8 bytes of data compared to 8 gigabytes of data. Image: Daniel Sancho/Flickr
We've come to expect that next year everything will be faster, and just a bit cheaper. In fact we've decided that it's the law. However quietly, behind the scenes, the big manufacturers will tell you that Moore's Law, which has been 10 years away from dying for a while now, is no longer just dying, it's pretty much already dead. In fact they're even starting to, very cautiously, say it aloud in public. But while we might no longer be expecting computing to become orders of magnitude faster, it's not necessarily going to matter as much as we expect. We have reached the point where our computing is "good enough."
The last fifty years have been exceptional time, and have given many of us that have grown up in the shadow of Moore's Law a false impression of how the world works. Most of human history is static, and progress is slow. Unlike today throughout most of history the technology your children would grow up with would be very similar to the tools, and technology, you remembered from your own childhood.The current generation of chips aren't that much better than the previous, and the pace of progress is now slowing dramatically. At least as far as computing is concerned, we're starting to look at a mature technological base. It's possible your children will grow up with computers that are not much faster than you yourself are used to today. But that doesn't mean that the computing is going to look the same.Like many of the technological advances in the last hundred years the computer industry was born, and grew up, in the shadow of the first and second World Wars. Like the baby boomers, your smartphone is a child of the post-war years now grown to adulthood. However Chris Anderson, co-founder and CEO of 3DR, has recently argued that a lot of the tools and technologies we leverage today are the peace dividend of another war, the smartphone war, arguing that, "when giants battle we all win."This technology dividend is really very evident when you start to look around. Sensors such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, and even cameras, are now trivially cheap and readily available. The ubiquity of the ARM processor, used in pretty much every smartphone, has dramatically dropped the price of computing for everyone.Capable computing, that is to say computing that is "good enough," is now available for just a few dollars. General use micro-controllers with onboard Wi-Fi can now be found for less than two dollars, whilst a single-board computer can be picked up for only a few dollars more. That's something that seems almost inconceivable, even to those of us that have grown up with Moore's Law. Because after fifty years of Moore's Law, we're getting to a place where computing is not just cheap, it's essentially free.As technology matures, it becomes cheaper and more readily available. While we might no longer be expecting computing to become orders of magnitude faster, we may well have reached the point where that doesn't matter any more. As our technological base matures over the next decade or two we can, perhaps, expect to see general purpose computing, sensors, and wireless networking, bundled up in millimeter-scale sensor motes that can drift in the air currents around us. The dust around us will become smart, we don't need it to become fast as well.
The beauty of a mature technological base is that we can finally take stock of what we've accomplished over the last fifty years and learn to use it well. The beauty of capable computing, computing that is good enough, and cheap enough, is that it can be used in ways that expensive computing can't. Cheap, capable, computing will enable a host of uses that were never possible before. After all, if your computing is cheap enough to throw away, what is it that you will be able to do tomorrow that you couldn't do yesterday?
Because after fifty years of Moore's Law, we're getting to a place where computing is not just cheap, it's essentially free.