The New Digital Frontier
The first decade of the 20th century was ripe with new discoveries. Einstein had his miracle year, Mendel’s genetics were uncovered once again, Ford created his assembly line and the Wrights built their plane.
Still, to our modern eyes, life at the time was primitive. Most people did not have electricity, indoor plumbing or a telephone. Life expectancy was around 47 years and women did not even have the right to vote. We’ve come a long way since then.
In the 20th century we learned to master the physical world and discovered a strange, subatomic one underneath. These advances fueled a historic creation of wealth. In this new century, we will master the quantum universe as well as the complex, emergent code of our own biology and the benefits, as well as the dangers, will be even greater.
Computing at the Sub- Atomic Level
As I explained in an earlier post about the digital world in 2020, we’re coming to the end of our current digital paradigm. For over half a century, we’ve been cramming more and more transistors into smaller and smaller spaces and doubling processing power about every 18 months. However, as we are nearing physical limits, that is coming to an end.
The most recent Nobel Prize for physics was awarded for quantum information, the technology that will drive the 21st century. New quantum computers have the potential to be millions of times faster than even our most powerful supercomputers today, quantum cryptography will usher in a new era of super-secure transactions and quantum storage will achieve unparalleled density.
To be sure, there are still some problems to worked out. Quantum computing works differently, on the most fundamental level, than the current paradigm and, although there are working units, the haven’t proved they can be effective. Still, Jeff Bezos and the CIA recently invested $30 million to bring the technology to market.
Unlike the dawn of the computer age, where we saw little benefit for a generation, this new technology will begin affecting our daily lives within a decade.
When Siri Meets Watson
Two of the coolest technologies to come out in recent years are Apple’s Siri, the conversational interface available on iPhones and iPads; and Watson, the IBM supercomputer that competed and won on the game show Jeopardy!, which requires human-like leaps of intuition. So what does the future hold?
If we go by current trends, processing efficiency will increase 100-fold and storage will increase 1000-fold over the next ten years. So we can expect the $3 million price tag for Watson to come down to about $30,000 in a decade while the 4 terabytes of memory it used will be equivalent, relatively speaking, to the 4 GB we get for free online today.
Fairly soon we can expect to have natural, human-like interfaces connecting to Watson-like processing power available for everyday use. Bandwidth in ten years will be about thirty times faster and we’ll be connected to low power sensors throughout our environment, so we’ll be able to access vast amounts of information about our physical environment almost instantly, everywhere we go.
Sometime around 2030, we’ll be connected to strong artificial intelligence that will be indistinguishable from dealing with a human, except of course for the fact that it will link us to the sum total of the world’s knowledge in an instant.
The Rise of the Cyborgs – When Genomics Meets Nanotech
Information technology does not exist in a vacuum, but goes on to enhance other areas. The ability to use computers to perform enormous calculations at blazing speed and to apply that processing power to design and problem solving tasks is transforming just about every field you can imagine.
We can already see the potential in genomics and nanotechnology both of which are advancing at an incredible pace and, as the nearly infinite processing power of quantum computing accelerates them even faster, will allow us to alter our bodies at the molecular level.
Both technologies are being deployed to cure disease. Synthetic blood has been developed that has already saved lives while synthetic organs and programmable cell therapies will soon be able to not only extend longevity, but to restore function. Nanoparticles are being engineered to deliver drugs to specific receptors on specific cells.
Quantum computing will accelerate this trend and lead to the enhancement of our biology. Synthetic respirocytes will hold hundreds of times more oxygen than natural red blood cells and engineered tissues will merge man with machine. Nanobots will roam through our bodies, monitor for trouble and make repairs when needed.
Getting Over the Singularity
The future is always uncertain and there is no guarantee that all of these technologies will come to fruition; or any of them for that matter. However, what is undeniable is that technology is accelerating and quantum computing represents an entirely new paradigm.
The advancement we achieved in the last century will be dwarfed by the speed of change in this one. So where does it all lead?
Ray Kurzweil believes that the logical consequence is a technological singularity, where man and machine become hopelessly intertwined. It is a vision that instills both hope and fear; one that is at the same time both utopian and dystopian. When we merge with our machines, who will we really be?
I don’t presume to have an answer, but I do have an observation. For decades we’ve been inundated with visions of an antiseptic, institutionalized future where humorless people walk around in silver spandex. However, each successive generation seems to put greater emphasis on the humanity of the individual.
All Too Human
Richard Florida, has documented that tech meccas tend to be located in areas with thriving creative cultures. Healthy music and art scenes are as much a part of technological development as universities and research centers. While governments and corporations may seem omnipotent, Wikileaks and Anonymous show that they are not.
Clearly, the modern day cubicle is more human than the Dickensian sweatshop, just as Skype is more personal than a telephone. After all, is there any greater testament to the human spirit than Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic runner who competed on artificial legs? Or, for that matter, any greater indictment of human frailty than his ultimate downfall?
While the new age of quantum information will augment our minds and bodies, possibly beyond recognition, the quality and content of our character will, for better or worse, remain our own.