Tech firm sees trillions of computers in future

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With billions of computers and microprocessors now powering smartphones, cars and even door sensors, it would seem the world is at the height of the Information Age. But what happens when the number of microprocessors and computers worldwide grows to trillions? How will information gathered be used for profit and protected from abuse?

According to Peter Lucas, founding principal of Downtown-based Maya Design and co-author of the new book "Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Economy," nothing we see today can prepare us for what's coming tomorrow.

"People just try to understand the future by extrapolating from the present. Every once in a while there is this paradigm shift and the future is going to be very different from the past, and most people end up getting taken by surprise. Going from billions of computers to trillions of computers we are quite sure is one of those," said Mr. Lucas. "It's going to be a very new day."

Mr. Lucas, Maya co-founder Joe Ballay and Maya CEO Mickey McManus collaborated to create "Trillions" as a way to mark the firm's 25th anniversary and to note the most significant issue the firm has prepared clients for during its existence.

Maya, which conducts design consultations and technology research, has been following the growth in the use of computers since its inception. The firm employs 38 engineers, researchers, designers and other practitioners.

The flood of microprocessors in everything from grocery self-checkout machines to RFID chips used to prevent retail theft has been happening for several years, said Mr. McManus. But he said many changes still to come are less about the number of processors than the way those processors will connect and share information.

"It's almost going to be like we're shifting from information inside of the computer ... to humans, environment, products, all being in the information," he said. "We think it's going to turn the sock inside out."

Mr. McManus said washing machines that recommend detergents or packages of chips that tell customers to pick up some hummus are possible, but they're not the primary changes that the authors envision.

What's more likely, he said, is someone taking information collected by a washing machine with certain sensors and applying it to his own business.

"When [computers] are connected, that little bit of information -- which is somebody just walked into the laundry room -- may not be much value to you as Maytag after you turn on the display.

"But if you held onto it, there could be some entrepreneur that wants to start up a new company that's around elder care or independent living for his grandparents. Having a little bit of information that says my mom was moving around in the laundry room, that's actually really valuable information I might be willing to spend a few pennies on if I could get access to it for my business," Mr. McManus said.

Although more drastic changes could happen, Mr. Ballay said most of what will occur with trillions of computers will happen in ways that average consumers won't recognize. As an example, he described computers inside of cars that power windows, anti-lock brakes and the bolts that control airbag deployment.

"The vast majority of these machines will literally recede into the woodwork; they're going to be completely invisible. I personally would make the prediction that the future is going to seem less high-tech than the present. The machines are not going to be the point, the information's going to be the point," he said.

Considering the free flow of information that will likely exchanged in the future, privacy and security are expected to become even greater concerns, said Mr. Ballay. But Mr. Lucas sees the issue as an obstacle that can be addressed through market forces, much like pollution.

"Pollution, to some extent, is an inevitable consequence to an industrialized world. We can't completely avoid pollution, but we can work constantly in many ways to mitigate it, to minimize it, to tolerate as little of it as necessary [and] build clean technologies every place we can. I think privacy will end up being approached the same way," he said.

"We will never be able to completely eliminate the negative consequences computer technology has on privacy but we can work constantly to mitigate it, and we think the market will come to reward products and companies that value privacy in the same way today they reward companies that support green technologies."

The book, which was written as a guide for businesses, provides a list of 10 suggestions for companies to consider, including upgrading IT standards and practices and exploring ways that connectivity and more complex computer systems can benefit the company.

Al Teich, author of "Technology and the Future," a collection of articles and essays on technology that is in its 12th edition, agreed that companies should prepare today for a future that is moving forward at an increasingly steady pace.

"It seems to me this is a kind of change that grows without people realizing it. Look at how the Internet grew from the '80s and '90s to what it became in 2000 to what it is now. That wasn't predicted by anybody and happened before a lot of people recognized it," he said.

New industries will undoubtedly rise along with the new way of life powered by trillions of computers, but Mr. Ballay said the most important thing for existing businesses is to recognize that change is coming and to find ways to adapt. "The products will come, but what's really important is to know how this relationship between people and things and information is going to change on a broad basis."

"Trillions," which is being released through Wiley Publishing, is available digitally through Amazon.com and iTunes. Hard copies are expected to hit bookstores on Oct. 9.

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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