The Technology of 2020â¿¿and Beyond

In our annual poll of IEEE Fellows, a lot of tech hype was tossed in the trash bin, but a lot of hope was sifted from the remainder of the speculation to offer plenty of encouragement to those who are working on the technology of tomorrow. In "Bursting Tech Bubbles Before They Balloon", authors Marina Gorbis and David Pescovitz summarize the findings of the joint survey conducted by IEEE Spectrum and the Institute for the Future (IFTF).

Yesterday, we wrote about the findings of the Pew Internet and American Life Project report, "The Future of the Internet II." Today, we'll overview what our own experts have to say about technology a couple of decades down the road. We polled more than 700 IEEE Fellows for their views on future developments in computer science, telecommunications, electronics, sensors and robotics, physics, space and earth sciences, and materials and nanotechnology. Here's a sampling of some of the things they forecast.

  • Computer Science: Will a universal language translator become commercially available? Unlikely 15.1%. Equal chances 20.1%. Likely 64.8%. When is this likely to occur? 10 years or less 19.8%. 11 to 20 years 50%.

  • Telecommunications: Will terabit optical networks be common? Unlikely 3.5%. Equal chances 6.9%. Likely 80.6%. When is this likely to occur? 10 years or less 42.2%. 11 to 20 years 46.9%.

  • Electronics: Will the semiconductor industry hit the "Moore's Law" wall? Unlikely 12.5%. Equal chances 15.4%. Likely 70.7%. When is this likely to occur? 10 years or less 29.6%. 11 to 20 years 53.5%.

  • Sensors and Robotics: Will household robotics be widely adopted? Unlikely 17.8%. Equal chances 29.5%. Likely 48.8%. When is this likely to occur? 10 years or less 16.1%. 11 to 20 years 50%.

  • Space and Earth Sciences: Will microelectromechanical systems be widely applied to medicine? Unlikely 15.4%. Equal chances 22.1%. Likely 59.6%. When is this likely to occur? 10 years or less 19.6%. 11 to 20 years 50%.

  • Materials and Nanotechnology: Will microscale robotics become viable? Unlikely 15.4%. Equal chances 26.9%. Likely 52.9%. When is this likely to occur? 10 years or less 9.6%. 11 to 20 years 53.8%.

As Gorbis and Pescovitz, of the IFTF, write: "[O]ur survey does not try to predict the sci-tech future but merely to uncover key directions. So although we may not be able to say that in 2015 a space elevator will be shuttling goods and people into orbit or that in 2020 we'll all have robot servants, we can foresee that in the next several decades we will be building our infrastructure in a new way: we will have unlimited computing resources, live in a sensory-rich computing environment, and reengineer ourselves and the biological world around us. Understanding these larger trends helps organizations think about adapting to the future, and thus shaping it. Alan Kay's prescription: 'The best way to predict the future is to invent it.'"

We can think of no better way to approach what lies ahead for technology.

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