Seven "grand challenges" face IT in next quarter-century, Gartner says

Wireless powering of remote devices, natural computing interfaces, automated speech translation in IT's future

Gartner has identified seven technologies that will "completely transform" business over the next 25 years, including parallel programming, wireless power sources for mobile devices, automated speech translation, and computing interfaces that detect human gestures.

"Many of the emerging technologies that will be entering the market in 2033 are already known in some form in 2008," Gartner said in a press release issued Wednesday from its Emerging Trends Symposium/ITxpo in Las Vegas.

Gartner says each of the seven technologies represents a "grand challenge" for IT researchers and CIOs, who should pay attention to the emerging research today so as to be ready for the changes they will bring.

"Gartner defines an IT Grand Challenge as a fundamental issue to be overcome within the field of IT whose resolutions will have broad and extremely beneficial economic, scientific or societal effects on all aspects of our lives," the analyst firm writes.

CIOs should chart which of these emerging technologies means the most for their businesses and track progress by reviewing related patents, the firm recommends.

Here's a rundown of Gartner's seven technology "grand" challenges:

* Eliminating the need to recharge batteries for wireless devices. The future holds portable computing devices that are charged remotely, rather than with a wire, or devices that are simply powered by a remote source, making the use of batteries unnecessary, according to Gartner. A 2007 experiment at MIT was able to transfer power wirelessly, but commercial applications of wireless powering are "a long way off."

* Parallel programming. Speed advances in computing are starting to come with multicore processors which, instead of simply speeding up a single core, use multiple processors that are a bit slower but solve problems faster by dividing tasks into smaller individual processes. The IT challenge this presents is developing applications capable of taking advantage of multicore processors. "Key issues will need to be addressed, including effectively breaking up processes into specific sub-processes, [and] determining which tasks can be handled simultaneously by multiple processes," Gartner writes.

* Natural computing interfaces. The goal of interacting with computers without a mechanical interface is a longstanding one, but obstacles remain in developing the ability for computers to detect gestures, and check those gestures in real time against a gesture "dictionary" that tells the computer what action to take.

* Automated speech translation. Natural language processing will be a key feature of computers after researchers resolve challenges related to speech synthesis and recognition, and machine translation. Some "rudimentary" automated speech translation systems have been created, but "the complexity extends further when translation and output is required to a target language that is understandable to a human," Gartner says.

* Persistent and reliable long-term storage. Technologies today are ill-equipped to store the world's digital information on digital media for the long haul, according to Gartner. To have reliable storage that can last 20 to 100 years, researchers will have to overcome challenges related to data format, hardware, software, metadata and information retrieval. (Compare storage products.)

* Increasing programmer productivity 100-fold. Today's programmer is a shell of his future self – or at least that's what Gartner is hoping. The output of each programmer will have to increase dramatically in order to meet future demands fueled by increasing reliance on the fruits of software development. The simple reuse of code will help, but optimizing the ability to reuse code has its own challenges, such as making it easier to find software modules quickly.

* Identifying the financial consequences of IT investments. "One of the most perplexing challenges faced by IT leaders has been to convey the business value of IT in terms readily understandable by business executives," Gartner notes. No standard way of measuring IT value exists today. Gartner's challenge to industry here is to find a model that can measure value consistently, similar to how financial accounting measurements are standard across public companies. Ideally, Gartner says IT shops should be able to tell business executives "If you invest in our IT proposal, you will see an additional $0.03 earnings per share directly attributable to this project by the third quarter of next year."

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