3D printers, sensor networks, virtual humans and other technologies under development now will drastically change our world in the decade to come, according to Cisco chief futurist Dave Evans.
As computational power rises exponentially, not linearly, so does the rate of change -- and that means the next 10 years should pack in far more technological change than the last 10.
Disruptive technology is, by its very nature, unpredictable, but it is still possible to look at the work being done by R&D labs around the world and see clues as to what the future holds. That's the full-time job of Dave Evans, Cisco's chief futurist and chief technologist for the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG).
At Cisco Live, Evans outlined what he believed to be the top 10 trends that will change the world in 10 years. Here is his list, with commentary augmented by yours truly based on interviews in the past year with numerous other industry analysts and visionaries.
No. 1: The Internet of Things
We have passed the threshold where more things are connected to the Internet than people. The transition to IPv6 also supports seemingly limitless connectivity. Cisco IBSG predicts the number of Internet-connected things will reach 50 billion by 2020, which equates to more than six devices for every person on Earth. Many of us in the developed world already have three or more full-time devices connected to the Internet when factoring in PCs, smartphones, tablets, television devices and the like. Next up are sensor networks, using low-power sensors that "collect, transmit, analyze and distribute data on a massive scale," says Evans.
Such sensors, based on standards like Zigbee, 6LoWPAN and Z-wave, are currently being used in both predictable and surprising ways. Zigbee is being embedded in smart appliances and smart meters. 6LoWPAN (over IPv6) is used by Vint Cerf for his wine cellar climate-monitoring system. Z-Wave is the basis for Verizon's smart home automation service. But more creative uses are emerging, too. Sparked, a Dutch startup, implants sensors in the ears of cattle to monitor cows' health and whereabouts. Sensors are being embedded in shoes, medicine like asthma inhalers, and medical exploratory surgery devices. There's even a tree in Sweden wired with sensors that tweets its mood and thoughts, with a bit of translation help from an interpretive engine developed by Ericsson (@connectedtree or #ectree).
No. 2: Not just Big Data, but a zettaflood
About 5 exabytes of unique information were created in 2008. That's 1 billion DVDs. Fast forward three years and we are creating 1.2 zettabytes, with one zettabyte equal to 1,024 exabytes. "This is the same as every person on Earth tweeting for 100 years, or 125 million years of your favorite one-hour TV show," says Evans. Our love of high-definition video accounts for much of the increase. By Cisco's count, 91% of Internet data in 2015 will be video.
Much of Cisco's development focus (not to mention its marketing) preaches that the so-called "zettaflood" will require vastly improved networks to move more data, and not drop the ball (or the packets) of our beloved video.
No. 3: Wisdom of the cloud
Much of the zettaflood of data will be stored in the cloud. Certainly, most of it is being accessed by the cloud, rather than only on private networks. By 2020, one-third of all data will live in or pass through the cloud, Cisco predicts. Global cloud services revenue will jump 20% per year, and IT spending on innovation and cloud computing could top $1 trillion by 2014. That's enough to create the next Google. "Already, the cloud is powerful enough to help us communicate through real-time language translation, increase our knowledge from access to powerful supercomputers such as Wolfram Alpha, and improve our health using computing platforms like IBM's Watson in new ways," says Evans. "We're able to communicate in much richer ways."
In addition to video, the computing power of the cloud delivered to endpoint devices changes our ability to communicate with things like real-time translation. Right now, the voice search on an Android phone sends the query to the Google cloud to decipher and return results. "We'll see more intelligence built into communication. Things like contextual and location-based information."
With an always-connected device, the network can be more granular with presence information, tapping into a personal sensor to know that a person's asleep, and route an incoming call to voicemail. Or knowing that person is traveling at 60 mph in a car, and that this is not the time for a video call. (Of course, by then, we'll probably all be using driverless Google cars, and be free to chat while our cars drive us around.)
No. 4: The next 'Net
Evans talks about his home as an example of the speed of network improvements. Network performance has increased by 170,000 times since 1990, when he had just one telnet connection.
Today, Evans has 38 always-on connections and more than 50Mbps of bandwidth, enough for telepresence, streaming movies and online games at the same time. Over the next 10 years, Evans expects the speed to his home to increase by 3 million times.
While most of the industry is focused on 40G and 100G, whole new forms of networks are also being created. Vint Cerf discusses the new protocols needed to build an interplanetary network, which can send data vast distances without being disturbed by latency. Evans notes that multiterabit networks using lasers are being explored. And early work is happening on a concept called "quantum networking," based on quantum physics. This involves "quantum entanglement" in which two particles are entangled after which they can be separated by any distance, and when one is changed, the other is also instantly changed. Production quantum networks are likely decades in the future.
