Computing growth is just beginning

It is easy to look at the phenomenal development of computing over the past 50 years and conclude this explosive growth must soon...

It is easy to look at the phenomenal development of computing over the past 50 years and conclude this explosive growth must soon come to an end. However, this is to misunderstand the nature of the computer revolution and to ignore the experience of history.

The computer is the first machine to supplement the human brain. We are just beginning to comprehend the scale of what is possible. We can clearly see the beginnings of huge new industries growing directly and indirectly out of our present computer and information technology, each of which will dwarf what has been achieved to date. The first and most obvious growth area is the further convergence of telecoms and computing - mobile phones and laptops. This, in turn, will intensify the drive for miniaturisation.

Two examples of the implications of miniaturisation flow from the way we will interact with pocket or wearable computers, and in due course even "wrist-watch" computers. Traditional keyboards and displays will no longer be practical. Keyboards will be obsolete as soon as we can break the speech recognition barrier.

No one has been able to push the accuracy up to the more than 99% required but when this breakthrough comes it will spawn an industry an order of magnitude larger than, say, Microsoft. Only computers use Microsoft's operating systems, whereas every machine will use speech recognition, synthesis, translation and précis.

A wristwatch computer will be very limited without a screen. The first holographic displays that can project a three-dimensional image in space are being experimented with now. The first mass-market application may be to replace the venerable television screen. Imagine a three-dimensional image in the middle of your sitting room in which the rugby ball comes flying across from the fireplace straight at your favourite seat.

We are on the path to having the entire body of human knowledge, art, culture and commerce instantly available. There is much work to be done to build, maintain and make this resource easily accessible. Robotics will also be another huge growth industry.

We will need to design software that is more complex, and create more storage and processing power than we can even dream of today. However, this breakthrough will change the whole structure of knowledge transfer, education and training.

The thrust of education today is towards training young people to memorise conventional answers to standardised questions to pass ever more examinations to satisfy league tables and performance objectives. Many people feel this is not the best training to cope with the ever increasing pace of change. Quite marginal improvements in storage systems, already at the prototype stage, linked to computer games psychology will fundamentally change the way humans learn.

This will help bring back diversity, stimulate creativity and the excitement of learning. Distance learning will radically change the logistics, culture and process of education, training and instruction.

A cousin of distance learning is distance diagnosis. One example is the world of medicine. At last the British National Formulary is on the Internet. Work progresses on standardising the terminology of diagnoses. Comprehensive personal medical records will soon be held in accessible databases. When these three developments mature there will be scope for sophisticated data mining and pattern recognition software way beyond our present ambitions.

In another development, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have demonstrated a book made of special "paper" on which a Jane Austen novel can be downloaded one day and a manual or text book the next.

Of greater importance for national infrastructures, land transport systems will become an amalgam of rail and road. Your own individual vehicle running on an "electronic rail" will take you to where you want to go automatically. This will only be possible when computers are powerful and reliable enough to control every car travelling on the network - and we think air traffic control systems are complex? Rebuilding the planet's transport systems will be a big industry.

Our most sophisticated computers are a pale shadow of our brains. Our best storage systems do not begin to compare with DNA - the specification for a complete human being held to base four. The genome project has just opened our eyes to the long ladder of knowledge there is in front of us to climb, of which this is just the first rung.

We will need trillions more bytes of computing power to take this work forward. Radical new computing devices are emerging from the research laboratories that are not binary, digital or sequential. Quantum computers will be able to analyse immense stores of information instantaneously, while biological and protein computers are beginning to surface. The growth phase of computing is only just beginning.

Charles Ross is chairman of IT debating society the Real Time Club

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