In the world of nuclear physics, where moving at Internet speed still isn't fast enough, scientists are sending data from the CERN particle physics lab in Geneva, Switzerland, to the California Institute of Technology at the rate of a CD's worth of information every second. By 2007, they hope to double that to a gigabyte of data every second, fast enough to send a DVD movie in three seconds. Even at those speeds, it would still take 40 minutes to transfer a trillion bytes of information--the yardstick particle physicists use to measure the information their instruments spew. Scientists now collect a few terabytes of data a year, but that could increase a thousandfold by early in the next decade.
Contrast that with the technology many of us have at home today. With a dial-up Internet connection, it would take about two years to move a terabyte of data to your house, says Jim Gray, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft Research who's working with CERN and Caltech on the high-speed project. "I'm trying to get things that run in hours or days or weeks to run in seconds," says Gray, a specialist in making huge databases hum, whose resumé stretches back nearly 40 years, including work at Bell Labs, Digital Equipment, and IBM. People want answers in real time, Gray says. Slowness, "makes you much more reluctant to ask questions."
Carbon nanotubes, plastics semiconductors, and more esoteric areas of research such as using the spin of electrons are being examined as successors to silicon, IBM's senior VP and head of research Paul Horn says.
For these gentlemen and the computer industry in general, slowness stands in the way of greater future achievements. Microprocessor speeds are flattening after years of phenomenal gains. PCs can't find us the information we need fast enough. Supercomputer users thirst for faster "time to insight" from their complex machines. Meanwhile, the explosion of technology patents confounds companies, making it more challenging for them to assemble all the pieces they need to bring innovative products to market quickly. And America's universities attract fewer students interested in science and technology, as Asia and India shine in this area, a development that could slow U.S. competitiveness.
For an in-depth look at the big changes afoot in computer design, the office of the future, the wired home, intellectual property, and education and globalization, read on. Just make it fast.
What's Next For Silicon Chips?
If there's a metaquestion dogging computer designers, it's how much longer the industry will keep churning out silicon-based machines that are twice as fast as last year's. The most common guess: About a dozen years.
Chips' clock speeds already are increasing more slowly: 10% to 15% a year, versus 35% to 40% per year historically. Yet computer performance keeps nearly doubling each year, as Advanced Micro Devices, IBM, Intel, and Sun Microsystems make their products more specialized and combine more computing functions on a single piece of silicon. Even so, designers are running into engineering problems that rob performance as electronics shrink into the nano scale. "Frequencies will continue to go up, but nowhere near at the rate they have in the past," IBM's Horn says. "We're going to see a sea change in the way processors are designed."
But what's the limit? The question has many practical implications. "We've been on a curve where you lead with your fastest microprocessor with the biggest cache," and you charge premium prices for those products, Sun's Papadopoulos says. "Now the world's starting to unravel."
The semiconductor industry is building products with electronics just 65 billionths of a meter wide. The next two generations--45 nanometers and 32 nanometers, each about three years apart--look OK, Horn says. "It's pretty clear nothing's going to replace silicon in that time," he says. "You go one more cycle out and, I'll tell you, it's getting pretty dicey. The problem is, there's no good alternative."
Carbon nanotubes, plastic semiconductors, and more esoteric areas of research, such as using the electronic spin of electrons or the quantum mechanical properties of atoms to perform computations, have all been posited as solutions. "All have some potential," Horn says, "but there's no clear-cut road map as a replacement for silicon."
As for today's technology, gains in the sophistication of software let programmers wring more performance from the specialized silicon chips that companies are turning out. "Programmability always rules," Papadopoulos says. "There's far more innovation happening in software than in hardware."
The PC Versus The Personal Network
On the other end of the computing spectrum is the old, not-always-so-reliable, PC. While the rarified end of the supercomputing sector heads toward the milestone of a petaflop machine capable of a quadrillion calculations a second, other engineers and scientists are trying to extract power from huge networks of cheap PCs. "My agenda isn't to be the first to a petaflop," Intel CTO Gelsinger says. "The agenda is supercomputing for the masses." At Microsoft, Gray talks about closing the "guru gap" between what the most advanced users can get out of Wintel systems and what everyone else can.
Even Microsoft's and Intel's critics concede the PC isn't likely to budge from desktops soon. "The PC's going to be around for a long time," Papadopoulos says. Horn calls it a "platform that will be with us for the foreseeable future." However, there's a lot that needs to be addressed.
In an era of rapidly multiplying E-documents, the hierarchical file system is falling down on the job. Apple Computer and Microsoft are putting research and development into new ways of pinpointing digital files that don't require wading through directories of folders. Microsoft and Intel are rethinking the PC's guts so its electronics and software are more aware of who's changing what.
Ideas percolating in research labs could change the nature of office work, making the PC just one part of a floating "personal network" of information. "The PC represents an architectural point that's distinctly unnetworked." Papadopoulos says. "The question isn't whether I should have Google-like search on my PC." Rather, he says, it's how soon users can unhook themselves from their hard drives and take advantage of the the Internet's ubiquitous reach.
