August 3, 2011

Trends that’ll change the world in 10 years

Sensor networks, 3D printers, virtual humans and other technologies under development will drastically change our world in the decade to come, according to Cisco chief futurist and chief technologist Dave Evans
Virtual species

Virtual humans, both physical (robots) and online avatars will be added to the workforce. By 2020, robots will be physically superior to humans. IBM’s Blue Brain project, for instance, is a 10-year mission to create a human brain using hardware and software.

“They believe that within a decade they’ll start to see consciousness emerge with this brain,” Evans says. By 2025, the robot population will surpass the number of humans in the developed world. By 2032, robots will be mentally superior to humans. And by 2035, robots could completely replace humans in the workforce. Beyond that is the creation of sophisticated avatars.

Evans points to IBM’s Watson as a template for the virtual human. Watson was able to answer a question by returning a single, accurate result. A patient may use a virtual machine instead of a WebMD search. Or hospitals can augment patient care with virtual machines. Augmented reality and gesture-based computing will enter our classrooms, medical facilities and communications, and transform them as well.

The Internet Of Things

We have passed the threshold where more things than people are connected to the Net. The transition to IPv6 supports limitless connectivity. By 2020, there will be more than six Net-linked devices for every person on Earth. Currently, most of us are connected to Net full-time through three or more devices like PC, phones, TV etc. Next up are sensor networks, using low-power sensors that “collect, transmit, analyze and distribute data on a massive scale,” says Evans.

An ‘Internet of things’ means that everything from electronic dust motes to “connected shoes” to household appliances can be connected to a network and assigned an IP address. Sensors are being embedded in shoes, asthma inhalers, and surgery devices. There’s even a tree in Sweden wired with sensors that tweets its mood and thoughts, with a bit of translation help from an interpretive engine developed by Ericsson (@connectedtree or #ectree).

Quantum networking

Connectivity will continue to evolve, Evans predicts, and networks of tomorrow will be orders of magnitude faster than they are today. The network connectivity 10 years from now will see improvement by 30 lakh times.

Multi-terabit networks using lasers are being explored. And early work is happening on a concept called “quantum networking” based on quantum physics. This involves “quantum entanglement” in which two particles are entangled after which they can be separated by any distance, and when one is changed, the other also changes instantly. Production, though, is not imminent.

Zettabyte Era

By 2015, one zettabyte of data will flow over the Internet. One zettabyte equals stack of books from Earth to Pluto 20 times. “This is the same as every person on Earth tweeting for 100 years, or 125 million years of your favourite one-hour TV show,” says Evans. Our love of high-definition video accounts for much of the increase. By Cisco’s count, 91% of Internet data in 2015 will be video.

And what’s more, he said, the data itself is becoming richer, with every surface — from tables to signs — becoming a digital display, and images evolving from megapixel, to gigapixel, to terapixel definition. So, the so-called “zettaflood” will require vastly improved networks to move more data, and not drop the ball (or the packets) of our beloved video.

Adaptive technology

Technology is finally adapting to us. Evans cites image recognition, puzzle resolution, augmented reality and gesture-based computing as key examples of such technologies.

A technology called 3D printing will allow us to instantly manufacture any physical item, from food to bicycles, using printer technology. Through 3D printing, people in the future will download things as easily as they download music.

“3D printing is the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer,” says Evans, adding: “It is not far that we will be able to print human organs.” In March, Dr Anthony Atala from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine printed a proof-of-concept kidney mold onstage at TED. It was not living tissue, but the point was well-made.

A better you

“We think nothing of using pacemakers,” Evans points out. In the next 10 years, medical technologies will grow vastly more sophisticated as computing power becomes available in smaller forms. Devices like nanobots and the ability to grow replacement organs from our own tissues will be the norm. “The ultimate integration may be brain-machine interfaces that eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries to live normal lives,” he says.

Today we have mind-controlled video games and wheelchairs, software by Intel that can scan the brain and tell what you are thinking and tools that can actually predict what you are going to do before you do it.

Cloud computing

By 2020, one-third of all data will live in or pass through the cloud. IT spending on innovation and cloud computing could top $1 trillion by 2014.

Right now, the voice search on an Android phone sends the query to Google cloud to decipher and return results. “We’ll see more intelligence built into communication. Things like contextual and location-based information.”

With an always-connected device, the network can be more granular with presence information, tapping into a personal sensor to know that a person’s asleep, and route an incoming call to voicemail. Or knowing that person is traveling at 60 mph in a car, and that this is not the time for a video call.

Power of Power

How are all networked devices going to be powered, and who or what is going to power them? The answer, says Evans, lies in small things. Solar arrays will become increasingly important.

Technologies to make this more economically pragmatic are on their way. Sandia produces solar cells with 100 times less material/same efficiency. MIT technology allows windows to generate power without blocking view.

Inkjet printer produces solar cells with 90 per cent decrease in waste at significantly lower costs. Anything that generates or needs energy, Evans says, will be connected to or managed by an intelligent network.

World Is Flat

The ability of people to connect with each other all around the world, within seconds, via social media isn’t just a social phenomenon, Evans says it’s a flattening out of who has access to technology. He cited the example of Wael Ghonim, the Middle East-based Google engineer whose Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Saeed,” was a spark in the Egyptian uprising and one of the key events of the Arab Spring.

A smaller world also means faster information dissemination. The capture, dissemination and consumption of events are going from “near time” to “real time.” This in turn will drive more rapid influence among cultures.

Self-designed evolution

March 2010: Retina implant restores vision to blind patients.

April 2010: Trial of artificial pancreas starts

June 2011: Spinning heart (no pulse, no clogs and no breakdowns) developed.

Stephen Hawking says, “Humans are entering a stage of self-designed evolution.”

Taking the medical technology idea to the next level, healthy humans will be given the tools to augment themselves. While the early use of these technologies will be to repair unhealthy tissue or fix the consequences of brain injury, eventually designer enhancements will be available to all.

Ultimately, humans will use so much technology to mend, improve or enhance our bodies, that we will become Cyborgs. Futurist Ray Kurzweil is pioneering this idea with a concept he calls singularity, the point at which man and machine merge and become a new species. (Kurzweil says this will happen by 2054).

—Compiled by Beena Kuruvilla

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