Special Report - Seeing the Tech-Tsunami Before the Impact, Part II

By Daniel Burrus

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In Part I of this two-part report, Seeing the Tech-Tsunami Before the Impact Futurist and CIOUpdate columnist Dan Burrus explored the eight

streams within the technological wave -- the hard trends of technological advancement:

In Part II, Dan explains the drivers behind those trends and takes s peek at the looming technology advances that will change everything we think we know about technology today:

The Three Digital Accelerators

In addition to the eight pathways of technological advancement listed above, we have three digital accelerators making change possible. In fact, a closer look at this technological tsunami we’re about to experience shows that it is actually a braid of three powerful, interlocking hard trends. Each on its own is capable of driving a huge amount of change, but the impact of all three acting in concert is enormous. If you think of the forward advance of technology as a car, we are stepping down hard on the accelerator or, more accurately, on three accelerators at once.

Accelerator No.1: Processing Power - We all know Moore’s Law: computer processing power doubles every eighteen months. Those gains in speed have historically been obtained by shrinking processor components, but many of these have already reached microscopic levels; leaving developers few options for further reductions. So does that mean processing power will plateau? Not a chance.

For example, scientists have found that DNA nanostructures (about one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair) can serve as scaffolds for the assembly of computer chips. The process involves placing a long, single strand of viral DNA in a solution with short, synthetic strands. The large molecule self-assembles into various configurations, folding itself into a square, triangle, or other two-dimensional shape, with the short segments acting as “staples.” The structures are positioned precisely on a silicon wafer using electron-beam lithography and oxygen plasma etching.

Carbon nanotubes, nanowires, and other microscopic components can then be assembled on the scaffold to create complex circuits that are much smaller than any conventional semiconductors. Dubbed DNA origami, this breakthrough is one of many that will maintain an increase in processing power well into the future.

Another radically different method will be to access the processing power of a remote supercomputer from our smart phone or tablet. The processing power of our computing device will be less important with processing-power-as-a-service (PPaaS).

Accelerator No.2: Bandwidth - Today bandwidth is lightning fast compared to a few years ago, but it’s accelerating even faster than the doubling of processing power. We think websites are sophisticated today because we have high-quality graphics that load quickly, and even streaming video. But tomorrow it will be common to have 3D web sites that allow you to walk a virtual tour of your store, new house, or vacation site, in real time.

The acceleration in bandwidth that made possible outsourcing to India and ushered in a multimedia Web was generated mainly by advances in fiber optic technology, which translated into a huge increase in speed and doubling potential, as compared to glacially slower copper wire. Increasing these fiber optic strands’ capacities doesn’t require laying down new fibers, it only requires innovation in the switching units at the ends of each cable. In other words, we can easily multiply the capacity of our existing network by orders of magnitude without any substantial new investment in the infrastructure.

Accelerator No.3: Storage - Even as processing power and bandwidth climb at ever-increasing rates, the increase in our tools’ capacity to store all the information from that increased processing and bandwidth is going through an even steeper, more dramatic change.

My first computer didn’t even have a hard disk drive. Today, data storage capacity is so huge it’s almost unlimited and so cheap it’s practically free. That’s the continuing impact of the third digital accelerator: The capacity to store digital data is doubling every 12 months -- faster than the increase in both bandwidth and processing power -- and remote storage using cloud services provides us with almost limitless capacity.

While current laser technologies are continually increasing the amount of data stored by using shorter and shorter wavelengths of light, they are limited by the nature of their two-dimensional design. But scientists at GE are looking at new ways of increasing storage capacity using holographic principles. They have developed specialized polycarbonate materials that “write” data to a disk by chemically altering the composition of the material when exposed to specific types of laser light. This method allows them to use the entire volume of the recording medium instead of just the visible surface, permitting two hundred times more data to be recorded on the same size disk. Because surface area is no longer a factor, the size and shape of the media can be more flexible. And data retrieval is considerably faster with the use of parallel reading schemes.

You could someday store your entire movie collection on one DVD. But you probably won’t because, as you may have already begun to notice, even DVDs will soon be obsolete. After all, who buys CDs anymore? We download our music direct from iTunes. My current laptop doesn’t even have a hard drive. It uses solid-state memory chips with no moving parts. My data is sitting on a server I’m linked to on the “cloud.” And that’s today. What about tomorrow?

Here comes the "Big One”

As dramatic as the technological changes produced by these three accelerators have been up until now, they are only a hint of what lies ahead.

With bandwidth accelerating even faster than processing power, and storage capacity accelerating faster still, all three digital accelerators are coming together like a “perfect storm” to create an enormous force of transformation that is shooting up and off the charts of conventional expectations.

We are about to put the pedal to the metal.

The next big technological shift affecting all three accelerators is the photonics revolution: using lasers and crystal holography to store information -- think Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

We’ve already been rummaging around in the foothills of this particular mountain of change. Magnetic drives give way to optical drives, and copper cable is joined by fiber optics enabling the transmission of data in the form of light rather than magnetic charge. Just as laying down steel tracks for the railroads transformed the economic and social landscape in the late 19th Century, our crisscrossing the oceans and continents with fiber optics in the late 1990s transformed the modern landscape -- only to a far greater degree and in a fraction of the time.

These three accelerators describe a curve that starts out almost imperceptibly slow. In the '80s, it started curving upward to the point where we could almost start to feel the change. By the end of the '90s it was impossible not to feel it. Yet today, oddly, people often seem to feel the technology revolution is over, that the biggest changes are behind us.

This is a grave mistake.

As radical a change as we’ve seen with fiber optics, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the photonics revolution. Crystal holography is yet another technology that will give us inconceivably vast amounts of data, all stored in three-dimensional and instantly retrievable form. Information about virtually everything, at your fingertips: just add light and stir.

And that’s just storage.

Our microchips get faster and faster, as well. We’ve already stepped into the next frontier in processing: nanotechnology and quantum computing. Researchers have charted the workings of soon to be constructed nano-computers that store infinitesimal bits of information (called qubits, for quantum bits) on single atoms.

And what about bandwidth? That may be the greatest shift of all. We have already stepped off our copper wires and onto fiber optic cables, and now we’re stepping off those translucent filaments onto … thin air. We have become the high-wire artist without the net and without the wire; flying through the air with the greatest of ease. Fiber optics will continue to provide the backbone of communications but, with advances in wireless transmission, our capacity to increase bandwidth, both wired and wireless, has virtually no upward limit.

Photonics, crystal holography, nanotechnology, quantum computing, and infinitely extensible wireless transmission will all accelerate the virtualization of business processes using many innovative iterations of cloud computing. The rate of change ahead will make the days of 1999’s “Internet boom” seem like a quiet autumn afternoon sitting on the front porch rocking chair watching the leaves turn.

What’s critical to remember here is that none of this is a maybe. This accelerating rate of change is as certain as the sun rising in the East tomorrow morning, and it’s going to sweep across our landscape like the technological tsunami it is.

This is going to happen whether we want it to or not. From education to healthcare, agriculture to energy to manufacturing, it will burst through every industry and every institution, metamorphosing everything and leaving nothing untouched in its wake. It will be deeply disruptive to every aspect of every industry and every aspect of human activity ... except for those who see it coming.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.