A Look At The Future

Posted on 3/26/1999 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



March 26, 1999

    Often I get so busy trying to figure out what will happen next week or next

    year that I fail to think about where the world, and by implication our

    industry, is headed long range. One of the most thought provoking

    presentations at the 1999 Spring Seybold Publishing Conference in Boston was

    made by Ray Kurzweil, author of the "The Age of Spiritual Machines."

    Kurzweil provided a daunting view of where technology is headed in the next

    30 years. I'm 62 and often marvel at the changes that have taken place since

    I was in my 20's. However, now I've decided I definitely want to stay around

    until I'm at least in my 90's in order to observe the totally changed world

    of 2030. For those of you who are younger and plan to be working in some

    photography related career for the next 20 or 30 years, it is well worth

    considering what the world is likely to be like in that very short period


In order to understand why Kurzweil's predictions are likely to occur, we need

to examine a few scientific principles that Kurzweil outlines at the

beginning of his lecture and book.

Moore's Law

Gordon Moore, an inventor of the integrated circuit and then Chairman of

Intel, noted in 1965 that the area of a transistor was reduced by half

approximately every 24 months. Thus, every two years you can put twice the

number of transistors on a chip and double its speed.

Law of Time and Chaos

In any process, the time interval between salient events (i.e. events that

change the nature of the process, or significantly affect the future of the

process) expand or contract along with the amount of chaos. The more chaos

and disorder the longer it takes for change to come about.

Rate of Accelerating Returns

As a process evolves, unworkable theories are tested and rejected. More and

more order is brought into the system and time between changes gets shorter

and shorter. This is defined by Kurzweil as the Law of Accelerating Returns.

"As order exponentially increases, time exponentially speeds up (i.e. the

interval between salient events grows shorter)."

With Moore's Law and the Rate of Accelerating Returns we find that we have an

exponential rate of improvement in speed and processing capacity in

computing. At the beginning of the 20th century we were doubling computer

power every three years. By 1950-1960 we were doubling computer power every

two years and since 1985 we have been doubling computer power every 12


Chip manufacturers have confidence they can continue this doubling for

another 20 years. At that time transistor insulators will be just a few

atoms thick and the conventional approach to shrinking circuits will no

longer work.

Exponential growth can be very decieving, but it looks like it will continue

through the 21st century. To better illustrate exponential growth their is a

story about the inventor of chess and the Emperor of China. When the Emperor

asked the inventor what he would like in payment the inventor modestly said,

"a single grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, and double

that on each succeeding square." On the 32nd square the amount equalled 4

billion grains of rice and by the 64th square it equalled 18 million trillion

grains of rice, which would require rice paddies covering twice the surface

area (including oceans) of the earth.

Computing Power of the Human Brain

To get an idea of where this technological explosion is headed consider the human brain. The

brain has approximately 100 billion neurons and an estimated 1000 connections

to each neuron. This makes 100 trillion connecting points, each capable of

simultaneous calculations. However, given the slow speed of carbon-based

reactions each connection point is only capable of about 200 calculations per

second for a combined total of 20 million billion calculations per second.

In 1997 $2,000 of neural computer chips using only modest parallel processing

could perform 2 billion connection calculations per second. This capacity

will double every 12 months or 23 doublings by 2020. At that time $2,000

worth of computer chips (in 1997 dollars) will be able to do 20 million

billion calculations per second equivalent to the human brain's calculating


Memory in the brain is approximately 100 trillion synapse strenths or about a

million billion bits. In 1998 a billion bits of RAM cost $200. The capacity

of memory circuits has been doubling every 18 months. Thus by 2023 a million

billion bits of memory, equivalent to all the memory in a single human brain,

will cost $1,000.

Thus, it will be possible to produce personal computers with the capacity for

human thinking for about $3,000. Supercomputers with this calculating

capacity will appear around 2010.

Kurzweil claims that it is a conservative statement to say that by 2029 we

will be able to look inside someones brain and create a huge database that

copies every single detail relevant to human thinking. We will be able to

copy all the connections, all the neuro transmitter strengths, all the

synaptic cleffs, and every local process that bears on our ability to

interact with the world and process information.

Interestingly, the cost of production of the integrated circuit remains

fairly constant so this increased speed and capacity is achieved and no

additional costs. However, the silicon equivalent of the carbon-based brain

will operate a billion times faster than the human brain.

Cutting Edge Today

What are some of the cutting edge technologies that are available right now?

IBM's Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov in a championship chess match in 1997.

Deep Blue can do 10 trillion calculations per second. This is only 2,000 times

slower than the human brain. With exponential growth they won't have to do much

to catch up with "brain speed".

