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The Next 25 Years

By Dan Tynan, PC World
February 01, 2008 10:57 AM ET

PC World - The future ain't what it used to be. In the pre-PC era, futurists predicted huge changes in transportation. By 2008 we would be flitting about in personal jetpacks and taking vacations on the moon. But the communications revolution spurred by personal computers and the Internet wasn't on anyone's radar.

Now the technology landscape is on the verge of changes that will transport us to places few people have imagined. We know that computers will be vastly more powerful, mobile, and connected. The question for the next 25 years is whether we'll be able to tell where technology ends and the rest of our life begins.

Technology will become firmly embedded in advanced devices that deliver information and entertainment to our homes and our hip pockets, in sensors that monitor our environment from within the walls and floors of our homes, and in chips that deliver medicine and augment reality inside our bodies.

This shiny happy future world will come at a cost, though: Think security and privacy concerns. So let's hope that our jetpacks come with seat belts, because it's going to be a wild ride.

For a look at the current status of some predictions made in old science-fiction films and TV shows, check out our slide show, "Five Sci-Fi Scenarios That Will Come True."

The Incredible Disappearing PC

Whether you have a PC on your desk in 10 to 15 years will be a matter of choice, not necessity. If you do, it will be vastly more powerful than your current system, thanks to advances in nanotechnology, says Doug Tougaw, an engineering professor at Valparaiso University who is developing nanocomputers.

"We're getting closer to our goal of creating computers that are a thousand times faster and smaller and use one-thousandth of the energy of today's computers," Tougaw reports. "As processors get smaller, they'll be embedded into more things. We'll also use standard-size machines packed with hundreds of chips. So we'll have very intelligent consumer products and unbelievably powerful PCs."

Computers using nanotechnology will debut in about five years, he says. Five to ten years after that, silicon will reach a point at which quantum mechanics won't allow chip pathways to get any smaller, so electric-current-based PCs will give way to optical computers that transmit streams of light instead of electrons, or perhaps to quantum computers that rely on the strange physics of atomic particles to deliver processing brawn.

"Starting around the year 2018, we'll have optical computers that operate at the speed of light, sending thousands of message streams down a single channel," says William Halal, professor emeritus at George Washington University and author of Technology's Promise: Expert Knowledge on the Coming Transformation of Society, to be published in April.

Most of tomorrow's CPU muscle will go toward making the user interface seamless and ubiquitous. Keyboards and mice may persist, but they'll become secondary to voice and gesture.

Gesture-based interfaces are catching on fast. The Nintendo Wii's gesture-based controllers are one example. And the iPhone's touch screen responds differently to finger taps than to swipes; Apple rolled similar technology into its MacBook Air's touchpad in January. GestureTek uses the input from camera phones to deliver gesture control.

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