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The Digital World in 2020

2011 September 11

“Prediction is difficult, especially about the future,” is a quote attributed to people as diverse as the physicist Niels Bohr and baseball legend Yogi Berra.

It is, of course, a mangling of the English language, but resonates because it’s true. Prognostication is a tricky business, usually best left to carnival hucksters and high priced Wall Street analysts.

However, despite the pitfalls, we can make some reasonable assumptions.  Some important digital trends have highly foreseeable outcomes. We have a good idea about what limits will be hit, problems that will follow and some concrete notions about how they will be solved.  The future exists, it just hasn’t arrived yet.

The Emergent Near Future

As I wrote in an earlier post, our technological near future is driven by four major forces:

1. The Cloud: In the PC era, innovation was driven by Moore’s Law.  Computing processing speeds doubled every eighteen months and that determined what we could get our hardware to do.

These days, however, Kryder’s Law, which projects a doubling in storage capacity every year and Nielsen’s Law which sets the pace for bandwidth capacity at every 21 months, are more determinant.  We are now able to store huge amounts of data and access it from anywhere and our ability to do so is increasing rapidly.

2. Evolution of Client Side Scripting: In the early days, the Web was merely a bunch of static electronic pages linked together.  You could access documents, but there was no functionality.

Then came PHP, which made pages dynamic (i.e. they changed).  Further enhancements such as JavaScript, jQuery and Flash made it possible actually manipulate the data on the page and watch video.

Today, mobile apps  and HTML5 are enabling entirely new experiences.  Not surprisingly, that’s where a lot of innovation efforts are going.

3. Linked Data: As early as the late 90’s, Tim Berners-Lee recognized a shortcoming of the Web he created.  While it helped give much greater access to the world’s information, that same information was still trapped inside of incompatible databases.  So he invented a new, semantic web to unify them.

A decade later, linked data is finally gaining traction and is becoming an important technology driver in it’s own right.

4. The Mobile Explosion:  As my agency, Moxie, described in a recent report we are increasingly operating in a post-PC computing environment.  We now carry around multiple connected devices, all of which have greater computing power than our office desktops did a decade ago.

Those four trends are what drive innovation today and the stuff coming online now, such as augmented reality, app driven digital TV and mobile sharing sites like Instagram combine two or more of them to create something truly new and exciting.

However, around 2020, all the rules will change and we will enter the realm of the unknown.  What exactly happens then is anybody’s guess, but there are already early signs of what’s to come.

Moore’s Law Hits a Speed Bump

As mentioned above, Moore’s law predicts that processing speed doubles every eighteen months.  It’s driven by how many transistors engineers can squeeze into a single integrated circuit.  What happens when they become as small as a single atom?  The laws of physics will forbid us to make them any smaller.

That will happen by the end of this decade and scientists are already working on a solution to the problem called quantum computing.  The idea is to no longer use the binary chains of ones and zeroes (called bits) that our computers run on now, but to encode information in qubits, basically the same idea transferred to quantum states.

It seems fantastical, but the future is closer than you might think.  This past spring, Lockhead bought the first quantum computer.  It’s still early days, but further developments are sure to follow.

E-Commerce in Peril

Vastly increased processing speeds are exciting, but like any advancement they create their own problems.  As I wrote in a post a few years back, quantum computing will make existing encryption methods obsolete.

Think about that for a minute.  All of our electronic transactions need to be encrypted.  If they weren’t, we certainly wouldn’t be willing to put our financial information online. Without secure encryption, e-commerce, along with many of our national security and diplomatic structures, would grind to a screeching halt.

Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists intend to solve the problem in much the same way as they intend to solve our Moore’s Law problem.  There are several efforts underway to develop forms of quantum cryptography, based on the surreal ERP paradox which will keep communications secure.

There’s Plenty of Computers at the Bottom

In the late winter of 1959, a young scientist named Richard Feynman, got up to address the American Physical Society.  His lecture was not the usual fare of decaying sub-atomic particles and obscure Greek letter strewn formulas.  Nevertheless, it promised to become one of the most significant and consequential scientific talks ever.

It was entitled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom and it is an absolute delight.  In that room a half century ago, speaking at roughly a middle school level, Feynman introduced the world to nanotechnology.  Today, the technology is used to create new materials such as super-strong carbon structures called fullerenes.

The next step is nanocomputing.  We will create devices out of microscopic components and there will be computers as small as a grain of sand.  In the future, we will literally be able to spray on information technology (and possibly, in the case of cosmetics, rub on). This isn’t science fiction, as this article shows, the effort is already well underway.

