Electronic Design

A Futurist's View: Daniel Burrus: On 50 Years From Now

Recent technological innovations have resulted in the development of totally new products and services, as well as greatly enhanced productivity. But what can we expect in the future? As part of its 50th Anniversary Issue, Electronic Design asked Daniel Burrus, head and leading technology forecaster of Daniel Burrus Associates, to talk about what he expects to see in another 50 years.

Burrus is the author of six books:

  • Technotrends: How To Use Technology To Go Beyond Your Competition
  • The New Tools of Technology
  • Insights Into Excellence
  • Medical Advances
  • Environmental Solutions
  • Advances in Agriculture

He also predicted the rapid development of several groundbreaking technologies in 1983, such as digital electronics, distributed computing including the Internet, and wireless networking. Clients of Burrus include IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Toshiba, and AT&T.

Question: Electrotechnology may be advancing faster than ever. Could this become a problem for consumers over the next 50 years?

It will not, as some people suspect, develop at a rate that's faster than we can adapt to, or use. You might remember studies conducted when we were back in school, suggesting that we only use a small part of our brain. Most of us coast. We were given a wonderful brain that can do so much and we don't really use all of it.

I think I recall reading that the amount of information that an individual could absorb in a lifetime during the Revolutionary War equals one Sunday New York Times. If we had given the New York Times to someone back then, they would have been overwhelmed, but that's not the case today. The key is how we're absorbing the information.

Technologies like just-in-time training, just-in-time learning, advanced simulations, and virtual reality will help us to understand and absorb complex information faster and at a deeper level then we do today. In addition, we will have intelligent agents searching all of the world's databases, information bases, knowledge bases, and wisdom bases to bring back what we need. Advanced ultra-intelligent electronic agents will also act as electronic mentors and coaches, helping us to learn and grow faster.

Q: How far can we take miniaturization?

We'll be able to design molecules from scratch, customizing them to fit the needs of electronics. This is where you can start to see the link between biotech and electronics. It will be unbelievably powerful. Bioelectronics will be very big, as will biomagnetics.

We have already heard about the telephone tooth. But very few Generation Xers and Baby Boomers will want implantable devices. The children of today may not have a problem with this. We have to ask ourselves, what do we want to implant, and what do we want on our clothing? Maybe wearable GPS, rather than implantable GPS.

Q: Will we finally be paperless in 50 years?

I would say no. We have more choices today, but we haven't learned how to use them wisely. I have surveyed literally thousands of executives, asking them if there is a clear understanding in their organization of when to use e-mail versus voice mail, or video conferencing, audio conferencing, a fax, or a handwritten note, and no one has really figured it out yet. For most companies, it's chaos.

Q: What about new human interface developments?

For one thing, keyboards won't be obsolete 50 years from now. Some people are really wonderful with keyboards and they even think better using keyboards. Others would rather write, so give them a digital tablet. Some would rather speak, so let them use voice recognition, which is going to be a huge technology in terms of its applications and use.

Consider another concept. Some people learn better by listening, and some learn better by reading. That's why the whole idea of customizing the use of the receiver is important. If I want to send you an e-mail and I prefer talking, then that's how I'll send my message and you will decide whether you want to hear it or read it. We're not eliminating anything. We're providing more options.

Q: Electronic books, or e-books, aren't very popular right now. Will that change?

Yes, we will see more of these in the future. They will be wonderful, especially if they're solar-powered. When today's kindergartners reach their fifties and sixties, they may not be so hung up on paper books. However, they're reading paper books now, even though they also use computers. But what their children do is another story.

Q: A growing segment of the industry is pinning its hopes on mobile computing and the wireless Web. Should they be?

Anytime a technology satisfies a social need, a revolution is created, which means that mobile computing and the wireless Web will be huge. So will peer-to-peer, just like collaborative computing.

Q: Are we going to see more convergence in high-tech products in 50 years?

There will be devices that will do multiple functions. But there will also be a great need for single-purpose devices because they will be designed perfectly to handle just one function. Part of the value of single-function products is that they can be very elegant in their design. An example in the present would be a small, single-function cell phone. Great for voice and little else. To add more, it becomes larger plus more expensive and complicated to use. A near-future example would be a cell phone that fits in your ear. No one can see it. When it rings, only you can hear it. Your voice handles all of the functions. If a call comes in while you are with someone, you simply touch the device in your ear and the call goes to voice mail. This will be very different from the multifunction Web-enabled smartphone.

Q: What about more technical specialization? Is that something we can anticipate?

Definitely. Given the increasing complexity of the technology, we can expect electronics engineers to become even more specialized than they are now, like doctors. We're creating new data on a daily basis. That data creates information, which spawns knowledge and wisdom. The rate at which we're developing and collecting new data is accelerating. Just think of the technologies that didn't exist when Electronic Design was started 50 years ago.

TAGS: Toshiba
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