IEEE Fellows Survey
As our population ages and needs more care, there will be fewer young people to provide it. But don’t expect to fill the personnel gap with humanoid robotic nurses, say a majority of the more than 700 IEEE Fellows surveyed in a joint study by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and IEEE Spectrum.
The survey was conducted earlier this year to learn what developments IEEE Fellows expect in science and technology in the next 10 to 50 years. They ought to foresee such things better than most, because they have so much to do with bringing them about.
What other bubbles did the Fellows burst? Forget about being chauffeured to work by your car; the Fellows doubt that autonomous, self-driving cars will be in full commercial production anytime soon. And though they say Moore’s Law will someday finally yield to the laws of physics, slowing the increase in computer performance, the IEEE Fellows don’t expect to get around the problem by using quantum weirdness to perform calculations at fabulous speeds. Seventy-eight percent of respondents doubt that a commercial quantum computer will reach the market in the next 50 years. In short, the future is taking longer than expected to arrive.
”We tend to overestimate the impact of a technology in the short run and underestimate it in the long run,” observed former IFTF president Roy Amara years ago. The IEEE Fellows seemed to agree. On the whole, the Fellows turned out to be a down-to-earth bunch—no space elevators in most of their forecasts—and they were quick to dispel future hype while eager to ground their forecasts in state-of-the-art engineering.
A few were uncomfortable making forecasts, arguing that science and technology are unpredictable. At IFTF, we wholeheartedly agree. Trying to predict specific events and timing is best left to astrologers. Instead, our researchers in Palo Alto, Calif., look for signals—events, developments, projects, investments, and expert opinions, like those provided by this survey—that, taken together, give indications of key trends. Observed as a complex ecology, these signals reveal where these developments may be taking us.
The survey identified five themes that we believe are the main arteries of science and technology over the next 50 years: ”Computation and Bandwidth to Burn” involves the shift of computing power and network connectivity from scarcity to utter abundance; ”Sensory Transformation” hints at what happens when, as Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, puts it, ”things start to think”; ”Lightweight Infrastructure” is precisely the opposite of the railways, fiber-optic networks, centralized power distribution, and other massively expensive and complicated projects of the 20th century; ”Small World” is what happens when nanotechnology starts to get real and is integrated with microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and biosystems; and finally, ”Extending Biology” is what results when a broad array of technologies, from genetic engineering to bioinformatics, are applied to create new life forms and reshape existing ones.
Computation and Bandwidth to Burn
Over the past 25 years, we’ve seen two waves of technology infrastructure development. The first wave began in the 1980s, when computing power was decentralized from mainframes to PCs. In the 1990s, we added widespread access to the Internet, as well as communications capabilities, including e-mail, instant messaging, various online communication and collaboration tools, and high-speed connectivity. The IEEE Fellows foresee the continuation of both trends. Indeed, the two will coalesce as networking makes it possible to make use of a lot of processing power that today stands idle.
”There are roughly a billion PCs on the Internet, and they’re 98 percent available for computing,” says Larry Smarr, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. ”That’s like having a billion-processor computer just sitting there, with nobody using it.”
What will we be doing in this era of digital abundance? According to the Fellows, we will engage in highly sophisticated mathematics like deep data mining and combinatorics, for example, to seek out patterns in vast amounts of data and to construct models and simulations of increasingly complex phenomena. SETI@home is an early example of the former, and climate modeling is a familiar application of the latter. Also, sophisticated algorithms will enable near-perfect handwriting recognition, automatic real-time language processing, and unstructured speech recognition.
Biologists are rapidly becoming ”power users” of math and computational resources. We will map our genetic makeup, our biology, even our brains, with exponentially greater resolution. IEEE Fellows agree that within the next 50 years we will have accurate computational models of the human senses—vision, hearing, motion, touch, smell. But the Fellows are divided on the possibility of modeling human cognition.
On the other hand, these experts are confident that we will soon exploit the massive increase in processing power to improve climate modeling, specifically modeling the impact of solar weather on Earth’s climate. Unfortunately for those of us living along seismological fault lines, they don’t expect accurate earthquake prediction any time soon that would allow us enough lead time to evacuate.
Most Fellows believe that within 10 years, interactive computer graphics will be so lifelike that it will be hard to distinguish on screen between what is real and what is ”virtual.” Everyone will be able to do sophisticated simulations that let them see, hear, and even feel inputs and outputs. Computing pioneer Alan Kay believes that we are at the dawn of a new type of literacy—simulation literacy. Imagine running simulations of your own life, say, by asking how you would look if you lived on a vegan diet or ran 16 kilometers a day.