Trust, Technology, and Society
The future of computing means many different things to different people. On a scientific level it represents a technical challenge to connect things. Technologists look to the future and envision innumerable PCs, sensors, microprocessors, handheld wireless devices, and even ordinary consumer items intimately connected throughout the world. To the ordinary person this prospect might elicit a mixture of excitement, anticipation, and fear -- for privacy, for security, and for social stability. Any talk of global networks and online toasters and some people start thinking about Big Brother and how maybe going back to the land isn't such a bad idea.
To speculate on the future of computing is to embrace uncertainty -- no one knows how the technical revolution will continue to unfold. Certainly innovation is exploding; one need only consider the impact of the Internet during the last five years to see that. But extrapolating to a world in which Internet connectivity permeates every aspect of modern life still requires a certain leap of faith. MIT's Gershenfeld says scientists working on ubiquitous systems are separated by an entrenched chasm: On the one side are theorists who think deeply about lifelike, adaptive systems but canŐt make anything that works. And on the other are technologists making functioning gadgets that donŐt scale up to ubiquitous proportions. "There's a lot of noise and chatter but almost no overlap at that essential boundary," he says.
The goal for the future will be to somehow bridge the theoretical possibilities with technological capability. Research focused on the goal of ubiquitous computing will be concerned with a number of important technical hurdles. For example, it's not at all clear how data flowing from trillions of networked "bit dribblers," meaning low-cost computational devices, will be routed through the Internet. And it's doubtful that the traffic can be managed on HTML; whole new Internet protocols will have to be devised. These problems arenŐt unsolvable, but they will require new ways of thinking about systems architecture.
And what of Big Brother? Is society ready for a pervasive system that surrounds its citizenry and monitors their day-to-day activities? Many citizens worry that ubiquitous networks will present new and emerging challenges to personal privacy. "Imagine putting a frozen pizza into a microwave that downloads cooking instructions from Pizza Hut," suggests Alan Davidson, staff council with the Council for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. "Is Pizza Hut going to track the server of that microwave? Will they find out where and when you bought the pizza, and are they logging this transaction? Suddenly they have a whole dossier of information -- a detailed record that describes your personal activities." In addressing these privacy matters, one of the greatest challenges will be finding ways to allow citizens to opt in or out of the system as it becomes more pervasive. It's not clear how that's going to happen, but it will be important in order to prevent a public backlash.
Some scientists, for example Bill Joy, the cofounder and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, suggest that our most powerful 21st century technologies, for example robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology (meaning functioning devices and machines measured in billionths of meters), could threaten to make humans an endangered species. (See attached article by Joy, "Why the future doesn't need us.") Joy predicts that as technology advances, humans will increasingly delegate responsibility to intelligent machines able to make their own decisions and, referring to the writings of Theodore Kaczynski (better known as the Unibomber) wonders whether these same machines might not reduce humans to "the status of domestic animals."
There's no doubt, as Joy acknowledges, that this represents an extreme view of the power of technology. The question to ask is whether this view ignores social forces that might co-evolve with technology and help to shape its path to the future. Speaking to this more moderate view, Xerox's John Seely Brown suggests that the public and society need to become engaged in the debate over technology in order to find out where the brakes are and when it's appropriate to apply them.
Ultimately the future of computing could greatly benefit society if its evolution is harmonious with the needs of the people. Consider the elderly able to live at home while their health is monitored remotely, children learning from interactive environments, and even people in developing countries able to harness information technology to boost their own economies. Cherry Murray, a senior vice president at Bell Laboratories/Lucent Technologies, suggests technology could be a democratizer. "Various countries around the world suppress democracy by withholding information," she says. "But it will be increasingly difficult to withhold information in the future. The technology could help to bring us together as one civilization. And that's thinking on the positive side."