Quantum Leaps: Gaze into silicon ball: Technology stretches possibilities of future

Lawrence,KS (07-24-2000)

From Kansas City Business Journal
By Leslie Zganjar

Imagine your cell phone knowing to block certain calls after 5 p.m. Or your computer alerting you when your paycheck hits the bank. Or your Palm Pilot warning you that you've maxed out your credit cards.

And, like every parent's dream, doing it without having to be told.

Researchers already are at work, trying to make devices smarter by building a smarter network. Students, faculty and staff at the Information and Telecommunication Technology Center at the University of Kansas are among those engaged in the work.

ITTC Director Victor Frost said communication and information devices will become more personalized in the future as the network, or the Web, becomes smarter.

A smarter Web isn't the only area in which scientists and researchers are trying to bring the future one step closer. Work is ongoing to make computers smaller, faster and able to store vast amounts of information, much more than they can today. And the first steps are being taken to build computers from materials other than silicon, which has computational limits.

Although these developments build on existing technology and are easier to predict, it's trickier to foretell what the breakthroughs, or quantum leaps, in technology might be, experts say.

No one foresaw decades ago that personal computers would become a staple of our everyday lives, said Michael Forster, chief technology officer at Digital Archaeology, a local firm that provides customer analysis for e-business.

"You can prognosticate about what is already in play, but you can't predict breakthroughs,'' Forster said, adding that breakthroughs are the result of dreaming and the human imagination.

"It reminds me of what Winston Churchill said after World War II,'' said David Bodee, a professor of technology and innovation at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "The future, though imminent, is obscure.''

Some good bets

Still, there are developments in technology that, though not guaranteed to succeed, are good bets, such as the smarter devices and smarter network Frost speaks of.

This future technology works off personal profiles that users must submit that, in all likelihood, would contain a wealth of personal information. But therein lies a serious potential problem -- security. You wouldn't want pesky telemarketers to know how to reach you or robbers to know when you're out of town.

"It's Big Brother-like,'' Frost admitted.

Another hurdle is making the technology available, and affordable, to the general public.

Jeff Townsend, vice president and chief engineering officer for Cerner Corp., a health care technology company, said the future could bring devices able to learn people's behavior. For example, if you check on a particular stock several times each day, your PC might know to include it in a master list of stocks you like to keep tabs on.

We could see more computers and cell phones responding to voice commands, Townsend said, adding: Imagine a doctor performing surgery and deciding whether to use a drug or a procedure during a particular part of the operation. The surgeon could turn, ask a computer and quickly receive case studies in which the procedure was used or a list of alternative drugs.

And there's the possibility of recognition by other means, such as thumbprints or eye or facial scans. ATMs scan thumbprints and irises for security purposes, but think of the value of this technology in a hospital, Townsend said. "Just touch a computer, and it knows who you are, and you don't have to punch in a bunch of passwords,'' he said.

We're already beginning to see "smarter'' devices, though on a limited basis. Cell phone users can subscribe to some services that allow them to speak commands such as "news'' or "weather'' into the phone, and the phone then culls the data from the Web and reads it back.

But the majority of people still have to know exactly what they're looking for and punch a lot of buttons to get it, Townsend said.

"Smart technology will try and take more of what you have to know away,'' he said. "So you can say into your cell phone, `AMC Theatre 24 on Barry Road, and I'm looking for a drama,' and get that information.'' Today, if you don't know the theater's phone number, you can't get the information.

Mike Brown of Euronet Services, a local wireless technology firm, predicts that in time people will retrieve more information with their voices than with computers. Although less than 10 percent of traffic on cell phones today is data, that number is expected to rise dramatically in the coming years, until the majority of traffic on cell phones is data, Brown said.

His company, meanwhile, is working on software to do the very thing ITTC Director Frost talks about -- alerting cell phone users when their paychecks are credited to their bank accounts and when they've reached their limit on credit cards.

UMKC's Bodee doesn't see any reason to limit this potential technology to communication devices.

"Why can't we put chips in coffee cups that say when the coffee is cold or in farm gates to tell a farmer whether they're open or closed?'' he said. "In the future, there will be no excuse for having dumb devices."

Smaller is better

What other developments are out there?

Bodee predicted that the trend toward miniaturization will continue. Last month, IBM announced that it had developed a hard drive smaller than a matchbook that can store a gigabyte of information. Weighing less than an ounce, it can hold 1,000 high-resolution photographs, 1,000 200-page novels or nearly 18 hours of digital audio music.

That's a far cry from early computers that took up entire rooms and were watched over by men scurrying about in white jackets, Bodee said.

As miniaturization continues, we could see a melding of devices, say sources at Garmin International, an Olathe-based manufacturer of communication and navigation devices. Today, people put beepers in their pockets, hook cell phones to their belts and carry Palm Pilots in their hands. Someday soon, these devices could be miniaturized and combined into one sleek item that would fit in a pocket or on a wrist, like Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio.

Although high-speed access to the Internet is available today, it's not being used on a widespread basis, but it could in the future as improvements in technology drive down costs and the general public becomes more comfortable with it.

The closest thing to a breakthrough in technology, experts said, is work to try to build computers not from silicon but from other materials. What those materials might be and whether the experiment will be successful remain to be seen, experts said.

But they agree that a change will have to be made if computing power is to continue doubling every 18 to 24 months, as it has for the past decade. Researchers at UCLA and Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, are laying the groundwork for what could be the first molecular computer.

"There are physical limits to chips,'' Euronet's Brown said. "The current technology is to use lithography and etch in the silicon. But you can only etch paths so skinny. We will reach some physical boundaries."

For more information, contact ITTC.

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