Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Internet is just a tool, compared to The Next Big Thing

What ever comes after the Internet will blow your mind, by its overwhelming impact on society. The Internet will cease to be an end in itself and become merely a tool like the computer itself.

The evolution of technology has many patterns which have been extensively documented. The most widely known is “Moore's law” which states that the transistor density on an integrated circuit will double about every two years. Now this isn't a law of any kind, its an observation that has remained true for 40 years. It is this “law” that has propelled the electronics industry forward. But it isn't Moore's law that I want to talk about. Not directly anyway.

Now I'm going to make an observation. Similar ones have been made before but this one's just a little different. “Approximately every 20 years a different - but not necessarily new - use for the computer eclipses the others so completely that it becomes the new primary reason to own a computer.” The old uses don't go away in fact they continue to grow in value and utility but the new use is so compelling that the old uses become secondary. Here is my line of reasoning.

Computers were put to a wide variety of uses from their inception. Some uses have been more important than others and over time these uses have changed in importance relative to each other. What I am interested in is the primary use of computers at any given time during their evolution.

First came the mainframe. The mainframe was introduced in the 1950s, and became important to business in the 1960s. Primarily as a record keeping tool. For any company with thousands of employees and hundreds of thousands of customers owning one gave them an advantage in efficiency so every large business had to have one. Medium sized companies bought time on the systems of larger ones and small companies did everything the old fashioned way manually.

Note I will not examine the evolutionary advances in mainframes and minicomputers. Sense I am examining the uses of computers not the hardware itself.

Next came the personal computer. Businesses of all sizes can afford them. The personal computer was invented in the 1970s and became a useful business tool in the 1980s. It also captured the imagination of the public at the same time. But it wasn't the personal computer itself that was so important. It was the fact that computers in general had become so powerful that their real usefulness and value came to lie in another one of their abilities, 'number crunching'. It was in this period that computers were used to sift through all the data that was being stored in them. This allowed company managers to have a clearer picture of the internal state of their companies and make better decisions, this made the economy as a whole much more efficient. Millions of people bought computers for their homes but most still didn't have a compelling reason to own.

Then came the Internet. Putting a computer on the Internet changes its utility yet again, now it is primarily a communications device. Development of the Internet started in the 1960s and it has evolved continually since. But the Internet didn't enter public consciousness until the mid 1990s, and now in the 2000s it is indispensable to modern life. We couldn't run our economy without it. It allows anyone connected to it to communicate with anyone else, almost no one wants to be without it.

Now here's the punch line. The next big thing will arrive in the year 2015. It's something we use our computers for already but it's something they don't handle very well, more refinement of the software is needed, so it must wait until its time comes. The rise of this use will change the way we live, work and play. The Internet will facilitate it, as it does with so many other services but it will be bigger and more valuable than any other. More valuable than Google, more valuable than Amazon.com, more valuable than Myspace and Facebook combined. More valuable than Microsoft. Everybody will want it, politicians will say it's a human right and by 2025 everyone will have it.

Now the fun part. I'm going try and guess what it is. I'll probably be wrong but I won't let that stop me. Remember that whatever it is, it already exists just in a less significant form and it awaits an unknown technological breakthrough to propel it forward.

Here are some big ideas but I will only use the first one, the others are too powerful to assess their impact. We'll save those for 2035 and 2055.

  1. Natural language Interfaces - Talk to your computer conversationally. Tell your computer what you want it to do and it does it. Ask it what you want to know and it tells you. Tell it who you want to speak to and it connects you.

  1. General Artificial Intelligence. - Tell your computer what problem to solve and it solves it, no programing necessary. This one gets you to the next one in a hurry.

  1. The Singularity - Tell your computer what you want and it gives it to you and everybody has one.

These are some big ideas in fact each successive one evolves naturally out of the previous one. So they may all come true eventually but they don't speak to a particular use for your computer. Yes a lot of uses come to mind when these things are contemplated but what is 'the' use? The one that eclipses all others.

I think it's this. Educational software that really works. Sound mundane? How about this?

The fact is nobody knows how to create educational software thats truly engaging. Software so compelling that you can't tear yourself away. You forget to eat, go to the bathroom, bathe and you forget to call your mother for weeks. When you finally do come up for air. you wouldn't have wasted your time because you'll be smarter, better informed, and more productive. Sound far fetched? Well what do you get when you give a billion people accesses to the sum total of human knowledge, allow them to communicate instantly with anyone else, layer on a natural language interface that lets you speak to your computer as conversationally as another human being and it tells you anything you want to know?

The next big thing that's what and we only have to wait until 2015.

The Internet with a natural language interface makes this possible but remember the Internet is just a tool.