Monday, November 19, 2007

November 2007 Early Indications: 10 Predictions for the Next 10 Years

As promised last month, here are ten information-technology-related areas to watch over the next ten years. Rather than attempting to be systematic, this list will merely suggest topic areas and point to some relevant data points; otherwise, a ten-item list would soon get unwieldy. Key areas such as liquidity in financial markets, global immigration policies, warfare and diplomacy, and credibility of government, financial, and cultural institutions also merit close watching, of course, but will be outside our scope for the moment. (Note that this material is also available in a presentation.)

1) The New Physical Layer

Although everything from power grids to bridges and ports to railways is being built or rebuilt, our focus here is on computing and networking. In particular, power and bandwidth will be transformed in the next decade.

Taking power first, cloud computing vendors are waging an arms race as they build data centers to power a range of offerings loosely called "web services." Because of the intensity of their power consumption, these often appear near cheap hydroelectric power sources (which themselves may be affected by global climate changes). It's estimated, for example, that Google's data center, housed in two adjacent buildings in Oregon, contains 1.3 million computing cores on 9,000 racks per structure, and photographs of the cooling towers are staggering.

Something else is going on: Caterpillar reported that its Q2 07 revenues from sales of backup generators, such as those used in data centers, were up 41% at a time when overall U.S. construction equipment sales are slumping. The growth of "cloud computing" feels as though it's related to the trend toward virtualization, where resources can be located, physically and/or logically, away from their locus of deployment. At the end of the day, however, servers have to sit somewhere, and when they do, lots of heat follows.

At the same time, the need for portable power to support an increasingly mobile user base means that fuel cells, batteries, and associated technologies will also attract investment and talent. Solar power, meanwhile, is a complicated issue: there's clearly a lot of froth around silicon panel plays, which compete with the computing sector for resources, talent, and production capacity. How much solar helps address computing's need for portable power and how much it constrains it will be important to watch.

Bandwidth consumption is exploding as video expands farther and farther into a global customer and user population. In both wired and unwired domains, a lot is happening. On one side, perhaps even the term "wired" should be amended as optical connectivity proves its superiority; while glass can be fabricated into cables, maybe the word "wire" has become misleading. Delivered in the U.S. by Verizon and to a lesser extent AT&T, fiber is driving wider delivery of 20, 50, and potentially 100 MB/sec download speeds along with faster multiplayer gaming action and multiple high-definition television signals. Over the ether, WiMax's future got a bit less rosy recently as Sprint dissolved its partnership with Clearwire as the stumbling cellular carrier searches for a new CEO. Even so, whether it's that particular technology or potentially a cellular variant, mobile broadband will be a key area for the next decade.

2) Enmeshed

The Japanese have already named a relevant demographic better than Americans have: "oyayubizoku," clan of the thumb, is far more evocative than "digital natives." Whatever they're called, people under 30 around the world are redefining mobility: who is supposed to say (or otherwise convey) what message to whom, in what contexts, with what expectations in return is being defined in fascinating ways. I'm reminded of the need for a new greeting at the introduction of the telephone, as people of manners were not supposed to speak to someone unless they had been introduced. Many languages differentiate between telephonic greetings and spoken ones ("bonjour" vs. "allo" in French), but before "hello" was carried over, Alexander Graham Bell preferred "ahoy" as the English-language telephone greeting.

The distinction between telephones and PCs is getting fuzzier every year, as we have noted, and the iPhone presents a clear case in point: running a Unix variant, it can be spoken at, but performs best moving and manipulating images and data. Mobile phones, ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs), gaming devices including Nokia's N-Gage, handheld PCs, televisions, and other devices (such as standalone GPS trackers) will continue to converge. Note that the success of this sector depends heavily on commercialization of the power alternatives listed above.

GPS phones are estimated to be a $30 billion segment next year. Some of the most promising applications involve the combination of mobility and convenience, location awareness, and social networking: as Google enters the phone market, expect to see some variation on the Dodgeball service it acquired in 2005. Being able to visualize a list of friends, in their current physical locations, in order to coordinate seems like a truly harmonic convergence of capabilities.

Television over mobile handsets is estimated to reach over 100 million users by 2009, and the number should soar further in conjunction with the 2010 World Cup. Expect to see spirited competition among content owners like News Corp, handset manufacturers, network equipment firms (including heavyweights Qualcomm, Nokia, and potentially Intel), and carriers such as Vodaphone and T-Mobile. Finally, given that [lots of] advertising is involved, expect something unexpected from Google. There's little question as to demand, particularly after seeing adoption in Japan and Korea, but allocating the money may prove to be difficult.

