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How will computers evolve over the next 100 years?

Ubiquitous Computing
Devices like the Microsoft Surface are pushing computers into new environments.
Devices like the Microsoft Surface are pushing computers into new environments.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

A popular theme in science fiction stories set in the future is ubiquitous computing. In this future, computers have become so small and pervasive that they are in practically everything. You might have computer sensors in your floor that can monitor your physical health. Computers in your car that can assist you when you drive to work. And computers practically everywhere track your every move.

It's a vision of the future that is both exhilarating and frightening. On the one hand, computer networks would become so robust that we'd always have a fast, reliable connection to the Internet. You could communicate with anyone you choose no matter where you were with no worries about interruption in service. But on the other hand, it would also become possible for corporations, governments or other organizations to gather information about you and keep tabs on you wherever you go.

We've seen steps toward ubiquitous computing over the last decade. Municipal Wi-Fi projects and 4G technologies like LTE and WiMAX have extended network computing far beyond the world of wired machines. You can purchase a smartphone and access petabytes of information on the World Wide Web in a matter of seconds. Sensors in traffic stoplights and biometric devices can detect our presence. It may not be long before nearly everything we come into contact with has a computer or sensor inside it.

We may also see massive transformations in user interface technology. Currently, most computers rely on physical input interfaces like a computer mouse, keyboard, tracking pad or other surface upon which we input commands. There are also computer programs that can recognize your voice or track your eye movements to execute commands. Computer scientists and neurologists are working on various brain-computer interfaces that will allow people to manipulate computers using only their thoughts. Who knows? The computers of the future may react seamlessly with our desires.

To extrapolate out to 100 years is difficult. Technological progress isn't necessarily linear or logarithmic. We may experience decades of progress followed by a period in which we make very little headway as we bump up against unforeseen barriers. On the other hand, according to some futurists, there may be no meaningful difference between computers and humans within 100 years. In that world, we'll be transformed into a new species that can improve upon itself at a pace unimaginable to us in our current forms. Whatever the future may hold, it's a safe bet to assume the machines we rely upon will be very different from today's computers.

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