July/Aug. 1992, pp. 10-15
Reprinted, with permission, from THE FUTURIST,
published by the World Future Society,
7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450, Bethesda, MD 20814.
THE INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION
by William E. Halal
Advances in computer technology and information services may soon lead to a global web of networks capable of managing difficult international problems.
It has become a cliche to note the revolutionary impact of information technology (IT), but the real upheaval lies just ahead. If the number-crunching mainframe computers of the 1970s formed the childhood of IT, and the flowering of personal computers during the 1980s marked its youthful adolescence, then the 1990s seem likely to see the passage of IT into adulthood. John Scully, chairman of Apple Computer, describes the future prospects this way: "We have been racing to get to the starting line. The really interesting stuff begins in the 1990s."
A number of trends seem to converge on the year 2000 as a turning point when the IT Revolution will become the dominant force governing modern societies. Far more powerful computers will be available, possibly using light waves and almost certainly using thousands of parallel processors. This vast new computing power will be used to operate highly sophisticated software that allows computers to do the work of experts, learn, talk, read handwriting, and serve as personal assistants. The current growth of networks, cellular communications, and fiber- optic cables should form the basis for a common information utility spanning the globe. And the use of computerized electronic services such as telecommuting, teleconferencing, electronic education, and electronic shopping will change the way we live and work.
A knowledge-based social order is now evolving in which homes, offices, schools, and communities become interwoven into a web of intelligent communication services offering unparalleled opportunities for accelerating scientific progress, economic development, education, and other revolutionary changes.
The power of computers resides basically in their ability to store and process information, and today vast leaps are under way in these fundamental capabilities.
A number of technologies are being developed to increase processing speed. Gallium-arsenide chips should soon be commercially available, which will allow speeds five to six times faster than silicon chips. Chips whose switching devices operate in a vacuum--thus offering no resistance to the flow of electrons --might each contain billions of such devices. And researchers are now learning how to store information at the molecular level in the chemical bonds between atoms; such "biochips" would pack the information storage power of DNA.
Optical disks, similar to the compact discs now used to record popular music, should offer continued huge increases in storage capacity. An optical disk today can store about 1,000 megabytes of data, which is more than sufficient to handle the contents of any multivolume encyclopedia. If present trends continue, entire libraries could soon be accessed electronically for little more than the cost of a few ordinary pop recordings.
The culmination of these developments may be the optical computer, which would operate with light waves. Such a machine could boost computing power by several orders of magnitude. While much of the scientific community is skeptical that optical computing can be developed in less than a generation, if at all, it should be remembered that all great advances have met such doubts. AT&T's Bell Labs expect to have prototype optical computers working in a decade or so, and 13 large Japanese electronic companies have teamed up with Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry to develop optical computers.
Stationary PCs will still be used in the year 2000 for technical work, but most people are likely to use small, portable computers like the "laptops" and "palmtops" now being developed. These should be user-friendly consumer electronic devices, almost like a smart TV remote control, connected to information networks through the same technology now used in cellular phones. Data, written text, newspapers, TV shows, movies, teleconferences, and a variety of other information could then be displayed in multiple high-resolution images projected on flat wall monitors. Other cheap, small computer chips are likely to be embedded in cars, home appliances, and other items.
The net effect is that "computing" will no longer be something one does primarily while sitting at a desk; rather, computers will be ubiquitous. Life will take place in a living landscape of interacting, intelligent machines that help us through our daily chores. David Nagel, head of Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group, thinks this development will be "a real turning point in the way we live, work, and play."
Another important development is the growth of the information infrastructure. Integrated information networks will greatly expand the communications traffic flowing today on space satellites. The fiber-optic cables now being installed by telephone companies are expected to reach most American homes and offices in the mid-1990s, allowing virtually everyone access to an enormous range of information and communications services. And open-system standards like the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) should soon make it possible to create multimedia systems that link together all machines, data, voice, video, text, and any other type of information into one seamless whole.
Currently, sophisticated software is essentially built from scratch, with thousands of programmers working many years at a cost that usually runs into the tens of millions of dollars. But in a few years, this method may seem hopelessly archaic, rather like the quaint way we regard the building of the pyramids or Gothic cathedrals. Advances in automated software production should soon allow a software designer to simply stipulate the logic desired for a specific application; the actual programming would be carried out automatically as intelligent computers retrieve standardized packages of software and integrate them into a working whole.
Alongside this crucial development is the rapid emergence of neural networks, which offer a fundamentally different approach to computing. Rather than relying on the brute number-crunching force of the old hierarchical computer architectures that used a single large processor, neural networks use many processors operating in a fluid, parallel networking mode that simulates the network of cells forming the human brain. Like the brain, neural networks organize information into patterns, assign different functions to different parts of the network, and can reorganize to adjust for failures of some components.
