25 ways IT will morph in the next 25 years

Predictions from leading research labs point to a future of talking machines, 3-D telepresence and real-world robotics

Future art

Imagine a world where the computers, networks and storage systems are all tens of thousands of times faster than they are today -- and then think about the sci-fi type of applications that will be possible.

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That's what you can expect to see 25 years from now. Experts say the overall pace of innovation in the IT industry will speed up, resulting in a mind-boggling array of developments in such areas as talking machines, 3-D telepresence and real-world robotics. These changes will revolutionize industries, including healthcare, urban planning, energy, e-retailing and entertainment.

BACKGROUND: 2020 Vision: Why you won't recognize the 'Net in 10 years

"I use the term technology avalanche," says Dave Evans, Chief Futurist at Cisco. "We're on the precipice of huge developments. Things are going to start changing very, very quickly...Where it's going is unlimited computer and storage and networking speeds, and the birth of some pretty exciting times."

Here are predictions that leading researchers are making about what IT will look like in the year 2036:

1. Optical processors will replace microelectronics.

Moore's law -- the 1965 prediction by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors placed on an integrated circuit doubles every two years - is reaching its physical limitations. Therefore, radical new approaches such as optical computing will need to be developed to drive advances in processors and memory.

Optical - or photonic - computers use visible light or infrared beams instead of electric currents to perform calculations.

"People will continue to want cheaper and faster computing, so what we will do is look for other avenues" besides electronics, says Donald Newell, AMD Server CTO. "An optical computer has two very nice properties. One, it will use substantially less power than we use today...and it will be between 1,000 and some huge number times more efficient and powerful than the computers we have today. You can have optical computers over the next 20 to 25 years."

2. Quantum computers will be possible.

Another promising technology for building faster and smaller processors is quantum computing, which harnesses the power of atoms to perform computational tasks.

Unlike electronic computers that store information as 0s or 1s, quantum computers can store both 0s and 1s at the same time and therefore can process significantly more information all at once.

"With traditional computer science, a bit is on or off, true or false. But quantum physics uses qubits, which are both on and off at the same time, so you can transmit a lot more data much, much faster," Evans says. "Quantum routing, quantum cryptography and quantum switching could all come into play 25 years from now."

"I believe that 25 years from now, we won't be dealing with bits anymore. We'll be manipulating quantum states," agrees Chip Elliott, chief engineer at BBN Technologies. "The processing power is very high with quantum computers, so we will be able to accurately model all the processes of the world."

3. Your smartphone will have the power of a supercomputer.

"Your iPhone or Blackberry will be...many orders of magnitude more powerful than the servers we are shipping today," Newell says.

You'll no longer need to carry around a wallet or keys. All of your credit card, debit card, identification and membership information will be stored on your smartphone.

"Phones will have more than a terabyte of local memory," adds Mark Lewis, chief strategy officer at EMC, who predicts that all of our digital information will be backed up over the cloud. "If I lose my phone, I can pick up a new one, enter my code word, and it will re-identify me and push all of my information out to my new device."

Your phone will be connected to such a high-powered network that you'll have a wealth of information at your fingertips.

"You'll be able to store the entire human knowledge base in your PDA," says Bernie Meyerson, IBM Fellow and vice president of Global Innovations in IBM Research. "Your phone will be able to instantaneously over a next-generation network find a database that interprets and reacts to your query in your own language."

4. You will talk to your computer.

Forget keyboards, mice or touchpads. In the future, you will simply talk to your computer to get it to perform a computation or find an answer.

IBM's Watson, a computer system that recently defeated the world's best contestants on the game show Jeopardy!, points to a future of natural language interaction with computers. Watson is a system that can "interact with humans, has the ability to learn from its errors, can inquire for further data and has the ability to augment human function," Meyerson explains.

IBM anticipates Watson-like systems that can help physicians diagnose patients with rare diseases.

"Interaction with computers should be more freewheeling," Meyerson says. "Today it's not remotely freewheeling; it's structured to death. But all of that formalism should disappear in the next 25 years. That is a massive statement...that requires extraordinary progress in hardware and software."

