Touched By Tech

Published Date
01 - Jan - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Jan - 2006
 
Touched By Tech
Twenty years, or perhaps even just a decade ago, life was a lot tougher! Depending on when you were born, you may or may not appreciate that fact. And the fact is, it's technology-not politics or the economy or anything else-that's made most of the difference.

Let's say you have to type a letter, or a résumé; you start the computer, open MS Word, type it out, format it with colours and fonts and then press [Ctrl] [P]. Simple, isn't it? Now, consider how your father would have done the same task when he was your age: he'd pick up a huge, heavy typewriter (if he had one), find paper, load it in, hammer away at the keys-carefully, as he didn't have a Backspace or a Delete button, and use whiteout to cover his mistakes, and finally one copy would be ready. What if he'd needed to type something in triplicate? If he lived in the age of the photocopier, he'd have been able to go to a shop and make a few copies; if he didn't, he'd have had to type out the same letter all over again. All you need to do is change the "Number of copies" option in the print dialog box to "3"!

This, however, is something you already know, so why is Digit reminding you? Well, we want to look at what inventions and technological developments have truly enriched our lives, and what upcoming technologies could revolutionise the comfort levels we already enjoy.

The technologies we speak of in what follows are arranged in order of the impact they've had on our lives.

The PC
The PC began way back in 1973 with the ALTO, developed by Xerox. This wasn't released to the public, as they didn't think there was a market for this sort of product-famous last words!


The Xerox ALTO was perhaps the first development in the PC business. However, Xerox misjudged the  need for a PC and never sold it. One of Xerox's biggest mistakes

The first publicly available PC was the Altair 80800, developed by Ed Roberts. Fast-forward to the present day, and thanks to all the battles and wars raging between manufacturers of various PC components, a PC is today cheaper than ever before. There are hundreds of billions of dollars being spent and earned on PCs, and jobs that did not exist just a decade ago are now some of the highest-paying ones.

The PC has become our primary interface with technology. Almost everything technology-related we do needs a PC in one way or another, whether it's gaming, programming, accounts, printing, surfing or e-mail. There's no doubt that the PC wins hands down as the technology that vastly changed our lives!

The Internet
If the PC changed our lives, the Internet enhanced the way your PC could be put to use, and, in a very real sense, made the world a truly tiny place.


People often confuse the "Internet" with the World Wide Web (WWW). The truth is that though no one person invented the Internet, the WWW was the brainchild of just one man-Sir Timothy Berners-Lee. Thanks to Berners-Lee (left), all of us can surf the WWW and find the information we need

What started out as a bulletin board style of exchanging information has now taken over our lives in ways we do not imagine. Take simple e-mail for instance: at a time when official and personal communication had to be done over the telephone or via snail mail, e-mail gave us all the ease of sending a message, letter, business quotation and more, to someone across the world in a matter of seconds.

The beauty of e-mail was that, just like post or snail mail, a message could be delivered to a person even if he wasn't in at work on that day -a phone call, instead, meant that both people had to be present at their respective phone instruments to "talk".

However, e-mail is not the only thing the Internet has given us; you can use it to find information, people, services, adult content, images and so much more. Thanks to the Internet, you can now chat in real time, via text and even voice and video, with someone at the other end of the world-and all this at minimal cost!

Innumerable Web-based companies started that have no 'brick-and-mortar' presence in the form of an office or anything 'concrete', but still  earn millions of dollars a year through services. There are also Web sites that help you or your company get work contracts such as www.rentacoder.com and www.elance.com. Then there are the evils of file sharing and P2P, which have been a boon to most users and a bane to the movie and music industry.

