Gazing into the future.

I was fortunate to attend a conference session last week in which Ray Kurzweil, ( Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Kurzweil Technologies - Baltimore, MD gave a fascinating talk regarding the future of technology.

If the name sounds vaguely familiar to you – it should. Here is a clip from his own speaker’s bio: “Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by the Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries. He has received thirteen honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents.

As one of the leading inventors of our time, Ray was the principal developer of the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.”

Ray also considers himself quite the prognosticator when it comes to predicting technology. Although I have not had an opportunity to check the accuracy of his track record, he gave many examples of how accurate he has been in his predictions.

Whether or not he is accurate to the minute or year, or even decade on his predictions, he gave an extremely thought provoking talk that had the audience riveted in their seats and buzzing afterwards. I thought I would share some of his predictions with you and also some of my own and how I think they will influence IT will function in the workplace in the future. While I claim no expertise in being able to predict the future, I think the corollaries that stem from Mr. Kurzweil’s predictions might prove valid.

One of the first predictions he made in his talk was that speech translation will be a common feature in cell phones in the next 5 to 10 years. He then showed a clip of a translation session between German and English speech over the phone that is being tested in labs today. – Quite impressive. If we take this prediction and premise a bit further – a universal translator would not be far behind. This would assume a device that fit in your ear like a hearing aid and translated any language into the language of your choosing. Assuming the person you want to speak with is equipped with a similar device – foreign language no longer becomes a barrier to communication – at least to a degree – since we often have difficulties communicating to one another in our own language.

However, a device like this truly does “flatten the world” so to speak. Couple this with a text translator which surly will be available about the same time and suddenly globalization now has an exponent next to it. What this means to us is that choosing a vendor for services no longer will be constrained by language and outsourcing becomes easier than it is now. Whether this is “good” or “bad” I leave up to you to decide – but I think it will be a reality for those of us in the business over the next 10 years.

Mr. Kurzweil’s next two predictions kind of came as a bundle: That high speed internet/network access will be ubiquitous in the next ten years and that the PC as we know it (because of miniaturization) will disappear.

I can certainly go along with the first part – ubiquitous high-speed internet/network access – but it begs the question “whose network/s will we be riding on and what does that mean for us regarding security? I think the whole concept of private networks will be challenged and it will really put the V in VPN. As for the second part – I have a harder time wrapping my arms around. In his world (according to the talk) we will have displays that project from some head worn device or implant that will either completely fill our field of vision or partially fill it (like a HUD). And although he did not say it, he implied that our computing device will be so small that keyboarding will be impossible and we will communicate via voice recognition.

I am trying to picture in my mind a person sitting in a chair and saying “computer show me a list of the latest sales figures grouped by region – and then staring into space as his field of vision fills with the information.

I don’t think this is too far fetched. I think though that this has big implications for us in IT though. Given the development of more intelligent query tools and more powerful databases (which is certainly possible over the next ten years) I see skill requirements for workers changing dramatically. Rather than having to be skilled at querying the data or creating pivot tables etc. the most highly prized workers will be those who can think critically and ask the intelligent questions.

Riding along on this thought – I think our networking and computing equipment will become more and more “self healing” and require less hands on intervention from IT staff. So what will we be doing to bring value to our customers? Hmm, good question. I think security will still be an issue and that may be a niche for us.

Mr. Kurzweil then went on to talk about the fusion of biology and computing. Neural implants and intelligent nanobots will become commonplace. Not long ago I was writing about how baby boomers want to work longer but their bodies probably will prevent them from doing so, and I had Mr. Kurzweil standing in front of me telling me that biotechnology is going to extend my lifespan and quality of life by over 10 years. Who’s right? I hope he is – but that’s not going to stop me from trying to prepare for the exodus of knowledge due to the baby boom generation retiring – after all – if their neural implants and nanobots are making them feel like a 20 year old again – retirement could be REAL fun.

Lastly, my own prediction – I think we have hit a period in which IT has become so commoditized that few companies truly use it for competitive advantage and that many are just on an even footing with one another. I think in the next ten years there will be another significant paradigm shift in computing (perhaps along the lines that Mr. Kurzweil speaks of) and that those organizations that can recognize it and employ it quicker than their competitors will gain a significant advantage. Very similar to what happened in the 70’s and 80’s.

Of course, only time will tell on all of this, and I am sure IT will look very different then as it does now to us when we look back a decade or two. The only thing I am sure of is that it will remain exciting and important and I hope I’m around to witness it and influence it.

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