Imagining Technology Futures – part 6

For me some defining characteristics of social computing (or web 2.0 as some call it) have been (a) democratization of the process of creation, enabling user generated content; and (b) mashing up of different applications and media to create something new.

These characteristics are likely to remain part of the next generation of the web. All of the new technology trends discussed in this series of posts together with a myriad of others will work together, intersecting and cross-enabling each other. They will work together to create ways of being and behaving that we can only dimly understand in much the same way that our predecessors could only dimly understand the revolution inherent in the creation of the internet.

One thing is certain, with so many smart and well motivated people who are working with technology to solve the problems facing our world we will see many innovations.

Imagining Technology Futures – part 5

Another key feature of the future will be an increased importance in data management to enable the semantic web.

Databases are the key to the future of the web. Until now we have focused on the frontend of the web, developing RIAs (Rich Internet Applications) as part of the web 2.0 revolution. But the next generation of the web will be about semantic and context aware computing. To achieve this new generation of the web changes to database technology will be required.

Only the database appliances that are fully optimized for fast parallel processing will really enable the shift to semantic and context aware computing. However, a key limiting factor for the next stage in the evolution of the web – from web 2.0 to the semantic web – is the way our current relational databases work. These older style databases are optimized for transaction processing, which either ensures that a complete atomic transaction is completed or will reverse the entire transaction. The next generation web will require massively parallel database operations to support the semantic web.

David Wiseman from Sybase was introducing their new Analytic Appliance at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Sydney. He described this database as a “highly optimized data warehouse analytics appliance.” This is a column based database that is optimized for high speed massively parallel access. It is this kind of approach that is going to enable the next generation semantic web. Kevin Kelly was talking about this new approach, using databases to power the next generation of web, recently at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, calling it the “operational Semantic Web, or World Wide Database, or Giant Global Graph, or Web 3.0”.

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

Over lunch the other day with some girl geek buddies talk came around, as it does, to the revolutionary nature of community on the internet. It reminded me of this quote from the noted anarchist Emma Goldman.

So much of the discussion about what is happening on the internet is so earnest and serious that I think we’ve lost a bit of our joie de vivre. Before the internet became a business it was about trying out cool stuff with people, it was about pushing the boundaries of what we knew was possible. It was also about meeting new people and creating our own, somewhat idiosyncratic, communities of interest.

Now the internet is all business. Everyone’s got advice on how to monetize it. But I miss the early days when it was just for fun and a way to stretch our notions of human endeavour. When it was idealistically driven and seen as a way to share information widely and to break down barriers.

I want an internet that is about connecting people and ideas in new ways that create a better world. I want an internet that helps us to overcome barriers and distance. I want an internet that makes people better than they were without it. I want to join with like minded individuals in collective action for positive purposes. And, like Emma says,

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

[Photo: Ned the Dog, Gold Coast Australia]

Imagining Technology Futures – part 4

New Interfaces are another area in which we can expect to see change. Since the development of the mouse and touch screens we have not seen any significant improvements in how we interact with devices.

However, over the next few years we will see a move away from textual interfaces and towards newer kinds of interfaces, such as Microsoft Surface which is just an extension of the current HCI (Human Computer Interaction).

The ultimate future trend is about evolving the HCI into a BCI (Brain Computer Interface) using non-invasive methods.

Significant research advances are taking place in relation to our understanding of the BCI, and this effort is largely driven by medical needs. Neurological rehabilitation is a need that is driving the development of this technology. There are already a number of prototypes that enable disabled people to direct a thought command to drive prosthetic devices. Previous incarnations of this type of technology looked at implanting devices into people, but now the direction is non-invasive BCI devices, perhaps using wearable technology?[Image: Nick Hodge asleep on one of two Microsoft Surfaces in Australia]

We need geeks!

It has been prevalent among many cultures to laugh at geeks. But this is a shortsighted approach to this special breed.

Geeks have been with us for a long time. Back in our cave dwelling days, while most of the tribe were running around with pointed sticks trying to catch some dinner, there was a geek back at camp fiddling with an interesting bit of rock that could be sharpened into a better tool for catching dinner.

Great geeks of history have included doctors, scientists and engineers, and today this category also includes software developers, hardware designers, network engineers, etc.

