When GigaOM held its recent Roadmap conference in San Francisco, a number of tech visionaries were in attendance, weighing in on what the future of technology might hold. During this event, there was one theme that seemed to recur: That technology will advance and evolve to a point when computing as we know it will disappear.
Not that it will cease to exist, but rather, that it'll become more powerful and so tightly integrated into our lives that the mechanism of computing will be virtually invisible to the average person. In fact, there are already signs that this is where we're heading.
Indeed, most of us have no idea what goes into the back-end of popular social services like Facebook or Twitter, and the forum did touch on that. But frankly, I think that's just the tip of the iceberg. For example, Microsoft's Home of the Future gives us a preview of how far technology could go. Innovations like live walls and surfaces would let users interact with data and networks (and each other) in amazing ways — like a person viewing weather information on closet doors, as he or she picks out what to wear that day, or laying back in bed and reading status updates that scroll on the walls.
There are also real-world examples on our mobile devices. From little joys, like seeing Apple's iPad smart covers waking or sleeping those tablets so easily, to more hyped features such as the iPhone 4S' Siri voice commands and the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Nexus' facial recognition and NFC beaming. And those are only the "sexier" features — there are many processes, mountains of code and hardware innovations that drive everything we do on these gadgets, most of which goes on sight unseen by the average end user.
The promise of invisible computing is that things will just work, and they'll do so in ways that actually do seem like magic. Just take a look at UP, the Jawbone health-monitoring wristband that looks no different from a simple bracelet, but has as much computing power as a 2001 desktop PC. Now take that idea a step further: Imagine hospitals putting bands on patients that can automatically beam data to doctors' tablets the moment they enter the room. That alone would not just cut the risk of chart mix-ups and other human errors, but it could also radically reduce paperwork and filing, making healthcare systems and patient medical records reporting more efficient, more accurate, and less expensive. Thanks to innovations like NFC (Near Field Communication), that kind of system is within our grasp.
Then there's automotive. Cars could auto-adjust mirrors, seats and steering wheels based on who enters the car, automatically switch navigation from GPS to cellular according to connection, emit a loud alert when the driver dozes off and the vehicle starts to drift, and more. (Some cars already even do some of this.) Office work could take on a whole new meaning, with smart desks complete with productivity applications and telephony features that can adapt to a specific user's habits and behaviors, all just launching and operating without finagling multiple settings or tweaking terminal commands. As such, access to technology wouldn't have to be bound by the limitations of technical savvy. Your mom, grandmother and everyone else you know could have a dramatically different way of life, because they're no longer thwarted by user manuals or unwieldy protocols. The technology will disappear. And at the same time, it will be unleashed.
If this incredible invisible-computing environment of the future works, it will be for one simple reason: It will exist to serve us, not get in our way. I think Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, said it best at the Roadmap event: "I believe strongly that this information and these tools help us be better, but we need to be sure, as builders of tools, that it's not overwhelming, that it's meaningful, and that it's not distracting. That it's not something that puts technology first; it puts humans first." Here, here. Brother, you're singing my song.
What do you think the future of technology holds for us? Will it be this human-centric notion of invisible computing, or do you see another way forward for our industry? And are there any particular innovations that you're hoping to see within your lifetime?