The speed at which neural networks are being developed is astonishing. In 1988, Nippon Electric announced the development of a four-processor PC selling for about $5,000 that can read text and voice inputs, use expert systems to solve problems, and learn from experience. Neural networks using thousands of processors are now being developed, and ones using as many as 1 million processors are expected to be working about 1995.
The more-sophisticated qualities of neural networks, combined with more-powerful hardware, should realize the exciting applications of artificial intelligence that have been promised for decades. These include quick and cheap solutions to tough scientific problems, automatic management of the burgeoning capital flows streaming through the global economy, personalized instruction on well-defined subjects, more-accurate and quicker diagnosis of medical illness, and all the other tasks needed to manage today's complex world.
Software advances will also help individuals navigate the ever more complex maze of information systems available. Intelligent software packages are being developed that function as a "knowledge assistant," "intellectual robot," or "slave" working on behalf of its "master."
Stored in an individual's portable PC and able to learn over time the unique way each master works, thinks, and decides, such an assistant could handle routine tasks automatically, search for needed information, respond to queries, and perform other such tasks. This computerized alter ego is likely to be given a name for easy reference--like Sam--and could even fill in for its master at meetings, much as a capable human assistant may do so now. Apple Computer is planning to introduce a "personal digital assistant" in 1993.
The big question posed by the Information Technology Revolution is, What will all this powerful technology be used for?
In principle, most of today's social functions performed in person could be replaced by their electronic equivalents. For instance, a number of "electronic universities" now offer courses via interactive TV, computer conferences, and other media; the University of Maryland's University College announced in 1991 that it will offer the first degree program conducted electronically. An estimated 34 million Americans were working at home in 1991, and interest in telecommuting is growing rapidly.
Other information services now being adopted cover the entire span of human activity: electronic shopping, banking, trading securities, political polling and voting, home entertainment, corporate TV networks, teleconferencing, electronic house calls by physicians, psychotherapy practiced via closed-circuit TV, electronic publishing, and even religious services conducted via computer conferencing systems.
The great potential of information services is highlighted by the fact that IBM and Sears have poured huge sums of time, money, and creative effort into launching Prodigy, which provides information services to the growing number of homes that now have computers. Prodigy has gained fairly wide acceptance, serving more than 1.5 million subscribers. Even if this venture fails, it seems likely that some substitute should eventually emerge to fill what appears to be a large social need.
Despite the growing use of information services, many people are ambivalent about replacing live social interaction with electronic exchanges. A 1987 survey of Honeywell employees found that 56% would continue to go to the office every day if given the choice of telecommuting, 36% would split their time between home and office, and only 7% would work at home exclusively. And a recent poll of experts revealed doubts about the widespread acceptance of teleconferencing, electronic shopping, and telecommuting even 15 years into the future.
Because people are social beings, information services are unlikely to replace direct interaction; rather, these services will offer a viable alternative to the real thing when more convenient. Road traffic is badly congested in most cities and growing worse, creating great incentives to find other options. As information services become more sophisticated and user- friendly, they will increasingly fill the need for that option.
Efforts are now under way to achieve a better match between social norms and the new information technologies. A good example is the compromise now evolving between working at the office and working at home. Employers want to spare their workers long trips to urban offices, yet often they feel uncomfortable allowing them to work at home. One solution is the "telework center," a satellite office that allows employees to work near their neighborhoods. Pacific Bell has been operating two such centers in California for years, Hawaii has created a center in a suburb of Honolulu for use by employees of local firms and government agencies, and similar centers are being used in European countries and Japan.
As the new information technologies and services find increasing use, they may usher in a dramatic social transformation. The possibility of conducting most social functions electronically means that there will cease to be any good reason why one cannot locate an office, home, school, or other facility virtually anywhere. Thus, science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who lives in Sri Lanka, is deeply involved in American society thanks to his electronic connections.
The new option of interacting globally is beginning to dramatically alter the way the world works. Multinational corporations are now able to conduct their business around the world with ease, and this global scope of business activity is primarily responsible for the recent emergence of a global economy. Today's rapid integration of financial markets, for instance, is making it possible to buy or sell securities using an ordinary PC, on any stock market in the world, around the clock.
Family life may also be revolutionized as education, shopping, work, and other activities are brought into the home. The home may even recover its traditional role as a center of production, as it was during the long history of agricultural societies. If this occurs, we may see a resurgence of cohesiveness in family life, neighborhoods, and cities as people devote more time and interest to their local communities; at the same time, they would be intimately connected to the outside world through powerful information networks.
Another important change is that electronic relationships are even now beginning to shift the locus of power in modern societies. Authority figures can always use computers to dominate subordinates, of course, but information systems naturally tend to drive power, initiative, and control down to the bottom of large institutions.
Before computerization, the Industrial Age demanded conformity to decisions flowing from the top of a hierarchy in order to keep the production lines running. But now, the Information Age encourages the creative use of knowledge because the need to solve tough new problems is becoming the central function of a high-tech, global economy. As management expert Peter Drucker says, "Leadership throughout the developed world no longer rests on financial control or traditional cost advantages. It rests on brain power."
