Computerworld 25 years: Possible futures

Looking ahead to what technology and the ICT industry might look like in 2036

Ubiquitous. Pervasive. Subtle. That's how consultant Chris O'Connell describes technology in 25 years time.

"We won't have all these different flavours of reality because we will just expect that the real world, the data world and the enhanced world will be available to us if and when we want to use it," he says."

Sometimes referred to as the "internet of things', in 2036 there are likely to be trillions of connected devices - from the fridge, to the car, to the front door, to your wristwatch.

As a previous chair and current board member of TUANZ, O'Connell has long campaigned for broadband networks that deliver faster speeds to more of the population, but the kind of connectivity that he says will be available in the near future is on an entirely new level.

It is, what Donald Clark, former REANNZ chief executive, calls a "connectivity field", where you may not even use a device to connect to the internet, because the means by which to access a virtual reality is embedded under your skin.

For example, if you decide to take the kids to Disneyland, instead of hopping on a plane to Los Angeles to visit the theme park, you might put on a pair of glasses and experience the rides virtually. From an item of clothing, or head gear, it is a logical progression to an application that is part of your physical being, a kind of carbon silicon interface or, as Clark puts it, "cyberborg stuff".

Really -- in just 25 years?

Clark says technology will be responding to the problems of humanity. As people live longer and population numbers explode, one of the consequences will be that physical travel will become restricted in an increasingly crowded world -- hence the market for virtual tourism.

O'Connell says that as interfaces get more human, the technology will be more pervasive but less obvious. "If the Siri voice application (in the new iPhone 4S) goes any further, it could well be that we have this invisible friend that we talk to, that advises us."

Computerworld can attest that while Siri does have the ability to find answers to questions such as: "What is the capital of Thailand?" and "Remind me at 6pm to turn the oven on," it struggles with understanding the Kiwi accent, having only been programmed to understand generic UK, US and Australian accents. According to Apple, it is programmed to recognise patterns of speech, and it is only in beta, but over time it will understand more words -- or patterns of words.

Telecommunications consultant Jonathan Brewer says that keyboards and devices will gradually disappear. And in their place computers will respond to voice or gesture commands -- an early forerunner of the latter is the Xbox Kinect.

"Cables and cords will be a thing of the past for portable devices and induction charging will be the norm," he predicts.

Wall-size active displays in living rooms will replace television screens and in the office telepresence will be superseded by holography -- and that the holograph beside you will seem as real as if it were, well, a real person.

But, Clark cautions, the continual improvement in the amount of data a computer can process will mean that ethical decisions around human coding will need to be debated and boundaries put around what scientists, mathematicians and software developers can implement.

Ray Delany, New Zealand Computer Society president, agrees that regulation is likely to become an increasing part of the ICT industry.

"We're going to see, unfortunately, things go wrong that create very large levels of concern in the population as a whole, as opposed to the IT population, and that will highlight governments to the importance of this stuff and regulation will follow," he says.

"My personal preference would be that the industry finds a way to regulate itself before regulation is imposed on it but I guess I'm not that hopeful."

O'Connell talks about desktop manufacturing -- where a local fabricator can create an item based on a set of specifications so cheaply that it negates the requirement of manufacturing in countries with low labour costs and shipping the item around the world.

And he goes one step further by suggesting that desktop manufacturing might extend to printing replacement organs in a medical laboratory.

O'Connell admits there are shades of Star Trek in this idea, and indeed many visions of the future that have later proved to be clairvoyant were first conceived by science fiction writers.

He says that 25 years ago people were getting excited about "desk top publishing" and look at how that has upended traditional industries such as the media.

"Will you be called Computerworld in 25 years time?," O'Connell asks. "In 25 years a lot of people may say 'what's a computer?' because their wristwatch or their eye glasses may contain more computing power than any computer we can buy today," he says.

"It's a world of computers we're heading to, which is a slightly different thing. So we'd have gone from Computerworld to World of Computers."

According to Brewer, Computerworld will no longer exist as a print publication, as the printing industry as we know it will be defunct. "Print will be reserved for artisan work, such as small publishing runs" .

Mass market publications will become entirely digital, and e-ink (used in the black and white Kindle) will be embedded into reading devices (or interactive walls) because it offers extremely long battery life.

Software developers might also find that what is now their craft, becomes a manufactured process. Delany says handcrafting software is not the best way to ensure it complies with accountability frameworks, so expect to see more computer-aided software engineering.

So if there is to be an explosion in data, where will it be housed?

Right here in New Zealand, or at least a sizeable amount of it, if John Humphrey gets his way. Humphrey was, until recently, the CTO at Pacific Fibre, the telecommunications cable project backed by Sam Morgan, Stephen Tindall and Rod Drury.

Humphrey says New Zealand could become a strategic location for very large datacentres (100+ MW).

He says a stable political environment, skilled workforce, low crime rate, temperate climate and the availability of low-cost power from a high percentage of renewable sources make New Zealand an appealing location for international companies looking to house 'big data'.

With the Ultra Fast Broadband network and an additional international cable planned to provide diversity in the broadband supply, New Zealand is more appealing than Australia as a location for large datacentres, Humphrey says.

There are lower wages and real estate is cheaper, in addition he says the increasing use of green power sources such as hydro, wind, geothermal and natural gas, enables carbon neutral power that offers low-cost electricity for large users.

"Near nil or nil carbon gives a large economic advantage over comparable nations," he says.

Australia, by contrast generates "carbon intensive electricity that is forecasted to be up to five times New Zealand's cost."

As occurred in the electricity industry, ICT services will become commoditised, says Delany.

"When electricity was new and exciting it was expensive, often hard to come by and there were very few people that knew how to make it work. You could gain a competitive advantage through it. But those days are gone now," he says.

"You don't expect when you go to a hotel that you have check in and say 'I'd like electricity please', the way you do with internet connectivity now. I think it's fair to say that the first cab off the rank will be internet services, I can see that becoming ubiquitous and like running water or electricity."

He says after internet services, server infrastructure and applications will be easily available and "as cheap as chips".

So, just as there is no longer a chief electrical officer will the chief information officer leading a large IT department also become extinct?

"I think the demise of the internal IT department has been predicted for a long time and I'm reasonably confident that it will happen but it might take a bit longer than 25 years," Delany says.

"At the moment, effective CIOs are very much business managers, they're not technology managers. There's always going to be a demand for people who've got strategic insights into how to deploy your stuff and the only way you can differentiate to take an advantage from what's essentially a commoditised service is to be the best and smartest as to how you use it."

* This is the third article in a series this week marking Computerworld's 25 year birthday. Tomorrow Waldo Kuipers, Microsoft NZ corporate affairs manager, imagines life in 2036.

See also Second draft of history by Stephen Bell and IBM, INCIS and the internet by Randal Jackson.

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