Smart Yogurt and Automatic Warfare? The Future of Computers in America

Back in 1976 – years before IBM released its Personal Computer to the masses and helped push along a technological revolution that’s changed the way people around the world work, communicate and access information – a handful of tech executives made some bold predictions in a series of interviews with U.S. News.

In an article titled “Coming: Another Revolution in Use of Computers,” Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, raved about the potential of an electronic funds-transfer system that would allow consumers to use a “special card” to make purchases rather than simply using a cash or check.

Murray Turoff, a computer science professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, ventured that owners of personal computers would one day be able to make “conference” calls and hold virtual meetings, cutting down on the need for business travel and allowing employees to work from home.

Carl Reynolds, then-director of computer and data processing for Hughes Aircraft Company, ultimately saw a future in which computers “overrun the world.”

These kind of theories were science fiction at the time. And yet, 35 years after IBM executives unveiled their Personal Computer in a ballroom inside New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, these once-revolutionary concepts have become commonplace.

Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy owners carry in their pocket a miniature computer that’s light-years ahead of what was rolled out three and a half decades ago. Wearables such as Google Glass and FitBit have further immersed technology into the lives of consumers around the world. And although society in 2016 isn’t quite up to the standards envisioned in TV’s “The Jetsons,” technology in many ways has met or exceeded some of the sharpest minds’ wildest expectations from decades past.

With 35 years of personal computing advancement now in the rear view, U.S. News again asked a handful of futurologists, forward-thinking professors and technology-minded professionals to pick up their crystal balls and predict what the world will look like 35 years from now.

What Will Computers Look Like in 2051?

IBM’s mid-2000s departure from a personal computer production industry it helped pioneer is increasingly looking like a shrewd move as demand for traditional desktops continues to wane in the face of laptops, tablets, mobile phones and wearable technology. Research outfit Gartner in July estimated global PC shipments declined in April, May and June for the seventh consecutive quarter of contraction.

Pew Research Center, meanwhile, reported in October that 86 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 and 83 percent of those between 30 and 49 own a smartphone. Only 78 percent and 81 percent of those demographic groups, respectively, own either a desktop or laptop, suggesting younger generations are increasingly turning to mobile devices to get their internet fix.

That’s not to say mobile devices are expected to completely replace desktops – especially in the professional sphere – in the not-so-distant future. But as the technology continues to evolve over the next few decades, the personal computers of tomorrow could end up looking a lot different than what is seen today.

“My only guess for what [future computers] would look like is a little pot of gel. Kind of like a container of Vaseline – similar in size to a small yogurt,” says Ian Pearson, a futurologist at prediction and consultancy company Futurizon. “The idea I had a long time ago was that you could make electronics inside of bacteria, and you could use the bacteria to propagate electronic components.”

Pearson says he gave a lecture to representatives at IBM in 2014 and detailed his idea for a “smart yogurt,” which would use bacteria to grow all sorts of electronic and technological building blocks, and he said some researchers have begun making headway with early versions of the technology.

If perfected – which Pearson believes will happen before 2050 – many devices would forego computer chips in favor of this gel-like substance, as computer chips can only get so small and store so much information. In a more free-flowing gel, one would be able to pack “trillions and trillions of synthetic neurons into it, which are just waiting to be organized into the right structures to act as a brain,” Pearson says.

“You could end up with a pot of yogurt with roughly the same IQ of Europe. That’s how much faster this computer could be,” he says. “We’re not talking about machines which are equivalent to human beings, which we will probably pass in the next 10 years.”

All that computing power in such a small package, though, does not come without risks. As computers are ingrained into society and artificial intelligence continues to advance, unpleasant ramifications may begin to arise – a possibility Pearson grimly refers to as a “Terminator Scenario.”

But even if robots don’t violently and uniformly revolt a la “The Matrix,” Pearson still sees risks to developing machines “millions of times smarter than people.”

“If the computer is 100 million times smarter than you, that’s like comparing you with the stupidest ant you could find in your back garden,” he says. “And when you’re building a new extension on your house or cutting your grass, you don’t go out and ask the ants for permission. They don’t factor into your thoughts at all. The danger is even if a machine isn’t malicious, it could get to the point where we aren’t even worth considering.”

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