IT continues to revolutionize on a daily basis the way in which human society operates, to the extent that change itself is no longer perceived as something new, but rather has become the normal state of affairs. Amongst all areas of human and economic activity, IT continues to lead and stimulate further this fast pace of change.
As hard evidence of this fact, we could describe an almost endless set of recent developments, including applications in aerospace, astronomy, medicine, cloud computing, smartphones, artificial intelligence (AI), drones, robots, voice and image recognition, Internet security, and so on. So what novelties and trends can we expect for 2016 and the years ahead?
OVERCOMING LIMITS TO GROWTH
An important phenomenon to consider in order to understand where we currently stand in the IT arena, and where we might be in the near future, is the concept of limits to growth. It stems from the principle of social systems, according to which any system will evolve rapidly toward a certain limit, but will evolve nofurther unless subjected to some form of discrete step change. This limit to growth results from the accelerated depletion of the available resources, or from an impaired ability to access and/or make use of those resources.
Examples of this phenomenon abound, from the history of the universe, life on earth, and human history. A fairly recent and familiar example is the step change achieved with the principles of mass production and economies of scale brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Another even more familiar example is the discrete step change brought about by the invention of computers. The emergence of the Internet is probably the most significant step change recently achieved in the IT world after the creation of computers in the 1950s.
So what “Internet-like” step change can we expect that will revolutionize business and society in the decade ahead? Are we at the point of achieving a new step change? Do we really need one?
STEP CHANGE AHEAD?
A first symptom that a step change lies ahead is when an unchanging constraint starts having a limiting effect on growth. Do we currently face such constraints? In my opinion, yes. One obvious constraint is socioeconomic: unlike what we foresaw less than a decade ago, at the present time we do not enjoy a global environment of substantial economic growth and expansion. The world has become smaller and smaller, and Earth’s resources are becoming too few to fuel growth and prosperity in a way capable of sustaining continuous massive funding and practical use of technological developments.
Am I being too pessimistic? Let us look at an example and ask a simple question: is Internet speed growing exponentially worldwide? Looking at the latest statistics from Akamai, the content delivery network services provider, the global average Internet speed grew just 10% (year over year) to 5.0 Mbps, with only 4.6% of users worldwide having broadband. Is this a sign of exponential sustained growth of Internet speed and usage across the world population? No. This is not because we lack the technology; it is primarily due to economic constraints. We can see that there is clearly a constraint imposed on growth that results from limited resources.
If we are to expect a significant step change in what IT has to offer business and society in general, it will have to do with a radical increase in the speed with which information and data are processed and transmitted. Information and data storage capacity will necessarily come hand in hand with this increase in speed; the faster we process information, the more data we produce in a single time unit, which then needs to bestored in greater quantities.
FULFILLING THE NEED FOR SPEED
Recent developments in astronomy and space exploration remind us that we are subject to a severely limiting constraint on speed, which Einstein discovered back in the early 20th century: the speed of light. For despite how fast light may appear to our eyes and mind, even if humanity were able to develop a spacecraft capable of traveling at the speed of light, it would take far more than a lifetime to visit the nearest planet in our universe that could sustain conditions for life as we know it. Therefore, unless we overcome this speed barrier, we will be forever limited to our growth in technology. And while Einstein would say (and indeed demonstrated) that the speed of light cannot be overcome, recent developments and physics also demonstrate that nature supports the instantaneous transmittal of information — a phenomenon called quantum entanglement.
How does this affect the IT world? The search for the ideal instantaneous speed to transmit information is well underway; it is already influencing the way we build computers and promises to revolutionize computing speed in both processing and information transmittal. This achievement has been in the making since the beginning of the 21st century: it is called quantum computing and is based on the principles of the most impacting and yet least understood branch of science, quantum mechanics, more broadly referred to as quantum physics. What is it about? In short, quantum mechanics tells us that the elementary particles of matter like electrons (and unlike the macroscopic objects we perceive in the macroscopic world) can be at many places at the same time, behaving like a wave of probability, as opposed to a discrete particle that can only be in one single place at a given moment in time.
