The Improbable-yet-likely Future of Info Tech

January 3, 2013 in Hyper-convergence paradigm, Mapping the Open Future, Nanotechnology, Thought Experiments by Joseph Robertson

It is notoriously difficult to predict how new, over-the-horizon technologies will develop, much less which ones will dominate, and why. In the 1970s, it was still considered unlikely that all homes everywhere would use personal computers for all sorts of everyday activities, much less that more than a billion people would carry supercomputers in their pockets. But certain features of the technology and materials landscape give us clues as to how things might go.

We know that information technology (IT) is driving toward ever more mobile, ever more affordable, ever more flexible platforms, and that substrate-independent storage (hyper cloud-computing) will more readily come to computers than it will to the human brain. So, we can envision powerful computational devices, essentially many generations evolved iPhones, that devote their power to organizing substrate-independent content and computational power.

These devices, whether they are small like an iPhone, moderately sized, like an iPad or large, like a desktop computer, will benefit from being made of the smallest amount of light-weight material. We will transition away from petroleum for fuel use which might make plastics more advanced, more complex and more widely available, but the same trend might make plastics less affordable. With quartz and other crystals now being used to make advanced optical storage systems, we can envision something very different from what we now know.

A few decades from now, it might be common for portable hypercloud-organizing devices to come in one of two forms: either flexible nano-imprinted quantum-capable crystal polymers or locally “printed” purpose-built iterations, some of which might last, some of which might be ephemeral, by today’s standards, somewhere between single-use and “travel-size” interim reusables.

First, the hypercloud: what we call the Internet is often treated as if it were a mystical entity, a being that exists everywhere and for all people, but it is really what it is described as being, a network of networks. And those networks are built of hardware and software—the software is information; the hardware is the material substrate on which the information exists and can be accessed, assessed and redeployed.

What we now call “cloud computing”—phenomena like Google Drive, Google Maps, and Amazon’s Whispernet back-up of all your digital content purchases—is just the beginning of a pervasive hyper-convergence of media technologies, not only with and amongst themselves, but with and amongst the everyday activities that define us and which we like to call our lives.

Hyper-convergence will allow us to buy milk without so much as stopping to do anything, notify anyone, take a position or wait in line; we will be able to scan and pay with the click of a button and carry the object out with us, deactivating any and all security measures, and building that purchase into a personalized network of smart (attentive/interconnected) data services.

Our refrigerators will remind us to buy milk, because we are within a few hundred feet of a supermarket, and our cars will self-select moments and means optimal for recharging superlightweight fuel cells. That is hyper-convergence; the Internet defined by a planetary engagement with hyper-convergence will constitute what we call here the Hypercloud.

Now, for those “travel-size” locally printed purpose-built hypercloud-organizing devices: 3D printing and nano-conductive inks will enable us to reconstitute ultra-portable surprisingly powerful mobile computing devices, using a combination of metals, polymers, specialized inks, and even paper and glass. We might “print” a petaflop-capable processor to provide music and entertainment for a party, for just one night, and it might cost us one-tenth of what an iPod costs now.

We won’t have to ask ourselves: Is it safe to bring expensive technology to this place, given the conditions? Is it wiser to bring the laptop, so I can get down to business or just the smart phone, so I can feel lighter-than-air and carefree and also be productive when I feel the itch? Do smart devices designed in California, assembled in China and shipped across the world provide me with the sustainability edge I hope to achieve for the benefit of humanity—my grandchildren and their grandchildren?

We won’t have to ask, because we won’t operate that way. We will be able to create spontaneously re-formulated, purpose-built ephemeral devices with more power than any we use today, possibly even the capability to trigger, and harness, the quantum computational capacity of neighboring media (like a cup of coffee, a ceramic dish or pane of glass.

Even the substrate itself may, in a sense, be medium-independent, capable of operating in and making sense of a surprising array of concordant and rival media.

And the flexible nano-imprinted quantum-capable crystal polymers? We will have a better term for them, but they will be variations of that description. Discoveries in digital manufacture, quantum computing and nano-scale architecture already allow us to use individual molecules as solar PV receptors or circuit integrants; we have also discovered already unprecedented ways to create hybrid materials—cloth as strong as carbon-fiber quartz-glass slivers, or nano-panels, that are more resilient and more long-lived than metal and silicon circuitry.

Crystal polymers allow for the hardness and lucidity of glass, with the bounce and resiliency of plastics. Building paper-thin all-glass touchscreen hypercloud-organizing devices will, at some point, need to move in this direction. Nano-imprinting will allow for molecular circuitry, invisible to the naked eye, to take the place of slower, more literal silicon and other components of today’s state of the art circuitry.

And the all-important feature of these devices will be their ability to switch to, or perhaps to rely on, quantum computation (either on-board or in the vecinity), because then they will easily surpass the power and speed of anything we currently have available to us. How, exactly, that quantum leap will be achieved, we do not yet know, but that all signs point to its happening, is now clear.

Some of these flexible devices will be wearable, some might work like eye-glasses, and some could be molded into operational symbiosis with other objects or devices.

“Awareness” may become a featured product spec, even a societal commonplace—the apparent awareness objects show for their environment. Today’s smartphones and tablets, through the virtues of GPS, appear to know where they (we) are, but advanced sensing and hypercloud capabilities will make it possible for everyday objects to “sense” their environment, interact voluntarily and give us the impression that we are blanketed by friendly intelligence, working all the time to our advantage.

But that same awareness of objects, effectively an illusion, will raise an ever-expanding spectrum of privacy issues. The security of personal information, including intimate identifying activity data, will be more in question than ever before, so our flexible nano-glass or ephemeral “printed” hypercloud-organizing devices will include in their arsenal of functions new, advanced, hypercloud-responsive personal data security measures.

Ideally—and this is not a remote impossibility—nano-manufacture and quantum computing will allow these over-the-horizon devices to deflect spontaneous or criminal security threats in a way that will make them virtually irrelevant. It will then be left to society, to citizens and to legislators, to ensure that the practices of government do not intrude into the spaces we would like protected.

We can’t predict exactly what will happen, or what form, precisely, new technologies will take, but we can imagine some of the possibilities, based on what is happening to materials, to manufacturing, to users focus-of-interest, and to the building out of the ephemeral yet highly functional, and ever more hyper… cloud.