Gutenberg’s printing press was a major technological advanced that made it possible for the (initially quite rich) commoner to publish affordably. Books became affordable “soon” after and knowledge could spread further, faster and more accurately.
The Web has had comparable effect: it allows me to publish the content you are reading right now. I can reach thousands of people daily (and I do) at a minimal cost.
What these things have in common is that they made something that was once only available to very rich institutions, available to everyone. This is when meaningful revolutions happen. This is when technology people win, this is where technology researchers have to be.
Since the Web came about, we’ve been looking for the next big thing. The technology that would create a “boom”. We need “booms” at regular interval because, otherwise, technology people (like myself) get marginalized.
As an example, I did my Ph.D. on wavelets. Wavelets were hot, and poorly understood. Information about wavelets was scarce. There was a lot of hype. Now? Now wavelets are commonplace and free or inexpensive wavelet software and hardware is available. There is no urgent need for wavelet experts anymore.
So, what are the next “booms”? I don’t need to find them all, just aim approximatively right. First, it was going to be nanotechnology which we see more now as an incremental advance in pharmaceutical technology. We’ve seen Web Services, Intranets, Semantic Web come by… People have been searching for the “next Web” or “Web 2.0”.
- Though useful, Web Services are not the next big breakthrough. They are just distributed computing reinvented with the same limitations, the same hype.
- Semantic Web is not the next big breakthrough. For the most part, it is AI techniques that didn’t work before, but that we are porting to the Web hoping that they will now work. They won’t work any better.
- Collaborative filtering and personalization is not the next breakthrough though I feel this is where the most interesting R&D is happening right now on the Web. However, it will play an increasingly important role as the next revolution happens. [See some of my work on collaborative filtering.]
So, what will be the next breakthrough?
I bet it is going to be ubiquitous massive storage. Very soon, in 5 years, we will reach the point where individuals will have access to infinite storage. Note that I didn’t write infinite bandwith or infinite computing powers. Now, both bandwidth and CPU cycles will remain limited for the forseeable future.
But the applications are not here yet. There are very few useful applications that can leverage freely available infinite storage.
What problems will we be facing?
- Processing extremely large data sets with limited bandwidth. That’s going to be a huge problem and Google is just the first big success story… but when everyone can store as much data as Google has… the problem becomes huge. Smart indexing and aggregating techniques are going to become extremely important. When I can record my entire life and the life of my kids, and all the transactions I ever made, how do I search and summarize such data? How do I find out automatically how my work has been spread out and how do I assess automatically my productivity. We need to bring data warehousing to the masses.
- Security and confidentiality: very soon, even smaller stores will be able to record absolutely everything about their clients. Even the tiniest details. In Canada, we have a law to protect us, but what if you have a PDA which records you entirely life and you lose it? Is someone able to take over your life? He sures has more information about you than what you can remember, so who is the real you? We need to bring Enterprise-class security to the masses.
- Social software is going to grow to new heights. Smart people will find ways to leverage infinite storage to create amazing collaborative working environments. I bet collaborative filtering will play a huge part in this. Want to find cool music? Use indiscover.net or webjay.org. These sites are only the beginning of what we can do with infinite storage (and they are storage limited). Wikipedia is much closer to what the future of social software is. We need to move all social software to the Wikipedia level and beyond. The social software of the future will be based on inexpensive software, and inexpensive infinite storage.