Future Shock…

If anyone understands “future shock,” it’s those of us who live in and work in Silicon Valley. For the past decades or so, we’ve witnessed a constant preview of the future: Much of what takes hold technologically throughout the world starts here.

But for all the change we’ve seen so far, in my view, the computer age hasn’t even begun yet. Let me tell you why.

First, let me say that I’m a physical scientist. My forecasting methodology relies on quantitative analysis. I examine the historical trends of a technology and extrapolate them into the future. Of course, a lot of people do that. Some write interesting books about their conclusions.

However, since I actually want to help build these new technologies, I’m constrained by the known laws of physics – things such as the speed of light and the second law of thermodynamics. I can’t just invoke warp speed to allow my extrapolations to go on indefinitely; there are limits to what is possible in this universe.

So my predictions might not be as entertaining as some that have appeared recently – although you might be surprised by how “far out” they are. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I feel confident that they are physically realizable and, therefore, manufacturable.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to stretch a bit and look 20 years out. Beyond that, it’s very difficult to project with any accuracy, since being only a few days off on where a technology is today can amplify the error to many years when you’re forecasting a couple decades into the future.

A LOOK AT THE PAST

The primary technology that dominated the latter part of the previous century was the invention of the integrated circuit in 1959. Since that date, the number of transistors that can be fabricated onto a single chip has been doubling about every 18 months – a rate commonly known as Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is an example of an exponential process: It has taken us from a crude chip with a single transistor to integrated circuits with 100 million active components in only 40 years.

At the same time, the amount of useful work that comes out of an integrated circuit for each unit of electrical power put into it has also increased by roughly 100 million. This astounding technological progress has given us what we call today the Information Age. It has had a profound effect on the lives and fortunes of people, companies, and countries throughout the world.

How much longer can this exponential growth continue? In biological systems, the early stages of growth in any population are usually exponential. However, certain factors arise – such as limited resources, increased predation, or a deteriorating environment – that can cause the process to slow. If you plotted the size of the population versus time, you’d get an S curve.