Optical computers could well be in general use just 20 years from now with overwhelming benefits. Optical computers will be faster because light moves so much faster than electrons mired in silicon.
But specialized optical components will almost surely have arrived in the next 15 years and computers that are mostly optical will be nearing the market. The result could be shirt pocket computers with even greater power than we can now imagine.
Optical computers offer a radical change in the way information is handled. While electronic computers work with single bits of information. optical computers can process whole image potentially billions of bits at one time. For image processing especially the result is a radical increase in computing speed. For example, computer scientist Kristina Johnson of the University of Colorado designed an optical processor that cloud identify cancer cells on a pape smear. For a standard electronic computer, this task would have required a major commitment of processor time and memory and still would have meant a lengthy wait for the results. The optical processor did the job virtually instantaneously.
Like many other advances in technology conversing entire computers to work with light has proved more difficult than scientists once imagined. Even if the vision of all or mostly optical computers could materialized in the next 10 years it would force computer companies to discard an enormous investment in the factories that make memory chips and hard drives something they'd be unlikely to do.
Other types of breakthroughs will also be needed to make all of these technologies truly work for us. Software to run them needs to be developed. In this area we see only two major innovations that are likely to pay off in the early twenty first century.
One is object oriented programming (OOP) systems which are the building blocks of the software world. Instead of writing each segment of every new piece of software from scratch. OOP programmers create reusable modules or objects that can be knit together. Instead of creating the entire project from a blank page the programmer need only write the links between these objects and perhaps a few lines of highly specialized instructions unique to that project. The potential savings in time and reduction of errors are obvious benefits.
The new computers will bring chaos o the workplace just as their predecessor technologies have done. In the past 20 years assembly line robots have displaced well over half of the human workers who once looked to factory jobs a middle class living.
Technology has destroyed the jobs of countless mid level executives as computerized management methods allow the survivors to oversee up to 21 subordinates instead of only six computerization has also made it increasingly easy for one company to absorb its rivals sending still more people to the unemployment lines. Recently computers have begun to streamline operations in the service industries the last stronghold of human labour. Again the opportunities for human workers are shrinking.
Cheaper and vastly more powerful computers can only hasten this trend. Who needs to pay a human sales person when business customers can e mail their order directly to the computer that does the accounting and controls the production equipment? Or when intelligent machines can make an effective sales call to new retail customers? Even writers and artists may be in danger. Already some Hollywood screen writers rely on their software to construct salable plot outlines and one experimental program reportedly can write believable dialogue by reweaving fragments from real conversations. And who needs human doctors when the next generation of expert systems will be able to make most diagnoses?
For a time the health care industry can absorb many of the people displaced by this new more capable brand of automation. After all sick people still need human hands to tend them. But soon fewer people will be sick enough to require their care.
As a result most of us will spend our entire working lives bouncing from one career to the next scrambling to learn the skills of a new profession before some computer snatches away our current livelihood.
The second key innovation for making computer work for us is artificial intelligence (AI). In the years to come. Al will get a boost of interest from researchers thanks to the growing power of computers. It takes a lot of memory and processing capacity to mimic the human mind. Ten years from now we will all have computers potent enough to incorporate very sophisticated forms of AI.
Future products must be both powerful and easy to use. They must take order from people who are to interested in learning complex commands or even in using a mouse to pick them from a menu. They must be in short intelligent. There are two ways to create machine intelligence of a high order. One is to give your computer common sense by providing a context the kind of background information that enables people to interpret new data. The other is to give it the ability to learn. Researchers are hard at work on both approaches and this work is likely to converge.
In the future computers will combine vast stores of context with dedicated learning software. Our machines will behave in ways that seem human. If sometimes a bit stilted and too literal minded. If we give them an ambiguous or open ended order they will interpret it according to their knowledge of us. More often than not they will get it right and as they gain experience they will do better still. In 20 years we may already have begun to take these intelligent helpful and artificial companions for granted.