Famed science communicator Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson once described how, just as humans are different in DNA composition from chimpanzees by just 1% and are infinitely more intelligent, there may be life forms on other planets different from us in the same way, and therefore of far superior intellect. I actually first heard this on a track by ambient metallers Pangea, and was fascinated by the idea. And it led me to wonder, what will computing be like 20 years from now, and just how primitive will current systems look?
Today, you can read online about every granular development in any industry, including personal computing, which wasn’t the case back in 1995. With the deluge of information we’re subjected to nowadays, most advancements in technology don’t strike us as remarkable, unless they’re as major as the Large Hadron Collider. What we sometimes forget is that we’re actually witnessing the birth of computing systems that are heralding in the future of the way we live, work and create.
So what does 2032 look like, you ask? I frequently re-watch A Day Made of Glass, a short video by Corning (the guys behind Gorilla Glass), that forecasts interactive displays on virtually every surface, from your refrigerator door to your bathroom mirror. The characters in the video are greeted by information relevant to them at every turn, and content magically reveals itself just when it’s needed. Plausible? Perhaps. Exciting? Definitely.
What I particularly enjoy about that video is not the flashy UI design or the showy animations, but rather how information is displayed contextually, intelligently. I’ve a feeling that that’s where we’ll begin to head once our current operating systems mature: we’ll want our data and tools wherever we go, to use efficiently on whatever hardware is available without compromising on processing power or software capabilities. We’ll be less dependent on personal devices and rely more on intelligent environments that will be capable of meeting our computing needs.
In trying to follow this timeline of development that will lead up to a Minority Report-like reality, I’m particularly interested in three concepts that I think will be built upon over the next several years:
Cloud storage: most of us already use Dropbox and similar services, and some of us crazy folks are even plugging into Amazon’s cost-efficient Glacier service to store terabytes of data in the cloud on the cheap. It seems preposterous to have any file stored only on a single hard drive that’s not synced with a web-connected infrastructure. Hopefully this will be coupled with smarter backup, cataloguing and retrieval paradigms — I can’t wait to forget what Ctrl/Cmd+S does.
Google Now: information that I need, when I need it, displayed attractively? Sign me up! Google’s trump card (featured on devices running Android 4.1 and up) cleverly uses data it already has (such as your next meeting, the weather and traffic conditions) and serves it up when it’s most useful, giving you the feeling that your device has become sentient (and being helpful, not plotting to kill you, as many movies would have you believe). More of that, please.
Live Tiles: Microsoft is trying hard to reinvent the personal computing experience we’ve grown used to, and with Windows 8, brings a wealth of information and updates from your favorite sites and apps right to your desktop. It’s not revolutionary, but the way it’s implemented makes sense, given that apps now receive data from multiple devices, most of which are now always online. It can only get better from here.
These are just the humble beginnings of ideas that will make our lives easier in the days to come. Hardware will constantly improve and devices will continue to get thinner and lighter, but the real revolutions will be in software and information systems. The way we think about creating, accessing, sharing and distributing data will change drastically, because that’s what will help satisfy our universal need: to connect with each other.
It’s one of the main reasons why we’re excited about new kinds of social networks: they present new opportunities for us to express our thoughts, opinions and emotions, and new ways to do so. We’re able to get closer to those we care about, and build larger audiences for our creative output. We’re able to engage more deeply and explore new ideas in ways we wouldn’t have thought possible, or necessary. And that’s what it’s all about, really.
Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave describes three types of societies, each one phasing out the last: the first being the settled agricultural society, the second being the industrial, and the third being the post-industrial information-based society. We are part of the third wave, consuming, creating and manipulating information to keep the world turning.
Computing in 2032 will be, in many ways different from what it’s like now, and in other ways similar; what will change is our outlook, our needs and goals. We’ll use data to improve our lives and those of others, and we’ll create content to entertain each other. We’ll come up with ways to make information smarter, to know itself, to come find us when we need it. And in doing so, we’ll free ourselves to innovate, enrich and live up to our potential. I’m betting on flying cars too, but that’s a whole other story.