This downward and outward spread of power is basically why communism collapsed in 1990 and why free markets are spreading throughout the world with such enthusiasm. The same transformation of power structures can be seen in capitalist nations as large corporations are decentralizing into small, semiautonomous units; each of these "internal enterprises" collaborates among its employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders, even including competitors.
The Virtual Community
The result of these trends is likely to be a society governed not by hierarchical pyramids, but by constantly changing pockets of collaboration within a web of social/information networks spanning the globe. To identify this development with a sharply focused label, we might extend the tradition in computer circles of defining "virtual machines," "virtual reality," and other ethereal new realms of computer behavior into the social domain--the "virtual community."
People in far-flung nations today commonly use jet travel, cheap long-distance phone calls, fax, computer networking, and other high-tech capability to engage in virtually any type of social and working relationship around the world: business deals, professional collaboration, scientific research, and the like.
This newly emerging phenomenon of electronic interaction goes beyond the idea of the "global village," which focused on a sense of global awareness created by the advent of mass media like TV. The virtual community transcends mass communications to provide electronically mediated relationships that actually turn the earth into a single global community.
To carry this line of thought further, a close similarity exists between the information networks now forming a virtual community and the brainlike quality of the computer architecture emerging for the future--neural networks. If the individual operating a computer can be thought of as analogous to a single nerve cell, then the emerging web of information networks operated by billions of educated people around the world becomes analogous to a massive "global brain" possessing the capacity for an unprecedented form of "global intelligence."
Managing the New World Order
The emergence of some form of global intelligence highlights a subtle but distinctive change that should occur when the Information Technology Revolution arrives shortly after the year 2000. Although people in advanced nations like the United States and Japan have been speaking about the Information Age for years now, they are in fact still living in service societies.
It is commonly claimed that 70% of the labor force in such nations work in "services and information," but this figure obscures the crucial distinction between service work and knowledge work. The dominant activity in these societies consists of providing personal services such as merchandising goods, operating restaurants and hotels, teaching, financial services, and the like, which occupy roughly 40% of the labor force. Only 30% are engaged in information-based activities such as scientific and industrial research, journalism, communications, higher education, and strategic problem solving.
Although the knowledge-producing sector is still relatively small, it should grow to exceed the service sector by about the year 2000. This crossover point will mark the beginning of a genuine knowledge-based social order, a global system that is primarily concerned with the creation, analysis, and distribution of new knowledge for the purpose of solving the difficult challenges looming ahead.
Over the next 30 to 40 years, world population seems almost certain to shoot up to at least 10 billion people, all of whom will want to live as affluently as Americans, thereby placing a huge additional load on the environment that is even now unable to sustain the present level of industrialization. Add to this the need to contain a world of exploding cultural diversity, technological complexity, and demands for local autonomy, and we have the makings of an historic breakdown in present techno- economic-political systems.
From an evolutionary perspective, then, the purpose of the Information Technology Revolution may be to create some type of global information system capable of managing the "New World Order."
The Information Technology Revolution offers enormous promise, but new technologies always introduce new dangers as well as gains. As we become deeply reliant upon information systems that are so powerful and complex as to almost defy comprehension, much less control, great costs must be paid in human diligence.
For instance, ensuring computer security, personal privacy, and protection against destructive intrusions (such as viruses) will require far greater care and ingenuity as information systems become more pervasive. Even small unintended failures can be catastrophic. In 1991, a software bug consisting of three lines of faulty computer code brought down the Washington, D.C., telephone system, effectively crippling the U.S. capital for several hours. How much more damage could be accomplished by a skilled person who wished to wreak havoc with the large information systems that run the military, airports, financial markets, and other strategic functions?
And as information becomes the primary resource in a knowledge-based economy, far greater attention must be devoted to its equitable distribution if the world hopes to avoid creating an underclass of "information have-nots." One of the primary reasons that the United States is in economic decline is that an outmoded educational system has left most American youngsters functionally ill-equipped to cope with a high-tech society.
Perhaps the toughest challenge will be to develop effective means for finding our way through the looming avalanche of data that even now threatens to engulf us. It is supremely ironic that people living in the Information Age feel more, rather than less, ignorant: An overabundance of knowledge leaves us with a heightened awareness of all that is unknown, even as we struggle through masses of data to find the information we need.
But despite these drawbacks of the Information Age, remarkably bright possibilities lie waiting around the turn of the millennium. Human progress has been made very slowly and with great struggle throughout the long advance of civilization, and now a great surge forward seems likely as science and technology harness the power of information that has heretofore been largely unrealized. Whether we like it or not, the genie of knowledge is finally being released from its bottle.
About the Author
William E. Halal is a professor of management science at The George Washington University's School of Business and Public Management. His address is 203 Monroe Hall, 2155 G Street, N.W., The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. 20052.
This article is adapted from his chapter in EMERGING INFORMATION TECHNOLOGIES (Prentice-Hall, forthcoming).