CORONADO, Calif.—According to the technologists parading through this weeks dueling futurist conferences, our near-term future will be influenced by advances in data mining, wireless integration, software services and especially the convergence of nano and biotechnologies. But the subject of security—a current and future problem—keeps raising its head.
Ive spent the past four days literally being doused by a fire hose of amazing information. Sunday and Monday I spent at Walt Mossbergs “D” conference, listening to Gates, Jobs and a parade of CEOs lay out the state of the now.
I then headed off to Mark Andersons FIRE (Future in Review) conference, right down the road here. The first day featured a wonderful chief technology officer round-table discussion and talks from Red Hats Szulik and RSAs Coviello.
Unlike “D,” which can be somewhat cliquish, at FIRE, if youre in the door, youre part of the club.
After the first day ended, I enjoyed a whirlwind of amazing conversations with everyone from Interop founder (and now winemaker) Dan Lynch to rock-star blogger Joi Ito that extended late into the night. The best thing about the FIRE conference is that everyone here is brilliant—I was easily the dimmest bulb on the tree.
No letup on Day Two: By the end, I felt sort of like the Grinch after Christmas, because my head grew three sizes that day. The day started off with a fascinating discussion with Rick Rashid, senior vice president of research at Microsoft.
The discussion started with a focus on security. “Weve done a lot on the security side,” Rashid said in response to a question about Longhorn. Rashid then pushed the problem down to the PC vendors, saying, “Ultimately, if you really want to believe the system is secure, it has to start with the hardware. A lot of [security] technology came out of my research group, and were working with hardware manufacturers to get it to the marketplace.”
What is exciting Rashid over the next five years? As a former programmer, he focused first on how software development will change. “The next five years are going to revolutionize how people think about writing software,” he promised.
“We have begun to develop techniques that allow us to prove properties of very large pieces of code. It is now possible to literally prove thousands of line of C, C++, and if they have that property or not.”
This will change how programs are both specified and tested. “Before, you could say specs are great, its a hygienic thing, it makes the code better. But now it is something we can test for to prove if something is true or false.” In other words, the specification becomes an integral part of proving whether a program works or not.
On the testing side, Rashid characterized the QA (quality assurance) department today as antagonistic to programmers. “Testing was a spy versus spy thing,” he said. “He is trying to prove that you are stupid” by finding bugs in your code.
But with these new techniques, Rashid predicted that “the process of software development will be much more tool-focused, much more specification-focused, and much less dependent on a developer believing he or she did a good job.” Application development will move from “software as an art form to software as engineering.”
Microsoft is already applying these techniques. “Now the Windows team is hiring PhD mathematics into the test group. Its not a job of figuring out how dumb the programmers are but a job of building models.”
Rashid went on to talk about some of the personal photography software from Microsofts Cambridge labs. These tools bring Photoshop-style power to the masses in an easy-to-use form, he said, focusing on a new Photomosaic tool that improves the family photo.
“Take a picture at Christmas, and no one ever looks good at the same time. What this software does, is if you have a bunch of pictures of the same people, you can pick out the good ones by marking them with a green X, and bad ones with red.” The software then analyzes a series of group shots to “automatically create a picture where everyone looks good.”
Rashid also described a new graphics modeling technique that dramatically cuts the size of manmade object renderings.
As an example, he pointed to a Ferrari wheel, which can take up to 600,000 polygons to represent. In Microsofts “Forza Motorsports” Xbox game, claimed Rashid, half of the polygon budget is for the wheels.
But by using a new technique called procedural geometry; those wheels can be represented by only 8KB of data, rather than the 26 megabytes it takes now.
Its done by “describing the procedure of how you create a wheel, versus how it looks. It can be used for almost every manmade object.” It wont work for natural objects such as trees, but he said there are other techniques under development that handle those.
Connie Wong, the president of Hutchinson Whampoa Americas, then came onstage to give a short update on the state of 3G. Her company may be the biggest telecom vendor youve never heard of, with huge 3G implementations in eight European and Asian countries. They have more than three million subscribers after just 18 months, and theyve been serving up an incredible amount of data, including more than 300,000 sports clips per week.
In the United Kingdom and Italy alone, they serve up more than a million streams a day. One of the most popular? A “Big Brother”-style show that puts four cameras in a household, feeding a local video server that streams it out to handsets 24 hours a day. She predicted that in the future, “events will basically shift the entertainment industry from being a publishing company to being a mobile company to launch new mobile content, and a lot of individuals will publish and create their own content.”
In the longer term, Wong predicted that “mobile voice calls will become flat-fee or even free, and revenue will come from value-added services.” She ended not with a prediction but with a fact: “Mobile TV is here today.”
The merging of the biotech and nanotech worlds also was a big theme on Day 2. Neil Gregory, director of research at the London School of Economics, set the stage. “The present is digital, the future is wet,” he insisted. “Biology is the new black, biology is the new rock n roll.”
Gregory pointed to a seminal event that just occurred—harvesting patient-specific stem cells using cloned human embryos. That should translate into cells perfectly matched to a patient—because they come essentially from that patient.
