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In depth: What does the future hold for the PC?

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Jan 10, 2015
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Introduction


The computer as we know it today has radically evolved from the desktop behemoths of the early PCs to masses of computer power you can hold in your hand. Desktop PCs, notebooks, tablets and smartphones now all coexist together, but are clearly on a converging trajectory.

And increasingly, computers are not simply isolated pieces of IT we use. With the burgeoning ideas of the Internet of Things becoming tangible reality, computers will simply disappear into our environment.

Says Andy Hardy, EMEA MD at Code42: "The iconic image of a 'computer' in the traditional sense – the idea of a tower that sits underneath a desk connected to a monitor – is outdated. Today, our computers are as mobile as we are. This concept of an electronic device – which is capable of receiving data and processing information in order to produce a result – being carried with you wherever you go is not going away anytime soon."

Jon Wrennall, CTO in the UK and Ireland at Fujitsu, further commented: "The way we view computers is already blurred. Most things from washing machines to fridges, to cars and watches have computers in them and run seamlessly without us realising.

"This will continue to the point that we and certainly our children will be perplexed with the concept that we used to have to go and sit at a keyboard with a screen to use the internet, buy things or control our environment."

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The idea that tomorrow's computer will have a level of intelligence that enables them to interpret our needs and not simply follow instructions has been developing for some years. Gartner calls this 'Cognizant' in its paper 'Hype Cycle for Human-Computer Interaction' which has four stages:

1. Sync Me: Apps, content and information are made available across devices and shared contextually.

2. See Me: Data is continuously collected about users and their devices to gain an understanding of users' context.

3. Know Me: Understanding users' wants and needs, and proactively offering products and services based on pattern recognition and other machine learning approaches.

4. Be Me: Developing intelligent apps and services that act on users' behalf.

Gartner explains: "At the moment, most activity is around the first two stages. As big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) become more pervasive, the vast amounts of information produced will enable complex systems to become more 'intelligent,' offering brand new opportunities in the latter two stages.

"This won't be without challenges or risk, however. Critical issues that will have to be addressed include consumer privacy, quality of execution and becoming a trusted vendor."

We can all see and experience how computers are becoming more personal with the massive advances seen in smartphone development. But fundamental components of computers will also have to change if they are to deliver next-generation machines.

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Silicon has been the foundation onto which the computer has been built for decades. Used to create the central processor that every digital device is driven by, coupled with fast conductors to connect the processor to its supporting technologies, the future of computing could look very different: Where electrons have been used to transmit data, light could be the next transportation mechanism tomorrow's computers will use.

A photon-based computer has of course been described for decades. Over five years ago, Intel showed how light could replace the copper connections within a computer offering massive jumps in processing power. This technology could offer up to 50 gigabits per second transmission rates – enough to transmit a full HD movie in a second.

However, the connection and transmission wonder material looks set to be graphene. Often referred to as a 'miracle material' the race is on to use this substance which is very strong and an excellent conductor in new computer architectures. The death of Moore's Law has been heralded for years, yet chip designers continue to pack even more transistors onto a wafer of silicon, with silicon having in some estimates 20 years before it pushes up against transistor density limits.

However, graphene it isn't yet suitable for transistors, which require the material they are based on to be able to switch states from on to off. A group at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has shown how graphene could be manufactured to allow switching states, but silicon's dominance is assured for the foreseeable future.

Voice, gesture and more

New connections



Today's computers have massive advantages over their counterparts from just a few years ago. Connectivity will continue to define how computers are designed, how they interact with their environment and of course how we use their capabilities. Mobile broadband is a vital component of computing on the move, but this needs to vastly improve if tomorrow's mobile devices will be able to deliver future digital services.

WiGig or IEEE 802.11ah will operate at 60GHz and could deliver what has been dubbed the 'Wi-Fi Internet of Everything.'

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TechRadar Pro spoke with Purple Wi-Fi's CEO, Gavin Wheeldon, who explained: "By 2020, it is estimated that there will be 26.5 billion physical objects embedded with technology in an industry worth $1.9 trillion (around £1.2 trillion, or AU$2.5 trillion). The Internet of Things is something that Wi-Fi is going to play a major part in.

"As more and more devices and sensors have the ability to connect, they need a way of doing so. Wearable tech such as glasses and watches may use Bluetooth tethered to your mobile device, but it will ultimately connect to Wi-Fi."

Future computers whether they continue to be objects we sit at to use, carry in our pockets, or that disappear into our built environment will rely on fast connections to exchange data. Today we struggle to get a decent mobile signal or even find a good Wi-Fi hotspot. Computers of the future will be defined by their connectivity.

Eye, voice and gesture


At the moment how we interact with our computers hasn't really changed. The QWERTY keyboard (first found on a typewriter in 1868) and the mouse (shown by Douglas C. Enelbart in 1968) have changed little. Touch technology has been a clear evolution in how we interact with mobile devices, but what's next?

According to Gartner: "Eye tracking is one of several technologies destined to redefine the human-machine interface. Complement conventional UI metaphors (point, click, and swipe) by implementing eye tracking with natural speech, touch/haptics and motion, makes the user experience more intuitive, natural and efficient."

Already technologies such as Senty based on Tobii's EyeX system, SMI Vision, Eye Tribe, Seeing Machines, Myo and Deus Ex Aria are showing the way to more interactive user interfaces that tomorrow's computers will certainly use.

Toshiba in its future tech report concluded: "2035 will have all the sci-fi interfaces you've ever seen and a lot you haven't. Thought recognition will be commonplace, along with gesture and expression recognition, all working with highly advanced AI that knows you better than you do.

"Your computer will very likely use robot bodies to move around and do things too. It doesn't have to be physically present in the robot, and can control their actions from afar, while using their sensors as if it were on board."

