Do you think that short-term predictions are easier to make than looking far into the future? I always thought forecasting the next 12 months was pretty clear while anything beyond 10 years was nearly impossible. I changed my mind. Here’s my story.
Last weekend, my wife asked me to go through my bookshelf and check which books I don’t need anymore. It hadn’t occurred to me to go through these, but I thought, sure. I anyway hadn’t looked at many of them for a long time. I started to go through them and immediately found myself reading books that were more than 25 years old. I was absolutely amazed by the ability of several authors to envision how technologies would evolve and impact not only networks but also society.
Simulacron III, initially published in 1964, was especially interesting to me. The book describes a future in which people can enter virtual, simulated worlds. However, the protagonist becomes aware that the world he believed to be real was also a higher-order simulation. Interestingly enough, he only noticed this when he was driving his car and realized the world around him only became “created” as he entered it. You might have experienced a similar phenomenon. When you use Google Maps and scroll too fast, it takes a little time until the view “materializes”. Fascinating that the author envisioned how systems representing real worlds might behave under specific circumstances.
But there was another jewel on my book shelf written in 1986 by Koji Kobayashi, CEO of NEC, “Computers and Communication: A vision of C&C”. This book describes how computers and communication systems converge and the related driving forces. This vision was the basis for NEC’s strategic directions, which were formulated as early as the late 70s. At that time, mainframe computers were accessed through simple terminals and the Internet was still in its early childhood – a long way away from what we have today. Communication was mainly analog voice and data communication was mostly facsimile. Video distribution was analog systems, completely separated from the voice communication networks.
Mr. Kobayashi analyzed how innovations in large scale integration, progress with distributed intelligent computing, agile transmission systems and emerging capability of packet switching would impact centralized mainframe systems. He predicted the convergence of voice, data and video communication and assumed that such common communication would eventually converge with computer systems towards integrated Communication & Computer (C&C), which he guessed would hit the market before the end of century.
With the emergence of Smartphones, this vision became reality as those devices seamlessly integrate communication with data and applications running on central servers but also make use of navigation systems in order to provide holistic solutions that combine location information with individual interest and needs. A nice example showing the benefit of combining communications with applications and GPS might be customer support applications for car-sharing. These systems are typically based on sophisticated smartphone apps (distributed system). Mobile communication is fully integrated with the software application. This combines information on location of cars with the location of the user but also his/her contract status.
We might also look at a different network domain in which the predicted convergence of communication and computers is just now happening. Data centers apply virtualization technologies, which allow customers to use disk storage and computing capacity in the most flexible way. Such technology now favorably combines the latest transmission control plane innovation resulting in a truly converged, synergetic computer and communication solution as predicted more than 30 years ago. SDN (Software Defined Networking) and NFV (Network Function Virtualization) could be seen as a late incarnation of the C&C strategy envisioned more than 30 years ago.
Hence, it seems that visionary people are pretty accurate in predicting major technology trends and their impact on systems, networks and applications. Despite the fact that innovation might happen faster or might take more time, the end-game seems to be predictable with amazing accuracy.
Before I close this blog, I’d like to provide my prediction for the future. Let’s say, the next decade.
As discussed above, technology convergence is already happening on a wide scale and we will be able to seamlessly access any data anywhere and through any device. There will be continuous innovation in the C&C area. However, most impact will be created by applications running on top of those networks as they will completely redefine how we live and work. Previously, we talked about network transformation. In the future, we should also look at how networking will transform our society. The way we interact with each other will change our social and business lives. While we talked to our friends once a day or once a week, we are now continuously engaging with them and allowing them to “follow” us. This constantly creates an unprecedented level of adjacency with both positive and negative consequences.
If we want to focus on a single aspect, let’s pick the impact of ubiquitous computing on our decision making. We are guided by the advice from friends and family, but we are also able to make decisions with unlimited and instant access to any information. However, are we sure that such information is free from bias? To what level is the network supporting us and to what level is the network influencing us? This is not just a technical challenge but also an ethical challenge closely related to it. Hence, the evaluation of social and technical co-evolution will require more consideration when discussing network and C&C service innovation.
Initial signs can be seen. Facebook is not just a communication solution. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, positions it as a means to impact privacy behavior. It’s probably too early to conclude what benefit this will create. However, it is likely we will see more discussion on this subject as consequences become better understood in time.
For now, what does this mean to a communication engineer? Well, two things that I can think of. On one hand, we need to be more aware of the social dimension of communication networks and services innovations. And on the other hand, we need to develop technologies and solutions that at least allow each user to keep control of his communication, his data and his identity in a virtual world. Encryption and authentication will become the means to have this control, while identity management will be one of the main challenges as this will involve trusted partners among the network and service providers. Some of them seem to have lost this battle even before the competition has started.
I have to admit that I wasn’t able to throw away any of those books but decided to take more time and read through them again. There just may be more amazing insight to be found.