Thanks to computer and communications technology we live in exciting times. The bounds of technological possibilities seem limitless. The changes decade by decade have already been unprecedented. Where is all this going?
Or see a youthful one from the past [31st October 1986] here...
The impact of readily available information and faster communications on all contemporary social activity has been and will continue to be profound. This impact has grown exponentially since the launch of the first personal computers forty years ago, the advent of the Internet and the first cellular phones twenty years ago and 3G phones ten years ago.
The way we make things has been transformed too; the use of electronic devices for process control and automated equipment (NC machines, robots, profile cutters etc) is now ubiquitous. Plant management, information systems, inventory and process control as well as the use of computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing (CAM) is widely applied. Today all medium to large businesses have computer based accounting, HR and CRM systems. These trends are credited with the very significant productivity gains evident in the latter part of last century.
Communications technology, once limited to government provided voice; telegrams; and 'snail mail' services; has played a pivotal role in these developments.
During the past fifty years, the telecommunications carriers have been privatised across the world. They are increasingly embracing computer technology and protocols. In particular they have largely adopted Ethernet network technology for customer delivery (in addition to the older ATM) employing the TCP/IP data encapsulation standards developed for internetworking on computer networks.
At the same time a vast array of new computing services has sprung up. In particular graphics, video and sound has replaced or complimented plain text and simple diagrams. The old data storage means have been replaced several times over. This volume increase has generated ever increasing demands for communications bandwidth.
Ten years ago only corporate networks employed symmetrical bandwidths in excess of 64Kbits per second. Today even a 3G mobile phone has a theoretical bandwidth over one hundred times that. Business networks have struggled to keep up with this demand. Where economically possible, business networks now prefer optical fibre to achieve the required system speeds.
Whereas copper telephone (Plain Old Telephone Service - POTS) wires were designed for very low bandwidth voice services and have been 'stretched' to deliver much higher bandwidths by clever multiplexing techniques, optical fibre is designed for optimal digital performance and does not suffer the same rapid bandwidth degradation with distance (of copper services).
Because light has very much higher frequency than the radio frequencies used over copper, the theoretical data bandwidths of fibre exceed the present electronic capabilities of the connecting circuits. For this reason many intermediate speed links use fibre to the node technology in which high bandwidth fibre carries many messages (as data packets) and delivers these to the local POTS network for short length, high speed, local delivery (and collection). The shorter the POTS lines are, the faster can be the service.
Several governments are legislating to deliver or are investing themselves in optical fibre to homes and businesses to leap-frog anticipated future bandwidth bottlenecks. These initiatives, like the Australian National Broadband Network (NBN), anticipate future improvements in electronics and a substantial increase in consumer demand for high bandwidth services.
Although the optical fibre bandwidth theoretically available is well in excess of that supportable by wireless (for example mobile phone technology or satellites) there will be bottlenecks for a considerable time as there is presently insufficient internet backbone to support the global bandwidth at the exchange of converging home and business connections. In particular, international communications links will need a considerable upgrade if the potentially installed fibre bandwidth is to be fully exploited.
A further complication is that the TCP/IP protocol itself is running out of address space. The current version (IPv4) uses 32 bits for its address (the familiar four groups of three numbers). This needs to be upgraded to IPv6 that uses 128 bits for the address. Initially this will be applied by carriers to the backbone but in due course every router and switch in the world and ultimately, all network and internet connected devices and associated software, will need to be upgraded or replaced. Any forward looking national broadband strategy will need to anticipate this to avoid becoming a 'white elephant' when the change flows down to the consumers' terminating devices.
It has become an accepted principle since data networks were first developed that data traffic expands to fill the bandwidth available. Similarly data volume expands to fill the data storage available and programs develop to exploit the speed available.
It is observed in the industry that 'What Intel Giveth, Microsoft Taketh Away'. It is therefore confidently predicted that within a short time after its introduction, some high end users will complain that any new network is too slow. But fibre optical technology is currently the fastest we have. Within the next decade the only technically or theoretically faster transport systems available will employ either more fibre strands (a simple multiplication) or faster, yet to be delivered, electronics and related software at each end. Beyond that, technological developments into the far ultra-violet or gamma spectrum might use an alternative transmission medium to present generation glass fibre or quantum physics might allow transmission at higher data densities.
Small fractions of these speeds are required for conventional text or audio transmission. The extra bandwidth is all about multimedia (movies, high quality images) and possible future developments in this space such as 3D TV and ultimately, full virtualisation with total immersion (vision plus other sensations). The demand for these leading edge applications is presently being driven by gamers but it is likely that all home entertainment will develop along these lines over the next decade. IP TV is already available and video telephony is expected to progressively replace voice only services.
