Future of Computing

Recently, every time when I am trying to shut down our Xbox 360, loud laughter fills our living room as my wife is every time equally entertained by my heavily accented "turn off" command, especially in all those times when I am repeatedly saying it again and again with different levels of enthusiasm until the poor thing finally understands what I really want it to do. I don't mind, even though the laugh is on my account, I am positive that voice commands are the most effective way to shutdown the Xbox. Alternatives are either to use its motion sensor and in series of waves force it to turn off or to find the controller (which is always located under the last pillow in the farthest corner of living room) and in a series of clicks do the same. But this is also not the only reason I like to use voice commands. The main reason is that I really like to try and use new features in nowadays computers simply because no matter how rudimentary they are they surely represent the future. Near or distant doesn't matter, but sooner or later everybody will do the same with their own future gadgets and I just can't wait for the time when my wife start commanding her laptop or white board in school where she works and start teaching kids how to do the same. I am not going to laugh then. I promise. Ok, that's a lie, I will probably give her some quick funny look following by series of small chuckles. ;-)

All started with these guys*

Kidding aside, history of computer evolution is full of similar events. Do you remember when mouse added to the scene? Everybody started to enumerate all the reasons why it was just another stupid thing and all you ever going to need is your shiny keyboard. Today, can you do your daily work without a mouse? Don't tell anybody but even those hard core programmers are using it in grand scale. The same happened when touch screens started replacing old non-interactive screens, when notebooks and non-interactive LCD screens started replacing old desktops and CRT monitors, when memory flash chips started replacing optical drives, when optical devices started replacing magnetic drives and tapes. The list is endless and it will carry on to add more and more similar changes with coming new technologies and ideas.

If we want to try and imagine the future of computer science the good thing is to try understanding the development of the almost 90 years old first transistor capable of doing one simple thing - turning on or off electrical current on a micro scale based on another electrical current. The first successor of famous vacuum tube. Basically speaking, one elementary vacuum tube and one silicon transistor are nothing more than just a valve capable of conducting the flow of electric current from one place to another. The main difference between the two are their size. It would be like comparing the size of a man standing in front of Empire State Building. But why it is so important? We know that this invention lead us to manufacturing of various powerful computers, but really how one small electric valve can be so important? What actually we can build with couple of valves that is so essential and created such a big industry? Like in real life when by using valves we control the water flow the same is with electric current, invention of transistors gave us opportunity to control the electron flow and to make applications capable of comparing two or more flows and creating some result out of it in a form of a new flow. In a word, electric valves gave us opportunity to make decisions.

Practical use of IF-THEN-ELSE statement

If we transfer the story into programming languages realm, this is equivalent to the mighty "IF" command. Started from low level of elementary assembly languages till the most modern computer languages today, the "IF" command survived in more or less same form. "IF" is that essential link that carry the whole industry. Soon enough after first "decision maker" or "IF" statement entered the scene the computers started, well, to compute. Immediately after, they reached the level where they learned all the mathematics and all logic operations. More or less after first invention of industrial semiconductor plate in Texas Instruments suitably named "chip" back then in 1958, computers started to do what they are doing ever since. They are also doing it faster and faster every year. Thanks to famous "Moore's law" I wrote about in some previous posts, thanks to technology innovations, chip is shrinking in half every second year and today capable of carrying up to 10 million transistors per square millimeter. This is still ongoing process and apparently the end would be the size of an atom and even this is not far from reality - I read about nano-tubes made exclusively out of carbon atoms capable to act the same as silicon transistor. We are still not there yet, but I don't see many obstacles in the way looking from the point of view of current technology and performed experiments and study.

However, this post is not intended to be historical record of computers from their first invention (in my personal case the history is written here: Computer Life - First 30 Years). Rather, I would like to think a bit about the direction where are they going and how our computer-dependable world would look like in the future.

Viktor, Xbox 360 & Kinect

Majority of personal computers on the market today are designed to serve one or only several purposes. For example, already mentioned Xbox 360 is the one especially designed for video games and entertainment. All its CPUs and associated hardware accessories are created to satisfy one of those most demanding users out there. The kids. What I meant is if you want to create a personal computer just for processing text it would be extremely simple with not much challenge but to make Spiderman swinging on his net completely controllable with child fingers or body you would need cutting edge technology. By the way, like all other game consoles on the market, Xbox 360 creators developed a motion sensor combining several technology including two 3D depth laser sensors, one RGB camera and fast software providing scanning of two persons in real time. Even though the approach is a bit rudimentary, what it does, beside the hint of the future gadgets, is that by playing various games with full body control your kid is performing physical exercises as well! I am looking forward for maturing of this technology and from this point of time I can't see any alternatives. The future will definitely include this kind of sensors natively, just like web cams are default choice for computers today. Game console market is maybe one of the biggest and I am sure the future will see more out of it especially in the field of virtual reality and human-computer interaction.

Next and perhaps equally important computer area is military. With their enormous budget within their developing environment completely unburdened by commercialism they are capable of shaping the future from a bit wrong reasons. Even though military contribution in computing area is extremely big, especially in robotics and integration of computers into various vehicles and crafts, due to secrecy and by the fact they are primarily motivated by the combat agenda, civilian usage come either late or it needs severe modifications and adjustments to fit the 'normal' people. Not long ago I wrote about this in post Military Sidetrack. Nevertheless, computers and especially sensor gadgets today in production owe big time to all the researches hidden deep below in various military 'basements' all over the world. Good thing is they spy each other on regular basis so it is almost impossible for one military industry to become the leader in the area, which would probably be catastrophic for us all.

Seven of Nine

The future is also excitedly waiting for maturing of Augmented Reality technology I also wrote about it this summer. Thanks to miniaturization of electronic circuits, computers today easily fits the smallest pockets. Extremely large competition in mobile computers today brought us wide variety of smartphones and tablets giving opportunity for taking your favorite machine with you. Potentials are big, but still waiting for more ground breaking innovations especially in the field of receiving the data safely and efficiently.

To conclude, predicting far future is very hard, simply because some sort of breakthrough technology could change everything. The digital world existing today is in its stage that we are aware of its limitations and potential, but from this point of view it is uncertain what would quantum computing bring to existing technology. Will it be changing the way of thinking entirely or it will be just another addition to current knowledge, remains to be seen. Further study of human brain is also potential source of new ideas, especially in artificial intelligence systems and organic based computers. Nanotechnology is another wide spectrum of future intelligence and hardware, just ask Seven of Nine above, she knows what I mean :). On the other end, internet is evolving separately and already started to provide speed of data exchange much faster than some computers alone from not long years ago. Cloud services are almost standard offer for both individual user or business systems. In the future you would probably be able to buy computer and never see it, stored nicely in some warehouse and working 24/7 for you all over the network.

But we are living in present and until then our current digital world suit us very well. So well that we are starting to take all the technology for granted. Computers reached the level of simple kitchen appliance. Like in case of refrigerator, nobody cares how it works, the only important fact is that it's there to work and serve.

Refs:
http://news.yahoo.com/future-computers-131739358.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_circuit
http://www.xbox.com/kinect/
http://money.cnn.com/2006/07/26/magazines/fortune/futureoftech_quantum.fortune
http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Seven_of_Nine
*http://blog.brush.co.nz/2011/02/the-founding-fathers-of-the-silicon-valley/


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