A New Organic Evolution in the Digital Space

In 1945, in connection with the development of the EDVAC, the legendary John von Neumann published a report that described a computer architecture with a central processing unit and a memory unit to store programs.  It became known as the Von Neumann architecture and remains the dominant design in computers to this day.

Ironically, around the same time he developed cellular automata, which are mathematical constructs that mimic biological systems.  Researchers today are using cellular automata and related concepts to develop a new type of organic computing architecture which can self organize.

The idea is based on the realization that when we have computers that are not only vastly more powerful, but also vastly smaller, more connected and ubiquitous, present day architecture will be unable to manage the complexity.  In effect, programmers will develop rules by which computers will evolve the ability to optimize tasks themselves.

The Quirky Digital Paradigm

We are truly still at the dawn of the digital age, with more to come than we can possibly fathom.  However, we can take some solace from looking at how widely off the mark previous visions of the future have been.

In the past, we were given fantasies of refrigerators ordering our milk for us and people marching in silver spandex suits down antiseptic hallways.  None of that has come to pass. In fact, the digerati tend to be quirky, retro and organic. The reality is that we’ve used the digital technology we possess to give us more control.

The enhanced compression and storage of the cloud give us vastly more entertainment choices.  Semantic technologies are freeing data to be used more efficiently.  Mobile devices have freed us from our desks.  Computers crunch the numbers so that we can concentrate on the math and logic.

Everywhere you look, we are deploying digital technology is to express our individuality, use our resources more wisely and do what we want, where and when we want to do it. So while exactly what 2020 will look like remains anybody’s guess, it will truly be a world we make in our own image.

– Greg

11 Responses leave one →
  1. stuart permalink
    September 13, 2011

    Interesting piece.

  2. September 13, 2011

    Thx Stuart!

    – Greg

  3. Darrel permalink
    September 16, 2011

    Going out on a limb here, but I’m predicting nanotechnology impacts the sports world and spurs debates much like advances in modern medicine such as HGH recently have.

    Imagine the nightmares defensive coordinators would have if they had to gameplan against Vick in a nanosuit. In all seriousness though wouldn’t it be cool if nanotechnology gave rise to improvements in player safety like nano-helmets that prevented concussions?

    No question we’re going to see some really cool and useful stuff—but from a cost standpoint, I predict many of these advances and the advantage they bestow will be available only to the wealthy. How that will that barrier to the masses impact society as we now know it, and will that lead to even greater divide between the haves and the have-nots?

    Interesting stuff as always, Greg. Thanks for sharing!

  4. September 16, 2011

    Interesting point Darrell. Certainly, when tech first comes online, it is out of the reach of average individuals. However, cost comes down quickly.


  5. Darrel Dressel permalink
    September 16, 2011

    I totally agree with the point that price eventually comes down once mass production takes hold. Look at mobile devices compared to just a few years ago, computer prices between now and twenty years ago, the list goes on.

    As far as some of the cosmetic implications are concerned, I wouldn’t be entirely sure. Only a small percentage of people in our country could splurge on procedures like plastic surgery or platelet spinning. I find it easy to imagine a niche for “designer nanotechnology” available to people to which money is no object.

    Regardless the marketplace has yet to define itself since most of this stuff exists either in labs or in our imaginations… for now at least. Guess we’ll just have to wait until the future arrives to see whether I’m right!

    Have a great weekend


  6. September 17, 2011

    I wouldn’t be so sure. There is a growing trend of people who are going to developing countries for discount cosmetic surgery. Strange, but true!

    Once technology gets out, it tends to spread.


  7. Amanda Herron permalink
    August 27, 2016

    Wow, great article. I’ve been reading some great sci-fi books that make me aprehensive about nanotechnology. Lol. If we start to upgrade ourselves with bionic bits how does that end up being regulated? If nanotech can elongate our lifespan, what’s the effect on reproduction? What about the effect on population ? Again great article, thank you.

  8. Sathy permalink
    March 11, 2017

    Your article is realy good and thank you fro sharing with us. I am just curious, under the Mobile Explosive you mention ‘those four trends’, what are the 4 trends that you are talking about?
    Hope to hear from you

  9. March 11, 2017

    The four outlined above in the first section. Thanks for reminding me of this post btw. It was written over five years ago and I’m surprised (and relieved!) how well it has held up.

    – Greg

  10. Ugochukwu Chukwu permalink
    August 23, 2020

    Well 2020 is here and here we are? What do we have? I need to hear your thoughts about now how many of these postulaions came true, and what the future holds?

  11. August 25, 2020

    I think on the whole it held up pretty well.

    – Greg

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