5. Technology will be transparent.

Until now, we've been slaves to our machines. We've had to learn how to adapt to each new technology - from VCRs to iPhones - how to master each new interface and how to program it. Future technology will be much more transparent.

"In the future, technology will be so pervasive, so embedded, that it is adapting to us," Evans says. "We're moving away from a world where you watch TV to a world where TV watches you. There will be cameras embedded in all sorts of devices...and the devices will be watching you and making sure you're doing it correctly."

Evans predicts that we will live our lives and that technology will interact with us to provide us with "the right information at the right time in the right context."

6. Terabit networks will be available at home.

Cisco's Evans says within two decades it will be common to have multi-terabit connectivity to the home. "I could have an 8 terabit connection to my home," he says. "That's more connectivity to my home than most countries have."

The network's core will zoom along at petabit - or 10 to the 15th power - speeds. "That's three orders of magnitude bigger than terabit networking," Evans says.

In wireless networks, Evans anticipates we will evolve to 10 gigabit speeds to the handset in the next 25 years - up from 100 megabit speeds today.

MORE: 10 Fool-proof predictions for the Internet in 2020

High-speed networks will be ubiquitous, too. Evans says that 90% of the planet where people live is currently covered by Internet access.

"Within 25 years, there will be 100% availability of networking," he says, adding that networks are likely to be interplanetary during this time frame. "In the next few decades, we will have IP networking in space. We will have greater bandwidth, greater availability and broadband coverage to every square inch on the planet."

7. Smarter networks are imminent.

The networks of tomorrow will not only be faster, they'll also be smarter. They'll be able to tell when it makes sense to use a local network connection such as Wi-Fi and when it makes sense to use a wide-area connection depending on what you want to send and where you want to send it.

"Your cell phone will decide where it is and whether it needs to use a wide-area or local connection to communicate," Newell says. "Now, if I want to send my wife some information, I send her an e-mail. Even if we're sitting next to each other, that e-mail goes all the way to my ISP and then to the Google Mail server and than back to her ISP."

Newell points out that it would be far more efficient for his computer to use a local Wi-Fi connection to send the e-mail from one machine directly to another. That kind of network smarts will be available sooner than 25 years, experts say

"We will have multiple wireless technologies, and we will have the ability to utilize the best available network," says Marek Rusinkiewicz, vice president of research for Telcordia. "In the labs, we can demonstrate that we can...continue a session from cellular to Wi-Fi to WiMax. There would be different optimization criteria so you could find the bandwidth that's adequate for an application or you can find the cheapest way. This would be seamless, so you don't have to switch from one mode to another."

8. Networks will be programmable.

The National Science Foundation is sponsoring a networking research platform dubbed GENI at 14 U.S. college campuses that hints at a future of deeply programmable networks.

"You can program every single part of the network," says BBN's Elliott, director of the GENI Project Office. "With the Internet, it's because you can put anybody's software on it that people have wildly innovated. What if you could start putting the software you want into the cloud? Into the routers and all the middle boxes? You would open up the entire system so people can install any software they want."

Elliott says GENI will be installed in 150 campuses over the next three to four years, allowing researchers to conduct large-scale experiments and to divvy up computation, storage and network resources in new ways.

"Beyond the five-year timeframe, this whole thing becomes one very large computer. We're starting to talk about a planetary computer," Elliott says.

Among the applications for this planetary computer are real-time predictions of extreme weather or flu outbreaks for a precise location.

"The goal of the weather system is to predict 5 minutes or 10 minutes into the future if there is going to be a tornado and where it is going to touch down," Elliott says. "On demand, you'll start doing very local weather predictions...I think this is going to be pretty routine."

9. We will have a truly global Internet - and marketplace.

Twenty five years from now, the Internet will be globally available with little difference in the speed and quality of access based on geographic location. Another positive change will be the ubiquitous deployment of IPv6, the next generation Internet Protocol that offers virtually unlimited address space to businesses and consumers around the world.

"One can expect broadband access, often tens of megabits, anywhere you want it," predicts Cisco Fellow Fred Baker.

