I’ve been thinking a lot about the future lately, both near and long-term. I wanted to get my predictions down in writing.
There is a war that is about to explode this Christmas over the living room. A computer will replace the cable box, and there isn’t a clear winner in the space. The winner will be as ubiquitous as the smartphone, and we’re not even close to that yet. Just as the iPhone showed us what a mobile touch operating system looks like, we are still waiting on someone to show us what an operating system looks like that we control from a couch. It’s not the same as a computer, and it’s not like anything we’ve seen yet.
Batteries limit most of the technology we use today. The reason you have annoying cords for your ear buds is due to the fact that we don’t have light, thin, long last batteries to power wireless versions. Batteries dictate the weight shape, size, and useable applications of almost all of our technology.
The problem is physics. They can’t pack electrons any tighter into lithium ion batteries. We’ve hit the ceiling and now we need something new. One promising option is a nobel prize winning substance called graphene. It’s a superconductor with power storage properties. It might not extend battery life for us, but it may reduce re-charge times to a second. In 3-5 years, graphene will be at the core of our most amazing advancements.
There is a bit of movement in this field with Up Bands, and a rumored Apple Watch. This is a just a bit of noise before the biggest paradigm shift since the Internet.
Ray Kurzweil said it best when he pointed out that looking at the Internet through a monitor is the equivalent of looking at the world through a keyhole.
When we were young we thought of the Internet in terms of “going online”. Now the Internet is just on. Ask a child the difference between online and offline and they won’t know what you’re talking about. The same is going to take place with computers. There won’t be a separation between being awake and being connected.
Google Glass is the first prototype in this field. It’s not a product that’s ready for mass consumption, but it is a necessary first step to figure out how this new paradigm is going to work. Very few people are going to wear something that looks so absurd, but soon it will look like any other pair of glasses. Eventually it will be a contact lens and at some point in the future it will likely be an implant.
I can already hear the cries of people saying that they don’t want to always be online. Take a look at the employment rate amongst people who can’t use computers. You won’t have a choice, and to be honest, you won’t want one.
Thinking about a Twitter stream projected onto your retina probably isn’t that appealing, but that’s not what this is going to be. A great deal of how we experience computers is limited by the constraint of having to displaying information in 2D on a flat screen.
Eventually information will just be overlaid onto reality. Augmented Reality is the term if you want to look it up. When we look at something online we expect there to be information and context. Prices, ratings, specs, explanations, and comparisons are standard in the digital world. Now imagine all that information overlaid onto the real world. Look at a person and their name and background will pop up.
We’ve spent a lot of effort trying to make computers more brain like. It’s a lot easier to just marry our brain with a computer.
Right now our interface with computers happens tactically by typing and touching. This is incredibly inefficient way to interact with a computer.
The first challenge is to allow a machine to read the information stored in our mind. This is a lot closer to a reality than you might imagine. Watch this for a demonstration. Once a computer can interpret our thoughts, we are freed from the ball and chain of our keyboard. The visual world won’t just be augmented with extra data; our brain will literally be augmented with a computer.
If you want to remember something, you won’t have to repeat it to yourself. Think to your internal computer that you want to save it, and it will be done. Retrieval of information will be just as easy. You won’t forget anything, ever. You will able to do calculations at lightning speed. All of the daily mental power that goes to low-level mundane tasks will cease. The computer will take care of it, and you will be left to think. A million productivity apps have made this promise and failed, but that’s because it’s painful to tell the computer want you want.
Right now, when we want to create something with a computer, we need to write technical instructions for it to understand. It requires thousands of lines of code, or hours of clicks in software like Photoshop and CAD. We are translating what’s in our mind into a language the computer can read.
If the computer can read our thoughts, all of those technical instructions become unnecessary. We will think of something, and then the computer will make it so.
We won’t build anything like a Grand Central Station, cathedral, monument, or pyramid. Everything we build is temporary and will shortly disappear.
Our culture will be gone too. Written documents will go out of style with printed books to make way for cheaper and more efficient digital files. The day we make the full transition to the digital world will be the day that the cultural trail goes cold.
In the irony of being the most documented, over sharing generation ever to live, that digital information will be lost. Services will shut down, technology will change, and the electricity may one day go out. A hiccup in our civilization caused by war or worse will cause the network to crash. It wasn't arch
itected for the relentless erosion of time. It's built on a flimsy patchwork of services that barely work when given the constant attention of engineers.
If the system goes down, even for a brief time, all that data will be gone. It will be locked on magnetic disks and memory chips in ones and zeros, and we will lack the precise technology to decipher them. Our focus will be on getting the system and our civilization back up and running. The task of figuring out how to retrieve all of that data will be insurmountable. It will be stored on machines that no longer work, in software that no longer runs, written in languages that are no longer used.
It's already happening. The data and high quality footage from our first moon landing, a seminal event for our civilization, is locked on giant reels of magnetic film. There are no machines left to read their contents; it might as well not exist.
The digital representation of our culture will become dead bits, and instead of reviving them we'll start over. My blog seems like the perfect place to lament this eventuality. In a short time it will disappear, along with everything else posted here.
The Internet is a force that levels communication, distribution, information, and access. Controlling these four things has been the foundation of business. In the past if you could control one of these things better than your competitors, you had an advantage. The Internet removes this advantage, and thus, levels money out of practically every industry it touches.
It is my opinion that both the individual and humanity as a whole benefits from the Internet. I also think that particular businesses have capitalized on the unique opportunities the Internet presents. From a macroeconomic standpoint I worry that the net result of the Internet has not been positive for business. As the Internet increases efficiency, the efficiency creates unmanageable data overload. While it drives down costs, it also drives down profits. It increases communication but it demands instantaneous, around the clock responses. It allows for quick and cheap distribution, but the distribution channel can no longer be controlled. Digital files can be infinitely replicated at zero cost, but it drives down the value of the contents to near zero. It provides businesses with vital information, but that information is also available to competitors and consumers. It gives us access to the world, but it prevents anyone from restricting access to anything.
It's clear that this has happened with music, movies, television, print, cable, auto, telecom and real estate. I'm sure there are dozens of industries that have not had their profits ground out by the Internet. I
would theorize that this is only because the Internet has yet to set it's sites on that industry. Where the Internet touches, profits shrink. You can think that your industry will be exempt, and you might be right. Chances are it will be swept under; it's only a matter of time.
This may seem like an odd thing to say coming from someone who is a proponent of the Internet. The Internet has reshaped the business landscape and redefined the profits that can be expected. It doesn't seem like the business world has fully adjusted their expectations. I keep hearing the question asked, “How can X industry return to its former level of profits?” In response the industry inevitably tries to generate more revenue with the same business model and it doesn't work. It's possible that once the Internet touches an industry, pre-Internet revenue levels will never return. The only solution is to change the size of company so it is in line with the profit potential. For example, you don't need a massive building with hundreds of employees to sell music. It is very likely that this is the dawn of the small business age.
Of course, there is the chance that for every industry with destroyed profits, there is an entirely new business model that the Internet has enabled. At the moment, the Internet may be a net negative for business because those new possibilities have yet to be realized. What's more likely is that some industries will discover a new model, but most will have to reorganize around adjusted expectations.