Crackpot technologies that could shake up IT

Eight more technologies that straddle the divide between harebrained and brilliant -- each with a promise to transform the future of the enterprise

1 2 Page 6

That doesn't mean the dream of a sub-$100, low-power laptop is unachievable. In some ways, the OLPC's XO serves as an "alpha" model of where the PC market could head -- and not just in the developing world. In fact, the company's former CTO sees a future for low-cost, highly power-efficient machines in the commercial market.

And the more you look at the cost of outfitting enterprise end-users with computing resources beyond their needs, the less crackpot leaning on OLPC-like laptops in the enterprise will one day seem -- especially in terms of energy efficiency.

These days, a solid, all-purpose laptop averages $1,440, yet the machines pack far more power than the average end-user requires -- as much as 80 to 90 percent more. Thus, while the user takes advantage of just 10 to 20 percent of a system's power, the machine continues to draw upwards of 280 watts of energy. Beyond cutting down on the laptop’s battery life, those wasted watts translate to wasted dollars in powering the system -- and to cool rooms where PCs congregate.

The OLPC XO, on the other hand, was designed with power-efficiency in mind. Initially targeted at users with spotty access to electricity, these babies can run on less than two watts of power, resulting in an estimated battery life of 21 hours.

The tradeoff for low energy consumption is a less-powerful CPU. Yet the trend toward thin clients in the enterprise is fast proving that the average end-user can get along just fine, productivity-wise, with an inexpensive commodity processor (the XO comes with 433MHz chip) -- especially if the system isn't bogged down with a fat OS platform and applications. Thanks to the evolution of Web services, such as Google Apps and, lightweight desktop apps can be supplemented or replaced, as appropriate, with a browser and ubiquitous Internet access.

Meanwhile on the platform side, even Microsoft, king of the fat OS, must foresee a future of lightweight PCs, as it is working to trim the excess code from Windows to match sleeker Linux alternatives.

They may look like toys today, but today's "$100 laptops" may very well serve as prototypes for a significant portion of tomorrow's enterprise computing paradigm, especially as the various trends and cost constraints of delivering apps to end-users specialize and evolve and specialize. After all, designing technology in support of policy -- as was the case with the OLPC -- should catch on in the corporate world as well, especially as companies come to realize that centering purchasing policies on energy efficiency just makes sense.

-- Ted Samson

Direct brain interfaces

Ready to think away that backlog of IT tasks to a more manageable stack? Or to get a handle on the hot new IT skill without lifting a finger? If scientists are successful, such power could be within IT's grasp, as the computers of the future will plug directly into your brain.

Technological telepathy has been the stuff of science fiction for years. In the 1957 film Forbidden Planet, for example, alien machines could bring any thought to life, while characters in the more recent Matrix trilogy bypassed years of tedious education via instant brain uploads. Although such tricks are a ways off, experimental brain-computer interfaces exist today.

For now, the goal of most direct brain interface research is to develop assistive technologies for the physically disabled. Researchers at Brown University, for example, have created a brain implant that allows quadriplegic patients to move a mouse cursor around a computer screen using thought alone. And in a separate experiment conducted at Boston University, scientists have been able to recreate audible sounds by processing data gathered from the speech centers of the brain of a paralyzed man, with what they claim is 80 percent accuracy.

Mind reading, it isn't -- not yet, anyway. But our understanding of the electrical workings of the brain has advanced so rapidly in recent years that we've scarcely had time to ponder the ethical questions raised by these new technologies, let alone which enterprise tasks we'd dream of gearing them toward.

Few would argue against using high tech to enhance the quality of life of the disabled; cochlear implants that interface directly with auditory nerves, for example, are now routinely used to treat total deafness. But what if similar technology could be used to enhance the hearing of normal, healthy people to superhuman levels? What if future implants could enhance cognition using microprocessors to create a kind of "human calculator"? Would it be moral to plug a super-calculating admin into a server to monitor financial transactions? These and similar questions have spawned an entire, new field of philosophy, which New York Times columnist William Safire has dubbed "neuroethics."

And that's to say nothing of the implications should we ever gain the ability to plug our brains directly into the Internet. Imagine waking up in the morning to a headful of spam or finding out that your "little black book" has been phished by the person sitting next to you on the subway.

Advancing the direct brain technology to the point of feasibility in corporate settings is one thing. Governance and privacy concerns within and outside the corporate context are quite another. Don't expect to be thinking away your IT to-do list anytime soon.