That event was significant for a number of reasons. First, according to Gregory, “somatic cell replacement will be the transistor of this era.” But the implications are even more profound for technology leadership in the First World. This breakthrough didnt happen in the United States or in Europe, but in Korea through the work of Dr. Hwang Woo-suk. Over the next 20 years, “industrial leadership will not take place in the USA and will not take place in Europe.”
Finally, Gregory predicted that the money that Microsoft gets from all of the Longhorn upgrades “will be dwarfed by the amount of money you and I will be willing to pay for real-time monitoring of our families health through the new biology.”
Later in the day, a nano/biotechnology round-table continued the discussion. Leading nanotech venture investor Josh Wolfe warned the crowd to beware of “nanopretenders,” companies that are repositioning themselves by adding the word “nano” to their existing products.
He said he expects the nanotechnology market to follow the basic biology trend, with first an exponential increase in companies, then a big die-out, and finally just a handful of strong survivors. He sees three types of nanotechnology—materials, semiconductors and electronics, and textiles. Wolfe said he is most excited about medical devices that can come out of nanotechnology material advances, and those that focus on electronics.
Alan Russell, from the University of Pittsburg, then described the fascinating potential of nanotechnology operating at the edge of materials and cells, particularly around regenerative medicine. The body knows how to generate body parts—it all happened at least once in the womb. “Why cant you do the same thing with a heart, liver or brain?” he asked. “If a newt can do it, why not us?”
One of the areas they are exploring is the space between the cells. Its called the “extra cellular matrix,” and it comprises proteins, fats and peptides. Typically this stuff is harvested from cells in the small intestine. Why? According to Russell, when you eat something, “it rips up small intestine, so it regenerates really fast.” All you need to do is grab a sample, and take the extra cellular matrix, or the signals from the cells, and theyll regenerate. And theyll tell other cells how to do it, too.
He showed a movie of an open heart surgery in which this type of material was injected directly into a beating heart.. This procedure has been done hundreds of times in Uruguay, and in many cases, after six months, the heart patient is all but cured—”asymptotic” in Russells words.
The key area of interest for Russell: how to seamlessly interface plastics and biological systems. Apart from the dramatic declines in infections, it offers the possibility of communicating with cells. Although theres a huge amount of research going into biosensors, where electronics listen to cells, “what if you could flip it?” he asked. Imagine if you could talk to cells rather than just listen.
Russell laid out the results of a fascinating experiment in which advanced ALS patients—completely locked into their brains and unable to move or communicate—were able to drive robotic devices, talk with computers and make cups of coffee through these types of interfaces.
But he went even further. “How about programming and reprogramming the brain? I want to learn French, why cant I have a USB port in my brain?”
Its all coming, Russell insisted, but “the only way to get there is to develop materials and techniques that listen to the body and then communicate.”
Finally Michael Knapp, the CEO of Cambrios, laid out a fascinating electrochemical application of nano/biotech. His company plans on using proteins to initially improve LCD manufacturing, adding capabilities that are either impossible or difficult to do with traditional manufacturing techniques.
Knapp used the abalone as an example of how biological processes turn a flaky inert substance—in this case chalk—into a super-hard shell. The goal of Cambrios? His company is working on using genetic engineering to develop proteins that can do the same thing with copper and other inert metals.
The key here in each of these disciplines, Knapp, Russell and Wolfe agreed, would happen where chemistry, biology, medicine and physics come together. Those disciplines dont speak the same language now. But if nano pioneers have their way, they soon will.
Another thread during the conference was how technology advances are bringing transaction processing and business intelligence together. Bill Janeway, vice chairman of Warbug Pincus, talked about how advanced technologies are changing business and our definition of risk.
“Where computational [advances are] having a real impact is not so much in having risk, but in real-time analytics, running against very large dynamic data sets.” Janeway went on to describe how real-time analysis enables dynamic pricing.
“Basically you are generating in real-time elasticities, using point of sale, with demographic data, with weather data, to make a more rational judgment on when you cut the price on those 17-inch TV sets and blow them off the shelves.”
He pointed to Mike Stonbreakers new company, Streambase, as one of the new tools being used to analyze data in real time. Split-second decisions, based on analysis and models, have become essential in the financial world. “If youre competing against Goldman, response time in milliseconds is essential. If it takes two seconds, youve already lost.”
Janeway went on to describe how technology is roiling the financial world. “Darwinian competition at the capital markets has clearly demonstrated that the distribution of both good and bad things is far different from the bell system. Fat tails are even fatter. The sophisticated guys do a better job of reading the data.” But even with all of that information, “it still leaves you with what is in effect an uninsurable world where the second law of thermodynamics [still rules].”
In a short but compelling presentation, Elliot Noss—the CEO of TuCows—painted a chilling picture of how the United Nations and some countries are trying to wrest control of the Internet from ICANN. Noss argued that ICANN-based standards are essential for the Internet. “It works because of common standards and an unspoken agreement between users. But at the heart is the uniqueness of domain names and IP addresses.”
If what Noss called the “kabal” of local governments and the UN were to take control of the Internet, expect censorship and more taxes to follow. “Censorship on the Internet becomes orders of magnitude easier [when] national governments, not global Internet users, control the single authoritative root.”
His solution: Get involved and speak out: “Let the government know your feelings, that the Internet is above narrow national interests. ICANN needs great people who love the Internet to try and participate.”