Feature Article
Computer Technology - How far can it go, and... what for?

January 1, 2000
By Scott Lewis

As the great R.E.M. songs goes:

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

Since we survived the great destruction of the world (Y2K), I though it would be appropriate to write about where computers are headed in the near future, and where they could go in the distant future.

But what for? That is an idea I have had for a while. Oops, that is for later.

As I am writing this Intel and AMD are battling it out for the most powerful desktop computer at 800 & 750 MHz, respectfully. I believe we will see computers running at 1 GHz by the end of the year.

According to Moore’s Law, computing processing power doubles every 18 months. This has held true for about 20 years now. Last year I built a computer that ran at 450 MHz (with a 400 MHz Celeron CPU). At the time the fastest processor from Intel was the 500 MHz PIII. If we hit 1 GHz by the end of 2000 we will be within a month or two of Moore’s Law.

What speed will we reach in another 20 years? If we hit the magic 1 GHz mark in 2000 (that would make a great ad campaign... 1000 Mhz in 2000, don’t you think) and double it every eighteen months until 2020, we will have computers running in our cubicles at 8 THz (8,192 GHz, 8,192,000 MHz).

That reminds me of the old "double a penny every day for a month and become a millionaire" joke as a kid.

So what are we supposed to do with computers that run over 8 million times faster than they do today? For starters let’s get one thing straight, Moore’s Law is close to running out of steam. My guess is that within the next 5 years Moore’s Law will fall apart. This is due to the physical limitations of silicon. Until some new technology in materials emerges silicon can only be pushed so far, and we will run out of steam soon. But for the sake of arguments, let’s assume that we get over silicon’s eventual limitations, and find another material for use in manufacturing processors.

Let’s look at storage for a moment. I bought my first computer in 1990 with 8 MB of memory and a 40 MB hard drive. The memory was a lot at the time. 1 MB was standard, and 2 MB was optional. I predicted very early that the operating system was going to need a lot of memory to run well, and ordered the most memory (at $100 per MB) the computer could hold.

In early 1999 I built a computer with 128 MB of memory and an 18 GB hard drive. If we take those numbers we could say memory doubles about every two years (8x2x2x2x2=128, which is inline with 128MB of memory available in 1998). The same math used for storage has it doubling almost every year (40x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2=20480, or 20GB that was available when I built my computer).

So, it is 2020 and we go down to Best Buy to check out the all new 8 THz PC complete with 132 GB of RAM, and 18,000 TB (damn, what comes after terabyte?) hard drive. Now I can ask it again...

What for? What are we going to do with all that computing power? I know... finally we can run Windows 95 decently. But really, what good will all that power be to you and me?

I would assume games would be GREAT. Since video cards are moving faster than the rest of the PC (at least for the moment), we should see true living colors. In fact with that amount of storage at hand we should be seeing actual real life footage that contains an almost infinite number of possibilities for outcome. Cool. In fact a holodeck should be possible in my lifetime. (Read this for a glimpse of the technology available today that will grow into a holodeck in the future.)

So games will be great. Office applications should finally be instantaneous. Nah, they will just be bloated with even more features that nobody really needs. Digital cameras WILL replace film. If the next generation of the Internet (supposed to be capable of 622Mbps around 2003. No, not for personal use yet) is an indication of the speed we will have 20 years from now, we should have on demand movies in USHD-TV (Ultra Super High Definition-TV, my own term).

None of this answers the basic question... what for? If computers become so fast that they can complete extremely complex tasks (even booting up Windows) in an instant, when will computers really do what I firmly believe they should... improve the quality of our lives?

The Internet and its broadband access is just a convenience. It doesn’t change the way we live our lives. We end up be exposed to more information, much more quickly. But this doesn’t really make our lives any better. Shopping online may someday replace malls, which is great if you are tired of shopping with a bunch of crazed teenagers. Yet I fail to see how the lack of interaction with people will improve our lives.

Personally, I am looking forward to when computers due what they have promised all along... do the mundane tasks that people due so that we can enjoy our lives. What do I mean? Simple, when computers first started making their way to the desktop it was to make things like word-processing easier and faster. This is true, and that is why we don’t have typewriters anymore. We have spreadsheet software that is an accountant’s dream come over paper and pencil. I could go on and on with examples, but these will due.

So if we have all this office automation at our disposal now, and will obviously have much more available later, when do we get to work less? That was the promise of computers. Once they could do many of the tasks of people, then those people should be able to work less, and use the time they do work more productively. Computers promised the 30-hour workweek, but it seems to be more like 50.

Unfortunately, corporate greed makes people work even harder to keep up with computers rather than the other way around. You can expect computers to be used to make sure you work harder, longer, more stress filled lives.

It is only when the world takes stock in humanity that we will realize that we should rely on computers to due the things that get in the way of our lives. Then we can live better lives.

This is what I am waiting for. How about you?