Using MRI scanning technology we can look inside the human brain and see

individual nerve cells firing. The speed, the resolution and the band width

of these non-invasive scanning technologies is accelerating as we get faster


Parkinson's disease is caused when a small locus of maybe 10,000 neurons

in two tiny regions of the brain get scrambled. In Europe they are doing

neural implants to relieve the symptoms of this disease. The experimental

implants can be switched on and off at will.

A similar chip is being developed to suppress the tremors associated with

cerebral palsey and multiple sclerosis. A electronde will be implanted in

the ventral lateral thalamus.

Cochlear implants together with electronic speech processors can perform

frequency analysis similar to that performed by the inner ear and enable 10%

of formerly deaf persons to hear and understand voices well enough to hold


Kurzweil tells of a deaf friend who has a cochlear neural

implant that replaces early auditary circuits of his nervous system. This

enables him to talk on the phone with Kurzweil.

An experimental retina implant uses a solar powered computer that

communicates with the optic nerve. The user wears special glasses with tiny

television cameras that communicate to the implanted computer by laser



By 2009

Personal computers will be commonly embedded in wristwatches, rings,

earrings, and other body ornaments. They provide communication facilities

similar to cellular phones, pagers, web surfers, as well as monitor body

functions and provide automated identity and directions for navigation.

Many books, music albums, movies and other digital files will be typically

distributed through wireless networks and have no physical objects associated

with them. Computer displays have all the quality of paper - high

resolution, high contrast, large viewing angle and no flicker. Books,

magazines and newspapers are routinely read on displays. Eye glasses have

tiny lasers built in that project images directly on the users retinas.

The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition software

which is more accurate than human transcribers. Students of all ages

typically own a thin tablet like computer, weighing under a pound, that has a

display suitable for reading. They interact with this device by voice and a

pointing device like a pencil.

Most portable computers will not have keyboards. Short-distance wireless

technology will be used to communicate between components such as pointing

devices, microphones, displays, printers.

Documents created at this time routinely include embedded

moving images and sound. Learning materials are accessed through wireless

communication. Students

learn math and reading from interactive learning devices. Synthetic voices

sound fully human. Schools increasingly rely on software approaches to teaching

all subject matter. The role of human teachers is primarily in motivation,

psychological well-being and socialization.

Print-to-speech reading devices for the blind are inexpensive. Deaf persons

commonly use speech-to-text listening machines which display real-time


Translating telephone technology (TTT) is commonly used for many language pairs.

Telephone communications is primarily wireless, and routinely includes

high-resolution moving images. Users can instantly download books,

magazines, newspapers, TV, radio and movies to their highly portable personal

communication devices.

The distribution of all types of written documents from articles to books

typically does not involve paper and ink.

At least half of all business transactions will be conducted on-line.

Intelligent assistants which combine continuous speech recognition,

natural-language understanding, problem solving and animated personalities

routinely assist with finding information, answering questions, and

conducting transactions.

By 2019

Computer will be largly invisible, but embedded everywhere - in walls,

tables, chairs, desks, clothing, jewelry and bodies. People will routinely

use three-dimensional displays built into glasses or contact lenses. This

technology projects images directly onto the human retina, exceeds the

resolution of human vision and is widely used regardless of visual


Most interaction with computing is through gestures using hands, fingers and

facial expressions and through two way spoken communications. Connectivity

is wireless and cables have largely disappeared.

Hand-held displays are less common. Direct-eye displays where text is projected

into the ever present virtual environment comes into

greater use. Paper books and documents are rarely used or accessed. Most

learning is accomplished using intelligent software-based simulated teachers.

When human teachers are used they are often not in the local vicinity of the

student and are more mentors and counselors than sources of knowledge.

Blind persons routinely use eyeglass-mounted reading-navigation systems.

Automated reading-navigation assistants communicate to blind users through

both speech and tactile indicators. Paraplegic and some quadriplegic persons

routinely walk and climb stairs through a combination of computer-controlled

nerve stimulation and exoskeletal robotic devices. Generally, disabilities

such as blindness, deafness, and paraplegia are not noticeable and are not

regarded as significant.

Phone calls routinely include high-resolution three-dimensional images

projected through the direct-eye displays and auditory lenses. Reading

books, magazines, newspapers, other documents, listening to music or watching

three-dimensional moving images are accomplished through the communication

Web and do not require any equipment, devices or objects that are not worn or


Automated driving systems have been found to be highly reliable and have now

been installed in nearly all roads. Humans are still allowed to drive on

local roads but automated driving systems are always engaged and ready to

take control when necessary to prevent accidents.

By 2019 the computational capacity of a $4,000 computing device (in 1999 dollars)

will be approximately equal the processing power of the human

brain. However, at 200 calculations per second the brain is 10 million times "slower" than

an electronic circuit. So by increasing the number of parallel processors it will

will be easy to the processing capacity of humans.

By 2029

$1,000 worth of computation devices (in 1999 dollars) has the computing

capacity of approximately 1,000 human brains. If you combine the total

computing capacity of all humans on earth with the computing capacity humans

have caused to be built more than 99 percent is non-human.