3) Healthy, Wealthy, and Wired

Entire books need to be written on various facets of information, technology, and health. A few bullets suggest the reach of potential issues:

-Electronic medical records have the potential to improve care, save money, and enhance the patient's experience with his or her health care system. EMRs also could help transform the economics of health insurance, lead to data breaches of untold pain and economic impact, and alter the role of physicians relative to insurers, employers, and patients. Automating the current, broken U.S. system (I can't speak for other countries), feels unappealing, which means that implementing EMRs implies deeper transformation, parallel to but much bigger than the changes brought about by corporate ERP implementations.

-Better information regarding public health statistics is essential, particularly given the experience with SARS and fears about future pandemics. But once again, social, cultural, economic, and legal questions emerge. Ranging from "who owns the data?" to "who defines how data is shared across jurisdictions?" to "who pays and who benefits?," these questions will test an already under-funded global public-health infrastructure. For an upbeat and visually riveting vital statistics story, see "No More Boring Data," a video of a lecture on global demographics.

-What does it mean to be human? Mechanical joints and prostheses are rapidly becoming more sophisticated and digitized. When does a disability become an unfair advantage? Oscar Pistorius is a South African sprinter whose 400 meter time is about a second slow of Olympic qualifying. He's also a double amputee whose carbon-fiber "legs" are challenging old ideas about fair competition. Or take Jesse Sullivan, a former lineman from Tennessee who lost both arms in an electrical accident. He has a nerve-controlled robotic arm connected to his chest. Told by his doctors not to baby the device, he returned one time carrying his hand, which he had detached while starting a lawn mower. Cochlear implants are already common solutions to hearing loss (Rush Limbaugh has one) and electrical implants also help patients with Parkinson's Disease, so it is a short hop to implanted chips that enhance brain function: when will 14-year-olds start getting "Harvard chips" to enhance test-taking, piano-playing, physical endurance, and other competitive traits that will help college admissions - and beyond?

-What will be the long-term effects of nearfield electromagnetic emissions, particularly after they have been focused through the ear directly into people’s brains? Cell phone antennas are a potential hazard, but so are earbuds and Bluetooth radios, and nobody knows yet what might or could happen across broad populations with widely varying spectrum allocations, cultural patterns, and governmental regulations.

4) Connection Machines

As more kinds of things get connected to information networks, the potential for unexpected consequences gets ever more interesting to contemplate. Just listing the number of classes of devices that can or will soon interoperate gives a sense of scale:

-telephones, the wireless variety of which can be understood as beacons, bar-code scanners, and network nodes - potentially in a mesh configuration
-motor- and other industrial controllers
-surveillance cameras (of which there are over 2,000 in Chicago alone)
-sensors, whether embedded in animals, affixed to pharmaceutical packaging, or attached to engine components to predict mechanical failure.

All told, there are dozens of billions of items that can connect and combine in new ways.

Look at robotics in the realm of warfare. Small portable robots, literal cousins of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, can investigate caves or tunnels, while the last two DARPA autonomous vehicle challenges (one across open terrain, the most recent at an abandoned Army base simulating urban conditions) have produced multiple successful entrants. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are flown by crews remote from the battlespace. The pace of successful deployment will certainly continue, raising a wide variety of heretofore purely theoretical questions about the ethics and costs of combat.

Other machines are less visible. Amazon Mechanical Turk was recently used in the search for pilot Steve Fossett: aerial photographs were loaded into the system, which then systematically presented volunteers with images to scan visually for evidence of wreckage, a parachute, or other clues. Combined computing power with human pattern recognition will become more common in a wide variety of domains.

5) Virtual Fences

It's extremely difficult to delimit this space. Risk, trust, identity, and security are all intertwined, and each has implications for the others. Just this week New York Governor Eliot Spitzer backed off on a plan to issue illegal immigrants New York driver's licenses. This in turn means none of these people can fly on commercial flights unless they hold a passport. The 50 states, meanwhile, are in various degrees of agreement with a federal plan for regularizing driver's licenses to create a de facto national identity card. Both driver's licenses and passports, meanwhile, will get embedded RFID chips, which have been cracked already in a variety of trials. At base, the questions of "who are you," "can you prove it," and "who else knows your information" are all in play, all over the world.

Spam is more prevalent than ever, and creative code-writers are unleashing new technologies to build networks of dormant, compromised computers waiting future instructions. The so-called "Storm" worm is actually a worm, Trojan, and bot combined: it changes its payload every 30 minutes, effectively mutating far faster than antivirus software definitions can be written, much less applied. It operates on evolving IP addresses and in a peer-to-peer network configuration, so very few infected machines point to a central point of control (thought to be Russian). Between 1 and 50 million machines are believed to be at risk, but because there is no spike of malware traffic, as there was in the incredible spread of the Slammer worm (which spread to 75,000 machines in 10 minutes), Storm is nearly undetectable. Given the numbers of networked devices listed above, one must assume viruses will attack everything from powerplant controls to cellphone networks to several types of security systems.

