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High-Tech Times Article 007

Communicating in the Year 2025

I'm going to give you a "gee-whiz" look at how we may be communicating in the year 2005.  2005: Now doesn't that sound like something out of a science fiction novel?  Even when it's less than seven years away?


If you lived in the 1700s, could you have fathomed the concept of television?  Or in the 1800s, could you have conceived of space shuttles or the Mars Rover?  As recently as 1994, did you think that a network originally used by nuclear scientists to transfer scientific data would soon be pumping entertainment and educational content into TV sets viewed by 10-year-olds in living rooms? 


So what will communications look like in 2005?  It's almost impossible to guess eight years in the future, so let me share some insights based on a fascinating evening I spent recently with a husband-wife team who work at Bell Labs and Sandia National Lab, respectively.  This high-powered team based their predictions on three "vectors of change" - time, light, and air.


It's a bit ironic that time is constantly attacked by the very information age that we hope will be our salvation.  Today, and in the future, fire-hoses of data bits and bytes, electronic Web pages, FAXes, e-mails, and other content of all shapes and sizes compete for our precious seconds of attention.  Communications will evolve to address this chaos by providing us with the ability to tailor how you communicate with others.  Networks will gather, manage, and organize information to be more accessible and useful to you than ever before through personalized virtual "avatars" that represent your specific interests.  Your electronic persona will filter, tune, adjudicate, and otherwise control the increasing flow of information that will allow you to really benefit from - and not be overrun by - information.


Year 2005: Your customer calls and needs to speak with you.  Your business avatar has authenticated the caller by voice recognition, and has asked the customer about his request using natural language algorithms.  Accessing company data files, the avatar realizes that this customer's volume of business is under the threshold you've established for immediate contact, and queries the caller on the relative importance of his call and specific time requirements.  Based on previous interactions with this customer and your instructional parameters, your avatar decides that you need to be advised that this customer needs a call-back within one hour.


Your Global Positioning System (GPS) button informs your avatar that you are in a meeting room.  Recognizing that the members of the corporate board are also in that room, your avatar, based on past experience, sends you a text page via wireless e-mail, that appears on the screen of your wearable computer.  Finally, the avatar informs the caller that you will return his call within an hour.


The second vector is light, or to be more precise, optical networking.  This technology is the key to providing flexible and much wider bandwidth to manage the geometric increase in Internet and other network traffic.  Just as the nation's automobile traffic increased as the interstate freeway system made road travel faster and safer, the faster and simpler we make networks, the more traffic we'll see on them.


Using the highway analogy, today's technologies, which use a single freeway lane, have gained capacity by designing trucks that can go faster.  But of course, you have to replace your entire fleet of slower trucks to use the faster ones.  In contrast, optical networking uses multiple freeway lanes, some with older slower trucks, and some with newer faster vehicles.  There is no need to manage costly protocol conversions (faster trucks) for most tasks.


Optical amplifiers make it possible to boost lightwave signals, thereby extending the reach of a light pulse without first converting it to electrical signals and then back into light.  Intercity trunks and long-haul routes will move to optical networks mostly because the physics and economics give much better cost efficiencies, regardless of technology.  These cost savings to companies and individuals who must communicate will keep more and more network traffic in the optical domain as long as possible, eventually all the way into your house.


Over the past 10 years, the silicon-based microcomputer improvement rate has been 60-fold.  But over the same 10-year period, the improvement rate for optics has been over 100-fold.  This means that by the year 2005, "Photon Valley" will quite likely surpass "Silicon Valley" in bringing the Information Age into our homes by bigger optical data "pipes."


The third vector - air - may provide the most visible improvement in our daily lives.  In 2005, communicating computers will often be worn, as they will be embedded in our eyeglasses, our clothing, and in many other places.  As the millennium approaches, multimedia functions (speech and video) will sit on a single chip, and wireless terminals are already getting smaller and smaller.  Networks in 2005 will be flexible and robust enough to be used for mobile, as well as fixed, communications.


In many cases, data routing and distribution will occur over the air.  Terrestrial wireless links will be tethered to optical "tails," which is the equivalent of optical fiber to the antenna that you're wearing.  When required, data routing and distribution will remain in the optical domain, but networks of the future will represent the interests of their subscribers.  Not only will your computer always be on and available for any task, the processor chip in your wearable computer will be 10 times as powerful as today's Pentium II, with real-time HDTV and surround-sound audio, and connections into the Internet, digital telephone system, and video-on-demand (VOD) television.


As a result of these three factors, integrated multisensory communications networks will promote virtual reality in our everyday life.  Network-enabled VR will have a huge impact on society.  As an example, let's take a quick look at the 1990s task of catalog shopping, and how you'll do the same task in 2005.


Today: Relaxing at home, idly flipping through one of the dozens of catalogs that arrived in today's mail, you spot a pair of hiking shoes you like.  Using your voice-activated phone-dialer, you dial the catalog company's toll-free number.  Along with the signal from your call, the network transmits data to the catalog company so that when the service rep answers the phone, her computer screen indicates that you're a previous customer, and so the rep greets you by name.  You tell her what you want, and she asks you if you want them in the same size you ordered last time, and whether you want the shoes shipped to the same address.


Year 2005: Sitting on your lanai, you decide it's time to replace those hiking shoes.  Rather than looking through catalogs, or even launching an Internet search, you decide to "visit" the catalog company.  Talking through your eyeglass-mounted computer's microphone, and viewing a computer-digitized image of yourself generated by a broadcast-quality camera, you "walk" into the store.


The bi-directional communications network means that you are "there," and your visual avatar "tries on" the hiking shoes, and you judge the fit.  Deciding that you need a slightly different tread on the soles, you "pick up" a new tread from the store's rack, and "see" that it will do the job.  You then order the shoes with the new tread, assured that a perfectly-sized pair of hiking shoes will arrive at your doorstep within a few days.


This vision of the future is not altogether fiction.  Applications that offer this type of experience exist today, but unlike today's sketchy computer-generated virtual worlds, tomorrow's technology will be life-like, with haptic (touch) feedback, and probably even with synthesized odors.  The concept of VR "immersion" will be a standard, rather than today's thrown-together partial solutions.


Let me close with a quotation from William Gibson, the science fiction author who created the term Cyberspace: "Anyone who thinks science fiction is about the future is naive.  Science fiction doesn't predict the future; it determines it, colonizes it, and preprograms it in the image of the future."  And one from Arthur C. Clarke, the inventor of the geosynchronous satellite: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."