Bill Gates first called that notion "information at your fingertips" in a 1990 speech at the Comdex trade show, and it's an increasingly popular one. "The nature of the work we're doing hasn't changed that much," PARC's Bernstein says. "We're still pounding our fingers on keyboards." PARC is researching computer displays that are large surfaces that groups of workers can share to call up new information by touching the screen. IP phones also will change social protocols at work--instead of picking up a receiver and dialing, we might say, "Phone Bill in Redmond."
The notion of a corporate network could change, too, as information on people's PCs and PDAs melds into a work-life blur, Bernstein says. But different technical standards for computers, cars, and consumer electronics make it too hard to ferry those devices between work and home, he adds. PARC software, called Obje, can bridge standards among cell phones, laptops, PDAs, printers, set-top boxes, and video displays from different companies.
At HP, engineers are working to bring to market another great hope for the office of the future: videoconferencing that works, Lampman says. Within a few years, HP plans to release a videoconferencing system that it has been developing with DreamWorks SKG, which features life-size images of people broadcast in high-definition video and multidimensional sound that doesn't ring like speakerphone gibberish when two people are talking, he says. DreamWorks' system "is the first one I've seen that makes you feel emotionally like you're in one room," Lampman says. "We've thrown HP tech teams on it to see how to commercialize the system and take some of the cost out."
The Wired Home MAY Be More Entertaining Than You Think
Tech companies throwing R&D dollars at your office agree where the money should go. That's not the case at home. "Where's the interface for information? Is it the TV set, the set-top box, the tablet computer, or the phone?" Bernstein asks. "The one that will win out is the one that's easiest for people to use." A good candidate: TV sets with touch screens and speech recognition, areas PARC is researching.
Intel's goal isn't to be first with a petaflop, Intel senior VP and CTO Pat Gelsinger says. Instead, the company's agenda is to deliver 'supercomputing for the masses.'
Photo by Jeffery Newbury
HP is going the specialty route, licensing technology to Swiss chipmaker STMicroelectronics N.V. for a processor aimed at DVD players and digital TVs. "When you specialize, you can get a huge performance boost you can't [get] otherwise," Lampman says. "As the consumer-electronics world goes all-digital, getting the performance people want takes huge amounts of processing."
But forget the notion of Internet-ready washing machines, refrigerators, and toasters that can chat among themselves in a network, IBM's Horn adds. "It's more the high-tech wacko in my laboratory who would want to do that than John Q. Public."
Intellectual Property: Build Or Buy?
Where's the next great idea in computing going to come from? Increasingly, companies are betting it will be outside their walls. As the number of technology patents explodes, and information technologies find new applications outside the industries for which they were invented, it's becoming much harder for any one company to control all the pieces it needs to bring great products to market. "As a consequence of the breadth of technology, it's very unlikely you'll have all the pieces you need to succeed," PARC's Bernstein says. "Barriers have dropped tremendously."
That's the reason Microsoft restructured its licensing business this year--to gain greater freedom to license the intellectual property it needs to build its products in portfolios, instead of piece by piece. And HP has increased the number of patents it has applied for in the last five years and become more aggressive in protecting its intellectual property, Lampman says. Four years ago, the company made decisions similar to the ones Microsoft is making now, he says, and this year's revenue from intellectual-property licensing should triple compared to last year.
Fragmentation and faster tech transfer mean hardware, software, and services will come to market faster, IBM's Horn says. "Innovation in our world is undergoing a fundamental shift." Earlier this month, IBM tapped two of its most senior executives, John Kelly and Irving Wladawsky-Berger, to head an intellectual-property group. IBM earned about $1 billion in profit last year from licensing its intellectual property.
The Education Of The Post-Modern Programmer
So who's going to build the next wave of great products? Many researchers are afraid that a shortage of technical talent will hurt U.S. competitiveness. "American education is doing an extremely bad job," says Microsoft's Gray, who served on the President's IT Advisory Committee during the Clinton administration. Enrollment in college science and engineering programs has been dropping since the '80s, and participation by women is falling off even more rapidly, to about 15% of students. "This is an education catastrophe," he says. The United States spends about as much per capita on education as other countries, Gray says, but low pay and lack of respect for teachers isn't preparing kids to choose technical fields--a decision that's often made by the time they're in fourth grade. "Many students aren't excited about science and technology. Play it forward, and the high-paying jobs are in areas where people have some special expertise." Companies are outsourcing tech work to Asia, India, and Russia because the workforce isn't just cheaper--it's often more talented, Gray says.
Case in point: HP's lab in Bangalore, India, isn't just a money saver, Lampman says. "It's helping HP grow. That's the mission of that lab," he says. That's not to say training more computer scientists at home isn't important. "The U.S. has benefited enormously from IT investment, in terms of balance of trade and jobs," he says. "I'm concerned we've lost that."
IBM is going one step further, trying to influence university curriculum. This fall, the Haas Business School at the University of California, Berkeley, is offering the first class in a discipline Horn calls "services science." It's being taught by business professor and noted R&D expert Hank Chesbrough and IBM researcher Jim Spohrer. Boundaries between B-schools and computer-science programs need to fall to give students 21st century skills, Horn says. "There wasn't even a computer science course until the 1940s," when IBM and Columbia University teamed up to teach one, he says. "I'm hopeful this could be something like that."
If the tech industry wants to keep its engines of innovation churning, it's going to need more of this sort of fuel.
Illustration by Stuart Bradford