The mobile phone is already revolutionising societies around the world but its impact is accelerating as phones become more powerful and find their way into the hands of more and more people, says futurist, inventor and author Ray Kurzweil.
But expect the pace of change to accelerate and mobile technology to plug itself more completely into our lives.
Speaking at BlackBerry-maker RIM's Wireless Enterprise Symposium in Orlando, Florida, Kurzweil said: "When I was a student at MIT we had one computer that was shared by all a thousand of us. It took up a building of about this size… This BlackBerry is a million times smaller, the computer in it is a million times less expensive and it's a thousand times more powerful.
Kurzweil said the pace of mobile phone adoption is accelerating exponentially—pointing out it took the industry a decade to ship the first billion mobile phones but only three years to ship the next billion, and one year for the latest billion. "We'll put out another three billion in the next two years," he predicted. "So everybody in the world will have cell phones," adding: "And they're much more powerful than they used to be."
But even as the number of mobiles grows, the devices themselves will shrink in size, according to the futurist: "As influential and powerful as information technology is already, we'll see a billion-fold increase in the next quarter century while we shrink these devices to a very small size."
Display technology will also undergo radical change, said Kurzweil—consigning the touchscreen vs keyboard debate to the history books, at least if his prediction of 'virtual displays that hover in the air' come to pass.
In the shorter term, Kurzweil predicts mobile users will soon have the ability to talk in their own language and be heard in another as speech translation engines—a technology he has been developing—become embedded in mobile hardware. "I can use this prototype to talk to people around the world," he explained after showing a video of the application in use. "I talked to her in English, she heard me in German and vice versa."
The inventor also demonstrated a document capture application running on a cameraphone which was able to convert a photograph of print into text and then read that information back to the user—an application he believes will have many uses, from helping blind people to enhancing the business of search: "You can capture the name of a restaurant in a window (it also recognises logos); so you can capture print, turn it into text, do a search, translate, email, send the search documents..."
Kurzweil said he had been talking to RIM "just this morning" about getting document capture tech embedded on BlackBerrys. "These kinds of applications are going to grow ubiquitously," he added. "Technology is going to get smaller and smaller—more and more powerful. This one actually runs on only 300MHz—the [BlackBerry] Bold platform is actually a lot more powerful than you need for this."
Another technology shift on the horizon in Kurzweil's view, which will affect not just mobiles but all computing devices—and will pick up from where Moore's Law leaves off—is the transition from flat circuits to three-dimensional chips.
Kurzweil said: "There's been regular predictions that Moore's Law will come to an end. The first prediction was 2002. Intel now says 2022… [but] the end of Moore's Law… won't be the end of the exponential growth of computing. We'll then go to the sixth paradigm—which is three-dimensional computing.
"We live in a three-dimensional world, our brains are organised in three dimensions, we might as well compute in three dimensions."
He added: "In fact BlackBerry and other cell phones are already using multilayered chips—the baby steps into the third dimension."
Discussing virtual reality—which started with the telephone, according to Kurzweil ("you could actually be with someone else, at least as far as talking's concerned, even if you were hundreds of miles apart"), the inventor predicted the real and virtual worlds will merge, resulting in "an augmented reality environment"—where virtual pop-ups could help remind you who you are actually talking to.
Kurzweil revealed he already uses "a three-dimensional virtual reality technology" when giving about a third of his speeches in Europe and Asia, he said. "I can't wander round like this," he explained. "I have to stay behind a special podium—but it looks like I'm there in 3D.
"It's not videoconferencing. If they [the audience] look round, they see their local background behind me and I'm life-size and I can establish eye contact… point to the right place, and it's actually quite convincing."
He added: "Last time this guy tried to hand me a question on a piece a paper."