The End of High Tech March 2014
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In the realm of information technology (IT), the term high tech is losing its significance as a descriptor for products that are more advanced, of higher quality, and more beneficial for users than other products on the market. This change may seem counterintuitive. After all, information technologies have never been more important in people's lives than they are today, and some of the world's most sought-after talent and biggest fortunes are in the tech sector. But the combination of IT's ubiquity, the rapidity with which new technologies can spread and be shared, and changes in the economy of innovation suggests that the concept of high tech is becoming obsolete. The cost of IT hardware has fallen dramatically, narrowing the gap between rich and poor computer users. The development of sub-$100 notebooks and tablets and the availability of used computers, feature phones, and inexpensive smartphones are making IT far more accessible.
Today, technologies initially developed for the military make their way into the civilian sector more rapidly.
The gap between ordinary and high tech is even narrower when considering the differences between mass-market and "luxury" consumer information technologies. In the personal-computer and smartphone markets, high prices buy premium design, rare materials, and brand names but rarely technical superiority. For example, Luvaglio's (London, England) million-dollar laptop features a gold keyboard and diamond on/off switch, but it has the same processor and memory that computers that cost one-thousandth as much have. The Ego for Bentley from Ego Lifestyle (Hertogenbosch, Netherlands) is a $27 000 designer laptop that critics derided as technically obsolete when it came out in 2008. The more affordable $7800 MB Emerald by Munk Bogballe (Berlin, Germany) has an aluminum body, mahogany screen frame, and a calf-leather-wrapped undercarriage (with a matching calf-leather section on the top plate). But like the Ego for Bentley, the MB Emerald lacks any exceptional technical specifications. The same situation exists in the smartphone market. Nokia's (Espoo, Finland) $6600 Vertu Constellation is one of the world's most admired luxury smartphones and features artisan-cured calfskin, a titanium body, and a sapphire screen; however, it has the same Android (Google; Mountain View, California) operating system, Qualcomm (San Diego, California) Snapdragon dual-core processor, and sensors that one would find in recent mass-market smartphones from Nokia and other smartphone makers such as LG Corporation (Seoul, South Korea) and Samsung (Seoul, South Korea). It does, however, have ringtones recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. A similar situation exists in the field supercomputers: All ten of the world's fastest supercomputers, which are owned by government research agencies or weapons-development laboratories, run the open-source Linux operating system, nicely illustrating how military and intelligence technologies have converged with commercial technologies.
During the Cold War, the most state-of-the-art computers; optics, networking, and encryption technologies; visualization tools; advanced materials; and so on were developed for the military and intelligence services, and a decade may have been necessary for high-performance technology to move to the private sector. Today, technologies initially developed for the military make their way into the civilian sector more rapidly. For example, unmanned aerial vehicles, which have been in use by armed forces for less than a decade, are beginning to see use in private security, and consumers can now purchase a basic surveillance quadcopter with camera for less than $700. At the same time, public-sector workers and politicians are more likely to use consumer technologies and commercial services. One little-discussed reason the National Security Agency (Fort George G. Meade, Maryland) and Government Communications Headquarters (Cheltenham, England) hacked email and cell-phone systems in use by hundreds of millions of people is that terrorists, activists, and world leaders all now use the same communication networks: Surveilling prime ministers and suicide bombers requires infiltrating services in use by ordinary citizens. Finally, the connection between the Pentagon (Arlington County, Virginia) and Silicon Valley, California—investments in security-related start-ups by institutions such as intelligent-services-focused venture-capital firm In-Q-Tel (Arlington County, Virginia)—further supports synergies and rapid transfers between the government and private technology sectors.
The proliferation of big-data-driven and online services further democratizes access to cutting-edge technologies. In the past, improvements in voice recognition, machine translation, and navigation have often depended on expensive, specialized hardware and software. Services such as natural-language assistant Siri (Apple; Cupertino, California) and Google Translate use big-data tools and machine-learning algorithms to improve. In this approach, rather than program formal rules into a diagnostic program, designers feed the system with data (for example, medical histories) and allow the algorithms to identify patterns on their own.
This development has important consequences. First, the improvement of these services depends less on investment in proprietary hardware and code. Instead of requiring the use of supercomputers, these services can use Beowulf clusters, Linux boxes, and other inexpensive off-the-shelf technologies and architectures. Second, the more people use these services, the better they become. For instance, technologies such as image and face recognition rely on algorithms that improve on the basis of user-generated tags. And in the emerging field of anticipatory computing, systems deduce a user's activities and intent by using a variety of inputs that range from location and motion data to eye tracking and facial expressions and then offer information that the user will find useful—even before the user asks for it. Third, because these services operate in the cloud rather than on a user's own device, they are accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a laptop or smartphone. Users of Siri and Google Now, for example, interact with their phones, but servers online perform the bulk of the computational work.
The gap between premium and mass-market information technologies is unlikely to grow in the future. Hardware tools such as Arduino, a microcontroller in use in robotics and complex remote-control systems, and Raspberry Pi, an inexpensive computer developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation (Caldecote, England); operating systems such as Android and Linux; inexpensive sensors; and even game controllers such as Microsoft's (Redmond, Washington) Kinect and Nintendo's (Kyoto, Japan) Wii Remote, give today's IT researchers, entrepreneurs, and skilled hobbyists inexpensive but powerful tools for building robotics, interactive devices, and environmental controls. Further, the performance of low-cost computer processors is improving more rapidly than is the performance of high-cost chips. This development means that the raw processing power of inexpensive devices will increase more dramatically than will the raw processing power of premium devices. Finally, even the gap between technologies available to the world's strongest armies and irregular forces is closing: The US Army's recent Unified Quest war games and scenarios concluded that small armies and well-funded terrorists could match US drone and computing capabilities in the 2020s.