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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
I have seen a future, and it sees me
Patrick MarrenPatrick Marren is a strategic consultant with the Futures Strategy Group. Clients he has worked for have included the US Coast Guard, NASA, the FAA, the Panama Canal Commission, various aspects of the US military, and numerous Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Crystal Lake, IL (email@example.com).
Moore's law, named for Gordon Moore, one of Silicon Valley's founding spirits, states that the cost of a given amount of computer processing power will decline by half every 18 months. The law was based more on Moore's empirical observation of the curiously constant rate of this decline than on any more fundamental principle of physics, technology development, or economics. But it has been remarkably accurate over a long period of time, as such "laws" go.
One might think that a steep decline such as this would dictate a similarly smooth growth curve in the information technology (IT) industry. But such has not been the case, as many a disappointed "dot.com" investor would be able to tell you. Many reasons might be advanced for this lack of correlation between Moore's law and the broader IT industry. But they seem to boil down to the fact that any industry, even one as technologically focused as computing, is dependent on a host of other exogenous non-technological variables for its growth. Among these one might include finance, which brings in all the vagaries of Wall Street; popular culture, which can designate a sector as "hot" one minute and a "bubble" the next; and pure human error, which is a limiting factor in all endeavors.
But despite the relative doldrums in the IT market lo these past few years, Moore's law has continued to apply, inexorably, month by month. Computing power has continued to decline in cost, and this advance has only been cloaked by the relative economic inability of the mass market to suck up as many computers as they did a few years back, and a certain jaded quality in the public as respects whiz-bang techno-wonder-ware.
A rough corollary to Moore's law is that the size of a given computing gadget also should decline by essentially the same rate – 50 percent over a year and a half. This ratio too has held somewhat constant, and accounts for our ability to carry increasingly ridiculous amounts of data, games, obsolete phone numbers, and other vital functions on our mobile phones and personal assistants, regardless of the generally more dismal (at least until recently) state of the economy.
As a "futurist", whatever that is, I often am exposed to the millenary claims of my betters (that is, those who have figured out how to place a book on the best-seller list). Moore's law often figures prominently in their breathtaking projections of "what will be". And there is little doubt that much of what these futurists claim for our future will, in fact, be.
But right now, when the NASDAQ is still struggling back to half of what it once was, I would be so bold as to venture that many of these futurists are not claiming half enough for the effects that these gadgets will have on us in the not-too-distant future – for good, ill, and otherwise. Let me give one example.
In its December 11 issue, The Economist featured a picture of what appeared to be a small model airplane, looking sort of like a clear plastic dragonfly, held in the hand of its designer. The quote accompanying this picture stated: "The world's smallest UAV is currently the 15cm-long, electrically powered, Black Widow. It can fly for 30 minutes and download live color video to the ground via its onboard camera".
Now, a "UAV" is an unmanned aerial vehicle. The most famous UAVs at this point in time are the Global Hawk and the Predator, both developed for the US military, and both employed in the recent unpleasantness in Iraq. Both of these UAVs are the size of conventional airplanes. They both are able to "loiter" above areas of interest and point on-board cameras at items, people, and geography of interest, and to relay their footage back to controllers behind the lines.
The Predator has even been retrofitted to carry Hellfire missiles, which allowed it some months ago to blast to perdition a number of al Qaeda suspects in Yemen, once their car had been identified and the proper Yemeni authorities had given their blessing to the dispatching of said al Qaeda suspects to parts unknown and unknowable.
The Predator and Global Hawk have ignited a sort of controversy in the military over the future of manned aircraft in combat. To be sure, we are a long way from seeing the air forces of the US even partially "manned" by robots. But some of the leading thinkers in the Navy and Air Force seem to see the writing on the wall. Why send a human out with the plane when a "pilot" can operate the machine just as well remotely, back in a ground-control center, without dangerous g-forces, not to mention bullets and missiles? The unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) is the logical next step.
This is of course distressing to the population of past, current, and would-be military pilots. To them, it must seem to be yet another case of hitherto manly labors being forever arrogated by pimply bespectacled IS drones, in a long and disheartening line that must stretch back to the first mastodon trap that deprived more burly cave men of the thrill of the hunt, continued through the axe-men tragically idled by the invention of the guillotine in 1792, and the more recent disheartening closing of dirty coal mines in favor of "cleaner" fuels that do not require a large burly male person to put himself in imminent danger of death, dismemberment and white lung disease.
But this is just another example of one of the leading edge trends, not only in the military, but in business too: the removal of humans, as far as possible, from the battle space (workplace). Why waste expensively trained human beings on any mission (job) that a machine can do just as well?
But let's get back to our little tiny airplane again. The Black Widow is a tiny aircraft that can "loiter" around a much smaller area than the Predator or the Global Hawk, and convey video feeds. It will certainly never be able to shoot off Hellfire missiles. What could such a "plane" do?