Thanks to the Internet, we've created a completely virtual world, in which we have communities that contain everything that you see in regular society-friends from across the world, criminals (hackers), people looking to cheat you, shady deals, dating sites, matrimonial sites, in other words, a huge resource for learning that's bigger than any library in the world.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the Internet has enabled us to go beyond our bodies; we've gotten very close indeed to "social virtual reality" -as anyone who "lives" on the Internet will affirm. And that's just scratching the surface of the Internet. The Internet really is the best example of a technology that has changed our lives!
Mobile Computing
Just a few years ago, we were starting to get used to doing everything on a computer. Laptops were for rich folks, and mobile phones were not powerful enough to handle everyday computing needs. Then entered the new breed of devices that changed that situation forever. Though they used age-old wireless data transfer ideas, mobile devices were much better equipped, with bigger colour displays and faster processors that could handle more tasks.


Imagine every child using a tablet PC at school; it's not impossible or even improbable, this is a photo from an actual school in Japan! All thanks to Mobile Computing

With the entry of 2G services such as GPRS and WAP in India, being connected on the go also became a reality. Users were now able to access Internet content from just about anywhere in a mobile provider's service area. This has changed life for many of us, even if it means staying signed in to IM services such as Yahoo! Messenger, or being able to access e-mail from anywhere, at any time.

These services let you enjoy full-blown Internet access by connecting your phone to your laptop. Short-range wireless services such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi also meant that communication between two users, or connecting to the Internet at, say, a coffee shop or an airport, was easier than ever before.

Though not as path-breaking as the PC or the Internet, mobile computing set us free from the shackles of wires and fixed terminals, and has forever changed the way we compute on the move.

Digital Entertainment
A little over a decade ago, VCRs, movie theatres and VCD players were our only source of entertainment. Sure, there was the TV, but what if you wanted to watch what you wanted to watch? Along came digital audio and video to forever change the face of personal entertainment. The spotlight gradually shifted from the TV to the PC monitor, and today, even if we have a DVD player, we tend to pop a DVD movie into our DVD-ROM drive to watch it on the PC.


Microsoft's Media Center OS is catching up, proving that the PC is really becoming the entertainment solution in many homes

The most notable of the digital formats was perhaps MP3. This audio format, although not a lossless compression technique, was single-handedly responsible for bringing digital audio to the PC. It was developed and standardised in 1991 by a team working for the ISO/IEC MPEG audio committee, and we first started seeing .mp3 files sometime in 1995. With the popularisation of MP3 on the Internet, mainly due to the smaller file sizes and decent audio quality, piracy of audio CDs took off. Songs could be downloaded for the first time, even on lower bandwidth connections, and Napster ruled the Net.

A major contributing factor to the popularity of the MP3 file format was the fact that encoders and rippers were easily available, and could also run on lower-powered PCs. So just about anybody with a computer could pop in an audio CD and rip it to MP3, and also use P2P clients to share the songs with people across the world.

Though there are considerably better encoding formats such as AAC and Ogg Vorbis, and even lossless formats such as FLAC and Monkey's Audio, it will take considerable time for any other encoder to dethrone the MP3. Because of its popularity, most DVD and VCD players have incorporated MP3 support.

Almost every computer-literate has heard of the format, and many software media players bundle at least one MP3 song with their installers. If that weren't enough, a whole slew of portable music gadgets sprung up, and though they support most popular compressed audio formats, they have kept the title of "portable MP3 players".

In terms of video, it was perhaps DivX that popularised digital video on PCs. Though DivX was really a hit at one point, it does not enjoy a similar stranglehold on video compression as MP3 does on audio. It's controversial, but DivX perhaps helped boost the online pornography industry by allowing movies to be compressed and distributed via P2P and also Web sites.

More than video, games have taken over as a source for entertainment at home. As details in games became better, so did their demand for high-end hardware. As of now, it's not just PC users who enjoy games, but also mobile users and console gamers.

Gamers are known to spend hours and hours on a single game. It's not only high-end games that get us addicted, it's also their lower-end arcade counterparts. Even Solitaire, also known as the game for bored secretaries, can be extremely addictive.