The availability of this additional capacity is encouraging several other developments including interactivity and social networking and the migration of books newspapers and other text media to on-screen rather than on-paper consumption. Just as newspapers were transformed by the availability of photography; and the first magazines evolved to the present colourful media; so the availability of a much richer user experience, and potential for knowledge transfer, is likely to make newspapers and magazines more like television news; with video and sound in place of static images and quotations or reportage in text.
Electronic book sales are already exhibiting exponential growth, albeit off a low base. These permit book readers to share passages with others, to find the meaning and derivation of a word or look up a reference in the course of reading a book. New book are quickly downloaded and tens of thousands of books, including most the classics, are already freely available. The popular readers are lighter and less cumbersome than most books. A single device can replace a dozen entire libraries. The advantages are so profound that a printed book; except those valuable in their own right as collected objects; or so esoteric that they have not been scanned; may soon be as rare as a typewriter or as the music CD is about to become.
New authors and the copyright holders of books still protected will receive royalty payments from an international hosting service/publishing house that mediates and charges for downloads of their book from the Cloud. A number of the more conservative publishers will resist the demise of traditional printing and will not survive these changes.
Superseding the printed page requires a portable electronic device (pad, tablet, book, phone, laptop, e-paper) that can be connected, typically by radio, to the content provider. The Internet, together with the cellular phone network provides this means.
Home computer systems are progressively integrating all electronic entertainment, communications and household management functions. Within the next decade this will begin to encompass household energy management, including lighting, heating, cooling and some appliances. In some households this may extend to water consumption, grey water management and possibly to local electricity generation.
As well as managing entertainment (TV, radio, telephony, wake up alarms and so on), it is expected that integrated home computing environments will mediate interactions with the Internet and its on-line commerce and information repositories to maintain household accounts as well optimising water and energy efficiency. In addition to keeping the social calendars of the householders, it is expected to agree a weekly food menu and order food, groceries and other household needs accordingly. The new markets thus opened up will include new production methods and specialist equipment for rapidly changing film and TV studios and the new electronic media outlets.
As electronic systems have become faster and able to store ever more data, software has developed to exploit these new capabilities and speed. In order to deliver IP based video computer CPUs need to be thousands of times faster than those available just a few years ago. Storage for movies is now measured in terabytes (million, million bytes). This vast increase in capability is only beginning to be utilised by new software. Whereas in the early days computers followed a strict linear instruction set, to day this is replaced by the interaction of functional objects, such that the programmer is often unaware of the actual events that will occur in every circumstance. Many programs 'learn on the job' and change their parameters accordingly. For example the object interactions in many computer games are entirely circumstantial; different for every player and every time they are played. Thus computers are becoming more and more 'human like' in their interactions with the players.
Text to speech facilities have been available on a standard PC for over ten years and recent versions of operating systems software have included progressively improving speech to text (dictation) software built in. This software is taught by the user to recognise their speech patterns grammar and vocabulary. It is expected that within the next decade many people will simply talk to their home computer or entertainment system as if it is another person (like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Several GPS navigation devices already incorporate voice recognition to receive destination instructions. New markets will include new domestic appliances, sport and recreation options and possibly aids for an aging population.
Social networking and online commerce are already ubiquitous. Social networking and many forms of online commerce and are supported by large, commercially owned, data storage and processing farms connected to the Internet. These ever expanding server farm environments allow users from all connected locations worldwide to use the Internet to connect to services that meet a wide variety of needs from sharing the trivia of one's life with friends or strangers, to composing a letter or keeping the household accounts. This vast range of options and possibilities is continually expanding as new products are imagined and offered to a novelty hungry public. At the present time they are largely, and very profitably, funded by businesses wishing to advertise their products or services.
Like commercial enterprises, government instrumentalities and utilities now rely almost entirely on the Internet and the telecommunications backbone (email, telephony and file transfer); for business to business (B2B) communications; to manage their supply chain; and for web based interfaces to inform their customers and sell product and services.
In addition the information sharing needs of these businesses include a wide range of private networks often using older narrow bandwidth radio; copper; or more recently private, single purpose (dark) fibre. Among these are: fire services (including bushfire monitoring); police and emergency services; energy and water utilities; railways and road traffic control; health; and education. Many of these use specialist communications protocols; often based on small run (specialist) electronics and software. As the Internet has grown economies of scale and investment, both hardware devices and associated software have reduced prices to a degree that an independent network (particularly one not utilising TCP/IP internetworking technology) is difficult to justify on cost grounds.
Much of this falls into the general classification: 'Spatial Information'. This is often augmented by satellite based position location (GPS) and it is increasingly common for business to attach a latitude and longitude mobile as well as stationary plant and equipment. The resulting changes are typically reported using the cellular radio network (3G or 4G) linked by internetworking protocols. New markets already evident include land management and stock control and automated 'assisted' farming. A wide range of other possibilities exist; ranging from self navigating vehicles to web enabled services to manufacturing; like tracking deliveries or finding the nearest supplier of a component or service.
