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.
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.
"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.
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.