Modern telecommunications is the transmission of electromagnetic signals using technology that ultimately delivers useful information to people or machines in the form of voice, data, and video. But the essence of telecommunications is content, not technology or signals. Until now, the properties of this content have been limited by available bandwidth. But wired (or fiber) bandwidth is now abundant and becoming more so. Likewise, wireless bandwidth has effectively doubled every 2.5 years since Guglielmo Marconi received his first wireless telegraphy patent 105 years ago. The same pace of innovation (more than a trillion times) will continue for the next 100 years (an observation I call Cooper's Law). This inexorable growth and the resulting abundance of fixed and untethered bandwidth will set the stage for innovations that will profoundly affect human society for the next 1,000 years.
Thus, when I speak of "the future" in general terms, I'm referring to the changes that will characterize both the coming century and the coming millennium. Other changesthose reflecting the effects of specific technologiesare defined accordingly.
My approach to viewing the coming centuries is to first examine the networks that carry the content and the terminals that transfer it between people and machines in the context of the abundance of bandwidth and the continuing advancement of device technology. That's the easy part. More difficult is predicting the effect of this combination on people, but since neither you nor I will survive its realization in the projected time frame, there's little risk in doing so (other than the ridicule of disbelief, of which I have survived a great deal).
Displays are implanted directly into the lens of each eye, "speakers" into the ears, and smells created in the nose or delivered directly to the brain.
For people, the delivery of bandwidth can be described as the creation of awareness. Imagine that, in some magic way, technology could deliver to you, over a distance (the "tele" part), all of the sensations of some remote event. Included would be all five senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing, vision. Would there be any difference in your perception of the event compared to actually being there? Technology already delivers the sensation of hearing, and perhaps vision, not only accurately but increasingly in an enhanced form over the original.
Let's start with the infrastructurethe networkfor the delivery of awareness. Future spectrum utilization will progress to the point that the entire useful radio spectrum is available to each human on the planet. Regulation has become just a matter of ensuring that individuals are protected from interfering signals; frequency allocation is no longer a function of the regulators, since each individual arguably ownsand regulateshis or her own spectrum.
100 years. This extraordinary use of the spectrum will be achieved through a highly distributed network of fixed stations synchronized and interconnected such that the radio frequency energy received at each user terminal is a combination of signals transmitted from multiple antennas and base stations. Superconducting, surface acoustic wave, piezoelectric, and other types of esoteric filters minimize any remaining interference. A variety of air interfaces serves an even greater variety of applications. The usable spectrum extends into the millimeter range, even into the light range for some applications. Although the number of antenna and base station sites will have increased exponentially, each integrated into ever-smaller packages in cleverly camouflaged or invisible locations.
1,000 years. Each base station will be little more than an antenna or antenna array with radio-frequency electronics, system intelligence, and self-contained nuclear power supply unified with the radiating element. The self-organizing network is distributed down to the level of every dwelling and the rooms within dwellings. This intelligent network delivers many times the useful radio spectrum to each individual.
In the future, the "terminal" will evolve into an "awareness machine" providing the user sensory connections to the outside world; today's telephone and interconnected computer will evolve into an array of specialized devices, including cameras, music players, and just plain eyes and ears. Many such specialized terminals will meet the needs of the world's diverse human population, providing different functionality to each of them.
100 years. Goodbye keyboards, desktop displays, speakers, microphones, and batteries. A personal terminal might be hidden in a pair of "glasses." Voice is the primary input device; it's taken 50 years to achieve today's primitive state of voice recognition; in another 100 we'll get it right. Eye, hand, and other body movements refine voice input. The virtual display features resolution approaching that of the human eye. Users can choose to view any combination of remote image, local ambience (the "real" world), or anything in between. Sight is in 3D, color, and full motion without the compression and resolution artifacts marring today's bandwidth-constrained remote viewing. Surround-sound speakers built into, say, the frames of the glasses produce audio indistinguishable from the original. The heat of the wearer's body powers the assembly.
1,000 years. All terminal functions are integrated into the user's body. Displays are implanted directly into the lens of each eye, "speakers" into the ears, and smells created in the nose or delivered directly to the brain. Each of these transducers has at its disposal the entire usable spectrum. Who performs all the complex implantations? Machines, of course, which have long since become much smarter and more facileby many orders of magnitudethan people.
Historically, the typical time from laboratory to widespread deployment of emerging technologies, though frequently described as "revolutionary," is rarely less than 30 years or so. Thus, the "future" tends to arrive gradually. But ultimately, as remote awareness improves, people with access to the most advanced technologies will have less and less reason to travel from their homes merely to sense something new. Even 1,000 years may be inadequate to allow science to replicate the sensations of hang gliding or skydiving, but one will have to find better and better reasons for leaving the comforts and safety of home.
The need for people to physically congregate for social reasonsother than the most intimate interactionswill diminish. Cities will be less densely populated, though the world's average population density will increase. The entire infrastructure will be reoriented to the dispersed stay-at-home population.
Who will be able to afford these technological advancements? I assume that other productivity-enhancing technologies will evolve along with telecommunications. The machines will do most, if not all, the useful work; people will do what they wish, assuming, of course, the machines do not decide, at some point, that people are redundant and dispense with them entirely. I'm optimistic that humanity will prevail.
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.
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