As a whole, digital audio, video and games have converted the simple PC into a complete entertainment centre. And thanks to this, an entire leisure and lifestyle industry has been established, and both manufacturers and buyers are thankful.
The Future
Here's where all this gets more interesting. We all know most of what we've spoken about thus far, but no-one can be truly certain of the technologies that will change our lives in the near future. We're willing to stick our necks out and try and play soothsayer.

Wireless Networking
Although wireless technologies have been around for some time, none have been able to create enough impact to have revolutionised our lives. Yes, we can go to airports and hotels and use our laptops to stay connected, but what happens when you leave those buildings?

In India, true broadband penetration is still a dream-most of us who have always-on "broadband" connections are struggling with speeds that are barely twice or thrice as fast as dial-up. Contrast this with, say, the US or Europe, where broadband means speeds in excess of 512 Kbps.


Wireless technologies have moved us away from our PCs and freed us from the shackles of confinement when computing! Courtesy wireless technologies, we can surf the Net even on a train journey (above)

This is not to say that speeds of 1 Mbps and more are not available in India; it's just that an unlimited access, 1 Mbps plan costs way more than the average worker's salary, and limited MB-based plans, too, are very expensive. Again, compared to the US, where even people living on welfare can afford broadband, India falls far short of expectations. And if those of us living in metros are complaining, imagine the plight of those living in villages and smaller towns.

WiMax, or the wireless technology that succeeds it, could bring hope to remote areas of India-with wireless networks that can cover 10 km using one antenna.

While we cannot deny that it's too expensive to lay fibre optics all over India or set up a nationwide WiMax service, but the passage of time and technology prices are inversely proportional-so chances are prices will fall. The future of broadband penetration could possibly be a mix of fibre optics and wireless solutions.

Alternative Displays
Displays that are flexible, or displays that are projected, will reduce the size of gadgets and their prices as well. Holographic displays could finally give us true 3D viewing pleasure, and although it may sound like something out of Star Wars, holographic displays are already becoming a reality.


Above: The Philips Polymer Vision Readius is an example of just how alternate display technology (paper displays, in this case) can completely re-design the way a device is designed

Below: A concept design by NEC of a device that will use projected displays to do away with both keypads as well as the screen


The reason new display types will change our lives is that for almost a century now, all gadgets that featured the visual element have been 2D. When holographic projection displays finally do become mainstream and affordable, we can be sure that movies, games and images will never have looked so good.

Imagine clicking a picture of your friend, then going home, uploading it to your PC and projecting it. You will actually be able to walk around the image, and look at angles you never saw before. Now picture the Internet; have you ever imagined what a 3D Web site would look like? Actually it's hard to imagine anything, because 2D has been burnt into our brains. Hopefully, we will not need to try imagining for long.

Improved Batteries
In order to be completely free and move around as we please, we need to build better batteries. Decades ago, solar-power seemed to offer the promise of cheap and easily rechargeable batteries, but they just weren't efficient enough, and not to forget, useless at night. Currently, fuel cells are the most promising: they're cheap, use easily replenishable fuels, and already offer as much as 10 times more battery life and power than standard lithium-ion batteries.

Consider that we already have the capability of making laptops that are as powerful as the best desktops, and that mass usage of such devices is only stopped by the fact that we don't have decent batteries to support them. Future battery technologies will play a major role in making better  and reliable mobile gadgets.
Software
Software, too, will have a huge role to play in our technological future. The idea of adaptive software is surfacing, and AI researchers are coming up with new ideas every day. If all goes well, you will soon be running  your PC on software that can "think."

Wouldn't it be nice to wake up in the morning and find that your home's "central server" has already drawn your bath, chosen your favourite genre of news and made you the perfect cup of tea? Perhaps we will soon be able to do away with the keyboard and mouse and be able to converse with our PCs.

