CW@50: The next 50 years

As Computer Weekly celebrates its 50th anniversary, we look ahead to what we might be writing about in another 50 years from now

If Computer Weekly had asked a typical reader of its first edition, published on 22 September 1966, to describe the technology world 50 years into the future, how accurate would their predictions have been?

If they were a fan of science fiction, would they have talked about flying cars and Star Trek-style communication devicesStar Trek was broadcast for the first time on US television that year.

Surely they would have struggled to equate the IT environment as they knew it – dominated by enormous mainframe computers, paper tape and hefty “green screen” terminals – with the go-anywhere, do-anything setup of mobile phones and the internet today.

Or perhaps not.

For all the expectation then, as now, that technological change will progress in leaps and bounds in the coming decades, the reality is that most of the technologies that impress us in 2016 were already on the horizon in 1966.

The video below is an excerpt of a film produced by Philco-Ford in 1966, which foresaw a recognisable future of home computers, through which you can buy clothes, make payments and communicate with people around the world. Far more significant in the video was how it missed the welcome social changes that meant husbands would not need their own computer console through which they would have to approve their wives’ computerised spending habits.

Similarly, 1966 saw the publication of The challenge of the computer utility, a seminal book by Canadian computer scientist Douglas Parkhill, in which he predicted much of what we would today call cloud computing.

So perhaps, if we are to look ahead to what Computer Weekly might be writing about in 2066 when it celebrates its 100th anniversary, we should turn more to what we see emerging today than to the work of science fiction.

Historic patterns

To understand how technology might change in the next 50 years, it’s important to recognise the underlying forces that drive innovation and adoption. History shows a repeatable pattern.

Successful innovation follows a predictable curve – from invention to commoditisation to ubiquity. We tend to associate periods of great technological change with inventions, but that is rarely the case – a surge in adoption and innovation always comes as a result of commoditisation, not invention.

The industrial revolution is associated with the steam engine. Invented by Thomas Savery in 1698, it appeared some 60 or 70 years before the industrial revolution is generally accepted to have started. The real accelerating force for industrialisation was when James Watt made Savery’s steam engine cheap enough and efficient enough for affordable mass usage – commoditising the technology. It led to an unprecedented period of innovation as people found new ways to do things thanks to that affordable technology.

People often forget that concepts can start a long time ago - contrary to popular ideas, 3D printing started in 1967
Simon Wardley, Leading Edge Forum

Similarly, the electrical revolution didn’t start when Benjamin Franklin ran with a kite through a thunderstorm, but when the likes of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse commoditised the production of electricity years later, leading to huge innovation in electrical devices.

Then there’s Henry Ford. His mass production of cars sparked the automotive revolution, long after Karl Benz invented his first petrol-powered vehicle.

Today, the digital revolution is powered by the commoditisation of core IT capabilities. The most transformative so far has been the internet – the commoditisation of networking and communications to become cheap and ubiquitous. The internet kickstarted the wave of innovation that led to the creation and growth of the web, e-commerce and social media.

Smartphones are the commoditisation of end-user computing. Similarly, cloud is simply affordable, highly available, commodity compute power and storage. Look to big data – commoditised access to vast quantities of information. Together, these provide a platform for the unprecedented technological innovation of this century.

Pace of change

When people talk about the pace of change speeding up, are they right? Or does it just feel that way because there is so much innovation – as opposed to invention – going on?

“It still takes about 30 to 50 years for something to evolve from genesis to the point of industrialisation, though a speculative case can be made that this accelerated post-internet to about 20 to 30 years,” says Simon Wardley, a researcher at the Leading Edge Forum, who has extensively researched the processes behind tech adoption; the diagram below summarises his findings.

“People often forget that concepts can start a long time ago – contrary to popular ideas, 3D printing started in 1967. The problem is that we are currently undergoing many points of ‘war’ within IT as an array of activities move from product to utility services. While these ‘wars’ are predictable to a greater degree, they are also highly disruptive to past industries. Multiple overlapping wars can give us a feeling that the pace of change is rapid,” wrote Wardley on his blog.

“I'm not saying the underlying rate of change is constant. The underlying rate of change does accelerate due to industrialisation (ie, commoditisation) of the means of communication (see postage stamp, printing press, telephone, internet). But it’s too easy to view overlapping ‘wars’ as some signal that the pace of change itself is much faster than it is.”

