The Future of Computing Power (Fast, Cheap, and Invisible)

In just a few years, basic microchips will be so cheap they could be built into virtually every product that we buy, creating an invisible intelligent network that’s hidden in our walls, our furniture, and even our clothing.

Back in the 1960s the IBM 1401 was both state of the art and an engineering marvel. It filled up an entire room and weighed thousands of pounds; in today’s money it would cost about $1.5 million. The old 1401 could perform just over 4,000 calculations per second and at the time was virtually unmatched. Nowadays, the average mobile phone has a microchip about the size of your fingernail and can perform about 1 billion calculations per second.


Here are a few examples of famous predictions about computers that will surely go down in history.

  • Thomas Watson of IBM stated in 1943 that he believed there was a world market for maybe five computers
  • Popular Mechanics stated that in the future computers may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.
  • An engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip asked "But what...is it good for?"
  • Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer stated "So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you because we just want to do it. Pay our salary and we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'"
  • Ken Olson, President of Digital Equipment Corp, in 1977 stated that there is no need for any individual to have a computer in their home.
  • The exponential growth of computing power is utterly astonishing and will profoundly reshape all of human civilization. The most spectacular thing about it is the fact that our generation is smack dab in the middle of all of these transitions. By the year 2020, a chip with today’s processing power will cost about a penny, which is the cost of scrap paper we throw in the garbage. Children are going to look back and wonder how we could have possibly lived in such a meager world, much as when we think about how our own parents lacked the luxuries—cell phone, Internet—that we all seem to take for granted. Our world is already much, much smarter than 10 years ago and as computing power doubles every 18 months, it’s propelling us towards a radically different future. 

    Engineers are already designing driverless cars that rely on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and laser sensors to avoid obstacles autonomously. Some driverless car concepts (which are functional to an extent) achieve these feats with the power of about 8-10 ordinary desktop computers. I actually had a chance to ride in one of these autonomous vehicles in North Carolina while filming with the BBC.  

    Similarly, in the not too distant future, our streets and highways will contain embedded computer chips that manage traffic, turning what once seemed a futuristic fantasy into reality. (If you’ve ever seen the movie "Minority Report," set in the year 2054, you'll remember the cars that simply drove themselves, allowing Tom Cruise to multitask without having to watch the road.) All the vehicles on the road will essentially speak with one another, and I believe that in the future, the words "traffic accident" and "traffic jam" will simply disappear from the English language. 

    By 2020, computer intelligence will be everywhere: not just in the cars and the roads, but practically in every object you see around you. In the past three decades alone, there have been a tremendous amount of changes in this regard. Microprocessors in essence have been around since the early 70’s, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the microprocessor war really started to accelerate. In fact, some of the first 32-bit designs were found in Apple’s Lisa, Macintosh, and even the Commodore Amiga.  The 1990s, as you know, was the decade where computing power really started to take shape. This was the decade of networking, when we began to hook all of our computers together, breathing life into the World Wide Web on which you are reading this blog post. We are now at a point in our lives where computers are everywhere: in our phones, televisions, stereos, thermostats, wrist watches, refrigerators and even our dishwashers. In just a few years, basic microchips will be so cheap they could be built into virtually every product that we buy, creating an invisible intelligent network that’s hidden in our walls, our furniture, and even our clothing. Some of you may even have microchips in your dog or cat, acting as a digital collar in the event they become lost.

    You may have heard the term RFID (or Radio Frequency Identification), which is a tag that’s usually incorporated into a product, animal, or person for the purpose of identification and tracking using radio waves. RFID tags are starting to pop up virtually everywhere, and you may not even have noticed it. Grocery stores, for example, have already started implementing the use of RFID technology in a large array of pilot stores. When you reach the checkout there will be no more taking out each item and placing it on the conveyer belt. The RFID tags on each of the items instantly transmit necessary data about your cart full of groceries, completely doing away with the checkout line. This technology is of course still in its proof of concept phase, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it’s perfected in the next few years. In the past decade or so, there has been an explosion of RFID technologies: a new report from market intelligence firm ABI Research predicts that the overall RFID market will exceed $8.25 billion in 2014, or approximately $7.46 billion with automobile immobilization excluded. That would represent a 14% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over the next five years.

    We are moving from an age of scientific discovery to an age of scientific mastery, and the generation now alive is the most important one in all of history. People tend to forget that we have a front row seat as all of these changes are implemented and how they will reshape the future. Hold on to your hats because the next decade is going to be a thrill ride! The advancement of computing intelligence is just the beginning; it's what we choose to do with it that will mold the future.

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    Image: The Pudding

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    Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

    The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

    The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

    How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

    ‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

    Image: The Pudding

    Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

    That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

    Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

    The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

    The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

    Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

    Royals and (other) mortals

    Image: The Pudding

    There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

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    But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

    Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

    Freaks and angels

    Image: Dorothy

    The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

    It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

    Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

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