Today, less than 30% of the world's population has Internet access, according to Internet World Stats. The region that's lagging the most — Africa — has only 11% penetration. But that will change in the next 25 years, with all regions of the world catching up to North America, which is nearing 80% Internet usage rates.

Baker says that truly global communications will level the playing field economically, which will have the biggest impact on the least developed nations.

"I'd like to think that wealth is not redistributed around the globe but generated; there [will be] more wealth globally, and a lot of it is in places that are not wealthy now," Baker says. "That is the value I see in Internet technology. Not only that a rising tide lifts my boat and your boat, but all boats."

10. Storage will be cheap enough that you can record every minute of your life.

By the year 2029, $100 will purchase 11 petabytes - that's 10 to the15th power -- of storage, predicts Cisco's Evans. "You could record every second of your entire life in Blu-Ray quality," he adds.

Telcordia's Rusinkiewicz says a few terabytes of storage on a handheld device "is enough to store the whole history of the life of a person, including all the movies you've ever seen, all the music you've ever heard, and all the photos you've ever taken."

Hinting at this future ability to record your entire life is a project called "The Birth of a Word,'' where MIT researcher Deb Roy began video taping every waking moment of his newborn son's life to study how he learned to speak.

"Imagine if you could record your life. Everything you said. Everything you did, available in a perfect memory store at your finger tips," Roy explained at a talk at the TED Conference. "So you could go back and find memorable moments and relive them or sift through traces of time and discover patterns in your own life that previously had gone undiscovered."

11. Everything will be digitized and accessible over the Internet.

Every piece of information available to mankind - from historical to current - will be scanned, digitized and searchable over the Internet. And that information will be accessible on your smartphone no matter where you are located in the world at speeds that won't frustrate you.

"Kids will have no idea what it means to go to a library, what it means to go to Blockbuster," Newell says. "We will show our grandkids a CD or a DVD, and they will have no idea what this is."

All entertainment will be streamed in 3D, and you won't need a special device to access it; just your smartphone.

Blu-Ray could be the last removable media format ever made, Lewis says.

"Everything ever created will now be online," Lewis says. "Libraries will disappear and morph into think tanks. Books will be in a museum."

12. Content will be hyperpersonalized.

Since all content - articles, books, music and movies - will be streamed to you, it will be customized to you and your interests at a much higher level.

"You will never sit around and watch a commercial and wonder why this is playing for me," Lewis says, predicting the death of mass media. "If you're 25 years old, there is no reason you should be looking at an AARP ad on TV. That's not going to happen anymore."

Business will hyperpersonalize their offerings to customers.

"Restaurants will start to offer perks based...on what you like," Lewis says, whether that's a coupon for savings or a preferred reservation. "We'll see a whole new customer-specific level of value attributes that are denoted through technology."

13. Sensors will be pervasive and talking to each other - and us - over the Internet.

Everything you buy - houses, appliances, entertainment devices, cars - will have processing power and be hooked up to the Internet for monitoring, maintenance and other features.

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Your car will be in constant contact with the dealer and will let you know when it needs an oil change. Your house will have motion-detection sensors that control light, heating, cooling and call 911 if you slip and fall. Sensors in your refrigerator will detect when your food is going bad.

"There will be zillions of new things that talk to each other but also talk to us, saying: 'I'm too cold'. 'I'm too warm'. 'I'm not well'. 'I need maintenance'," Rusinkiewicz says.

In other words, the Internet of things will come to fruition.

"Today, we have a few billion devices connected to the network. By 2020, we should see 50 billion devices connected to the network," Evans says.

Living things - from livestock to plants - also will be connected to the network. Devices as small as a grain of salt or sand could be injected with a hypodermic needle into living creatures for monitoring purposes.

"We might even see people each given a unique IPv6 address," Evans says. "With IPv6, every person on the planet could have 52,000 trillion, trillion IP addresses each."

14. Cameras will be everywhere.

Alongside all of these Internet-connected sensors will be cameras that are watching both you and your environment.

"We will see an emergence of things that are part computing and part mechanical...The obvious thing is that we will have a lot of cameras," Rusinkiewicz says. "Twenty five years from now, we will be able to see anyplace on Earth from any perspective and reconstruct it."