Not much, as things stand. But as an ancestor of a mighty line of future, far smaller vehicles, the Black Widow may be very significant indeed. And now we can bring Moore's law, or its corollaries, back into the picture.
Let us imagine that Moore's law, or a rough corollary, might apply to the 15cm (6 inch-long) Black Widow (Of course, the laws of miniaturization of airframes will be different from those applying to the miniaturization of circuit boards, nevertheless).
In 18 months, it would be 3 inches long. In three years, an inch and a half. In six years, it would be three-eighths of an inch long. In 12 years, it would be barely two hundredths of an inch long – the size of a small insect. After that, it would become more or less invisible.
Now you might ask yourself, "Who needs an airplane that no one can see?" And of course no one would fly such a "plane" to London or Omaha.
But here is where I believe some "futurists" miss the boat: by confining themselves to the examination of single trends, and not giving heed to the interaction between apparently disparate fields. While Moore's law, or something like it, is cutting the Black Widow down to the size of a mosquito, it is also cutting down the size of components that might go on board the tiny plane. Cameras, now the size of microchips, could be microscopic. Communications devices to convey what the plane "sees" could also be tiny. Power plants, to keep the tiny plane aloft, might also be tiny – and powered by local ambient energy.
But there's more. While Moore's law is scaling down the size of surveillance vehicles, biotechnology will be working on the DNA and anatomy and aerodynamics and maybe even the brains of fruit flies, mosquitoes, and similarly tiny animals, and applying them to the descendant of the Black Widow. And it will also be coming up with new forms of near-foolproof identification and even tracking of individuals, probably via DNA.
Nanotechnology, the science of the very small, will be developing all along the way, enhancing and making possible all sorts of interactions between the "hard" world of IT and physics and the "soft" world of biology, and blurring the boundaries between them, as well as making things very, very small.
Several months ago, in a previous column, I pointed out the interesting interaction between business strategy and military strategy over the past few decades, and suggested that military strategy was starting to mimic, through the use of "smart weapons", the sort of "mass customization" that successful businesses use to serve important target clients.
But the interactions between these emerging sciences will transform warfare and business – not to mention life as we know it, in both good ways and bad.
The next generation "Iraq war", a generation or more hence, may not require a single American to leave this country. As long as a method of foolproof identification can be found – biometrics or a DNA sample – then American scientists may be able to bio-engineer a swarm of partially mechanized mosquitoes that are specifically designed to seek out the next-generation Osama bin Laden, persist in their search until they find him (only one or a handful of the original swarm need succeed), alert the home base of their discovery, and either inject some sort of poison, or an immobilizing drug, or a taggant. These swarms can be released from a drone aircraft, or in less dire circumstances, they can simply be released to fly across an ocean.
War would then become truly "mass-customized", and "collateral damage" could be avoided almost entirely, except for the inevitable human errors in design or programming. It sounds like science fiction, and I suppose that until it actually happens, it will remain so, but the entire concept is quite straightforward once one merely takes into account the linear rate of advance in the various sciences that would be involved, and then imagines the potential interactions.
It also sounds like a sort of nonviolent paradise until you start to figure in the fact that the rest of humanity will not be standing still while we develop these weapons. Even if the USA retains a lead in these technologies (which will be a difficult task, given the fact, for example, that Japan seems to be the leader in many facets of nanotechnology, and Singapore has quickly picked up the mantle in stem-cell research that the USA has dropped on ethical grounds), there still will be a stupendous array of advanced foreign micro-reconnaissance craft and micro-weaponry out there.
Extraordinary measures would have to be taken for key political leaders to be protected from these tiny drones. The entire concept of warfare could be disrupted, along with the entire political sphere of life across the globe.
In addition, the threat would be restricted neither to the famous, nor simply to the military sphere. Commercial applications for these micro-reconnaissance craft would undoubtedly be found. Annoying commercial applications. Invasive commercial applications. We are often annoyed today by commercial pop-up ads and importuning telemarketers. But the pernicious influence of these can be halted, today, by turning off a computer or not answering a phone. Imagine for a moment sitting down to dinner and being interrupted by a small drone aircraft buzzing around you, trying to sell you something. Or, perhaps worse, taking a small blood sample to ascertain your mood, your desires, or your medical state, and uploading them to god knows where.
The interaction between the rapidly advancing fields of information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and networked communications make such a dream/nightmare scenario quite plausible within the lifetimes of many of the people reading this.
In the movie "The Graduate", Dustin Hoffman is approached by a well-meaning family friend who tells him that the future can be summarized in one simple word: "plastics".
If this future comes to pass, I have a field to recommend to all of you young up-and-coming would-be business tycoons: window screens – very, very fine window screens.