Ubiquity as Silent Revolution

I came across an interesting article titled “What happens when computers stop shrinking?,” by popular and articulate physicist Michio Kaku about the apparent impending demise of Moore’s Law.  One tangential statement in the article got me thinking:

“The destiny of computers — like other mass technologies like electricity, paper, and running water — is to become invisible, that is, to disappear into the fabric of our lives, to be everywhere and nowhere, silently and seamlessly carrying out our wishes.”

By “computers” Kaku is really talking about “computing devices,”   including everything from musical greeting cards to automobile engines to spacecraft. (He mentions a point of trivia that a modern cell phone has more computing power than all of NASA had in 1969 when they first went to the moon.)

The ubiquity of logic devices in everyday life is likely to continue at an exponential rate, regardless of the scale issues cited by Kaku. If things can’t get smaller, people will find ways to make them more efficient. Just because silicon has limitations doesn’t mean there are no other options (like graphene based chips and holographic architectures).

So what does this mean for living in the 21st century? At some point we will forget about the numbers. How fast our cpus are in Megaflops. Gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes, and on and on past zettabytes (10^21 bytes, roughly the total world output of data).  At some point it becomes virtually infinite because we will have more capacity than we can possibly use.

This happened with cell phone service and early Internet access. I recall subscribing to Prodigy and getting something like 90 minutes of connect time a month. There was no Web yet and about all there was to do was email and Usenet groups. I’d log in on my 2400 baud modem, exchange emails, and log off. Then someone decided the unused capacity was sufficient that they could offer unlimited access for a reasonable price. Similarly the iPhone 4 screen resolution, which claims to be greater than the eye can perceive (the so-called “Retina Display”).

Soon we will simply assume any object we use (or interface with) will have some kind of logical device embedded in it. As high resolution displays and intuitive interface technologies become more portable, desktop computers and monitors will be made obsolete.  We will be wearing our interface with the Net and it will be a part of everything we do. When shopping, we’ll have displays showing us information about any product we’re looking at. Our Net interface will become entirely intuitive and we will wonder how we ever got along without it.

This may seem  futuristic and difficult to imagine, but the reality is that the tech industry is pushing hard to make it happen sooner than later. Social media are making us dependent on the constant flow of data about our interests and relationships. We will still have our individuality, I think, but our connection will be an intimate exchange with the global mind.  If you use text chat a lot, you are probably accustomed, as I am, to using Google or Wikipedia to grab a bite of data — the word you were looking for or its spelling — or even to carry on a conversation in another language.

“I feel a disturbance in the force.” – Obiwan

Such immediate real-time interaction promises to become more and more part of our intuitive means for everyday communication. If we are not able to connect with the people or data we want, we will sense that there’s something wrong. Not being able to find out what I want to know causes stress. I’m sure it’s akin to an addictive response. When I query Google and an answer does not appear easily, I will assume that I have posed the query improperly. And if I am still stymied I will feel frustrated because I’m fairly certain an answer must be there.

“I know this is the answer because I asked myself and this is what I said.”

We’ll be able to sense changes in the flow of information and will seek answers as to the causes. If the flow of data from a certain sector increases, it will likely mean something important is happening there so we will turn attention to it.
What this means for humanity is likely to be the source of great debate over the coming decade and more. As we become more connected the lines between me and not-me begin to blur. The obvious parallel is the vision of Star Trek’s (TNG) Borg collective.

Patrick Stewart as Locutus, the assimilated Je...

Image via Wikipedia

Such a vision can certainly be frightening, but one could also look at it as a potential good. Whenever there is a problem, we are not alone. We become part of a collective intelligence that is much greater than any individual could hope to be. A world in which cooperation is essential for the health of the whole. This vision does not preclude individuality, or even subversion. But difference becomes a matter of will rather than psychosis. When we have communication and knowledge, we can make more intelligent choices that support the collective good. And that includes challenging collective assumptions in the name of art.

“If there’s nothing wrong with me… maybe there’s something wrong with the universe.”  –Dr. Crusher (Star Trek TNG)

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