Possibilities, predictions & prognosticationsOver the past few years, Futurism has become one of my avocations. I write and speak as a technology futurist, and closely linked societal, business & political trends tend to creep into my material.
In this new century of rapid-fire technology inflections, and unstable political and societal shifts, professional futurism is being ridiculed. Indeed, a recent Wired article suggested that futurists are "loosely informed, jack-of-all-trades, trend-watching pontificators". But many still value the profession, and Futurists continue to hone their skills and methodologies. The prizes go to those seers who are able to forecast trends from very early signals, to pick winners (products, technologies, companies, stocks, political shifts) before they emerge as winners.
In today's accelerating technology environment, with ever-shifting societal forces, change is multi-dimensional. We need to go beyond old truisms like "smaller, cheaper, faster" to measure the future. Narrow metrics become irrelevant when one considers major paradigm shifts.
And technology is always the catalyst for cataclysmic change. Ray Kurzweil insists that we will NOT experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century; rather we will witness on the order of 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate of progress, that is). That's hard to fathom. But it fuels my optimism that our seemingly insoluble problems at the start of this century will simply be the platform on which a better future is being built.
2005 technology trendsSo, with that "heavy" futures stuff out of the way, let's linger awhile on some lighter, somewhat more tangible technology futures.
Bill Gates makes an interesting observation:
The future of industrial automationNo one can figure out the future merely by extending past trends; it's like trying to drive by looking only at the rear-view mirror. The automation industry does NOT extrapolate to smaller and cheaper PLC, DCS and SCADA systems; those functions will simply become embedded in hardware and software. Only anaemic growth can come through integration services which are too people-intensive. Healthy growth must come from totally new directions.
Explosive growth can only be generated from new technology inflection points: nanotechnology & nanoscale assembly systems; MEMS and nanotech sensors (tiny, low-power, low-cost sensors) which can measure everything and anything; and the pervasive Internet - machine-to-machine (M2M) networking. The future belongs to nanotech, wireless-everything, and complex adaptive systems.
The large, centralized production plant is a thing of the past. The factory of the future will be small and movable to where the resources are, and where the customers are. In the old days, centralized manufacturing was necessary because of localized know-how, design investments, technology and personnel. Today, all those things are available globally.
Beyond just labor, many businesses (including major automation companies) are also outsourcing knowledge work such as design and engineering services. This trend has already become significant, causing joblessness not only for manufacturing labor, but also for traditionally high-paying engineering positions.
Innovation is the true source of value, and that is in danger of being dissipated - sacrificed to a short-term search for profit. Significant competition is developing in rapidly developing countries which are making huge investments to boost their technology prowess.
Today, automation companies have little choice but to expand globally. Global business success demands management & leadership abilities that are different from old, financially-driven models. What is required is minimal domination of central corporate cultures, and maximum responsiveness to local customer needs. Marketing speed and business agility will have major influence on results. Multi-cultural countries (like the US) will have an eclectic advantage in the global arena.
In the new and different business environment of the 21st century, the companies that can adapt, innovate and utilize global resources will generate significant growth and success.
The future of personal computingSome 23 years ago IBM created the PC standard, an "open platform" which changed the technology landscape. The category of "mainframe" computers still exists, but mid-level "mini-computers" have vanished.
Now the PC seems to have reached a plateau. IBM has exited by selling off its PC business to a Chinese company for a relatively small price. It signals the end of an era, the close of the first round. IBM, still one of the most powerful technology forces in the world, considers the PC a commodity. In my opinion, this is a mistake. It simply shows that IBM leadership has a lack of imagination.
David Gerlerntner, professor of computer science at Yale, is one of the best technology thinkers of recent times. Here are some of his ideas, mixed in with those of George Gilder, another eminent technology prognosticator.
The PC is 25 years old. That's about the same age as the TV in 1970, when it started going through all kinds of revolutions. The automobile turned 25 in the early '20s, and the revolution continued. The airplane was 25 in the 1920s, and continued to evolve till the jet engine was developed decades later.
There are big differences between the PC and these other technologies. But there is a big similarity: all took a lot longer than 25 years to reach maturity, and to eventually cause a major paradigm shift.
There are lots of things wrong with today's PC. All sorts of useful functions are available only as add-ons, available only to geeks & nerds. I for one would replace my old PCs more often if bringing up a new PC was not so difficult. Good PC design could and should make that problem disappear - connect your new machine to the Internet and all your files should appear on the new PC automatically. And there are many more basic pains that can and should be cured - spam, virus, unwanted advertising, etc. Clearly these cures will arrive sooner or later.
David Gerlerntner suggests many more possibilities. Why should anyone delete anything when data storage is dirt cheap, and search is easy? Why a flat windows-menus-mouse interface, when a 3-D screen landscape can be much more effective? Why aren't large-screen, living-room computers growing faster? Some day soon, new winners will emerge to build all these things and more into a radically more powerful and simpler PC.
George Gilder thinks that people get hung up on looks - associating form with function. But at remarkably regular intervals, through evolutionary and revolutionary steps, the shapes and sizes of things change.
Radios, for example have shrunk over the last 75 years - from something like a piece of furniture to the equivalent of a wristwatch. Computers changed - from rooms full of equipment desktops and laptops and PDAs. Similarly, the PC is getting even smaller and more portable, and much more feature-rich.
Cell phones that take pictures, browse the web and send email are already becoming commonplace. Tying all these functions together into one unit with the computing power of a desktop PC will bring in the age of the "teleputer" - a handheld device that's a fully functioning personal computer, digital video camera, telephone, MP3 player, video player, personal GPS, storage archive. And one wonders, what else?
Extrapolate these features, with still to be introduced inflections, and you'll have a revolution - as cable was to TV, the jet engine to flying, the integrated circuit to electronics, wireless to telephones, the Internet to communications.....
It's a pity that, with all its technology and marketing muscle, IBM didn't push the PC to the next level. They could have merged with Apple and put Steve Jobs in charge. Instead, they sold out to China - for all the wrong reasons.
Pinto 1989 poem which describes IBM's DOS battles
1989 Pinto poem about IBM, parody of Lewis Carroll's Father William
Jenny Pinto, artist & feminist
Permit me some Pinto family pride.
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