Τρίτη, Δεκεμβρίου 28, 2004

Predictions for 2015

I am amazed by the amount of scientific and technical progress. It is becoming increasingly hard to predict the future of things to come. People thought that by 2001 we would be roaming the galaxies (which might have happened if space travel had remained the top priority of the civilized world). The most important aspect is not the difficulty of the problem, but the amount of resources allocated to its solution. In that sense, the most important determinant of future technologies and discoveries is the perceived importance of a problem, which of course changes over time. A few years ago nobody cared about space exploration, thus progress in that sector had declined. This emphasizes the importance of market and sociopolitical trends that shape the priorites of research. Scientists enjoy cool projects (e.g. prion research was a very hot topic even though many, many more people die from malaria than from Creutzfeld-Jakobs disease) and there is such a thing as research "fashion".

Space technology
Interest in space exploration has heated up considerably for several reasons. Systems like GPS are the cornerstone of modern military operations, telecommunications (including Internet, TV, phones) really need satellite links and of course space progress has once again become a matter of prestige and competition between China, EU and US. Even private parties have started designing and funding space-related projects. Most likely we will see some significant progress in the years to come. Several new technologies are being tried and I really anticipate a significant breakthrough until 2015 (manned mission to Mars? new space station? new lunar landing?).

Computer technology
Many people enjoy quoting "Moore's law" (observation or proposition would be a more accurate term) that roughly states that microchip progress is exponential. Impressively enough this has held for many years, back from my Amstrad 6128 (Z-80 processor) to todays monsters like the Athlon64. An even faster progress has occured in the video card arena. Will this progress hold? It depends on several factors. Until now the software market has not failed to eat up all available computing power, therefore increasing demand for new hardware.

Games and entertainment have a long way to go until a really life-like experience is available to the consumer, so this is obviously an area where more innovation will bring higher hardware requirements. The gaming experience will likely be the main driving force in the years to come, with massive multiplayer online games being the most important trend. Single player games may even become complex enough to replace the cinematic movies. Already we see many movies being accompanied by the launch of related video games (e.g. Spiderman, Lord of the Rings and many others). Distributable media will become much less important because network speeds increase much faster than removable media capacities. Until a new media standard gains enough market penetration to make it usable, network speeds often render it obsolete (e.g. CD or even DVD size is now practically downloadable as demonstrated by the half life 2 network distribution). On top of this, it is much cheaper to sell game or music downloads than to sell game boxes. (anyone remember the first games of the ultima series? Ultima III included a nice cloth map, a 100+ page manual a wearable yankh amulet and many 5.25" disks. Most modern games include 2-3 CDs and a leaflet! Obviously we're getting less and less in terms of physical game content).

Artificial intelligence applications are also gaining momentum (the once fashionable "artificial intelligence" term is no longer used, but OCR, e-mail classification, voice recognition and web searches often fall in the AI domain). The most obvious use for AI is making sense out of an ocean of information (web, email) and automating time consuming tasks. Will speech recognition really make it? Probably, but newer generations are already comfortable with keyboards so there won't be a huge demand for a speech-centered user interface, which would require considerable design changes.

Multimedia uses are unlikely to generate a much higher demand for computing power in the long range. Encoding and decoding video is a relatively feasible task even for very high resolutions that surpass PAL/NTSC requirements. Audio is already at multichannel 96Khz/24b for mainstream audio cards and it is highly unlikely that more channels (!) or higher audio resolution will be required. Sure some people will always dream the ultimater audio/video experience but as proven by the CD and most importantly the MP3, ease-of-use and availability are always more important than technical merit. The DVD succeeded because it is practical and clearly superior to VHS. The Blu-Ray/HD-DVD and DVD-A/SACD technologies will have a very hard time and might fail despite being pushed really hard by the content companies for their DRM capabilities. These technologies will be replaced, in the long run, by some network access technology, just like games. Already iTunes and others are quite popular. We might not see movies or music in physical formats by the year 2015.
Physical media may still persist for "collectors" (ultra platinum edition of Star Wars MCXXI and Lord of the Rings mega-extended edition with 256 DVDs including all footage that the director has ever shot in his life).

For the few next years the ultra-hot research topics in computer science will probably (still) be massively parallel algorithms for cluster systems and multi core devices and (will we be so lucky?) quantum computing. I can't really make a useful prediction since I am not a computer scientist.


A very significant project that has recently generated some controversy is the fusion reactor that will be built in france (ITER). There is heated debate regarding the location of the reactor but one thing is for sure: EU and other countries (e.g. Japan) would surely like to disentangle themselves from fossil fuels. Cars will start burning diesel fuel which will come from renewable sources or a combination of electric/diesel power. Already BMW, for example, makes some very impressive diesel engines and given the fact that diesel engines have a higher theoretical efficiency there is no reason to exclude an increase in their adoption. Energy is a very hot priority and we are really likely to see alternative solutions in a reasonable timeframe.

...to be continued