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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In 2001, I was asked to write an article about the next ten years to come. I tried, but what came out was the next 10 million years. The article was eventually published in German in a student magazine called Ultrazinnober (No.3). Its available in German from Amazon.de

Here is the English version. I found it fun to read after 15 years....

Eight powers of ten

-Sugata Mitra


Projection, prediction, prophesy and fantasy

There are four ways you can think about the future. In the near term, the length of which may depend on the subject you are thinking about, you could project. For example, you can project that there will be more and better cars next year. You could even project how many cars will be sold by studying the trends from the past couple of years. Projection as a method of forecasting the future is safe if you take a small enough length of time and if the trends you are forecasting are in some pattern.

In the short and medium term, the length of which will also depend on what you are forecasting, projection may not work too well and you will need to predict. Predicting is different from projecting because you will need to see farther and, therefore, will need to take into account factors that may come into play that can disturb a smooth trend.

In the long term, which may spread over decades, you would need to prophesy, because, beyond a certain point, you may not be able to extrapolate to the future. Yet prophecy need not be merely intuitive, sometimes looking back at the past can give us clues about what might happen in the future.

In the very long term, say in hundreds of millennia, even prophecy, or intuition may not help. Here you can only fantasise. Even then, your imagination, which is the main tool for fantasy, is often derived from your knowledge, experience and desire. Even fantasy must have a basis.

When I sat down to write about what might happen to computers, I decided not to restrict myself to any period. Instead, I decided to start with projection and see when I need to move on to prediction, fly into prophesy and drift into fantasy. That way, we can go on a very long journey indeed, as you will see.

To organise the times we will talk about, I took powers of ten and added them to the year two thousand. So the first period will be the year 2000 plus ten to the power of zero, which gives us AD 2001. The next period would be the year 2000 plus ten to the power of 1, which gives us AD 2010 and so on.

Salt Lake City, Calcutta, was pleasant indeed on this December morning of 2001 when I began to look forward. The journey went on until eight powers of ten….

Power of zero: AD 2001 and onwards..

Processor
The two gigahertz Intel pentium will be commonly available around the end of 2002. Intel says so and they are usually very reliable.
Memory
Windows XP requires a minimum of 128 Mb so it is reasonable to suppose that 256 Mb will be common and 512 Mb RAMs will be what everyone will like to have.
Storage
Rewritable CDs are easily available and the standard will probably change to the DVD format that is currently used for video disks. This sort of standard will increase the CD capacity to something between 4 and 16 Gb by 2003.
Software
Windows and Linux will dominate the scene for sure. I hope Microsoft will make Windows free in this period. By the end of 2002 it will be clear which of these operating systems will dominate for the next few years. I think a Windows look-alike for Linux will probably be the winner.

Freeware and open source (where software writers give away the software for free and even tell you how to write your own) will become the new standard in most software. A new economics will have to emerge to decide how people will get paid for their labour.
The Internet
The Internet will explode with activity. A mature electronic commerce will rise from the ashes of the dot com bust and begin to take over from conventional business models. Some businesses will cease to exist as they do now. For example, the music industry will change completely, followed by the film distribution industry.

By 2003, Internet appliances will begin to become common in households. Mobile phones took over many of the functions of the PC in 2002, this was just a hint of devices to come. Machines with computers embedded in them, connected to and controlled through the Internet. For example (as a hopeful TV ad already shows), a refrigerator may “know” how much milk is in it, at what rate you consume it and, therefore, place an order over the Internet when required. It will, of course, check with your bank to see whether you have money to pay for your milk, before placing the order. Initially, it will even ask your permission before doing all this, but not for too long!

The toy industry will see the first major changes to Internet enabled toys. Teddy bears that download speech and music, cars that drive around on their own, robot toys, video telephony, games played by thousands of people all over the world, these and many more will be common.

Applications
So, what will we do with all this power? It is hard to project, but the next two years will be the beginning of a transition to a great, connected world that we can barely imagine.

Machines that think, machines that know, machines that remember and machines that are connected will be the dominating paradigm.


Power of one: AD 2010

Hardware
The computer as we know it would have disappeared and become small enough to fit into anything. From watches to handbags, from bottles to toilets, everything would have embedded computers in them. Everything would connect to everything wirelessly.

Computing power would have moved on to the equivalent of terahertz and would cease to be a limiting factor for most purposes. Storage would be entirely solid state and almost infinite at the molecular or atomic levels, where individual atoms and molecules would store one of more bits. A full-length feature film, for example, would be stored in a piece of material the size of a fingernail.

Software

Software would have changed to an art form. Each piece of software subtly different from another. Individuals will put together software on their own much as artists create paintings. The large corporations that used to create software will become manufacturers of software objects, the “paint”, the “brushes” and the “canvas” for the individual developers.

Every operating system will be different from each other, indeed every word processor will differ from each other, yet they will be able to communicate with each other and, sometimes even change themselves.

The Internet
One in every four human beings on earth would be connected. The Internet would be a melting pot of over four billion people. It will be used for everything, from religion to sex, business to government, from relationships to research, the net will rule all lives on the planet.
Living systems
The first decade of the 21st century will see massive advances in the life sciences. Genetic engineering will become the most preferred profession, finally dethroning computer science. We will begin to understand what life is and to manipulate this understanding to create organic and silicon life of our own design. The first artificial life forms, indistinguishable from nature will arrive in this decade.

Applications
Computing will be all-pervasive, to the extent that the term “computer application” will be considered archaic, like calling a bicycle a “machine application”.