-- Neil McAllister

Enterprise supercomputing

A modern, global enterprise is incredibly complex. Balancing materials availability forecasts with predicted sales trends and seasonal marketing strategies can seem like pure wizardry. But what if you had some help, in the form of a massive electronic brain that could handle the number-crunching for you?

Until recently, supercomputers were the exclusive domain of large universities and government research labs. Massive, arcane, and impossibly expensive, they required operational and maintenance skills far beyond the capabilities of your average enterprise IT department. But new developments in HPC (high-performance computing) technology are putting supercomputer-level performance within the enterprise's reach. The only question is, does the enterprise have use for it?

The HPC field has changed dramatically over the past decade. Today, distributed-processing software allows even desktop PCs to join compute clusters and crunch numbers in their idle moments. Networked parallel processing technology makes it possible to build supercomputer-class systems from mainstream, off-the-shelf hardware and open source software. And in the past few years, companies such as IBM and Sun Microsystems have begun offering time-shared HPC services at affordable rates.

This is great news for the oil and gas, finance, and insurance industries, which have long relied on HPC for intensive calculations and complex mathematical modeling. But for more typical enterprises, supercomputing technology remains a tough sell. The promise is enticing, but the hurdles to overcome call into question the number of businesses that realistically need to perform calculations on the order of those necessary to predict global weather patterns or model the stock market.

And cost is not the only barrier to entry for HPC. Before any massively parallel supercomputing application can run, it first needs a data set to process. As any IT manager can attest, enterprise data is too often scattered throughout multiple, disparate systems, each with its own interface and data formats. As the growing market for data integration and SOA (service-oriented architecture) technology attests, unifying this data is no easy task. Relying on it for serious computational modeling is out of the question.

So, while raw processing power may be available and affordable like never before, don't expect HPC to become a line item on your budget anytime soon. For most enterprise IT departments, those dollars will be better spent on traditional expenditures such as middleware and data warehousing, leaving mass-market supercomputing relegated to the category of the possible, but impractical.

-- Neil McAllister

Virtual worlds

The likelihood of Second Life having a long-term impact on the enterprise may appear virtually nonexistent, but consider this: Education, collaboration, and networking -- three productivity mandates for today's enterprise -- are fast catching on in the virtual world.

Before laughing and glancing sideways at your well-worn copy of Snow Crash, know that even old-guard institutions such as Harvard University have a Second Life presence, with virtual campuses where learning, discussion, and content creation occur.

Training, for one, has real ROI potential in Second Life, as virtual worlds expose participants to RL (real life) learning scenarios that would otherwise be too expensive or dangerous to explore. Take dealing with a pandemic flu, for example. Medical students are already tapping virtual worlds to learn how best to respond. No need to pay for a trip to a foreign country to learn language basics. Virtual immersive language study allows you to travel to worlds where only that language is spoken, with all signs and advertisements written in the language being learned.

Collaboration and networking are two other sweet spots for companies to make use of virtual worlds. Tech heavy hitters such as Dell, IBM, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems are already tapping Second Life as a platform for development, conferences, and forums. IBM, which has established a Business Center in Second Life, boasts nearly 4,000 employees with Second Life avatars to date, with about 1,000 routinely conducting company business inside Second Life.

But what of the many technologies already serving companies' collaboration, networking, and training needs? How can virtual worlds find a long-term place in the mix?

"The 3D aspects and the ability to put a whole group of people in the same 'space' at a distance, where everyone can hear everyone else as you would in a real hall or space, gives SL an advantage over other social networking systems, chat systems, or conference calls," says Todd Cochrane, of the Wellington Institute of Technology in New Zealand. "People seem to be more engaged."

And that is the immeasurable edge virtual worlds may have over traditional modes of training and collaboration: user engagement. Perhaps more so, as Generation Y grows up with virtual technologies such as Second Life.

Of course, anonymity, which people tend to prefer in the virtual world, hinders collaboration carryover into the real world. Moreover, plugging in to Second Life for business-grade collaboration has other detractors, such as quality of experience (SL is consistently slowing down and crashing for a variety of reasons), privacy (often, depending on the type of conversation, others can "hear" you), and security. But as the technology matures, these issues will no doubt be addressed.

Either way, crackpot or not, tapping virtual worlds such as Second Life in a corporate setting has already drawn significant interest.

"Once more we have the very strong feeling that [Second Life] will have a huge impact on business, society and our personal lives, although none of us can quite predict what that impact will be," Irving Wladawsky-Berger, chairman emeritus of the IBM Academy of Technology and visiting professor of engineering systems at MIT, wrote in a blog more than a year ago. "It will be fascinating to see where this ride takes us in the future."

-- J. Peter Bruzzese

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

1 2 Page 6