Geeks are the people in our society who ask ‘why’, and this question is often followed by ‘why not?’ They are the people who pull things apart, and who try to put them back together better than before. Who see what another geek just did and think ‘if that is possible then my idea might just work too’. They are the ones who work on their projects, often unpaid, through genuine passion for the work itself. And sometimes this effort leads to significant advances in technology or in thought.

Until recent times it was often lonely being the only geek in town. Other people were intolerant of the constant questions or the abstraction while thinking about a new idea. Geeks getting so focused on their new idea that they forget to eat, sleep or (sometimes) wash has caused relationship stress for many.

But the internet (which was built by geeks) has empowered geeks to reach out and meet others like them. Hyperconnective tools (things like Slashdot, Twitter and Friendfeed) mean that our geeks are no longer isolated from each other.

With the myriad of challenges facing our world we need to harness this natural predilection of geeks to question, to debate, to come up with new and different technologies, and new ways of thinking.

A sensible society would be looking at its geeks and trying to work out how best to nurture their ingenuity and passion, how to support their endeavours and to channel them into addressing the great problems of the day.

[Image source: my favourite online store for t-shirts ThinkGeek – we have no commercial relationship but if they want to send me a t-shirt it would be most welcome.]

Imagining Technology Futures – part 3

Another area that is enabled by wireless technology and miniaturization is wearable computing.

Already we are seeing wearable computing in daily life with integrated wearable technology beginning to be commercially available. Nike Plus and Adidas adiStar Fusion running shoes are already on the market which can deliver data on distance and pace via an iPod.

Another example of pre-commercial applications of wearable technology is currently being researched at Georgia Tech University. The researchers have developed a way to weave textile fibres covered with zinc oxide nano-wires into cloth so that a wearer’s body movement can generate electricity to power electronic devices. Professor Zhong Lin Wang says they are working on improving the nano-generator’s power output and finding ways to store the energy (PDF report available here). His current estimate on a commercially viable product is approximately five years from now.

But the real growth of wearable computing will come in response to our medical and family needs. Our rapidly ageing population will see a real focus on technology in relation to health care. One example is the possibility that the majority of the baby boomers will want to delay moving out of their own accommodation and into nursing homes with a large number of this population frail or in need of specialised care.

We will see the development of unobtrusive health monitoring solutions, enabling the aged to retain their independence, while providing peace of mind for their families in case anything untoward happens. The other area of application is providing robotic prosthetic devices to assist the disabled.

Spin-offs of this technology will also be focused on reducing cognitive load on our busy lives. With technology that is contextually aware using sensor technology and decision engines to make our lives easier by automation of routine processes.


Open source & Linux

I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Mark Jones, Paul Kangro (Novell), Greg Luck (Wotif), and Matthew Mengerink (PayPal) while recording the The Scoop podcast recently (the show will be posted soon). Our conversation got me thinking about where Open Source and Linux are in terms of enterprise today.

We are seeing major players globally running their core business systems on open source and Linux. PayPal is the poster child for this, delivering reliable and resilient global systems using Red Hat Linux and open source.

One comment Matthew made was about the way his team modify the Linux kernel and other open source code to make the overall system more secure. PayPal’s Linux servers run Red Hat kernels with custom tweaks to provide additional security. Thus he sees a better security capability enabled via open source. However, this is predicated on having really good people – highly skilled people and effective software development process and controls.

I think that Linux and open source have fully proven themselves able to support global enterprises. However, the need for highly skilled resources to implement this effectively remains a limiting factor. In our use of open source at Westfield it was a common problem, we really did need ‘rocket scientists’ and any software developer off the street simply did not cut it.

Several recent conversations with CIOs and senior IT executives demonstrated their lack of trust in Linux and open source and a preference to go with known brands. In one conversation last year a corporate legal counsel asked plaintively “but who would we sue?” in relation to use of open source. Thus there appears to be a gulf between organisations. There are those who are willing to accept the risk of using Linux and open source – and thus achieve significant cost savings. Then there are organisations that will continue to use known brands and fail to achieve those significant cost savings.

But the game changer may be the global financial crisis (GFC). This will drive IT expenditure down and lead many organisations to consider open source, cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS), where previously they would have ignored them.

By Carruthers via Aide-mémoire