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The Future of Technology: 2050

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Donald Prell is the founder of Datamation magazine – the publication you’re now reading – which he launched in 1957. We invited him to use his long grasp of tech history to predict how today’s technology will impact human life many years from now.

As a futurologist, I have been asked to present my scenarios/predictions for the future of the computer and information industry in 2050. At the age of 92, it isn’t possible that I’ll ever know how it actually plays out.  In 1964, the author of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, was interviewed on the BBC television program Horizon. In addition to forecasting what life would be like in 50 years, he warned the audience:

Trying to predict the future is a discouraging, hazardous occupation because  the prophet invariably  falls  between  two stools.  If his predictions  sound at  all  reasonable,  you  can be quite sure  that  in 20 or  at most  50 years the progress of science and  technology has made him seem  ridiculously  conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future  exactly  as it was going to take  place,  his  predictions  would  sound  so absurd,  so far-fetched  that   everyone  would laugh him to scorn. This has proved to be true in  the  past and  it  will undoubtedly  be  even more in  the  century to come. The  only thing we can  be sure  of  about  the future  is that it will  be absolutely fantastic.  So if  what I say now  seems to you to be reasonable then I will have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable  will we have chance  of  visualizing  the  future as  it  really will happen.”

I have before me a copy of the 1982, 25th Anniversary Edition of DATAMATION, the magazine I created in 1957; it was the first magazine devoted solely to the computer and software industry.

Now twenty-four years since it was printed, of the 200 firms advertising in that edition, only a fraction still exist.  In 1982, Apple Computer had been around for only five years and Microsoft for only seven years.  It is difficult to believe that a company founded in 1911 as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, renamed International Business Machines in 1924, is really the IBM of today.

In 1948, while doing research at the University of London, I learned to program a Hollerith Punchcard Electric Tabulation Machine.  In 1956 punch card machines evolved into the IBM 704 Electronic Data Processing Machine, on which the first practical example of artificial intelligence was to be demonstrated. It was Arthur L. Samuel at his IBM laboratory in Poughkeepsie, New York, who programmed a 704 not only to play checkers but to have it learn from its own experience.  In 1957, IBM developed FORTRAN, the first scientific programming language. 

In this brief look backwards, another company and one of its founders must be noted. In 1968, Intel Corporation was founded.  The name was a portmanteau of the words integrated and electronics.  It was Gordon Moore (Moore’s Law) who observed that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.  The rate actually held  steady from 1975  until around 2012, however in 2015 Moore wrote that he saw his law dying in the next decade or so. Because of Rock’s Law (Moore’s 2nd Law) the future of integrated circuit technology must be examined.  (Rock’s Law, named for Arthur Rock, says that the cost of a semiconductor chip fabrication plant doubles every four years; as of 2015, the price had already reached 14 billion dollars.)

Now to the future and 2050. Although this article discusses the Computer and Information Processing Industry 2050, it is necessary to present a wider picture of the world in 2050. Today the population of the earth is about 7 billion.  More individuals are living into their 90s and early 100s.  So by 2050 the world’s population will be over 9 billion, and one in every six people will be over age 65.

The per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) will have increased from today’s slightly more than $10,000 US on average globally to over $23,000 US. Mobility will have also increased dramatically, with automobile ownership per 1,000 people increasing from 130 today to 250 in 2050.

Major countries will be in a post-scarcity mode, entering the era of Economics of Abundance. This will be due in part to Molecular-nanotechnology, building structures to complex, atomic specifications, replacing the present manufacturing base with more precise, less expensive, and more flexible ways of making products. This will have not only begun replacing today’s computer chip making plants, but will reach all types of manufacturing facilities.

Other contributors to a post-scarcity world include the wider use of solar energy and Next Technologies (NT) including robots. Technologies included in these forward sweep include: artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, genomic medicine, cloud and Big Data analytics, artificial and augmented Reality, conscious-technology including tele-everything and tele-everybody, the Semantic Web, super quantum computing, holographic communications, IoT, intelligence augmentation, crowdsourcing, collective intelligence, 3D/4D printing of materials and biology, drones, and driverless vehicles.

After deciding to write this article, I consulted with several of my colleagues who all expressed the same caution: “If you don’t address a solution to the CO2 crises there may not be anyone left to find out how your scenarios played out!”

This is a difficult one to address, though by 2050 I can see a patchwork of miscellaneous actions stabilizing the earth’s atmosphere.  In the 20 years between  1990  and 2010  the  world’s supply of  energy increased by about 45%.  During the next 34 years, that is until 2050, the worlds energy will need to increase by at least another 75%.  There is no single solution to the energy supply issue, but secure, reliable, affordable, clean and equitable energy supply will be available in 2050. Solar power will be the  world’s largest energy source, followed by fossil fuels  (coal, oil and gas).  Solar power will rise greatly because the price of solar photovoltaic systems will have dropped more than half and because governments will offer incentives for switching to solar. It is interesting that China is leading the way, followed by the United States.

Nuclear will be playing a much lesser role, providing only about 5% of total energy supply.  Decarbonation of many of the present power plants will have taken place.   Land-based  and offshore  wind will be providing up to 20 %  of  the world’s  power. Then 10% produced from the many types of  biomass  (woody plants,  herbaceous  plants/grasses,  aquatic plants,  manures). In some countries bordering  on the   seas,  wave power will supply a portion of their energy needs. Globally, in 2010 about 1.3 billion people lived without  consistent access  to  electricity; this will  be  reduced to less than 500 million by 2050.  Hydrogen fuel cells and electricity will be powering vehicles as much as gasoline  and diesel  power  cars  and  trucks today.   Diesel vehicles will no longer be in use.

