As if 2020 didn’t have enough going on, there is a fourth age of human civilization rushing toward us.
The prior three ages were the Stone Age, the Agrarian Age, and the Industrial Age.
- In the Stone Age, humans discovered language, fire, and the use of sophisticated stone tools. This enabled group cooperation and the birth of art and culture.
- In the Agrarian Age, humans learned to grow crops and develop permanent settlements. This led to the rise of towns, cities, city-states, and eventually to nation-states.
- In the Industrial Age, the world’s first steam engine was developed to accelerate the extraction of coal from English mines. The coal provided energy to build more machines, which led to factories and modern manufacturing.
The fourth age, now rushing to meet us, is the Information Age. In this age, the shaping of physical material is being upgraded to the shaping of bits and bytes.
More and more society is being shaped by, and powered by, operations that directly shape information, or directly transmit information. We see it everywhere, from an endless selection of streaming movies on Netflix or Disney+ to “over the air” updates for electric vehicle software.
The Information Age did not start in 2020. One could argue it was born in 1969, with the arrival of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, the ancestor of the modern internet). It then passed through a series of milestones, like the arrival of web browsers, the birth of e-commerce, and the creation of coast-to-coast fiber-optic cable networks.
The Industrial Age didn’t come overnight. Instead it built up steam (no pun intended) over a period of decades, changing society in small ways at the margins, until the collective impact of the changes had transformed almost everything. The Information Age has a similar profile, in that multiple decades of groundwork were necessary to really get things moving.
And so, in 2020, it is not that the Information Age is starting, but more that we are starting to feel the acceleration. What began as a slow-moving train, trundling into the future at a pace so slow one could jog alongside it, is becoming a bullet train, moving at hundreds of miles per hour.
That, in turn, means technology developments will start to feel strange — or rather, even more strange than they already did, for those who remember life before smartphones and the internet.
To give a slightly creepy example, Amazon now has a drone-powered camera that can hover up from a base and fly around your house.
The drone is called the “Ring Always Home Cam.” It is offered by Ring, a company owned by Amazon, and is billed as a “next-level autonomously flying indoor security camera.” You can see a 30-second YouTube video of the drone in action here.
It is one thing to talk about drones and their potential impact on society in a far-off type of way. It is another thing to have a kind of robot sentry that buzzes around your house, sending video to a centralized database (or directly to your smartphone).
Another wild development is a discovery from Microsoft: data centers work better on the ocean floor.
Microsoft researchers have discovered that underwater data centers are not only realistic, they are likely to be more reliable and cheaper to run.
The idea is to take hundreds of data servers, or possibly even thousands, and hook them up to server-cooling infrastructure in a water-tight pod resting on the ocean floor.
The surrounding ocean water lowers the cost of running the servers by enabling an efficient heat exchange, using marine energy technology that has already been designed for submarines.
And in terms of reliability, Microsoft”s research department argues that the underwater configuration, which the company has been experimenting with for years now, could be eight times more reliable than servers configured on land.
What this suggests is that, within a decade or so, indoor flying drones of all types — commercial and residential — will be piping endless streams of audio-video data to vast cloud networks, buried in server pods on the ocean floor, running up and down the coasts.
It is too early to say how indoor drones and underwater cloud storage will impact society by way of culture changes, employment changes (jobs created and jobs lost), and the overturning of old ways of doing things.
And yet, we can note these examples are two among many. For example, as more food for thought, what will happen when robot dogs patrol city parks? This is already happening in Singapore, as you can observe via YouTube here. How will policing laws be rewritten to permit the use of robotic force?
As the Information Age accelerates, the pace of change will only become more disorienting, particularly for those who remember the world that came before. It is going to be a while before life feels normal or comfortable again.