Peering over the horizon

Sept. 21, 2000
What kinds of technologies will we be discussing and worrying about in five years? How about in 20 years? We put those questions to several scientists, engineers, and professional prognosticators. Here's what they had to say.

BY 2005
Russell C. Lange: The next five years will clearly be the era of personal information technology, driven by the rapid expansion of the Internet and related services, combined with extremely useful, truly portable assistants. The tech-nolo-giespowering this new information revolution will be ones IBM is pioneering; copper, low-power CMOS and single outline ICs (SOI), and silicon-germanium-based chips, as well as advances in making integrated microelectronics circuits ever smaller, cheaper, and more efficient. But all this will be "under the covers" and invisible to users, hidden by devices or functions that are increasingly easy to use and ever more useful.

All these changes — the rapid increases in communication bandwidth, in the power of ubiquitous computing devices, and in the number and variety of Internet services — will affect every part of our lives. And I believe that the world is already a safer place because of the interlinking of the world's economies through these changes. I see people using this technology to become better informed on important issues from purchasing decisions to health treatment. We've only just begun to feel the impact of the progress from advances in information and communication technology.

Stephen Millet: The most important societal force for change will be the aging populations in the developed world. It will create major changes in consumer behavior and employment patterns including: less spending on consumer products and more on health; devices and procedures built deliberately simpler; and people will work less for money and more for personal fulfillment. On a global scale, narco lords will rise in power and behave like international powers. And there will be political upheavals in Asia, especially China.

On the technical side, the biggest change will come from the Human Genome Project and other genetic breakthroughs. We will see personalized genetic mapping, DNA-based disease treatments, cloning of replacement organs, and possible vaccines to prevent various types of cancers. Two other high-impact technologies will be super materials and compact, long-lasting energy sources. Computers will be designing and manufacturing new materials at the molecular level, which will be used heavily in transportation, computers, energy and communications industries. We will also see widespread use of fuel cells and bat-BY 2020

Ray Kurzweil: By then, a $1,000-computing device (in 1999 dollars) will have approximately the computational ability of the human brain, and computers will communications industries. We will also see widespread use of fuel cells and batteries for portable electronic devices.

Other strategic technologies in 2005 will be HDTV, miniaturized electronics for personal use, "smart systems" that integrate power, sensors and controls, hybrid fuel systems for cars and trucks, and much more edutainment, the combination of educational games and computer simulations for all levels of schools and college.

Faith Popcorn: The greatest technical invention of the next five years will be personality simulators, which will be software algorithms and databases that realistically emulate human interactions and personalities. They will initially affect business-to-customer relations by automating customer service interactions and, later — with the advent of more advanced multimedia and virtual-reality technology — entertainment and personal development. This technology will let you spend time with an imaginary Mr. or Ms. Right, or deceased ancestors.

BY 2020
Ray Kurzweil: By then, a $1,000-computing device (in 1999 dollars) will have approximately the computational ability of the human brain, and computers will be largely invisible and embedded everywhere — in walls, tables, chairs, desks, clothing, jewelry, and bodies.

Three-dimensional virtual-reality displays, embedded in glasses and contact lenses, as well as auditory "lenses," will be ubiquitous and serve as the primary interfaces for communication among people, computers, the Web, and virtual reality. Most interaction with computers will be through physical gestures and two-way natural-language spoken communication.

Web-based high-resolution 3D visual and auditory VR, and realistic all-encompassing tactile environments will let people do practically anything with anybody, regardless of physical proximity. And the vast majority of transactions will be conducted over the Web and include a simulated person.

Nanoengineered machines will be used in manufacturing and process-control applications. Paper books and documents will rarely be used. Most learning will be conducted through intelligent, simulated, software-based teachers. And automated driving systems will be installed in most roads.

Stephen Millet: Genetic health for humans will still be very important. And we will see the coming of the first generation of hydrogen energy forms, beginning with commercially successful fuel cells for both transportation and stationary power generation.

Faith Popcorn: Nanotechnology will be the greatest technical invention of the next 20 years. It will give us the ability to manipulate matter at the molecular level and will turn manufacturing on its head with its alchemylike capabilities. It will truly transform the world into an information economy and the manufacturing process itself will become radically automated. The world will become a Jetsonsesque, button-pressing world. If we want a car, toaster, dress or steak, we'll just pour sand into our Nanobooster, press the button and voila, a few seconds later we'll have it.

Russell C. Lange: To even approach the question of how technology will affect us in 20 years, we must look at the history of technology and its impact on society over a longer time horizon. It is useful to view technology as waves coming at us on five fundamental fronts: biology (agriculture, microbe theory, vaccination, genome research), energy (coal to petroleum to nuclear), materials and mechanical precision (woodworking, steel, ceramics), sensing and measurement technology (microscopes, telescopes, atomic force microscopes), and information/communication technology (printing presses to computers to the www). It is obviously hard to predict which of these technology streams will have the most impact 20 years from now. But great problems stimulate great re-search, and great research results in important technology.