For example the electricity grid now needs to be much 'smarter'. At one time the transmission system consisted of a small number of large generators delivering electricity in one direction to some large industrial customers and a distributor. Now it has an increasing number of small generators and power can suddenly peak or drop away (as the wind blows or the sun comes out) and/or flow in either direction. Control issues are vastly more complicated. At the retail distributor, electricity is distributed at11kV and delivered at 415/240V through numerous substations; and some customers wish to feed back (in) to the retail network. Progressively every one of these substations needs to be connected back to a control system to facilitate delivery and optimise resources.
In due course, present 'smart meter' trials will lead to each customer being able to optimise their electricity consumption to take advantage of time-of-day differential pricing, dynamically adjusted to reflect the power available at any moment (probably on 5 min intervals). In future they may also allow the retail utility to turn off or down certain customer appliances such as water heaters, clothes dryers, air conditioners and fridges to prevent supply voltage drops at time of peak load. Even more complexity is expected to follow the introduction of electric vehicles.
These meters will very likely utilise TCP/IP internet technology and the World Wide Web (WWW) for communications protocols and connection. As similar issues exist in respect of water and gas a future smart meter may incorporate the fibre termination in a dwelling as well as combining all the utility metering for the household. Depending on the 'granularity' or the information gathered there are already fears that the vast quantity of data generated will consume much of the future bandwidth.
At a corporate and business level internal (local and wide area) network connections generally use TCP/IP internetworking infrastructure but the data packets are securely sent from one location to another instead of into the public Internet cloud where they may go by any (generally unknown and unpredictable) route. This is considerably more costly particularly over longer distances. When such communications (including database interrogations) were exclusively text based they involved a small number of data bytes (see comments on file sizes above) but as employees have gained access to the Internet and files began to contain images logos and the like the volumes 'blew out' crippling network speed and/or increasing data transfer costs.
This has accelerated the trend to using the public, relatively free Internet to transmit corporate data. With an increase in the public bandwidth and an increase in the range of publicly available services, not supported on internal networks, this trend can be expected to continue. This is expected to lead to a new business networking paradigm (embracing cloud computing) that will radically change business systems over the next ten years.
Conventional wide area networks that grew during the past decade may be replaced by cloud based communications. In this environment local area networks (directly connected by dark fibre and/or copper – for example within a building or campus) will remain hardened against intrusion but will encompass an extranet or similar functionality that facilitates inter-node communications that allows users direct access to the cloud for such purposes as video conferencing and to use external cloud based business applications including market access and e-commerce.
These local networks will become autonomous nodes from the point of view of secure document storage data processing and security functions but more integrated through externally shared applications and data. The increasing use of the Internet and increasing spread of broadband communications will free these nodes from present geographical constraints.
As capital intensiveness increased there is likely to be a greater emphasis on achieving 24/7 (or three shift) operations in manufacturing to optimise this capital.
Higher bandwidth offers the prospect of remote robotic manufacturing. Today pilotless drone aircraft operating on the Afghanistan border are flown by pilots safely stationed at remote consoles. There are over 1,000 'da Vinci surgical systems' (medical robots) already operating in hospitals worldwide. These and similar systems facilitate minimally invasive 'keyhole' and micro surgery that cannot be accomplished by a 'hands on' surgeon. The surgeon sits at a remote consol. It is expected that this technology will soon allow advanced surgical procedures to be carried out at sites remote from the surgeon – she or he may even be at home. The same principles could be applied to the many manufacturing and industrial processes that are already robotocised or otherwise automated.
This may have profound implications for regional development as those parts of a business that are not geographically bound to a location for resource reasons will be increasingly free to go anywhere. Knowledge industry workers and managers in particular will be able to locate where they prefer to live. Due to the issues of remote reporting, supervision and maintenance of organisational structure, the work paradigm may need to change accordingly. This is likely to favour more payment for output or outcome (fee for service) in place of payment for input (time at work).
Businesses based on skill, innovation or design rely on unknowable yet to be discovered, created or revealed proprietary intellectual property. These yet to be realised opportunities for product development and production will result in a very dynamic and fast developing industry; particularly in the entertainment and communications areas. Many new transformative and service businesses will support new opportunities brought about by the ongoing information and communications revolution.
Future transformative businesses will benefit from new channels for: reaching their customers and promoting their products and services; identifying new methods processes materials and production equipment; tighter supply chain integration and inventory management leading to leaner manufacturing; online access to expertise anywhere in the world; improved customer feedback, fault detection and product improvement; and improved distribution and delivery tracking.