Integrated with all of the sensors and cameras on the Internet will be actuators that can control mechanical devices hooked up to the Internet.

"We will have ubiquitous actuators. These are the things that can make something happen, such as being open or closed," Rusinkiewicz says. "This would be a major change. Not only will it be able to watch what's going on but possibly control it."

15. Robots will outnumber humans.

Simple floor-cleaning robots and military drones of today point to the possibilities of widespread deployment of robots for industrial and consumer usage in the future. Special-purpose networks will be built to allow these machines to communicate with each other.

"Within 25 years, robots will surpass the human population in developed countries," Evans says. "These will all be machines connected to the network. Where this gets kind of interesting is the implications from a social networking perspective. . . . Over the coming decades, machine social networks, robotic social networks, will eclipse human social networks."

Progress in robotics is being driven "to a large extent by military applications, but we are seeing this in the commercial world, too," Rusinkiewicz says. "We'll have robots that are very small, can crawl, climb walls and things of that nature...In the case of the Japan nuclear crisis, I would expect there will be robots who could go in there and fix things."

16. More of your assets will be virtual.

From videos to music to books, almost everything you own will migrate from the physical to the virtual.

"Ownership in media and data will be based on metadata," Lewis says. "The physicality of owning a movie won't be a physical box or a DVD. It will involve metadata that says you have the rights to watch that movie."

There could even be 3-D, remote manufacturing of items that you want to buy.

"Within 25 years, you might go to Amazon.com and see a device that you want to buy. Instead of having it physically shipped to you, you will download the recipe for it and print it out locally with a 3-D printer," Evans says.

17. Augmented reality will become commonplace.

By 2036, we will have computer-generated sensory images that are integrated into our every day life in what's called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is already widely used in TV sportscasting; for example, the line that's transposed on a swimming race to show the world record holder's pace. This overlay of virtual reality on top of physical reality will increase in the future.

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For example, contact lenses could have real-time face recognition embedded in them, or pilots could wear special goggles with built-in navigational devices.

18. 3-D telepresence systems will emerge.

From telepresence to gaming, every computer experience will be 3-D and immersive. Indeed, some prognosticators say you will live your life going seamlessly between the virtual world and the real world.

"Telepresence will be a full, 3-D experience, where you can touch and see and smell what's going on," Rusinkiewicz says. "This I expect that we'll see in 25 years."

These 3-D telepresence systems won't require special glasses or avatars. A 3-D image of a person from another part of the world will appear life-sized and able to interact normally with the people in a conference room. It won't be that different from the holographic images of Princess Leia in the original "Star Wars" movies.

"We will be permeated by small machines at this point," Elliott says. "The whole environment we live in will be filled with sensors and actuators. We will be living half inside the computer and half inside the physical world...In the end, this will dissolve the difference between the physical world and the world inside the computer. There will be no difference 25 years from now."

19. Computers won't just solve problems; they'll prevent them from occurring.

Today's computer systems are reactive, but tomorrow's computer systems will be predictive and preventative. They'll be able to correlate larger data sets into larger models and create more realistic simulations of environments so they can prevent problems from occurring.

For example, a futuristic traffic management system won't just route you around a traffic jam; it will prevent traffic jams from occurring by changing the patterns of traffic lights.

"We can look at the velocity of vehicles and how many were on the roads. We can analyze and create models that project what traffic will look like at any given point of time...When we look at the actual data and the predictive data, they are dead-on, astonishingly accurate. With that data, we can proactively change the flow of traffic so that the traffic jam never happens," IBM's Meyerson says.

These sorts of predictive and preventative systems could have a significant impact on the cities of tomorrow, affecting not only traffic but also water and electrical supplies. "This is a tremendous step forward for urban living," Meyerson says, adding that "cities are systems of systems."

20. Computers will be more like humans.

Until now, computers have been bad at understanding the context of information, but progress will be made as more processing power is available.

"I think we are at the point where we have enough horsepower to make major dents in some of the artificial intelligence problems," Rusinkiewicz says.