No. 5: The world gets smaller
With always-on connectivity, social networking has the power to change cultures, as we saw with the Egyptian Revolution, which led to the Arab Spring. Social influences will continue to move rapidly between cultures.
A smaller world also means faster information dissemination. "Tweets from people in Japan during the recent earthquake were sent to followers even before the U.S. Geological Survey could issue its official tsunami warning to Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California," says Evans.
The capture, dissemination and consumption of events are going from "near time" to "real time." This in turn will drive more rapid influence among cultures.
No. 6: The power of power
The human population also continues to grow, and Evans estimates that a city with 1 million inhabitants will be built every month over the next two decades. More efficient methods to power those cities are becoming a necessity, particularly solar energy.
"Solar alone can meet our energy needs. In fact, to address today's global demand for energy, 25 solar super sites -- each consisting of 36 square miles -- could be erected. Compare this to the 170,000 square kilometers of forest area destroyed each year," says Evans. Such a solar farm could be completed in just three years.
Technologies to make this more economically pragmatic are on their way. In June, Oregon State University researchers showed off a novel, relatively affordable, low-impact method to "print" solar cells using an inkjet printer.
No. 7: Tea. Earl Grey. Hot
More items will move from physical to virtual. Today, we download e-books and movies, rather than bound books and DVDs. A technology called 3D printing will allow us to instantly manufacture any physical item, from food to bicycles, using printer technology. This is strikingly like the replicator concept from "Star Trek."
"3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer," says Evans.
Already, things ranging from toys to cars to living structures are being printed and because the process is done by adding layers of materials on top of one another, they are printed fully assembled and decorated, too. The bicycle pictured with this story is an actual working bicycle created by a 3D printer.
In the not-too-distant future, we will be able to print human organs," says Evans. In March, Dr. Anthony Atala from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine printed a proof-of-concept kidney mold onstage at TED. It was not living tissue, but the point was well made even so.
Trend 8: Another family tree
Virtual humans, both physical (robots) and online avatars will be added to the workforce. "Already, animated characters can recognize speech, convert text to speech, and have knowledge of previous encounters," says Evans.
By 2020, robots will be physically superior to humans. IBM's Blue Brain project, for instance, is a 10-year mission to create a human brain using hardware and software. "They believe that within a decade they'll start to see consciousness emerge with this brain," Evans says.
By 2025, the robot population will surpass the number of humans in the developed world. By 2032, robots will be mentally superior to humans. And by 2035, robots could completely replace humans in the workforce.
Beyond that, we'll see the creation of sophisticated avatars. Evans points to IBM's Watson as a template for the virtual human. Watson was able to answer a question by returning a single, accurate result. A patient may use a virtual machine instead of a WebMD search. Or hospitals can augment patient care with virtual machines.
Between now and then, augmented reality and gesture-based computing will enter our classrooms, medical facilities and communications, and transform them as well. "Already, machine vision enables users to take a picture of a Sudoku puzzle with their smartphone and have it solved almost immediately," he notes.
No. 9: Yes, there's a cure for that
"We think nothing of using pacemakers," Evans points out. In the next 10 years, he believes medical technologies will grow vastly more sophisticated as computing power becomes available in smaller forms. Devices such as nanobots and the ability to grow replacement organs from our own tissues will be the norm. "The ultimate integration may be brain-machine interfaces that eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries to live normal lives," he says.
Today we have mind-controlled video games and wheelchairs, software by Intel that can scan the brain and tell what you are thinking and tools that can actually predict what you are going to do before you do it.
No. 10: Humans or Borg?
According to Stephen Hawking, "Humans are entering a stage of self-designed evolution." Taking the medical technology idea to the next level, healthy humans will be given the tools to augment themselves. Evans offers the following examples:
July 2009 -- Spanish researchers discover substance for photographic memory.
October 2009 -- Italian and Swedish scientists develop the first artificial hand with feeling.
March 2010 -- Retina implants restore vision to blind patients.
June 2011 -- Texas Heart Institute develops a "spinning" heart with no pulse, no clogs and no breakdowns.
While the early use of these technologies will be to repair unhealthy tissue or fix the consequences of brain injury, eventually designer enhancements will be available to all.
Ultimately, humans will use so much technology to mend, improve or enhance our bodies, that we will become the Borg. Futurist Ray Kurzweil is pioneering this idea with a concept he calls singularity, the point at which man and machine merge and become a new species. (Kurzweil says this will happen by 2054). Evans is not convinced about singularity, particularly in Kurzweil's time frame. Evans sits on the Singularity University in Mountain View and finds the data plausible, and agrees that we are on that trajectory.
Julie Bort is the editor of Network World's Cisco Subnet community. She also writes the Odds and Ends blog for Cisco Subnet and the Microsoft Update blog for Microsoft Subnet and Source Seeker for the Open Source Subnet community sites. Follow Bort on Twitter @Julie188.