The Next 25 Years in Tech

The Incredible Disappearing PC

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Illustration: Michael Klein
Whether you have a PC on your desk in 10 to 15 years will be a matter of choice, not necessity. If you do, it will be vastly more powerful than your current system, thanks to advances in nanotechnology, says Doug Tougaw, an engineering professor at Valparaiso University who is developing nanocomputers.

"We're getting closer to our goal of creating computers that are a thousand times faster and smaller and use one-thousandth of the energy of today's computers," Tougaw reports. "As processors get smaller, they'll be embedded into more things. We'll also use standard-size machines packed with hundreds of chips. So we'll have very intelligent consumer products and unbelievably powerful PCs."

Computers using nanotechnology will debut in about five years, he says. Five to ten years after that, silicon will reach a point at which quantum mechanics won't allow chip pathways to get any smaller, so electric-current-based PCs will give way to optical computers that transmit streams of light instead of electrons, or perhaps to quantum computers that rely on the strange physics of atomic particles to deliver processing brawn.

"Starting around the year 2018, we'll have optical computers that operate at the speed of light, sending thousands of message streams down a single channel," says William Halal, professor emeritus at George Washington University and author of Technology's Promise: Expert Knowledge on the Coming Transformation of Society, to be published in April.

Most of tomorrow's CPU muscle will go toward making the user interface seamless and ubiquitous. Keyboards and mice may persist, but they'll become secondary to voice and gesture.

Gesture-based interfaces are catching on fast. The Nintendo Wii's gesture-based controllers are one example. And the iPhone's touch screen responds differently to finger taps than to swipes; Apple rolled similar technology into its MacBook Air's touchpad in January. GestureTek uses the input from camera phones to deliver gesture control.

Once freed from the keyboard, you'll be able to talk or gesture to your computer from virtually any display in your home. Or you may carry your pocket-size computer with you and beam the image to a nanocomputer embedded in the nearest wall-size screen. Paper-thin displays are inching closer to reality, too. Late last year, Sony released its $2500, 11-inch XEL-1 organic light-emitting diode (OLED) HDTVs; and at January's Consumer Electronics Show, the company presented a prototype 27-inch OLED HDTV.

Meanwhile, what you see on screen will look a lot more like real life than in present-day 3D virtual worlds, predicts Halal. "When you want to buy a book, instead of going to Amazon's home page, you'll be greeted by a virtual salesperson," Halal says. "The avatar will find the book you're looking for and conduct the transaction, just as you would with a real person."

Michael Liebhold, senior researcher at Palo Alto, California's Institute for the Future, says your PC may project a holograph, so you can manipulate files and objects with your hands.

Of course, you may not have a traditional computer at all. For many people, the PC of the future will be a dumb terminal, with storage, software, and processing power distributed across an Internet cloud. Amazon, Dell, and IBM have introduced cloud services for businesses; and Google and Zoho now serve up Web applications to consumers.

In years to come you'll enjoy ubiquitous Internet access, perhaps using part of today's TV spectrum. Such access will deliver your "desktop" from a portable device or Internet terminal. Instead of a user name and password, you'll provide a fingerprint, voice, or retinal scan. "Your identity becomes your access point to your files and applications," says Patrick Tucker of the World Future Society, in Bethesda, Maryland. "Your digital life will follow you around like a shadow."

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