Monday, March 16, 2009

Beam Me Up Scotty...

Going back to get a glimpse at the future through junior high parent orientation was one thing, but zooming forward for a true view of the future was a whole different experience! I recently visited the research headquarters of IBM in Westchester County, New York through the good fortune of joining representatives from SUNY-IT, Utica College, state and local government and members of the vibrant IT and software development community here in the Mohawk Valley on a full day experience. Departing at 5 a.m. and spending 15 hours with a busload of computer scientists provided me with a Walter Mitty experience for the ages. We spent the day in a corporate seminar room listening to presentations from some of the best and brightest at IBM research. We learned that more patents come out of the IBM research labs each year than anywhere else (for the past 12 consecutive years!) and this tour exposed us to much of their latest research and how technology is literally shaping our society.

After listening to presentations on Cloud technology (a non-weather related term now applied to super computer networks that I can’t quite explain here) and getting an overview of global technology trends, we took a break for lunch. I felt like an academic athlete at a super quiz bowl – ready to dump icewater over my head to cool it off from thinking too much. After lunch, we heard more detail on technology trends and potential implications before going on a tour of some displays that demonstrated some of the potential applications to everyday life. Here are a few examples of what we witnessed in this time travel experience:
  • We watched a woman speak into a microphone, asking a question in English and having the computer respond back to her in Mandarin Chinese, with a third component validating the communication in writing. She said this was used at the Beijing Olympics and is being used today by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said soon it will be available for market, most likely as an application for our cellphones – potentially turning our phones into our personal interpreters.
  • Cellphones overall continue to be the mechanism for the future – with RFID technology, they are likely to become the means by which we interact in this hyper-technologic future. From serving as our wallet and electronic payment device to carrying a dna sample and all of our personal health/bio-identification information, cellphones seem to be able to do most anything.
  • We witnessed the latest directions in surveillance technology that reminded me way too much of Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
  • We saw how technology will change our retail experiences and our healthcare provider experiences. From customized displays that appear throughout the store as you shop to remote monitoring of our health through connections between our homes, doctors’ offices and hospitals, the future is hard to comprehend.
  • My "wow" for the day however, came when they showed us a 3-D image on a huge flat-panel display. The speaker said, "to produce this image and this animated motion, it requires the same computing power as the world's fastest supercomputer in 1998...today, I'm showing this to you on a Sony Playstation 3 with an enhanced video card." - yes, a videogame today has the computing capability of the world’s fastest computer did 11 years ago.

I let a passing comment go by - that the world’s fastest supercomputer can now process information as fast as the human brain - but I sat up in my chair when the speaker mentioned research into teletransporting (like “beam me up Scotty”)…and no one laughed. IBM researchers have been able to dissolve an object through this process but they can only reconstitute a single atom. (Fortunately, I think the auto industry may have a few good years left.) I’ll try to digest all of this and synthesize some of the implications for a future post. If you have any thoughts on this, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.