Ok, not every day do I get to coin a new term, but I think this is a good description for what I see coming. The latest thing in the news is “the PC is dead, long live the tablet…” actually, all forms of current ‘computers’ – whether they are desktops, laptops, ultrabooks, tablets, smartphones, etc. have a life expectancy just short of butter on pavement on a warm afternoon.
We have left the Model “T” days, to use an automotive analogy – where one had to be a trained mechanic to even think about driving a car – and moved on just a little bit.
Ford Model “T” (1910)
We are now at the equivalent of the Model “A” – a slight improvement.
Ford Model “A” (1931)
The user is still expected to understand things like: OS (Operating Systems), storage, apps, networking, WiFi security modes, printer drivers, etc. etc. The general expectation is that the user conform his or her behavior to the capabilities of the machine, not the other way around. Things we sort of take for granted – without question –
are really archaic. Typing into keyboards as the primary interface. Dealing with a file system – or more likely the frustration that goes along with dealing with incompatible filing systems… Mac vs PC… To use the automobile for one more analogy: think how frustrating it would be to have to go to different gas stations depending on the type of car you had… because the nozzle on the gas pump would only fit certain cars!
A few “computational systems” today have actually achieved ‘user friendly’ status – but only with a very limited feature set, and this took many, many years to get there: the telephone is one good example. A 2 yr old can operate it without a manual. It works more or less the same anywhere in the world. In general, it is a highly reliable system. In terms of raw computational power, the world-wide telephone system is one of the most powerful computers on the planet. It has more raw bandwidth than the current ‘internet’ (not well utilized, but that’s a different issue).
We are now seeing “computers” embedded into a wide variety of items, from cars to planes to trains. Even our appliances have built-in touch screens. We are starting to have to redefine the term ‘computer’ – the edges are getting very fuzzy. Embedded sensors are finding their way into clothing (from inventory control tags in department stores to LED fabric in some cutting edge fashions); pets (tracking chips); credit cards (so-called smart cards); the atmosphere (disposable sensors on small parachutes are dropped by plane or shot from mortars to gather weather data remotely); roads (this is what powers those great traffic maps) and on and on.
It is actually getting hard to find a piece of matter that is not connected in some way to some computing device. The power is more and more becoming ‘the cloud.’ Our way of interacting with computational power is changing as well: we used to be ‘session based’ – we would sit down at a desktop computer and switch gears (and usually employ a number of well chosen expletives) to get the computer up and running, connected to a printer and the network, then proceed to input our problems and get results.
Now we are an ‘always on’ culture. We just pick up the smartphone and ask Siri “where the heck is…” and expect an answer – and get torqued when she doesn’t know or is out of touch with her cloud. Just as we expect a dial tone to always be there when we pick up the phone, we now expect the same from our ‘computers.’ The annoyance of waiting for a PC to boot up is one of several factors users report on for their attraction to tablets.
Another big change is the type of connectivity that we desire and expect. The telephone analogy points to an anachronistic form of communication: point-to-point. Although, with enough patience or the backup of extra software, you can speak with several people at once, the basic model of the phone system is one-to-one. The cloud model, Google, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter etc. has changed all that. We now expect to be part of the crowd. Instead of one-to-one we now want many-to-many.
Instead of a single thread joining one user to another, we now live in a fabric of highly interwoven connectivity.
When we look ahead – and by this I mean ten years or so – we will see the extension of trends that are already well underway. Essentially the ‘computer’ will disappear – in all of its current forms. Yes, there will still be ‘portals’ where queries can be put to the cloud for answers; documents will still be written, photographs will still be manipulated, etc. – but the mechanisms will be more ‘appliance like’ – typically these portals will act like the handsets of today’s cellphone network – where 99% of the horsepower is in the backoffice and attached network.
This is what I mean by Ubiquitous Computational Fabric (UCF). It’s going to be an ‘always on’, ‘always there’ environment. The distinction of a separate ‘computer’ will disappear. Our clothing, our cars, our stoves, our roads, even our bodies will be ‘plugged in’ to the background of the cloud system.
There are already small pills you can swallow that have video cameras – your GI tract is video-ed and sent to your doctor while the pill moves through your body. No longer is an expensive and invasive endoscopy required. Of course today this is primitive, but in a decade we’ll swallow a ‘diagnostic’ pill along with our vitamins and many data points of our internal health will be automatically uploaded.
As you get ready to leave the bar, you’ll likely have to pop a little pill (required to be offered free of charge by the bar) that will measure your blood alcohol level and transmit approval to your car before it will start. Really. Research on this, and the accompanying legislation, is under way now.
The military is already experimenting with shirts that have a mesh of small wires embedded in the fabric. When a soldier is shot, the severing of the wires will pinpoint the wound location and automatically transmit this information to the medic.
Today, we have very expensive motion tracking suits that are used in computer animation to make fantasy movies.
Soon, little sensors will be embedded into normal sports clothing and all of an athlete’s motions will be recorded accurately for later study – or injury prevention. One of the most difficult computational problems today – requiring the use of the planet’s most massive supercomputers – is weather prediction. The savings in human life and property damage (from hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.) can be staggering. One of the biggest problems is data input. We will see a massive improvement here with small intelligent sensors being dropped into formative storms to help determine if they will become dangerous. The same with undersea sensors, fault line sensors, etc.
The real winners of tomorrow’s business profits will be those companies that realize this is where the money will flow. Materials science, boring but crucial, will allow for economic dispersal of smart sensors. Really clever data transmission techniques are needed to funnel the amount of collected information through oft time narrow pipes and difficult environments. ‘Spread-spectrum computing’ will be required to minimize energy usage, provide the truly reliable and available fabric that is needed. Continual understanding of human factor design will be needed to allow the operation of these highly complex systems in an intuitive fashion.
We are at an exciting time: to use the auto one more time – there were early Ford engineers who could visualize Ferraris – even though the materials at time could not support their vision. We need to support those people, those visionaries, those dreamers – for they will provide the expertise and plans to help us realize what is next. We have only scratched the surface of what’s possible.