Perhaps the greatest applications will be in medicine. Hearing and sight will be routinely restored by embedded systems. As will defective hearts, kidneys, lungs and livers. In the process an understanding of how silicon systems can interface with the brain will begin to form. An understanding that will change all humanity forever.

Power of two: AD 2100


To understand the year 2100, one needs only to agree that it will probably be at least as different from the year 2000 as 2000 was from 1900.

Software
Computing systems will be developing and maintaining their own software routinely. Such adaptive and self-organising systems will tailor themselves to their owners needs, much as a cell in a body can adapt itself into the correct organ depending on where it is.

Even more importantly, computing systems will be designing and creating new computing systems, the first artificial beings to do so.
The Internet
The net would have spread across the solar system, linking planetary Internets together. People would be routinely guiding vehicles on other planets as they can control web cameras in remote locations, today. Like computers, the Internet will be a non-issue. Something that everybody will take for granted. By the dawn of the 22nd century, machines will be controlling almost all aspects of human destiny.

Life and cognition
The big difference between the year 1900 and the year 2000 is in our fundamental understanding of nature. I think the greatest and the strangest of this understanding is our knowledge of quantum mechanics. An understanding that is the basis for all electronics. The ability of an electron to be in two places at the same time, to move backwards in time, to do almost everything the 19th century called impossible.

A similar understanding will change the world in the 22nd century as quantum mechanics did a century earlier. I think this time the breakthrough will be in the cognitive sciences. We will finally begin to understand cognition. The neural connections of the human brain will be completely mapped and understood. Psychology will have achieved the status of a mathematical science; much as chemistry did two hundred years earlier and biology will in the next fifty years.

Applications

People will be doing significantly different things than the previous century. All pervasive computing would have made many professions extinct. The programmer, the engineer, the doctor, the lawyer, the businessman, would all be fond old memories. The artist, the writer, the musician will be under threat from artificial cognitive systems.

Remote presence and the storage of human personalities will be as simple as writing an autobiography or creating an organ bank is today.

Education used to fill the first 25 years of life for thousands of years. In the 22nd century, its form and content would have changed completely. People will learn continuously and automatically. Machines and new educational methods would speed up the process ten fold. Primary education will be universal, ubiquitous and automatic.

The pursuit of pleasure will be a major preoccupation.

Power of three: AD 3000

Life, cognition and consciousness
If the 2nd millennium was the millennium of science and technology, the 3rd would have been the millennium of life and mind. The 4th will be the millennium of consciousness.

As cognition becomes understood a new Physics will establish itself.  A Physics of consciousness. It will have been invented in the 21st century, but will be used only in the 4th millennium.

While machines that are alive, cognitive and conscious will be common, their creators, human beings, will find less and less use for their own bodies and brains. The brain is a network of neurons. Neurons and their connections can be completely replicated in computer memories. Brains and their conscious personalities would be routinely represented as strings of zeros and ones – binary strings. Space travel would be common and non-physical. Bits can travel easily at the speed of light. Perhaps faster. Power, money, religion and sex, the driving forces of human destiny for many millennia would be irrelevant and nearly unknown.

Becoming a binary string has other advantages as well. Immortality being one. Humanity will begin its transformation from matter and energy to time and information.

Power of four: AD 12000

Meaning and creation
Ten thousand years is a long time. Long enough for changes to be strongly discontinuous. In 12000 BC, the Vedas (early Hindu philosophical text, circa BC8000?) had not been written, the pyramids had not been built and our understanding of the universe was minimal. We barely had clothes.

In AD 12000, ten thousand years from now, our understanding of the universe is just as dramatically different. We understand the nature of the universe in terms of information. Reality is mutable. We understand, finally, the meaning of meaning itself.

We had never learnt how to create matter or energy out of nothing, because it was impossible. We learn now how to create the perceptions of matter and energy, out of nothing, with information alone. The Universe is what we perceive. We begin the creation of a new reality. A universe created by us. We exist here as binary states, expressed any way we like. As magnetic poles, as photons, as abstract mathematics even. We choose our mode of existence. We are superhuman.

We have no bodies, only consciousness and memory that we preserve in our binary state. The Earth is a distant memory of an incredibly primitive existence.

Power of five: AD 102000

Change of species
Homo Sapiens gives way to Homo Eternal. They coexist for a while as the Neandertals did with us a hundred thousand years ago.

We have no individual identities; humanity merges into a single being. A Being without form - ageless and timeless.

There is no technology, we manipulate pure information and create new realities to play with. It is a turbulent time. We question why we are the way we are. We learn to live with ourselves alone, in a last, supreme loneliness.

“There were no stars, no Earth, no time
no check, no change, no good, no crime,
but stillness….”

Byron had said, a long, long time ago.


Power of six: AD 1,002,000

Point Omega
A million years pass, like a spark from a loose connection. The collective consciousness that calls itself Homo Eternal, meets other collective consciousnesses from other times and spaces. Each time they merge to form a greater whole. We reach Tielhard de Chardin’s Point Omega.

We grow and continue to search for a Supreme Consciousness, until we realise – We are That.

Tat twam asi – words from an incredibly distant past ring out again. (“Thou art That”, quoted from the Upanishads, early Hindu texts, circa BC 8000, author(s) unknown).

Power of seven: AD 10,002,000

Formlessness
The being that calls itself The Creator is tormented by Its own questions. It creates universe after universe, and watches helplessly as Its creation unfolds, evolves into pure consciousness and merges into Itself.

It wonders Why.

Epilogue


The evening sun shines weakly through the ashok trees in Salt Lake City. I save this article as magnetic domains on a plastic disc coated with rust (ferric oxide). The screen blanks out as the article converts itself into a binary string of zeros and ones.

The year 2002 seems like a very long time ago.

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