Future tech: Smaller chips and smarter machines

Size, speed, and smarts are the three technological attributes that will change the most in the future. Bob Weinstein talks to forward-looking technologists and researchers to get an idea of what tools we'll be using in the years ahead.

The good thing about predicting the future is that you can be dead wrong and no one will hold it against you. But when your projections are right, you’re lauded as a visionary. Now that I’ve reported the best guesses about what jobs will be hot in the future, let’s see what respected technology forecasters predict will be the technological advances in the years ahead.

Chips will keep shrinking
The biotechnology field is going to explode, projects John L. Petersen, president of The Arlington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank specializing in theories about the future. One of the hottest biotech areas is nanotechnology.

“It didn’t exist 15 years ago,” Petersen said, “but now it’s in its early stages and will be fully developed in two to three years.”

Nanotechnology explores the fascinating world of atoms, where things are measured in nanometers, a distance that is one-hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair, or one-millionth of a millimeter.

Scientists and technologists are working on moving atoms to change the nature of matter. By altering the molecular structure of the materials that make up chips, chips can be produced that are 10,000 times faster than the ones we have today. Computers the size of a credit card will store all the knowledge you’ve accumulated since you were born. “Sensors, lasers, and virtually all electronic devices will be extraordinarily small,” Petersen said.

The emerging field will need people who hold a host of science and engineering skills. “Nanotechnology is a field in which technology, biotechnology, physics, and chemistry overlap,” Petersen said.

Smart sensors and even smarter computers
Another growth area is sensor technology, according to Peter Bishop, chairman of the Studies of the Future program at the University of Houston.

“Artificial intelligence software will be the backbone of smart machines,” he predicted. “Sensor technology will reshape the way we live. The sensors will do simple things independently of humans. Your dishwasher, for example, will sense that the water is dirty, recycle it, and then shut itself off.”

Sensor technology will also make driving safer. The next step in cruise control will be adaptive cruise control. A Doppler system will adjust a car’s speed to those of other cars or trucks on the road, apply the brakes when approaching a red light or stop sign, and automatically stop at tollbooths.

Artificial intelligence software also will be used to instantaneously retrieve information from the Internet and arrange it in meaningful three-dimensional clusters. You’ll be able to see what’s in a database to find what you’re looking for. “You can look at 5,000 Web sites 24 hours a day,” Petersen added.

Advanced applications and systems integration skills are two areas of expertise that will be needed to develop this new generation of software.

Your helpful electronic friend
Finally, “ultra-intelligent electronic agents” will make our lives even easier, according to Dan Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research Associates, a research and consulting firm in Milwaukee. In just four years, the agents will be controlled by software plugged into the Net, according to Burrus. “It will be with you wherever you go, accessible through a cell phone, computer, or TV,” he said.

Need information instantaneously? Your electronic agent will get it for you. Let’s say you’re taking a client out to lunch and she is hungry for Italian food. No problem. You pick up your cell phone and tell your agent you need information about nearby Italian restaurants. The agent instantly tells you how many Italian restaurants meet your criteria and rates their quality as well. “Your agent will know you better than you know yourself,” Burrus explained.

You can even give it a name and physical form when you retrieve it on your PC or TV. “For a tiny royalty charge, you can even use the form of a celebrity like Pamela Anderson or Mel Gibson,” Burrus said.

Through biometrics (the use of a fingerprint, retinal print, or voice match for access), no one can unlock your agent but you. Major technology firms such as AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo will be involved in creating the agents, and there will be career opportunities in developing, programming, and marketing this “super” software.

For information about any of the above technologies, start plugging into futurist networks. The World Future Society in Bethesda, MD, is a good place to start.

Does the future look bright or dim?
Do you want a computer to know more about you than you do? Would a smart car not allow you to speed? Are these new products worthwhile technological advancements or just new machines to buy and maintain? Share your opinion with us.