Futurist Paul Saffo isn't quite a household name in the way that Marshall McLuhan was in the 1960s, when he explained the meaning of rapid changes in communications technology to the general public. But Saffo is getting there. Since 1985, Saffo has been a technology forecaster studying long-term technology trends and their impact on business and society. As a director of the 34-year-old Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif., Saffo has written essays about change in numerous publications, including The Harvard Business Review, Wired, The New York Times and Fortune. The author of Dreams in Silicon Valley and The Road From Trinity, Saffo is also a member of the Stanford Law School Advisory Council on Law, Science & Technology. Among Saffo's abiding concerns is the coming revolution in sensors: tiny Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, or MEMS, which he believes we'll soon find in everything from cereal boxes to factory systemsand that can be applied to solving a wide variety of IT problems in data-switching and storage.
In a recent conversation with Executive Editor Marcia Stepanek, Saffo says the sensor revolution has already arrived. Through radical improvements in getting computers to talk more and more with one another, machines have already begun to take over more of our repetitive, quotidian tasks, such as paying bills and running factory floors, says Saffo, "and we've just started to realize the marketing, IT and commercial potential." What follows is an edited transcript of his remarks.
We marvel at how computers have insinuated themselves into every corner of our lives, knowing all the while that in a few years, today's marvels will seem quaint compared with what follows. It turns out that about once a decade, a new technology comes along that completely reshapes the information landscape. In the late 1970s, that key enabling technology was the microprocessor, and its arrival set off a decade-long processing revolution symbolized by the personal computer.
Then another new enabling technology came along to displace the centrality of the microprocessorcheap lasers. Much as the microprocessor slipped into people's lives hidden in PCs a decade earlier, lasers slipped into the lives of ordinary citizens hidden in everyday appliancescompact disc players, CD-ROMs and long-distance optical fiber phone lines. Lasers delivered bandwidth, huge volumes of storage on optical disk and high-quality communications bandwidth over optical fiber.
The consequence? A shift in emphasis from processing to access. In the 1980s, our devices were defined by what they processed. In the 1990s, our devices were defined by what they connected us to. And the poster child of the decade, of course, was the World Wide Web.
But we are beginning to see diminishing returns from merely adding more bandwidth to our access-oriented world. Now change is being driven by sensorscheap, ubiquitous, high-performance sensors, or MEMSand they will shape the coming decade.
In the 1980s, we created our processor-based computer "intelligences." In the 1990s, we networked those intelligences together with laser-enabled bandwidth. Now, in this decade, we are hanging eyes, ears and sensory organs on our computers and our networks. We're asking them to observe the physical world on our behalf and to manipulate it. This decade will be marked by a sensor revolutiona big leap in automation that will have a far-reaching influence on business and society.
Processing plus access plus sensors will set the stage for the next waveinteraction. By interaction, I don't mean Internet-variety interaction among people. I mean the interaction of electronic devices with the physical world on our behalf. The U.S. Air Force's new unmanned Predator spy plane, flying with two air-to-ground Hellfire missiles underneath its wings and now in testing by the Pentagon, is nothing more than a sensor-rich flying robot, controlled from a trailer miles away from the target by "pilots" at computer consoles.
But you don't have to go to Afghanistan to see this stuff. Get in your car. You've got sensors in automobiles running effectors that control their fuel consumption. A GPS on a chip is just a fancy sensor. The FCC has mandated that all mobile phones have built-in position-reporting systems in the very near future, so that when you call 911, law enforcement agents and emergency medics don't have to ask where you are. The way the government convinced mobile phone manufacturers (who hate spending an extra penny) to add these GPS sensors to their mobile phones was by saying, "OK, you do this, and in exchange you get a little benefityou can use this to sell location-based marketing."
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