Awareness of its environment and the ability to react to it often strikes fear into the heart of many with visions of a robot apocalypse. The so-called rise of AI (Artificial Intelligence) has been actively researched for decades. Currently, DARPA is considering what it calls 'Communicating with Computers (CwC)'.

"Human communication feels so natural that we don't notice how much mental work it requires," said Paul Cohen, DARPA program manager. "But try to communicate while you're doing something else – the high accident rate among people who text while driving says it all – and you'll quickly realise how demanding it is." Think the Movie 'Her' and you get the idea.

Of course the most powerful way to control any device isn't with primitive technologies such as keyboards, or even with touch and gesture, it's with your mind. Thinking your next text, visiting a website by just thinking about its content, or using office tools with nothing more than your mind seems like science fiction, but tomorrow's computers may use at least some elements of thought control.

Already we have several first-generation devices that show this concept in action: The Muse headband, NeuroSky MindWave, and EPOC from Emotiv are already here, and if you fancy a bit of DIY neural interface designing, then check out the OpenBCI project.

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Luigi Mantellassi, co-founder and CMO at dizmo, commented: "Most of today's computer interfaces were designed during the age of personal computing – for people sitting in front of a desktop, with single applications, or fixed sized screens and a mouse or trackpad to interact with it at best.

"This original design is inadequate to adapt to the requirements of IoT and future interfaces will need to deal with a completely different situation. No longer one app per screen but concurrent applications gathering multiple types of data, from multiple sources on multiple types of displays and digital surfaces."

Storage and a bionic future

Storing your life



How much data do you have? It's a question that most people can't answer accurately, but certainly know they never seem to have enough hard drive space on their PC, or memory on their tablets and smartphones.

Future computers will certainly have to employ new forms of storage systems to cope with the demand their users will place upon them. Perhaps everyone will have infinite cloud storage, but future computers are likely to have a mixture of different technologies.

To gain an insight into what the future of data storage could look like, TechRadar Pro spoke with Joe Fagan, Senior Director Cloud Initiatives (EMEA) at Seagate, and began by asking what's next as a practical storage technology?

"With capacity continuing to grow and cost per GB continuing to decline, albeit more slowly than in the past, SSD will be more than sufficient for personal storage for the foreseeable future. With this technology we can process documents, play or edit music, edit photographs or even video, and we can do all of this without the SSD storage device being a bottleneck to activity.

"For the time being, there is no great pressure to go faster and there is certainly nothing on the horizon that can provide the same performance at a similar price. The only major shortcoming for SSD is lack of cost-effective capacity. If a more cost-effective and larger storage repository is required then HDD is the obvious answer and will be for many years to come."

With the cloud continuing to impact on every aspect of our lives and work, is local data storage set to disappear?

He observes: "On the contrary, the reverse is true. While consumers today are happy to store non-critical data in the cloud – photos on social media sites or downloaded music and videos – in many cases, these are just backups of originals and so there is no actual reduction in local personal storage requirements. In fact it is our desire to share and consume so much information, often delivered via the cloud, that is driving growth in personal storage.

"Local data gives us much faster access than data delivered via the internet, so the working copy still needs to be stored locally. It is also much more cost effective. Even at 1p per GB per month, 1 TB would cost around £600 over 5 years – many times the cost of an external USB hard disk drive.

"So the professional consumer who requires lots of storage will need to find a more cost-effective solution than the cloud. This is provided by local personal storage devices such as external USBs, Firewire devices, or private NAS devices accessed over the home network. Similarly there is an insatiable desire for portable storage, wirelessly accessed storage and home media storage."

We also asked whether technologies like holographic storage and even organic storage systems (DNA) will ever become a practical proposition?

"Holographic storage sounds really attractive, however there is no sign that it's going to become a reality anytime soon and certainly not at a price point attractive to the consumer. As for DNA storage – storing bits on DNA chains – this could only be used for long term archiving, never for live data.

"While this method could theoretically provide reliable archive storage for thousands of years, no company or government has yet been able to take on the huge investment required to make the theory a reality."

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A Bionic future?


At the moment we are experimenting with wearable computers. Beginning with health tech, the Apple Watch and the devices from Samsung and Motorola are a first wave of wearable computers that have a practical application. The future certainly looks more exotic.

"We already have ingestible devices and can already control elements of our environment via voice, gesture, and thought," explained Fujitsu's Jon Wrennall. "We already have smart gloves, glasses, and clothing with sensors and ways of providing feedback, such as sense of touch – where you can see and feel something not physically there – operating on someone in another continent is an option.

"We can already also enhance our physical and mental capabilities with technology such as Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. We're now able to print organs and augment core parts of our body – even the now routine pacemaker."

Furthermore, Mark Corley, CTO, Avanade UK, stated: "I think organic computers and/or quantum computers will have a place. The technology may not be silicon based but it will be organic and computers will grow and will have a level of evolution within them. They will be cell based mechanisms and will be self-repairing and self-growing based on the need of the technology. Light is already efficient at transmitting data."

And Toshiba concluded: "Invisible computing will surround us. Processing and storage devices, communications and sensors will all be invisibly small, but will be everywhere. The cloud won't be centralised server farms, but a true cloud, with devices spread as a fine mist throughout our everyday world. Some of those devices will be very smart.

"They will know what is required and do their best to achieve it without further instruction. Self-organisation will make it far easier to deploy smart systems that add intelligence to our everyday environment. The result will be a smart environment that understands and responds to simple voice commands. If a request needs more advanced intelligence, it would simply be routed wherever is needed to provide it."

The future of computing is the future of us. How we choose to create, manage and store information. How we choose to interact with others and the machines around us. And how digital technologies increasingly become enablers to do more – faster and anywhere – will define tomorrow's computers.










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