As unreal and absurd as this might sound — and it surely is highly counterintuitive — the quantum theory has been tested repeatedly in laboratories and has always been confirmed. Not only is it very real, we have been making use of it all along in the digital world of computers to master the underlying phenomenon of electricity and electronics.
As it happens, scientists are now moving further into exploring in practice this “weird” property of simultaneity that breaks the barriers of space and time. Quantum physics has also revealed that the properties of elementary particles can become entangled, and hence if the status of one particle changes, the other entangled particle will also change its state instantaneously, regardless of the physical distance between the two particles. The full mastery of this quantum reality may even, eventually, hold the key to teleportation in space-time. For now, however, we are just aiming to make use of these “weird” properties to achieve an enormous discrete step change in computing processing power and speed.
The idea of quantum computing leads to the development of quantum computers. These new computers make use of the quantum properties of the physical elementary particles, through the concept of quantum-bits (or “qubits”), elementary particles of information that can be in the state of 0 and 1 at the same time, as opposed to the “traditional” digital computers where a bit can only be in the state of 0 or 1 at a given moment in time. This new computing paradigm will allow computers to process and transmit information — and thereby solvecomplex problems — at speeds not otherwise achievable with current computers.
Over the last three years alone, an array of events indicate the explosive interest in and potential of quantum computing. These range from a Nobel Prize in Physics for work in quantum physics that supports quantum computing (October 2012) to NASA’s public display of the world’s first fully operational quantum computer, developed by the Canadian company D-Wave Systems (December 2015). Other organizations currently involved and investing in quantum computing includeGoogle, Microsoft, and IBM.
Coupled with these developments are parallel revolutionary developments in the areas of nanotechnology, biocomputing, biological computing, and DNA computing, amongst others, in which researchers are exploring the potential of biological elements (e.g., living cells, DNA strings) for use in data storage and processing. In terms of data storage capacity, natural evolution is well ahead of humanity; the amount of information that can be found in a DNA string, for example, far outstrips the information storage capacity of the most sophisticated computer-based data storage system developed to date. The exploration of these biological elements is in turn being integrated with quantum physics through the new field of quantum biology.
As we explore the physics of the elementary matter to master the technology with which we develop computers and understand life and biology, the more the universe seems to fit the workings of an immensely powerful computer. These discoveries are now enabling us to bring into our own computers the formidable power of the very elementary laws of nature, in particular the instantaneous transmittal of information.
Turning Point in Sight
Over the next decade, we are on the verge of seeing a turning point taking place in computer speed and processing power. This will be the result of a discrete step change, the precise moment of which is difficult to predict, just as it is difficult to predict the broad implications for the IT world and business models and society in general. Nevertheless, we can surely anticipate a highway opening very soon to a number of developments that we have been pursuing in the last decade. At the top of my list of predictions is the further development of AI to that point that smart machines and intelligent robots will be integral elements of our daily life.
With resources becoming more limited as the world grows smaller, we might expect a slowdown in the pace of revolutionary IT developments. As we reach the inevitable limits to growth, we could end up focusing only on optimizing what we already have and, thus, just becoming more efficient in doing practically the same thing.
However, we’ve seen this scenario before in the development of human society and of systems in general. When we reach this point of potential deadlock, stagnation is overcome by discrete step changes, accidental or human-made, which suddenly open avenues for new developments based on new paradigms. Examples range from the agricultural revolution to the rise of democracy in Greece and Rome (which social model still shapes the western cultures today), to the discovery of the New World, to the Industrial Revolution, to the invention of modern computers and the Internet.
Today we face a new forthcoming step change in our ability to manage information and the physical environment around us through information technology. The technology most likely to trigger and sustain such a discrete change, capable of breaking the barriers of timeand space (which are starting to limit us to further progress), is quantum computing. This paradigm is based on perhaps the most powerful discovery of all time for our understanding of the universe: quantum physics. Well beyond science fiction, quantum computers are just now becoming something the major players in the IT and aerospace worlds are seriously exploring, as they aim to become the innovators and leaders of the “IT quantum leap.”