The biggest data breach I'm aware of is the 47 million credit-card numbers lost by TJX (parent company to TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods) as a result of improperly configured in-store wireless networks. Last month, a group of banks alleged in a court filing that in fact 94 million records were lost. Currently liability rests with the banks and credit-card entities even though the merchant was responsible, so expect new legislation to reallocate the blame (and financial responsibility) when the next leak occurs.

6) Of Memory and Forgetting

As more of humanity's mental output is digitally recorded and preserved, we will see new kinds of challenges and opportunities related to the storage of said output. My colleague John Parkinson was fond of saying that "digits never die," and anyone who posted stupid newsgroup utterances 15 years ago or candid MySpace pictures seen by a potential employer will understand. Insofar as much of the "web 2.0" traffic is about "me" (and my opinions, and my friends, and my pictures, and my goings-on), it feels like there will be an emerging dialectic between asking for attention and asking for, if not privacy, at least some control over one's cumulative bitstreams.

Many questions relating to monetization of data are relevant here. Who owns my trail of digital breadcrumbs that everyone from Axciom and Amazon to Vodaphone and Yahoo is trying to use for commercial purposes? In healthcare, who holds, owns, and controls my lifelong record of prescriptions (filled and unfilled), medical test results, over-the-counter and supplement purchases (helpfully recorded by loyalty cards), public health data, and even caloric intake and, at the health club, expenditure?

Embedded metadata is another area to watch. Many digital cameras embed information into the image file relating to camera, shutter speed, lens, and time and date. If you look at the most recent versions, what the privacy types call PII (personally identifiable information) also shows up: latitude and longitude of the location, the photographer's name (handy for claiming artistic royalties), and other information that is not obvious when looking at the image. Various generations of Microsoft Word embedded sometimes embarrassing information relating to authorship, editorial changes, and the like: more than one consulting firm has been caught repurposing a proposal (or deliverable) when hidden layers of information told their tale.

As more bits are generated and stored in networked contexts, we will see a reinvention of the public record; just this week a D.C. circuit court judge ordered the White House to stop deleting e-mails, given that 5 million are alleged to be missing. At the level of less prominent individuals, we will see extremes from privacy fanatics that try to commit as little as possible to digital media, all the way to Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell, who is attempting to digitize his entire life, from birth certificate forward, the last few years in real time. (Here's a New Yorker story on Bell.) How the rest of us sort out the middle will be unpredictable.

7) The Human Peripheral

Traditionally, people connected to the computer through punch tapes or cards, keyboards, and screens. That list is getting longer, quickly.

It's been five years already since Cambridge and MIT researchers shook hands across the Atlantic. Haptic (3-D touch-based) interfaces are entering the mass market, most visibly via the Nintendo Wii, which is outselling conventional game consoles from Sony and Microsoft.

The Audeo system processes human intentional thought and converts it to speech. That is, it acts on "I want to say 'hello'" rather than broadcasting one's daydreams.

Vyro has developed a Bluetooth device about the size of a gum eraser. It measures stress through sweat gland activity in the skin, so one application is a clever game in which two players race their cars on a Bluetooth phone, the winner being the one who's more relaxed.

-New screens
Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) technology is coming to market soon, in Sony televisions for instance. Compared to LCD, OLED is brighter, more power efficient, and thinner - but it reacts badly to water. E-ink and other flexible displays are making similar progress.

While Microsoft's SPOT technology has not made much of an impact, datacasting is still viable. Ambient Devices make products that convey information at a glance. Those who have been to Boston know that the Prudential building's spire tells the weather: steady blue for clear, blinking red for rain. Ambient's Orb conveys weather, stock market performance, and other complex information by its color, and there's an energy monitor that tracks the price of electricity, weather forecast, and other information relevant to deciding whether or not to run the dryer or air conditioner.

8) Education

Officially, we now live in a services economy: at the global level, the switchover from agriculture happened only last year, which means that at scale, manufacturing was never earth's dominant economic activity. Education systems everywhere are struggling to adapt to digitization, to services, and to new demographic realities. In the U.S. for example, in 2050 there will be a huge blip of elderly women who are now just finishing childbearing. Who will support them, what will they do for both economic and other rewards, and how will they learn to do those things? In the developing world, projected demographic pyramids are even more striking as life expectancy changes dramatically in just a few decades.