Research is underway to use a camera to follow eye movement and expressions, which will allow you to control a mouse cursor just by looking at it and mentally moving it to the desired place on the screen. Courtesy advanced algorithms, some robots can now learn, all by themselves, how to perform in the real world: they can evolve from scratch, growing up like a child.



Even weather forecasting systems will finally become reliable, crunching gargantuan amounts of data to predict precisely how many inches it will rain in a given hour. Number crunchers will also completely map the human genome, and there's no limit to what researchers can do given that mapping. Similarly, there's no telling what will happen when software is able to predict exactly how much a certain stock will be worth on a certain day!

Medical Technologies
In order to improve our lives, we need to first do away with suffering and premature death. Digit has talked about cyborgs earlier, and  advancements in cybernetics offer a lot of  hope. Most of us would readily trade in all material comforts to be able to live 10 or 20 years longer, and cybernetics makes this a very real possibility.

Imagine a person suffering from lung cancer; the standard procedure is to undergo chemotherapy, which often does more harm than good. If cybernetics is perfected, all the patient would need to do is undergo lung transplant surgery and get fitted with synthetic lungs. Arteries, veins and even muscles could just be rebuilt using plastics.

 There's also the developments in  areas such as telesurgery, where the surgeon sits at a workstation with mechanical arms, and has a 3D view of the surgical site. Telesurgery could be performed on patients at the other end of the world. Then there's cryonics-the science (or science fiction) of keeping a person alive in a frozen state until something comes along that will be able to cure him. In this, the 21st century, cryonics may really reach perfection. The list of ideas that technology has in store for the direct betterment of human life is endless!

Nanotechnology
You hear news about nanotech all the time-a new kind of fibre that will prevent socks from smelling, or a full-fledged guitar that can only be viewed through a microscope. Make no mistake about this: such news is only the beginning, and nanotech is certainly not dedicated to the manufacturing of interesting but useless products. It's the direct manipulation of things on the atomic or molecular level, and who can say what's not possible with that? Nanotechnology, all by itself, can be called the technology of the 21st century.

Synthetic bones. Metal rubber. Nanocrystals that make metals harder. Stain-resistant cloth. Automotive lubricants. High-power rocket propellants. OLED screens. There's no area of life that  nanotech does not find a place in!

Information Retrieval
The 21st century, is the century of information, and, naturally, information overload. We're repeating ourselves when we say there's too much information around, but it cannot be overstated. Mature technologies that will help us sift through all this data are the need of the hour.


With nanotechnology, you can literally manipulate matter at atomic levels. The guitar above is just 10 microns long (about the size of a cell), with strings that are just 100 atoms wide!

The last five years have seen truly dramatic improvements in search technology, and artificial intelligence is one of several methods that will make search better and faster.

Data mining-finding useful patterns in masses of data-is rapidly maturing, and companies such as airlines, for example, will soon be able to make precise observations about the huge piles of customer data they have. The goal, ultimately, is to be able to quickly get meaningful answers to questions for which we already have the data.


Will any search or information retrieval tool ever dethrone Google? It doesn't matter though, because regardless of which company does it, searching with the help of AI is still an exciting concept

If you need to know what car best suits your needs, your computer- or whatever it will be called-should be able to give you one answer with complete confidence. You should just need to key in your criteria. Going by current trends and the amount of research being done on information retrieval, such a scenario is not far off.

Exciting Times
What you've seen in this article is just a taste of the things to come. One could write tomes on the amount of research being conducted in each field of technology-and we'd need a two-thousand page issue of Digit to cover that! Some of the technologies we've mentioned have already been looked at in previous issues of Digit, and the ones  that haven't, we'll cover in upcoming issues.

So far, technology certainly has changed our lives for the better, and will continue to make life easier in the near future. There's no doubt that this generation is living to see some of the most exciting times, and is witnessing more advancements than any other. Look forward to future issues of Digit to read up on the enhancements to these technologies-as well as the emergence of newer ones that will impact our daily lives in some way or the other.



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