Thursday, January 1, 2009

Predictions, Risk Lag and Throughput Acceleration

Looking back to 2001 A Space Odyssey was a common theme for me over the past few days as 2008 came to a close. I even received a text message that lamented the lack of a "manned mission to Jupiter" from an old friend. What is interesting about 2001 is just how unprophetic it really was in many ways.

The miniaturization and pervasiveness of communications technology had already appeared with Star Trek's individual communicators, yet the video communicators on the space station in 2001 are done in a small phone booth. Women have traditional roles as space flight attendants and dated clothing styles that are hard to imagine as futuristic. HAL is assisting with a manned mission to Jupiter but we already had robotic probes performing various tasks by 1968 with essentially no intelligence-but exploratory utility-reducing the massive resource requirements and risk that a manned mission incurs.

Here are a few inevitably incorrect predictions that I will put forward for the next decade or two:

(1) Continued miniaturization and convergence of information and communications technologies

(2) Increasingly effective voice recognition and control of technology that eliminates strong requirements for keyboard-based interfaces

(3) Nanomachines for medical treatment will virtually eliminate cancers and infectious disorders, and radically reduce the need for invasive surgery

(4) Increased integration of technology to enhance human capabilities, including implanted communications and processing modules

(5) Pervasive tele-observation through networked cameras building composite, real-time situation awareness

(6) Web integrated government with real-time feedback from constituents increases influence of citizens groups while reducing the effect of lobbying organizations

(7) Enhanced resolution of factual questions due to automated, intelligent cross-linking of factual sources to speculative information claims

(8) Massive bandwidth capacities reducing limits on video and image sharing, causing copyright crisis and resolved through an information tax applied to bandwidth usage estimates

Oddly, there are a few areas of technology in modern life that are changing very slowly. Aircraft are a prime example. Other than enhanced safety equipment and general efficiency updates, jet airplanes and helicopters are remarkably similar to models from the 60s and 70s. Technology change in a modern society is countered by safety requirements, where testing and verification cycles become the pacing mechanism. Thus we can expect the medical aspects to lag behind the others. I call this "risk lag." Information technologies, conversely, have no risk lag and instead get a "throughput acceleration" since information may not want to be free, but it at least can't be contained.