Future Computer Technology

What can we expect in terms of future computer technology?

Computers have clearly been getting a lot better--faster, lighter, more portable--for a long time. In fact, they have been getting better at an accelerating rate.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, established what's known as "Moore's Law." It says that the number of transistors on a computer chip will roughly double every two years. Moore's Law has held true for over forty years. Many people now use Moore's Law as a general rule of thumb to express the acceleration of computer technology in general; in other words, the computational capability of computers has been approximately doubling every two years.

That is a fantastic rate of increase: an exponential or geometric progression. To get an idea of what that might mean for future computer technology, lets imagine you start with a penny (one cent) in 1975. That's the year the first real PCs (like the Apple II) began to appear.

So, in 1975 you have 1 cent. Two years later in 1977, you have 4 cents. 1979: 8 cents, and so on.

Here's how it would go:

45 cents in 1985.

$3.60 in 1992.

$82 in 2001.

and $1,300 in 2009.
So we have $1,300 after starting with only a penny, and that demonstrates the difference between a machine like the Apple II and the most advanced computers available today.

Future Computer Technology - A Look Ahead

What's more interesting is if we take a look into the future:

$10,500 in 2015.

$84,000 in 2021.

$336,000 in 2025.

$2.6 million in 2031.

So, if Moore's Law continues to hold, we are going to see a fantastic increase in the power of computer technology by 2031. It's possible that the acceleration will slow down before then because, at some point, chip fabrication technologies will hit a fundamental limit. However, there may well be new technologies like quantum or optical computing by then, or the focus may simply shift to parallel processing so that thousands of cheap processors are linked together.

Of course, there is also a problem with creating software to take advantage of this power. Historically, software has advanced much more slowly than hardware, so it's really software that is the bottleneck.

Software companies like Microsoft will have to come up with compelling applications to make use of all that power. I think there is a good chance that artificial intelligence is going to be one of the biggest uses of the computer technology of the future.

If that's the case, job automation technology is likely to leap forward dramatically, and computers will be capable of doing many of the routine jobs in the economy--even those held by people with college degrees. That is going to create some serious issues for the job market and for the economy as a whole. That's the main focus of my new book, The Lights in the Tunnel.


Best Jobs for the Future

Given the state of the current job market, at lot of people are wondering what career path will make the most sense in the future. The reality is that two primary forces are going to impact the future job market: automation technology and globalization.

Most people tend to focus on globalization as the primary threat. Recent items in the press have noted that people are specifically looking for jobs that can't be outsourced, while at the same time manufacturing jobs continue to migrate to low wage countries.

While globalization and outsourcing are getting most of the attention, the reality is that job automation probably represents a bigger long term threat to most workers than globalization. In addition, many people will be surprised to learn that the threat from job automation is not going to be limited to low skilled/low wage workers. While it is true that robots and machines may someday take over many routine jobs in supermarkets, warehouses and fast food restaurants, many people who sit at desks using computers may be impacted even sooner.

The Best Future Jobs will be Jobs that are Protected from both Automation and Globalization

The New York Times recently had a story entitled Beware, Humans. The Era of Automation Software Has Begun. Sophisticated software may soon be capable of performing many service jobs. In the future, we can expect that many of the jobs that are now being offshored will instead by handled by automation software.

As a result, choosing a career in the future is likely to be increasingly complex. For example, the assumption that getting a college degree will always lead to a better job may not hold true, because many college graduates end up taking "knowledge worker" jobs--they end up sitting at desks using computers, but they still very often perform relatively routine and repetitive tasks (especially at the entry level). These types of jobs are likely to be highly vulnerable to both offshoring and automation at some point in the relatively near future.

Technological change is going to abrupt and unpredictable, so choosing the best job for the future may be a challenge, and it may be necessary to be flexible. The Lights in the Tunnel, includes a detailed look a the trends in automation and offshoring and gives some insight into which types of jobs are likely to relatively safe, and which ones may be among the first automated.

Disadvantages of Globalization

Globalization, of course, has both disadvantages and advantages. For many average workers in developed countries, the disadvantages seem to loom very large. There can be no doubt that migration of manufacturing to low wage countries and the direct outsourcing of service jobs is a factor in stagnating and even declining wages in the West.

While most economists believe that the advantages gained from globalization outweigh the disadvantages, they base this largely on a historical analysis of trade in the past. One question that has to be asked is whether advancing technology is changing the rules so that the impacts from globalization in the future may turn out to be an entirely new ballgame.

Advancing Technology may Amplify the Disadvantages of Globalization

The disadvantages of globalization may, in fact, be exacerbated by advancing technology. An obvious example of this is service offshoring, where what would have previously been a local job can be performed remotely by an offshore worker. There is really has no historical precedent for this because offshoring the job incurs no transportation costs and no delay in rendering the service. As a result, it's very possible that economists are underestimating the impact of outsourcing on the job market.

Another disadvantage of today's globalization is that it creates enormous trade imbalances that may well prove unsustainable. The reality is that we have globalized labor and capital, but we have not globalized consumption. Most of the workers in low wage countries who benefit from globalization do not earn enough to purchase the products they are producing. As a result, consumers in the U.S. and other developed countries are expected to continue driving the factories in China and other low wage counties, even as the jobs they rely on for income vaporize. This may well prove unsustainable, and the dramatically falling exports now being seen by businesses in China may be just the leading edge of the coming crisis.

However, it is probably safe to say that, in the coming decades, accelerating technology is likely to have a bigger impact on the job market and on the welfare of average workers than globalization--even though globalization will continue to be very significant.