Adoption of technologies chart

In other words, our experience of the digital revolution feels like incredibly rapid change because so many areas of our lives are changing at the same time, and not because technology itself is changing any faster. You will see marketing experts compare user adoption of Facebook with that of radio or TV as proof of accelerated change, but those statistics are a result of comparative cheapness and mass availability, not of technological progress. If every TV was offered for free in the 1950s, you can bet its adoption would have been quicker.

50 years from now

With that in mind, what conclusions can we draw about technology 50 years hence?

Mostly, that much of today’s emerging tech will become commoditised and ubiquitous by 2066, each bringing a new wave of innovation as a result of affordability and mass adoption.

wearable technology will be as natural to our grandchildren as smartphones, tablets and apps are to children today. They will also be smaller, cheaper, and faster, and we will be talking about the innovations they have spawned, not the size of the wearable devices themselves. Those devices are likely to be everywhere, utterly disposable, integrated fully into our personal environment and ultra-connected to what we currently call the internet of things.

As individuals and businesses, we will have access to vast global sensor networks, providing real-time information on every aspect of our lives – mostly for free, as businesses look to make their money from selling services based on the outcomes derived from all that data, not from the data itself.

Overlaying much of that information access will be virtual and augmented reality capabilities far beyond the clunky headsets we have now. Wi-Fi enabled contact lenses already exist, for example, and are the sort of innovation that could easily reach ubiquity in the next 10 or 20 years.

Read more about 50 years of British tech innovation

  • Computer Weekly celebrates its 50th anniversary with a major retrospective on the UK’s contribution to technology history.
  • Computer Weekly’s journey through 50 years of innovation in technology takes a look back at the history of the internet and the huge changes it has brought to society.
  • Business software has been a rich field for IT professionals over the past five decades, and we are on the cusp of a new era of customers rolling their own for competitive advantage.

With so much information abounding, we won’t want to exercise all our brain power to make sense of it – that’s far too much like hard work. And here we will see the commoditisation of forms of artificial intelligence and machine learning, alongside robotics and automation – clearly an area that will drive huge innovation, perhaps as soon as the 2030s. Driverless cars are an obvious example of this trend that we can already see developing today.

Technologies we might today categorise with the prefix “smart” will be everyday. Many experts are getting excited about the potential for blockchain – smart contracts, smart payments, smart banking – but by 2066 we will no doubt be in the “post-blockchain era”. Whether blockchain is the next revolutionary stage of the web or not, it is an example of how software developers will use the vast commoditised resources at their disposal to build applications that would simply not have been feasible or affordable in the past. We will see many comparable developments ahead.

Wardley expects to see 3D printing achieve commoditisation by the late 2020s, and the potential too for huge social changes as we see mass manufacturing industries commoditised. Why order a spare part from a manufacturer or distributor when you can simply print one at home?

All this innovation needs energy, and one of the most significant areas of development in the next 50 years will come from new battery technologies and mass-market methods of generating electricity to power all these devices – using our own kinetic energy when walking, for example.

Remember that none of these ideas is beyond the realm of possibility today – they will all simply become cheap, commoditised and highly available.

Future emerging technologies

But what will be the emerging technologies by 2066? Much as 3D printing and cloud computing were ideas on the drawing board 50 years ago, it is likely that areas such as graphene, quantum computing, genetics, bio-engineering and brain-computer interfaces will be at or approaching commoditisation and accelerated innovation.

The great imponderable in such future-gazing comes in the uncertainty of invention. Most of the developments described here are a result of innovation – it’s harder to foresee entirely new inventions that could bring further, unprecedented changes, much as the transistor did.

The unanswerable question is the extent to which social disruption may affect the rate of technology-led change. The industrial revolution led to huge social and cultural upheavals, and if – as many people believe – the digital revolution will produce change even more seismic in scope, what impact will that have?

The only certainty here is that social change is going to come – look at the reactions to existing influences such as the sharing economy, with taxi drivers blockading cities in protest at Uber. Who will be the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the textile worker Luddites of the next 50 years of the digital age?

The real challenges over the next decades for the technology community, for governments, businesses – for all of society – will come not from the pace of digital change, a process which is inevitable and unstoppable, but from how we all prepare for the transformation it brings to the way we all live and work together.

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