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What Will Your Next Computer Be Able to Do?

Change happens so quickly in the computer world that it can be hard even to remember how things were just a few years ago. My day job has me looking at what computers will be like in five and ten years, and the results were interesting enough I thought other people might want to see them. What can we expect computers to be like in 2018?

Of course, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. However, at least with computers, we've got a 40-year history that has been amazingly consistent. In 1965, Gordon E. Moore made an observation that became known as Moore's Law:

The amount of any computing resource you can buy for one inflation-adjusted dollar doubles about every 24 months.

The original version of Moore's Law talked about the number of transistors in an integrated circuit, but it turns out that it generalizes very well to other kinds of computing resources: memory size, processor power, network speed, and so on.

Looking Backwards

People who follow computers are used to this, enough so that I don't believe most people think about the implications. But it happens that I've been in the computer business for nearly 40 years, and preparing this article caused me to think about my current computer, and compare it to the first computer I ever used in 1969, which happened to be an IBM System/3 model 10, with 8K of memory. At the time, this machine rented for $1,000 a month -- about $5,820 in 2008 dollars.

It's common to compare an old computer to a modern digital watch: the System/3 is more comparable to a modern musical greeting card that costs a dollar. Just for comparison, let's think about Moore's Law over that span. That's 39 years, so 20 24-month periods. Twenty doublings is about 1,000,000, and the purchase price of a System/3 was around $60,000 -- so the equivalent computer today would cost around 60 cents. Pretty close for that little arithmetic.

But wait...

There's one problem here: in 1969, we used this computerized greeting card to run the complete payroll, monthly billing, and customer records for a fairly decent-sized small business. Now, we use it for, well, a greeting card. Why does a modern business computer still cost thousands of dollars?

There are several reasons, including "because they can." We had to work pretty hard to get a program to fit in that 8K. Another great figure in computing, Niklaus Wirth, made a countering observation, though, in Wirth's Law:

Software gets slower, faster than hardware gets faster.

As time goes on, we find many things to do with our computers other than the very basic functions we start with. In 1969, a payroll program used a simplified tax table to print a paycheck on a line printer that was like a low-quality typewriter; today, the same program provides a glossy color interface, utilizes a much more complicated tax scheme, and prints multicolor checks with included images on a laser printer -- which itself has a powerful computer built in. All of these things just weren't feasible in 1969; they also weren't really needed for the basic problem.

Looking Forward

So let's apply Moore's Law -- while trying to remain aware of Wirth's Law -- to computers in 2018. That's ten years, so five doublings, or about 32 times more powerful. And in order to keep this article to less than the size of a book, let's think just about a more or less low-end laptop. My current object of hardware lust is the Apple MacBook Air, for a little less than $2,000. By Moore's Law, an equivalent machine in 2018 will cost about $63. Or, taking it in the other direction, a $2,000 "MacBook Air" will have about 32 times the power -- which would mean a machine with a 60 gigahertz processor. More likely, 64 2-gigahertz processor cores, but that would still mean 32 times as much processing power. About 2.5 terabytes of disk, or a mere 2 terabytes if it uses non-rotating media.

True geeks in the audience are already whimpering like hungry puppies at the thought, but let's put this in perspective. Two terabytes: that's 80 HD movies. That's 300 regular movies. That's one and a half billion pages of text, which isn't far off from the room needed for every word ever printed in English. (In fact, that's probably over-generous: there were about 200,000 new titles published in the UK in 2005, and even if those average 1,000 pages each, that's only 2 million pages. So 1.5 billion pages would be enough, easily, for every new title published for about 750 years.)

So here are some of the things I think we can look forward to in ten years:

Electronic Books

The Amazon Kindle is already showing us the way to this. Right now they cost around $400, so we can hope for a 2018 price of about $20; they can hold a hundred or so books now, so we should expect this $20 device to hold about 3,200 books.

Going on vacation will be much easier for us bibliophiles: you can take your whole library with you in a package the size of a big checkbook. Publishing will be much easier, too: no more heavy paper bricks. So you'll have the space for 3,200 books, but you'll also likely have a much larger selection of books to read. With faster networks (see the net section), you'll be able to download new books in less than a second, and have the electronic equivalent of a newspaper downloaded essentially instantly.

2018 should be a good year for readers.

Computers and the networks on which they operate

We haven't talked about networks much yet, but the same kind of rule applies to them as we've applied to computers: the total speed of the network at the house should go up by between 16 and 32 times in ten years. My cable modem: 8 gigabits a second, at least in theory. My home network in 2018: 128 gigabits a second, or call it 12 gigabytes a second. That's a whole HD movie in around 5 seconds.

No more Blockbuster; go short now. No more Netflix either, at least in its current form. If you want to buy a movie or watch a TV show, it will arrive where you are before you can get to the kitchen to make a sandwich. Amateur, small video producers, like the ones who already put content on YouTube, will have access to video rigs that can do a Technicolor®-quality movie for a few thousand dollars, and it's very likely that Hollywood movies will be 3D, and 48 or 60 frames a second.

Porn will be amazing.

Your home computer will serve music and films to your TV, and very likely the commercial networks will be dead or radically different. Why would someone want to be limited to watching House at the same time everyone else does?

Oh, and people will still work with computers too: with high fuel prices, the annoyances of travel, and lower costs for computer services, people won't often make business trips. (We don't make as many business trips now as we did ten years ago.) It's too easy to have high-quality video (even 3D video) and stereophonic sound in 2018. Business trips will be for situations where you really need to have personal contact.

When you do travel, that network speed will mean you don't have to load everything on your laptop -- it's seconds away on the network. Other than hardcore gamers, very likely the real personal computer will be a low-cost netbook with a reasonably sized screen and keyboard, and it will cost less than $100. But no matter where you go, your data will follow you.

Into each life some rain...

Oh, I know, you're saying "this is too good to be true." It's not, but there will be some new or bigger annoyances as well. Unless something happens to change current trends, very likely there will be nowhere you can go outside your own home where you won't be watched by surveillance cameras. With new tiny cameras you may have to keep a very sharp eye on visitors to avoid them in your own home -- and sadly, some governments will be insisting on them.

New computers and networks will mean new security challenges as well. Viruses and Trojan horse programs and botnets won't go away, although we can hope people will begin to demand better computer security than we have today.

Probably the worst, at least in everyday life, is that we'll come to depend on these things so. Try to remember what it was like before Google. For older folks, remember what it was like having to look things up in a heavy paper dictionary, or use the Readers Guide, or try to find directions on a paper map. In 2018, the idea of "getting lost" will seem funny -- something only old Luddites are likely to do. But parts of this network will still fail. Drop your 2018 version of a Kindle in the tub and you're out of luck until you get another one: you might have nothing else in the house to read. (Better keep a spare. Remember, they're cheap.) If your network connection goes down, you'll feel isolated; you might go stay in a hotel.

If the power goes out, expect the president to declare a disaster.

Clarke's Third Law

This is no small matter. Think about the changes just in the last ten years: blogging, Google, DVDs, and now Blu-Ray. We need to think about this in terms of one more law, Clarke's Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

We can't be sure what will happen, but we should be very shy about thinking it won't be nearly indistinguishable from magic.

Charlie Martin is a Colorado computer scientist and nearly-successful screenwriter who contributes to the Flares Into Darkness political blog as ‘Seneca the Younger,’ and blogs under his own name at the aggressively non-political Explorations blog.