Much of the nonhuman computing will be conducted on massively parallel neural

nets which are based on reverse engineering of the human brain. Many

-- but less than a majority -- of the specialized regions of the brain have

been "decoded" and their massively parallel algorithms will have been


Displays are now implanted in the eyes. They also act as cameras to capture

visual images and thus function as both input and output devices. A range of

neural implants has become widely available, not just for disabled people.

Many will be using them to enhance visual and auditory perception as well as

interpretation, memory and reasoning.

Human learning is primarily accomplished using virtual teachers and is

enhanced by widely available neural implants. These implants improve memory

and perception, but are not yet possible to download knowledge directly.

Learning still requires time-consuming human experience and study.

There is almost no human employment in production, agriculture and

transportation. The largest profession is education.

A sharp division no longer exists between the human world and the machine

world. Human cognition is being ported to machines and many machines have

personalities, skill and knowledge bases derived from the reverse engineering

of human intelligence.

Cybernetic artists in all of the arts - musical, visual, literary, virtual

experience, and all others - no longer need to associate themselves with

humans or oganizations that include humans. Many of the leading artists are


Life expectancy of humans will now be around 120 years.

These are just some of the changes that will take place. In his book, which

I would urge everyone to read, Kurzweil makes a convincing case for why this

is a conservative level of change that might be anticipated, not some wild,

far out, futurist theory that will never come to pass.

Life Cycle of a Technology

Kurzweil also provides an interesting analysis of the Life Cycle of a

Technologies that raises some interesting questions about certain

technologies on which at the present time we greatly depend. He identifies

seven stages in the life cycle of most technologies. They are:

    1 - Precursor stage - dreamers imagine a technology, but do not have the

    means to make it a reality

    2 - Invention - a brief stage where an inventor blends curiosity, scientific

    skills and determination to bring a technology to life. Often, initially it

    does not have much significance in the world.

    3 - Development - the invention is developed for mass use. Often the

    inventor and other guardians of the technology try to protect it and channel

    its use.

    4 - Maturity - technology has a life of its own. It is interwoven in the

    fabric of the community and appears to many observers that it will last

    forever. This creates an interesting drama when the next stage arrives.

    5 - Pretenders - new technology comes along and threatens to eclipse the

    established technology. Enthusiasts prematurely predict victory because they

    point out many advantages.

    Upon more reflection it is noticed that while providing some distinct

    benefits, the newer technology is missing some key elements of functionality

    or quality.

    If it fails to disloge the established order, the technology conversatives

    take this as evidence that the original technology will indeed live forever.

    This victory is, however, usually short lived. The new technology finds

    ways to improve those weak areas of functionality and the old technology is

    driven into obsolescence.

    6 - Obsolescence - the old technology lives out its senior years in gradual

    decline. This stage usually comprises 5% to 10% of the life cycle.

    7 - Antiquity - the technology lingers, but more for historical and artistic

    values than for any practical everyday use. Some examples are: horse &

    buggy, harpsichord, manual typewriter, electro-mechanical calculator, vinyl


The most profound role of computers is in the communications medium. As

commercial photographers our primarly role is communications.

With this analysis in mind consider two technologies related to our industry

-- the printed book and the recording of images on film.

The following are my ideas, not Kurzweil's, so don't blame him if my logic is


The book was invented 400 years ago, a mature technology that is now at the

stage where software-based "virtual" books enter as pretenders. Current

software books are of low resolution, and have problems with flicker,

contrast, viewing angle, battery life, and they do not have the visual

qualities of paper and ink. However, they also have advantages in low weight

compared to physical books, and improved search capabilities particularly for

technical materials. Technological improvements will enable ""virtual" books

to overcome their current handicaps.

Because the book has been around for 400 years the obsolescence phase (which

I think we will enter soon) may be 20 to 40 years. Despite the use of the

computer for transmitting documents paper usage has been going up because we

don't like to read on the screen. But, when the display is as good as paper

we will use less paper. Kurzweil says overall paper usage will begin to fall

during the first decade of the 21st Century. That means fewer pictures

appearing in printed form. (Fortunately, there will however, probably be many

more pictures used in digital form.)

Film was invented about 100 years ago. Clearly digital capture and storage

is here and film is in its obsolescence phase. If statistical averages are

correct that phase should last 5 to 10 years. We may already be well into

that period. As we look at the improvements that have been made in digital

storage in the past ten years and consider the accelerating pace of these

improvements over the next decade it is not hard to see how film use may soon


As the web becomes faster and more ubiquitous there will be less demand for

still images and more demand for motion. Theater projection quality may

become less important as the screens on which the images are viewed become

more personal. When the screen size is the retina, you're not going

to need a whole lot of data to achieve maximum resolution.

Copyright © 1999 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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