 90 per cent of all the information we’ve ever created, we’ll keep. And cheap exabytes of storage won’t exactly discourage that. Consider that in 2008 alone, the human species “created more new data than we have in the last 5,000 years.”

“We’ve become digital packrats,” Evans said. “Data does not equal knowledge, and that’s the mistake we’re making. We need to figure out how to extract nuggets of knowledge from all this data.”

He predicted that over time, the network will be “the oracle for information,” and will help us find out way through all the data we’ve collected to the pieces that fit together to create actual knowledge for us. But don’t expect to say goodbye to the omnipresent information overload anytime too soon. Still, data relief is on the way.

“Over the next few years, we’ll keep burying ourselves in information, but then we’re going to have breakthroughs in mining that data and finding meaningful patterns,” he said. “We will hit a plateau at some point.”

A new divide?

Part of the problems posted by the growing digital divide of the 1990s and early 2000s have been limited by emerging economies being able to “leapfrog” the established markets and implement the cutting-edge instead of supporting legacy. For example, many emerging markets that have had historically low telephone access are now blanketed with readily-available and fairly affordable wireless phone access.

Still, for those who have not been able to do such leapfrogging, the digital divide continues to widen, and it’s an issue Evans said we’ll have to deal with.

“The playing field is not equal, and that’s something that we’re as a society going to have to come to grips with.”

“Will I dream?”

It’s hard to get into scenarios of nanotechnology and computers approaching sentience, much less being able to out-grey-matter human beings, without thinking of the huge risks such self-aware machines might pose if they decide they’d be better off without their inferior carbon-based creators. And with DARPA securing funding to create “immortal synthetic lifeforms,” there is some natural concern as to exactly what date Skynet will go live. But while Evans said it’s ‘”something we need to think about,” he dismissed the doom-and-gloom predications of a Terminator-like scenario as not just unlikely, but impossible. In the future, HAL will open the pod day doors. And if he decides not to, he’ll quickly find himself the one being terminated thanks to self-destruct systems built into the very genetic code of the synthetic lifeforms.

“We’re embedding DNA-based shutoff killswitches into this technology already, right into the architecture."

Evans’ top 25 technology predictions

(Courtesy Cisco Systems)

  1. By 2029, 11 petabytes of storage will be available for $100—equivalent to 600+ years of continuous, 24-hour-per-day, DVD-quality video.
  2. In the next 10 years, we will see a 20-time increase in home networking speeds.
  3. By 2013, wireless network traffic will reach 400 petabytes a month. Today, the entire global network transfers 9 exabytes per month.
  4. By the end of 2010, there will be a billion transistors per human—each costing one ten-millionth of a cent.
  5. The Internet will evolve to perform instantaneous communication, regardless of distance.
  6. The first commercial quantum computer will be available by mid-2020.
  7. By 2020, a $1,000 personal computer will have the raw processing power of a human brain.
  8. By 2030, it will take a village of human brains to match a $1,000 computer.
  9. By 2050 (assuming a global population of 9 billion), $1,000 worth of computing power will equal the processing power of all human brains on earth.
  10. Today, we know 5 percent of what we will know in 50 years. In other words, in 50 years, 95 percent of what we will know will have been discovered in the past 50 years.
  11. The world’s data will increase sixfold in each of the next two years, while corporate data will grow fiftyfold.
  12. By 2015, Google will index approximately 775 billion pages of content.
  13. By 2015, we will create the equivalent of 92.5 million Libraries of Congress in one year.
  14. By 2020 worldwide, the average person will maintain 130 terabytes of personal data (today it is ~128 gigabytes).
  15. By 2015, movie downloads and peer-to-peer file sharing will explode to 100 exabytes, equivalent to 5 million Libraries of Congress.
  16. By 2015, video calling will be pervasive, generating 400 exabytes of data—the equivalent of 20 million Libraries of Congress.
  17. By 2015, the phone, web, email, photos, and music will explode to generate 50 exabytes of data.
  18. Within two years, information on the Internet will double every 11 hours.
  19. By 2010, 35 billion devices will be connected to the Internet (nearly six devices per person on the
  20. planet). 20. By 2020, there will be more devices than people online.
  21. With IPv6, there will be enough addresses for every star in the known universe to have 4.8 trillion addresses.
  22. By 2020, universal language translation will be commonplace in every device.
  23. In the next five years, any surface will become a display.
  24. By 2025, teleportation at the particle level will begin to occur.
  25. By 2030, artificial implants for the brain will take place.

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