Following this train of thought, the clear issues in today's world are health and hunger, as well as the serious realization that our environment is being altered through our use of technology. These issues will spawn the new technologies that will most affect our lives.

Ray Kurzweil is an engineer, inventor, writer, and businessman. He is credited with being the principal developer of several inventions, including the first omni-font optical character-recognition system, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flat-bed scanner, and the first text-to-speech synthesizer. He has also founded, developed, and sold four high-tech businesses in optical character recognition, music synthesis, speech recognition, and reading technology. And he has written several best-selling books, including The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Age of Spiritual Machines, When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.

Russell C. Lange currently serves as Chief Technologist at IBM's Microelectronics Div. He has held numerous technical and management positions at the company since 1970. Most of his time there has spent developing leading-edge memory and logic-integrated-circuit technology. Lange has been responsible for high-performance bipolar logic and array technology, and IBM's semiconductor process and technology strategy.

Stephen Millett serves as thought leader and manager of technology forecasts at Battelle, an organization headquartered in Columbus. It focuses on developing technologies and products for industry and government.

Faith Popcorn is the author of Clicking and The Popcorn Report, as well as the founder of BrainReserve, a futurist marketing consultancy. She has been called America's foremost trend expert. Popcorn uses her insights to help clients reposition established brands or companies, develop new products, and define new areas of business opportunity. Documented as having a 95% accuracy rate, Popcorn correctly predicted the demand for fresh foods and four-wheel drives, as well as the spiritual tenor of the millennium (The Anchoring Trend).

The most influential social trend over the next few decades is predicted to be one dubbed EVEolution by Faith Popcorn. (It also happens to be the title of her latest book.) "EVEolution is going to dramatically affect women's lives and the way we do business in the new millennium," she says. "It's all about the growing power of women consumers in the marketplace, and how businesses are going to have to do an about-face in the way they market to women.

Her premise is that men and women are different, so why should companies market to them in the same way? "Female consumers are looking for relationships with companies and products" she explains. "Women don't just buy brands, they join them. Businesses need to give women something bigger to join, beyond the product; they have to give back and deliver emotional value."

To back her position, Popcorn cites several statistics that show women are important in the business community:

  • Women-run businesses employ more than the Fortune 500 combined (27.5 million) and generate $3.6 trillion in sales.
  • Women own 8 million businesses in the United ARE States (one-third of all U.S. firms).
  • By 2005, 40% of all firms will be female-owned.

Women also determine how money gets spent in the U.S.

  • Women control 80% of all household spending.
  • They influence 80% of healthcare decisions ($500 billion annually) and purchase 75% of over-thecounter drugs.
  • They buy 50% of all PCs and represent 48% of the online community.
  • They influence 90% of car purchases.
  • Over 50% of women own stocks.
  • And 40% of households with assets of $600,000 or more are headed by women.

"Companies that truly understand women as consumers will build serious brand-loyalty while everyone else scrambles to compete on price with ever-smaller margins," says Popcorn. "These companies will also be ahead of the curve in capturing minority markets and younger male consumers."

Though we only asked them to peer 20 years ahead, Ray Kurzweil gave us his thoughts on the next one hundred years of technological advancement. Hold on to your seat.

2029. A $1,000 computer (in 1999 dollars) will have the capacity of approximately 1,000 human brains.

  • Direct neural pathways will be used for high-bandwidth connections to the human brain. A range of neural implants put in place by nanobots in the blood stream will enhance visual and auditory perception and interpretation, memory, and reasoning.
  • Virtual reality will be based on nanobots, which reside in capillaries of the brain, and provide completely convincing virtual environments. Visiting a Web site means entering a VR environment where you meet other people, both real and simulated. All-encompassing visual, auditory, and tactile VR no longer requires a "total-touch enclosure" or special gloves and clothes.
  • There is almost no human employment in manufacturing, agriculture, or transportation. Basic life needs are available for the vast majority of the human race.
  • There is a growing discussion about the legal rights of computers and what constitutes being human. Machines claim to be conscious, and these claims are largely accepted. Some philosophers demur, saying you cannot be conscious unless based on DNA-guided protein synthesis.

2049. Nanoproduced food will have the same nutritional composition, taste, and texture of organically produced food. Food production is no longer affected by limited resources, bad weather, or spoilage.

  • Nanobot swarm projections (clouds of trillions of microscopic-sized intelligent robots) are used to create visual-auditory-tactile projections of people and objects in real time.

2079. Picoengineering, technology on the scale of picometers or trillionths of a meter, becomes practical.

2099. There is no longer any clear distinction between humans and computers. Most apparently conscious entities do not have a permanent physical presence, but use distributed computing on the Web. And the number of Web-based software humans vastly exceeds those still using native neuron-cell-based computation.

  • Even among humans still using carbon-based neurons, there is ubiquitous use of nanobot-based neural implants which significantly augment perceptual and cognitive abilities. Humans who don't use such implants cannot meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do.
  • Most information is published using standard assimilated-knowledge protocols and it can be instantly understood.
  • Life-expectancy is no longer a viable term in relation to intelligent beings.

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