In the Year 2020, Part I: Cloud Computing

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Technological Truce

If the cloud is ever going to be as all-encompassing as its proponents believe, if it will eventually be a place where Canton says “information will find you,” and if the technology behind it will, again according to Canton, spur an “intelligently tagged environment” that’s independent of user devices, server upgrades are far from the only infrastructure changes we’ll require. Attitudes will need to change, too.

Cloud ComputingThe companies behind the cloud – Google, Amazon, Microsoft, et al – will have to play nice with each other and replace, at least in part, competition with collaboration and cooperation. The same goes for smart phone manufacturers, online providers, and any other business closely associated with the concept. Canton points to today’s portable digital devices as an example, saying the primary reason we’ve yet to see a fully converged device that brings together TV, radio, Internet, phone, music, and entertainment has more to do with a lack of standards than anything else. For his part, Burrus claims the biggest holdup right now isn’t technology, but humans and freedoms.

Escaping the Cloud

That brings us to one of the biggest fears for both businesses and individuals – privacy. If by 2020 or thereabouts, we find ourselves in a society where cloud access is omnipresent, where information will find you as easily as you can find it, where the cloud becomes so vital that even your most personal medical records are stored within it, how can we be sure we won’t see even more serious transgressions and malicious attacks and more serious consequences than we do today?

We can’t – at least not yet. “There will be attempted intrusions into our lives,” says Canton. “There’s definitely room for abuse and attacks on privacy and civil liberties.” And what of the potential for an Orwellian state wherein Big Brother sees all and knows all? There appears to be no guarantees, especially for those who already live with regimes that operate this way. “If you live in North Korea, you have an issue with Big Brother.”

The Money Question

How will we pay for all of this?

Surely a “software as a service” model will demand some sort of subscription fee, though beyond that, it’s unclear. If the cloud becomes as essential as many prognosticate and ultimately blankets our society, might we pay for it through our tax dollars?

“Taxes are a possibility,” says Burrus. “But I’ve been an accurate forecaster for a very long time, and I do that by concentrating on things I know. It will be paid for, but these things evolve and change in time, and I don’t know yet how it will work.”

Cloud ComputingWadia hastens to remind us that since Joe Q Public isn’t the only one benefitting from the cloud and all the changes it will bring, so he certainly won’t be the only one paying for it. “In exchange for a large piece of content equity, corporations are willing to invest in elastic infrastructure that results in more uptime, ubiquity, and lower costs for the consumer,” In other words, they’ll foot the bill as long as there’s something in it for them. “Google gains a lot by owning search and being one of the leaders in video and e-mail. They understand consumer web behavior better than most. Facebook and Twitter are other niche examples of corporations building out clouds because they feel the social network, and the content exchanged within it, is valuable.”

Imagining the Possibilities

The potential power of cloud computing goes well beyond consumer convenience and business profits. It could even have humanitarian applications.

“Beyond sensors for motion, direction, and location, smart phones (of the future) will have the capability to measure altitude, pressure, luminosity, humidity, gravity, sound, temperature and infra-red emissions,” says Wadia. “Imagine a world where people with these smart phones could be emitting real-time vibration telemetry to the cloud. Whenever a cumulative spike in vibration occurs, one would know some unusual geological activity was occurring, potentially an earthquake or if the perimeter was small, a terrorist event.”

“This requires some pretty complex and expensive remote sensing infrastructure today, but sensor ubiquity and cloud computing can make a number of such use-cases reality without too much effort or cost.”

And that’s just the beginning. What else will evolve? You’ll have to stick around for the next decade to find out.

Check out Part II and Part III in our series about life in the year 2020.

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