The visionaries

IT leaders make predictions about the future

Q: What must happen to make this possible?

A: No. 1, we need massive research. These are really difficult problems, so you need big investments in R&D. In the United States, the government needs to make sure there is long-term funding for research. Private companies like IBM need to make sure they invest in R&D to make sure these things happen. Those things will happen if you put the right R&D punch behind it, and it will take time.

Q: What major technology issues will become inconsequential or significantly less important in the future?

A: Worrying about .Net or J2EE will be seen as a quaint little problem at the turn of the century. … I think that a lot of the issues on operating systems will become more and more commoditized. People will say, "And wasn't there this silly lawsuit [where] some bad people tried to stop progress?' A lot of the skirmishes will just disappear, because progress requires more agreement by companies and government for standards. This bad behavior just gets shoved aside. You cannot tolerate it because of the common good. I think that a lot of the skirmishes will just get drowned.

Q: What about the problem of security?

A: Security has to be built into everything. I think that as technologies get more and more powerful, the ability to encrypt all communications will just be a matter of fact. … There will always be people trying to break into things and so on, so you're never done, but I'm pretty comfortable that it's an area where huge progress will continue to be made.


Q: What major technology issues today will become inconsequential or significantly less important in the future?

A: Outsourcing, offshoring to India and other countries. There's a lot of concern about that in the United States, and I think it's completely unfounded. It's great for consumers because they get products and services that are cheaper; it's good for American companies, so it increases profits. Since we still have the most entrepreneurial culture, we have the opportunity to take great advantage of that trend. The danger is that our paranoia is going to rebound in a really negative way and kill a lot of those benefits.

Q: Can you take a stab at labeling the technology eras of the future, out to the year 2028?

A: I actually think that a lot of these technology changes are generational, so they play out over 25 years. We're only eight years into the Internet era; we have another 15-17 years to go.

Q: What transformative technologies will be coming down the pike in the next 25 years, and when do you think those will happen?

A: The good news about transformative technologies is that you don't know they're going to hit until they hit … so they have to seem crazy in order to seem transformative. You look for the things that sound crazy and nevertheless are taken up. I think they're likely to come out of left field. Linux (a really, really big deal moving very fast), utility computing, the automated grid (definitely something coming around that people thought was crazy a few years ago). Nanotechnology, I think, is 10 or 20 years out.

In the industry right now, Internet telephony is one example I think is going to be hitting big in the next few years and I think it will have unpredictable consequences … [because] it may take what today is a very large telecomm industry and reduce it to a much, much smaller industry … it may represent a massive destruction of industrial value, which will be exciting for people and good for communications but bad for the telecom industry.

Q: How will the Internet look in the future?

A: I think it will be completely different, and in a very unpredictable way. The reason is that the Internet is a medium, the first medium we've ever had [that is] just defined by its software. We've never dealt with something like that before. TV, railroads, the telephone do only one thing … [and they] look pretty much the same way they did when they first started. Fundamentally, a railroad is a railroad, and a TV is a TV; wheras the Internet, every year it seems to fundamentally change.

One thing I will bet on: the average Internet user in 1996 used the Internet for about five hours per month. As of this summer, the average number is [up to] about 26 hours per month. That number is going to continue to grow a lot. 


Q: Can you take a stab at labeling the technology eras of the future, out to the year 2028?

A: When a computing paradigm changes, it takes at least a decade for the world to catch up.  Consider how years after the advent of the PC in the early 80s, Ken Olsen of DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.) could still deride it as a toy. It wasn't until the 90s that it really became clear that the PC was the center of gravity of the computing universe. In short, I think we've got a long way to go before we realize the full potential of the Internet era. We're going to see network effects -- and network-effect businesses -- having impact on fields from politics to human interaction.

That being said, I also very much like IBM's phrase, "pervasive computing," which emphasizes not just the Internet but the omnipresence of computing. We are starting to see the real blurring of handhelds, cell phones, cameras, and other consumer devices. Everything is becoming connected, and computing truly is becoming pervasive.

Wireless is a big part of this. (That is, you could also call it the mobile era, or the unwired era.) As people get seamlessly connected, wherever they are, devices become less important, even throwaway, and the continuity of the user's data becomes most important. An interesting corollary is that a huge part of the value premium of Internet-era powerhouses like Amazon and eBay is not in their software but in the critical mass of participating users ...

It's hard to see even ten years out -- the pace of change is increasing. However, it's clear that life sciences are going to have a huge impact in years ahead. While the human genome project hasn't lived up to the short-term hype, it's clear that we're getting very close to many breakthroughs. And any one of many could so redefine society that we'd immediately consider it a "new era."

I expect to see a lot more happening with robotics, as well as with human augmentation. We'll start with disabled people wearing powered exoskeletons and other devices, and then they'll be adopted by otherwise healthy people. I … also expect to see a [progression] through wearable computers to "embedded"  computers -- chips and devices embedded in the human body for everything from health maintenance to communications, and in a dystopian vein, even location tracking…

Distributed, low-power sensor networks are going to revolutionize many devices.

In some ways, you can think of the next ten years being about the interpenetration of the real and the virtual worlds. People and things are going to get wired (or rather unwired), not just "computers" in the traditional sense…

In a darker vein, it's also the era that will see the end of privacy, or rather, the illusion of privacy.

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