How do schools prepare young people for jobs and organizational designs that have yet to be invented? To take two current examples, where did today's generation of sushi chefs and yoga teachers get their training? Where will robot mechanics, Internet addiction counselors, and Chinese lawyers get started? Getting computers (possibly through One Laptop Per Child or Project Inkwell) to the masses will start a process but by no means finish it.

As online course delivery ramps up, questions arise about architecture: what should a virtually-enabled classroom look like? Where should schools be built, particularly in developing environments? What should they look like? What is the role and function of a public library in a world in which the place of print is in major upheaval?

9) {Your Theme Here}

As blogging, social networking, and user-generated content proliferate, we're seeing one manifestation of a larger trend toward delegitimization of received cultural authority. Doctors are learning how to respond to patients with volumes of research, expert and folk opinion, and a desire to dictate rather receive treatment. Instead of trusting politicians, professional reviewers, or commercial spokespeople, many people across the world are putting trust in each other's opinions: Zagat is a great example of formal ratings systems being challenged by masses of uncredentialed, anonymous diners. Zagat also raises the issue of when crowds can be "wise," cannot possibly be "wise," or generally do not matter one way or the other.

Information markets hold great potential, but like real markets, suffer from bubbles, information asymmetry, and other externalities. Nevertheless, such exemplars as Hollywood Stock Exchange (now owned by financial information giant Cantor Fitzgerald), the Iowa Stock Market, and startups like Fluid Innovation are leading the way toward wider implementation. At the same time, we've seen markets process information for a long time: when the NBA addressed its betting referee, the situation highlighted the secrecy with which the league assigns refs to games. Referees are prohibited from telling anyone but immediate family about travel plans, because the Las Vegas point spread moves if the reffing crews are revealed ahead of game time. That point spread is a highly nuanced information artifact of a market compensating for new information.

So-called crowdsourcing will bear watching. Gracenote, the service that lists a CD's track names when you load them into iTunes, began with volunteer labor. What would happen with Wikipedia if Jimmy Wales followed Gracenote's history and monetized all of the volunteer labor? Another new business, Satisfaction applies crowdsourcing to customer service issues. As Google moves away from the idiot-proof search bar into applications, who delivers tech support? Two Google employees currently answer queries at Satisfaction, but it remains unclear who pays whom for what in various tiers of service, who's liable for the consequences of advice, and how might the system be gamed.

Clay Shirky has suggested that flame wars are essentially inevitable outcomes, rather than side effects, of social software. Many blogs have comments turned off because of abuse that imply takes too long to monitor and manage. Given that more people will be in contact with more people in new ways, how will new rules of behavior take shape? Will the lack of interpersonal civility (exemplified in the golden age of the ad hominem attack, offline and on-) evolve? If so, in which direction?

10) Silicon Emotion

People are interacting with other people with multiple layers of computing and communications in between. The nature of emotional expression is changing as a result.

-Dancing alone
What does it mean when tens of millions of music lovers listen in isolation, through headphones, rather than in rooms, or concert halls?

Back when the average MySpace user had 347 "friends," what did that really mean? Might Facebook, which has suffered in the eyes of some users from its retreat from exclusivity, be surpassed by a Ning or other network with express provision of firewalls between sub-communities?

-Inhibition deficiency
In addition to flaming, people will say things electronically they would be much more
hesitant to articulate verbally. Watching teenagers IM each other fluently and unabashedly, then stand with each other awkwardly after school, is a fascinating exercise. In the Nordics, the second-most prevalent use of text messaging (after coordination), is "grooming" - flirting.

-Robot love
The Roomba has inspired tremendous affection in its brief lifetime. (See the fascinating paper by Ja-Young Sung, Lan Guo, Rebecca E. Grinter, and Henrik I. Christensen, all of Georgia Tech, entitled "'My Roomba is a Rambo': Intimate Home Appliances" for compelling evidence on this point.) Sony's Aibo dog and Honda's Asimo can trigger similarly rich emotional responses in some people. iRobot, the Roomba folks, recently introduced a beta version of ConnectR, a "virtual visiting robot" projected to sell for $499. According to the website,

"Combining the latest in Internet communications and robot technology, ConnectR lets you virtually visit with loved ones, relatives and pets anytime you wish – seeing, hearing and interacting with them in their home as if you were there in person."

I can't imagine that this kind of technology will do anything but surprise people with its unintended consequences.

One final word: ten years is probably too long a time horizon for some of these areas, but institutional change, in education for instance, is always the slow part that will balance out some of the blink-of-an-eye things we’re about to witness.