Beyond Advances Accelerate the Imagination of Time

September 2006
By Beverly Mowery

A look at how the experts saw the future 10 years ago.

The past 10 years have hosted an explosion of technology that has revolutionized productivity, shifted priorities and transformed communications from words to keystrokes. The cultures of play, work and even warfare have been redefined repeatedly—so much so that it is hard to remember a lifestyle before Google, the iPod, razor-thin cell phones, voice recognition and personal digital assistants. Ten years ago, most people still used paper maps to find directions and looked up telephone numbers in thick, cumbersome directories.

In 1996, military, government and industry leaders came together in the pages of SIGNAL to look ahead to the far horizon (SIGNAL Magazine, September 1996, page 75). They compared the first 50 years of AFCEA with the advances that AFCEA was poised to facilitate in the next 50. In nearly every case, their predictions were accurate but the time frame was not. Most of the concepts they predicted for the distant future have been developed and implemented in the past 10 years. And these same technologies already are being overtaken again by even more creative solutions, driven by the aggressive, competitive nature of today’s technological environment.

The leaders saw that the future promised a truly interactive lifestyle. They envisioned that all people would be able to elect to be connected, from anywhere, all of the time, to virtually any information source. In their predictions, one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-one communications no longer would be an inhibitor to interpersonal and business collaboration.

The predictions from major telecommunications company leaders suggested that within 50 years, communications would revolutionize the way people interact with each other. The combination of communications and computing had created the information industry, but the convergence of technologies from different industries would host new possibilities for consumers and businesses. Personal communications would be miniaturized, low-power and as commonplace as wearing a watch.

Future brilliant weapon systems would be differentiated from smart weapons by their ability to manage their own missions, including a new class of systems capable of unmanned missions with uncertain targets. Commanders, soldiers and pilots would operate in a distributed computing environment that would provide individually tailored warfighting information in real time. With this would come a revolution in human-machine interfaces. Computers would understand spoken commands, read handwritten material and respond in everyday conversational voice, suggested leaders within the defense contractor community.

While declining to guess the prevailing technologies in 2046, one leader said that the factors in business and government that we can count on to stay the same are the importance of relationships, the right values and the pursuit of excellence. These things will make or break our success regardless of the century or technology, he emphasized. We are only scratching the surface of what information availability and information flow can do, both commercially and militarily, acknowledged the chief of signal, U.S. Army Signal Corps, in his 1996 comments. His statement is still relevant today, as is the question asked at that time by a retired military officer: How will we use technology in the future to better our culture and improve our civilization?