Re-reading Asimov’s “The Last Question” reminded me of that day’s vision of computers. As computers became more powerful, they would become larger, with millions of banks of [transistors/vacuum tubes/integrated circuits]. Asimov’s stories refer to city- and planet-sized supercomputers, usually with limited access but sometimes with many terminals so that anyone can ask The Computer a question. Asimov’s computers exhibit increasing returns to scale, so computing becomes centralized with large computers running everything, overcoming the Hayekian knowledge problem through massive computation. This seemed as obvious a future as flying cars. Then PCs came, and we have since learned a great deal more about how size affects computation speed.
We now live in a networked world. We have massive numbers of small computers that cooperate. Your computer is pretty good, but its greater value comes from being able to connect to this server and a million others. Your life features distributed computing, torrents, Wikipedia, and all the Here Comes Everybody Web 2.0 fun and games. Your gas pump has a credit card reader and may have a news feed. Your stoplight monitors traffic, changes timing, and talks to its own network. Your cell phone has more computing power than the entire world did when your parents were born.
Now this future is obvious. Rainbows End charts the near-term implications brilliantly: computers light and thin enough to be sewn into clothing, contact lens monitors, enhanced reality, and ubiquitous wireless internet tying everything together. Everyone and everything is networked at all times, and many of us carry our own little self-selected worlds with us. Smaller computers, faster access, more personalization.
I wonder what future will be obvious sixty years from now. Biological computing, with living cells in place of circuits? Direct neural interfaces with re-programmable brains? Uploads and emulations? Nanotech is an extension of our current line of thought. Perhaps an AI singleton will start converting mass to computronium, and we will arrive at Asimov’s planet-sized computer by a different angle.