*Which means in Swedish: Here comes the device that can translate any language
MOORE’S LAW STATES that the latest computing chips, of a given size and cost, will roughly double in performance every 18 months. First described by one of the founders of Intel, Gordon Moore, it is not a natural law, or a law of physics, but it has held good for more than 25 years and looks set to do so for the next 20 or so. It is a law of human ingenuity. Ever since the 8080 chip was launched in 1975, every succeeding chip launch, up to today’s Pentium III, has obeyed Moore’s Law. And since they use the same integrated circuit silicon technology, what applies to computing devices also applies to memory chips – for the same price they store twice as much data every eighteen months or so.
All this means that the amazingly high performance of today’s computers could actually have been accurately predicted twenty or more years ago. A computer, which in the 1970s would have been a very large powerful machine, costing millions and dedicated exclusively to the needs of a major corporation, is comparable today to the processing power of a mobile phone – except that today it is very small and remarkably cheap, and carried in millions of pockets and handbags.
It could also have been forecast decades ago that that the low cost computer chip, by the year 2000, would be capable of converting, storing, and transmitting audio and video signals. This technology has enabled the arrival of digital satellite television, and the intelligent personal video recorders (PVRs), such as TiVO, which are now just coming onto the market. Technology which is about to transform the telephony, broadcast, and publishing industries.
So what does all this mean for the future. What predictions can we make for the computer devices in a decade or two, based on the technical improvements that we can be sure will be achieved? Actually, its not too hard, and many of these developments could dramatically transform our lives.
One prediction, made by the authoritative UK Government Information Technology Electronics and Communications (ITEC) Foresight Panel is that by the year 2010 we should be able to build a low cost electronic ‘babel fish’ – named after the creature described in the comedy science fiction story ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. This device will ‘listen’ in one language, and ‘speak’ an accurate translation in another language. It is likely that this ‘babel fish’ service will first become available on telephone calls, but later will become so small and cheap that we will all be able to afford one. Imagine the advantage of being able to pop a babel fish in you ear and communicate in all major languages with ease.
Other predictions can be made on the basis of the amount of personal storage which will become available in future devices. Most of us are now familiar with gigabytes (Gb - one thousand million characters of storage space) and modern personal computers typically have twenty or thirty Gb installed. One thousand gigabytes is a terabyte (Tb) and we should start to hear of personal computers with terabytes of storage in around ten years from now. In fact, 100 terabytes is about equivalent to the entire contents of the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and so it follows that, by around the year 2015, it will become possible to store the entire contents of the largest library in the world on any ordinary personal computer.
If we extend Moore’s Law further forwards into the future we can speculate on even more interesting possibilities. When your personal information device has one petabyte (one thousand terabytes), a level that should be possible around 2025, it will be capable of making a digital video recording of everything you do for an entire lifetime. Every event: every school class, every birthday party, every vacation, every TV programme, every business meeting, even all the mundane unimportant events, could be recorded on your own machine, and recalled and replayed later at any time. Imagine it – a complete record of your entire life.
By about this time, the laws of physics intervene, and Moore’s Law runs out of steam. Individual switches on integrated circuits have become so small that they are down to a few electrons each. Wholly new techniques will be required to maintain the rate of technological progress.
Maybe it is just as well. If Moore’s Law was to continue unchecked until around 2050, the personal computer would achieve a similar processing capability and memory to a human brain. It just might answer back.