IT Policies

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Is there nothing new in IT?

Innovation has moved elsewhere - for now

Written in a coffee shop on Fleet Street in London and dispatched to silicon.com via a low cost wi-fi service

A journalist just asked me if I could think of any really stunning advances in ICT during the past year. Bluntly I was stumped! A few years ago, answering instantly and at length wouldn't have been a problem. In fact there would have been a long list of advancements but today I had to think for a long time - and finally concluded that it was all looking a bit pedestrian.

Don't get me wrong, for sure the invention and innovation at the core physics, technology and engineering level of ICT are as dramatic and exciting as ever. Advances in storage density, processing power and displays continue at an amazing pace but at the user level it all seems like more of the same but better. 'Smaller, faster, cheaper' seems to be the industry mantra.

Even in the arena of applications and services there seems to be a 'sameness' evident. On the software side the real innovations and inventions are far from pushing the envelope for everyday applications and operations, and we may not see their commercial counterparts for some time.

So what is happening? Where are the big deals? Could it be we are seeing a lull before the storm? My take is that three basic things are underway:

  • By and large ICT is stuck in the proverbial rut of refining what we already have and creating variants on the same theme - all in order to satisfy the market and funding requirements of yesterday.

  • The real innovators are hidden away working on artificial intelligence, artificial life, cognitive search engines and humanised interfaces. When the fruits of their labours will emerge on the market is anyone's guess but when they do they will upset the status quo for sure.

  • Most significantly, ICT is contributing hugely to just about every corner of innovation in biotech, genetics, nanotech, photonics, nuclear and quantum physics, materials, earth sciences and more. At least three of these topics hold out great prospect for future computing technologies which will see ICT technology performance and innovation orders of magnitude greater than that we enjoy today.

As best we can estimate, ICT progress - in terms of chip technology - may well hit the end of the road (often referred to as Moore's Wall) around 2015 to 2018. Whether that turns out to be an optimistic or pessimistic estimate will in all probability be irrelevant as we can see even more technology options on the far side of the wall than hitherto!

I don't expect to have to wait until 2018 to see some significant ICT innovation. My guess is that there will be a couple of really big pushes in the area of cognitive search, humanised interfaces and situation modelling that will lead to greater utility and unparalleled decision support.

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Should this turn out not to be the case, we could see a significant economic downturn as productivity through sheer ICT brute force and ignorance is slowly coming to an abrupt end. If the machines don't get smarter our overall productivity and progress will stall across a broad front.

Will it happen? I think not! There is sufficient progress in the laboratories of the world for all of us to be optimistic. We have been here many times before with much less reason to be so optimistic. This time around the tech availability and opportunity space are even greater.

Personally, I am waiting - I could use it all now...

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.