Technologists from five of the biggest IT companies in the world were asked to ponder out loud the future of computing on Wednesday at a Comdex panel discussion that began with the question: "How is computing going to look in 10 to 20 years?"
Among the broad spectrum of answers were descriptions of a variety of products that could solve any number of problems, including some that were mundane and some we don't even know we have. There were examples of the practical: a PC mounted on a stick that doubles as a coat rack. There were also the more conceptual: memory cells the size of a single molecule. And there was also the necessary: personal firewalls.
If there was a consensus among the officials representing IBM, Compaq Computer, Intel, Sony and Microsoft, it was that computing is certain to become more pervasive over the next 20 years, and there's really no way to know exactly what it will be like in the future.
"This entire show really is about the Web and ten years ago there was no Web," said Jeffrey R. Harrow, senior consulting engineer for Compaq.
Harrow, who writes an online newsletter called "The Rapidly Changing Face of Computers," said the devices that are going to make it possible to have the Web everywhere are well on their way. A Web server the size of a matchbox debuted earlier this year, and just a few weeks ago, Harrow said he featured details of a Web server the size of a match head in his newsletter.
Other thought-provoking technologies include memory elements the size of a single molecule, which has been achieved by electrical engineers at Yale University. Though in its early stages, a computing device so small "demonstrates the incredibly vast potential for change," Harrow said.
The beauty of these devices, according to Peter Hortensius, director of technology and development in IBM's Personal Systems Group, is that they will be very inexpensive -- perhaps a penny-a-piece -- and people will be able to query them.
There will be countless applications of such a technology, Hortensius said. Anyone who has to manage a large number of items, say all the chairs used at the hotel hosting the Comdex conference sessions, could easily keep track of them and even detect if someone is trying to steal one of them, he said.
In a broader sense, computing 20 years from now will not reach the level of human intelligence, but it will be going in that direction, Hortensius added.
"Within 20 years you'll still be very aware that you'll be dealing with a machine," but it won't have intuition and know how to react if, for example, its biometric sensors pick up anxiety, he said.
Hortensius also said the dialog with computers will become much more important and the modes of interaction with computers will become "very appropriate to the situation." To illustrate that point, he showed a short video featuring a wearable PC that reacts to voice commands and doubles as a telephone.
In the video it initially appears that a man seated on a park bench is yelling at the pigeons around him, but as the camera zooms, the wearable computer's postage stamp-size monitor dangling in front of his eye becomes visible.
The computer is a prototype of a computer developed by IBM, Hortensius said, but he also indicated some discomfort over the fact that in the video there's no other human near the shouting, wildly gesturing man.
The wearable computer is yesterday's news compared with the PCs the panelists discussed, and Gerald Holzhammer, director of the Desktop Architecture Lab at Intel, said it's now time to go even further with the reinvention of the PC. He predicted all homes in the future would be e-homes with access to broadband and a gateway device in the basement.
The beige box PC has been basically the same since it came out and it's time to "prune some of the 20 years of legacy from it so it can grow a little." As PCs are redesigned, Holzhammer said, simplicity, robustness, intelligence and style should be emphasised.
Carl Stork, general manager Microsoft, predicted that in the future computers will disappear from view, but will be everywhere.
"They will speak to you, and you will communicate with them in ways that you can't imagine," Stork said. "In our group we already are saying a home is a computing platform, your car is a computing platform. In fact your body is going to be a computing platform."
As new technologies move out of the labs, Stork said one area that can't be ignored is developing the human ability to adapt and raise aptitudes to the level that new computers require.
"While it would be great if Moore's Law applied to us as humans, it doesn't," Stork said, referring to the principle that processor power doubles every 18 months. Companies have to work on natural interfaces for communicating with a computer, including speech recognition, natural language processing and better visual representations to make them easier for mass consumption.