One example is software agents, which will be semi-autonomous virtual entities that handle simple chores for a person. A software agent might be able to locate the slides for a presentation, or talk to another person's software agent to coordinate an activity.

"They'll be able to recruit other agents as needed to come up with the desired outcome. This is something that will happen," Rusinkiewicz says. "It may be your agent talking to my agent for this interview 25 years from now."

21. A fundamentally different Internet architecture may evolve.

Researchers at PARC are working on a new underlying architecture for the Internet called content-centric networking that they hope will be adopted in the next decade or two.

The Internet was designed 40 years ago to make connections between two end points, and over the years it has been overlaid with systems for caching content closer to end users. PARC envisions a new Internet architecture that is designed from the ground up to distribute content, software and services to end users.

"Content centric networking doesn't have the concept of end points," explains Van Jacobson, a PARC Research Fellow. "If you're asking for something, it's like standing up in a room and asking for the time. Anybody that has that information can reply with it. It turns out that you can make a communication model that's as efficient as IP by removing the source-and-destination model."

Last September, PARC and a team of 10 universities received a three-year, $8 million research grant from the National Science Foundation's Future Internet Architecture program. Jacobson estimates that it will take another 10 years after the NSF grant is complete for the content centric networking scheme to be widely deployed.

Jacobson says the content centric networking approach will create less long-distance traffic on the Internet and will be more energy efficient because all content is served up closer to the user. It also may improve the information security landscape.

"Right now, our security model is that we secure containers of information and we secure the process of communications," Jacobson says. "If you go to a model where you're asking for information, and information has a name but not a location...you can secure the information. All of our packets are cryptographically signed by the producer of that entity."

22. Information security will continue to be a problem.

We'll have more powerful encryption systems 25 years from now, but it's unlikely that we will have eradicated the information security problem entirely.

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"There will be a constant battle between people who want to protect information and people who want to destroy information," Newell says. "I don't see that fight going away. There are always going to be people who want to steal from you and people who want to monitor you, and they will have the same compute power available."

"Information security issues will not be solved," EMC's Lewis agrees. "We're going to continue to struggle to secure, copyright and share information."

23. An Internet catastrophe will occur.

Internet policymakers are already planning for the possibility of a fundamental catastrophic failure of the Internet.

For example, as new security measures for the DNS were rolled out last summer, policymakers prepared for catastrophic failure of the so-called DNS Security Extensions (DNSSEC.) Five people around the world were given digital keys that would allow them to restart the process of signing the DNS root zone in the event of such a disaster.

"The path we're on now with the computers and the Internet is a disaster waiting to happen," Elliott says. "We wait for the disaster, and then we try to react. We have huge vulnerabilities in our society with our financial systems, our electrical systems....More likely than not, we'll have a catastrophic scenario in the next 25 years."

24. Your job may be outsourced - to a computer.

If your job involves research and analysis, you may be replaced by a computer, thanks to expected developments in the Semantic Web. The Semantic Web refers to a set of technologies being created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that allows computers to understand the meaning of information so they can access the Web intelligently and perform tasks on behalf of users.

"There will be a growing capability of computers to analyze data, sift through it and extract meaning, as programmers become more capable of organizing and finding semantic content," Newell says. "I do think that will change things tremendously. It will make more information readily accessible, but it will put some people out of business...including people who today do research and analysis."

25. Only the agile will survive.

In a world where the pace of change is getting faster and faster, CIOs and other IT executives will be looking for the most agile workers, those who are flexible and best able to embrace change.

"Technology is going to innovate very rapidly," Lewis says. "The challenge for IT professionals will be to find ways to adopt new technology and not break the business by doing it but be able to exploit the advantages of it. That's going to be absolutely critical."

Another key attribute of tomorrow's IT workforce: creativity. Future work environments will become increasingly open, collaborative and creative.

"It used to be physical strength that mattered, but the value of that has diminished to the point where it is non-existent now. Then it was intellectual work that mattered," Rusinkiewicz says. "In the future it will be about creativity, the ability to make unexpected connections and the ability to adapt."

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