Certainly by 2050, newspapers and magazines presently printed on paper and received at your residence by home delivery, mail or purchased at the corner store will only be available as ePub newspapers or magazines via the Internet.  This will not only speed up delivery but will save millions of trees from being cut down to make paper. Tens of millions of retired individuals will be living on large apartment house ships and smaller apartment house yachts in sea cities all over the world.  Often spending summers and winters in different climate driven ports, and some will be on the move week to week and month to month.

Having provided an overall view of 2050, I’ll now address computers and information processing in 2050.  Ray Kurzweil, in his  2005 book “The Singularity is Near,” predicted technological singularity (TS)  would occur around 2045.  TS is the merging of analog and digital, when a computer   running   software  based  on  artificial  intelligence  continues  to  run self-improvement cycles, with  each new and more intelligent generation resulting in a super-intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.  These computers will be inserted in robots that will be more personal and autonomous than can be imagined.  They will be more than just assemblers in factories, or “individuals” scouring distant planets.

The Internet of today has instantaneously allowed people-to-people contact worldwide.  In 2050 all of the world’s population will be in touch with each other, making the world borderless.  However, there will be problems; privacy will have become obsolete, our private information will all be part of public records on the Internet.  A new international body – combining the present ICANN in California and the International Telecommunication  Union  (ITU)  in  Geneva – will  be  regulating  privacy, security, standards and all of the technological attributes of the Internet.

Everyone will be having fun using Virtual Reality.  If you and your friends decide to play a game about World War II, you all will have the option of hopping off the couch and join with the troops storming the beaches of Normandy.  A university professor at UCLA will meet with his or her colleagues from MIT and the University of London in one office to discuss the mater at hand.

Augmented Reality (AR) will allow those using special hardware to view the real world environment in which reality is modified by a computer. Imagine a  construction worker  using  an  AR helmet  on  the  construction site, or an architect viewing his plans for a building while visiting the site where the building is to be constructed.  Medical school students taking physiology will visualize different systems of the body in three dimensions.  With AI-powered robots having more computational  power than the human brain, it’s likely that by 2050 we will be able to  upload  digital  versions of our brains and be able to exist in that dynamic form forever!  Which brings up the question: what does life mean?

In 2000 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first robotic surgical tool.  The da Vinci Surgical System couples a robot with telepresence technology, allowing a surgeon to be in one location and the patient, along with the surgical robot in another.  By 2050, for some operations, the surgeon will not be needed – Dr. Robot will handle the total operation.  Smart drugs will enhance cognitive brain function and neural connectivity while strengthening the prefrontal cortex and boosting memory and recall.

In 2050, robots will play a major  role in  monitoring  and  caring for our planet.  Bee bots will assist in the pollination of crops that we previously relied on biological bees to perform.  Using special optics, including infrared  cameras, robots will be  used  where humans fear  to  tread.  Artificial intelligence coupled with advanced sensors will enable the robots to become decision-makers, which will allow them to be used in many occupations.

3D printers will be common in every household. Simple objects a person might need will be created by a computer/printer filled with different compounds similar to ink, which will allow it to create in a few minutes an object that is requested.   The blueprints  for objects  will come from a public database, available online.

A computer bought in 2050 will be a billion times more powerful than the one I am using now to  write  this article.  That means several computersin 2050 will have the same computing power as all the computers existing today!

Almost invisible pervasive computers will be everywhere: buildings, highways, vehicles, even in the clothing we wear.  In 2050 your digital life and your real life will be almost seamless. These new computers will be using different materials than are being used today. This materials will include as Graphene  (Quantum  Dots), essentially  a single layer  of  the  same graphite used in pencils ,which conducts electricity much faster than silicon. And we will enter the realm of Quantum Computing, involving using quits (quantum bits), replacing today’s silicon-based transistors.  Research is being conducted currently on a new semiconductor material made from black phosphorus, which also may replace today’s silicon chips.  Carbon Nanotubes are also a candidate for replacing today’s transistors.

As  to  memory  storage,  traditional  fragile  hard  drives  of  today will have been  long replaced  by contraptions such  as flash memory-based solid-state devices and large-scale  quantum  hologram  devices.  However, we are individuals will not need all that much memory, as the internet “cloud” will provide all the storage we can ever need.

In 2050, as we sit before our  PC  to write  an  article  as  I am doing, the display will be interactive and 3D/4D.  Yes, we shall need to wear special  glasses, but   having  3D/4D  will  be worth  it.  As  you speak, your presentation will appear on the screen before you.  When finished, your 2050 PC will “rethink” what you have written, making corrections and suggestions to improve what is there, even congratulating you on your work!   

Telecommunications and cloud computing will replace transportation for moving ideas and intellectual property; why ship a book or magazine when the content can be sent by email.  A 3D wallpaper screen applied to one wall in your home will allow you to visit anywhere in the world.  Self-driving cars, trucks, buses and taxis will be the norm.

Strapped to your wrist or in your pocket will be a PCM (Personal Computing Machine).  It will not run on batteries nor need a charger; heat  generated by its owner’s body or by sunlight will power it.  Activated  by  voice  command, it   will  connect  its  owner  to  a network, making it able to communicate with anyone in the world. It will also connect with a driverless car, to its owner’s home or all the other devices that it’s programmed to communicate with.  Since every voice is unique, its owner shall not need passwords, and the device will always be secure. 

In 2050, residents of Los Angeles, California will be anticipating the opening, in 2052, of a Time Capsule that was buried in 1952, at the base of a statue of a World War I soldier atop the Pershing Square Garage .

At this point, I remind the reader to revisit Sir Arthur Clarke’s remarks, made in 1964:  “The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic.  So if what I say now seems to you to be reasonable then I will have failed completely.  Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable will we have a chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.”

So here’s to looking at 2050. Good luck!


Donald B. Prell

Palm Springs, CA

December 10, 2016

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