Beyond Mobile: Announcing Xconomy’s May 17 Forum on the 10-Year Future of Computing

In computing, it’s hazardous to try to peer more than a couple of years into the future, let alone a decade. After all, if microchip makers find ways to keep miniaturizing transistors at the rate we’ve seen since the 1960s, there’s time for five or six more doublings in computer power by the year 2021. Processors could run 30 to 60 times faster than today’s fastest chips, storage costs could plummet to virtually zero, and broadband wireless access is likely to grow faster and more ubiquitous. Under those conditions, you’d be a fool to try to anticipate all of the innovative ideas engineers will be inspired to explore on the hardware and software fronts.

But on May 17, we’re going to throw caution to the winds. At Beyond Mobile: Computing in 2021, Xconomy San Francisco is gathering leading thinkers from the West Coast computer science community to talk about the big questions that will define the shape of consumer-facing computing technology over the next 10 years. You can join us for this after-work event on Tuesday, May 17, at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA.

We’re modeling Beyond Mobile after a very successful series of Xconomy life sciences events examining the 20-year future of biotechnology and drug development. (Our March event in San Francisco, Bay Area Life Sciences 2031, was a sold-out hit.) But in the information technology world, the pace of change is so blistering that we figured speculation on the state of computing 20 years out would devolve into pure science fiction. So we cut the figure to 10 years, and we went out to find experts brave enough to predict how computing devices and computer networks will look and act in the year 2021. We found several, and I’ll tell you about them in a moment.

Clearly, we’re in the midst of a major transition right now, from a long period of desktop-centric computing to a new age of mobile-centric computing. Portable, touch-driven devices like smartphones and tablet computers are usurping many of the old functions of telephones, desktop and laptop PCs, game consoles, and TVs; indeed, data out just today from IDC showed that global PC shipments continue to shrink dramatically, perhaps bearing out Steve Jobs’ assertion that we’re already entering a Post-PC era. Enabling that whole transition is an equally important shift away from local processing and storage and toward a reliance on far-away cloud computing resources.

But we tend to obsess so much about “mobile” and “the cloud” that we don’t talk much about what comes after all that. The iPad, surely, is not the end of the line. Ten years from now, will we still be using devices that are recognizable as smartphones, tablets, and desktop or laptop computers? Or will computing power simply be embedded all around us in our homes, vehicles, offices, and other environments?

Our featured speakers at Beyond Mobile make their living thinking about such questions. First up we’ve got Bill Mark, vice president of the Information and Computing Sciences Division at SRI International, which is hosting the event. (SRI is an Xconomy underwriter.) Formerly with Lockheed Martin and manufacturing software house Savoir, Mark leads a team of researchers and developers thinking about how tomorrow’s computers will perceive, plan, reason, and communicate.

With its strong practical focus, SRI has a history of transforming this research into commercial spinoffs, including Siri, a virtual personal assistant app for smartphones that was acquired by Apple in 2010. Siri can listen to questions that you ask in natural language and frame answers based on your location or context at that moment. But as cool as it is, Siri offers just a taste of the sorts of assistance software might offer in the future. Why shouldn’t your car, your office, or your home be equipped with similar capabilities?

After all, “Most of us aren’t mobile most of the time,” as Mark says. “We’re at home, in an office or school, in a restaurant. And we’re not alone most of the time: we’re talking with other people or sharing an experience with them. We don’t want or need to be interacting through a mobile device. We want computation in the environment to enhance our experience as individuals and as groups. We want our home to help us learn, stay informed, be entertained, come together as a family. We want our offices to help us have productive meetings, and our school rooms to know their students and help them interact and learn.” On May 17, Mark will share insights from some of his own research on “smart spaces” that anticipate our needs.

We have two more special guests lined up for Beyond Mobile, and I’ll tell you even more about them in future articles. But briefly:

Larry Smarr will be flying up from La Jolla, CA, where he’s director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). As founding director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Smarr oversaw research that gave birth to the Mosaic (later Netscape) browser and the first large-scale computing grids. At Calit2, Smarr now leads multidisciplinary efforts to turn insights from computing research at University of California campuses into marketable applications in the areas of culture, energy, the environment, and health. The Calit2 buildings themselves are a laboratory for the kinds of visualization, communication, and collaboration systems that might (if Bill Mark is right) pervade our homes and offices by the 2020s. Because Calit2 researchers are already “living in the future” in certain ways, Smarr is in a good position to help us understand what that future might look like.

Finally we’ll be joined by Dan Reed, who holds two important titles at Microsoft in Redmond, WA. In his role as corporate vice president of technology policy and strategy, he helps corporate and government officials understand Microsoft’s perspective on the future of information technology in areas like education, health, the environment, and economic development. And as leader of the eXtreme Computing Group (XCG) inside Microsoft Research, Reed’s charge is to help the company question its assumptions about the nature of computing, and how trends like cloud computing, parallel programming, and natural-language interfaces could alter the way we experience information technology. Reed has called XCG “a vanguard of change” inside Microsoft, which—if it hopes to be as influential in 2021 as it is in 2011—will obviously need to grow beyond its historical reliance on PC, server, and mobile operating systems.

We’ll engage with Mark, Smarr, and Reed in an informal on-stage discussion, with plenty of time for audience Q&A. The event will also feature a few short “burst” presentations from Silicon Valley startups that are experimenting with new interfaces and new computing paradigms. And as always, we’ll provide time for networking before and after the formal program. If you think you can join us on May 17, I urge you to buy your ticket now; our “super saver” registration rate expires April 21.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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