Viewpoint -- Personal Computing: Prophesying The Future Of Digital Technology

Dec. 21, 2004
Don't bet the ranch on predictions, but don't totally discount them either.

"If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then unto me." Shakespeare's words are just as wise today. Indeed, people are still trying to divine the future. The latest future-oriented computing issue goes by the overbroad moniker "Web services," and the companies behind it, including Microsoft with its Microsoft.NET initiative and Sun with its Sun ONE initiative, would have you believe that your computing future lies in their hands. A Web service is a computer program that resides not on your computer, but on another computer that you connect to through the Internet. The promise is that you'll be able to use any program no matter what type of computer you're using, including a handheld PC or even one you wear on your wrist. Experts predict that it will be two or three years before Web services have any chance of replacing your word processor and other desktop applications. My prediction is that if they force you to cede control of your computing experience, they'll fail. The personal computing revolution is about gaining control though customizability and personalization, not losing it. Still, the prospect of computing untethered without losing any functionality is compelling. Other work is underway to create ever-faster computers through new chip technology. The engines of tomorrow's PCs may be based not on silicon dioxide but exotic new compounds such as perovskite oxide or even the stuff of life itself, DNA. Faster computers may finally make speech recognition as workable as typing and may lead to computers like HAL from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." The future will be truly mind-boggling, according to the prognosticators. In his book "The Age of Spiritual Machines" (2000, Penguin USA), Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2030 common $1,000 personal computers will grow so greatly in speed and capabilities that they will achieve the full capacity of the human brain. Kurzweil, a prominent inventor and business leader in the field of artificial intelligence, makes other imagination-sparking predictions: By the end of this century we'll achieve virtual immortality by being able to download our minds, memories, and consciousness into robots. Ultimately, he reasons, human and machine intelligence will merge and become indistinguishable, growing exponentially until it will be able to control how the very universe evolves. It's easy to scoff at such notions as the stuff of science fiction. Yet the past is littered with examples of the short-sightedness of others, including those deeply involved with technology. Here are some of the more notable examples of failures of the imagination: "640K ought to be enough for anybody." Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates, 1981, about computer memory "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." Popular Mechanics magazine, 1949 "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Thomas Watson, president and CEO, IBM, 1943 "But what . . . is it good for?" Engineer at IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Ken Olson, founder and chairman of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977 "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." Western Union internal memo, 1876 On the other hand, you probably don't want to bet the ranch on anyone's imaginings of a possible future. In a book I wrote called "Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway," I incorrectly predicted that by now we would likely have a seamless national or international matrix for the communication of interactive multimedia. In other words, according to my crystal-ball reading, the worlds of broadband Internet access, cable TV and videophones should have merged by now. Later, however, I did predict the collapse of the dot-com economy. One more quote, from Lao Tzu in the 6th century B.C.: "Those who have knowledge, don't predict. Those who predict, don't have knowledge." Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or

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