An interesting thing happened in 2003: Bill Gates was gifted with unnatural clairvoyance.

In an article entitled “The Disappearing Computer,” Gates predicted, in almost rigidly accurate terms, how humans would be interacting with computers in 2010. He predicted a user interface in which computers would surround us, become interwoven in our daily lives. The only part he got wrong was the date. Now, It’s 2017, and Gates’ Disappearing Computer has finally arrived.

Computing Is No Longer A Discrete Experience

“Computers, like electricity, will play a role in almost everything you do, but computing itself will no longer be a discrete experience. We will be focused on what we can do with computers, not on the devices themselves. They will be all around us, essential to almost every part of our lives, but they will effectively have ‘disappeared’”

He was right. Computers have all but disappeared— they are essential to every aspect of our daily lives; from ordering a carpool to work, to communicating with coworkers, to controlling the office music and temperature, to ordering food. But it’s not just cell phones, laptops, and tablets that have infiltrated our lives. What Gates termed the disappearing computer is what we now call ambient computing.  

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The Fabric Of Our Lives Is Woven With Computers

Gates predicted that as computers become more intuitive, we will notice them less. Their prevalence will grow but in such a way that their intrusiveness diminishes. Ambient computing and machine learning allows for computers to react to humans’ presence— voices, gestures, and movements. The difference between picking up a remote to operate a TV, and being able to just talk to the TV is huge— you lose the physical reminder that you are interacting with a machine.


Ambient computing furthermore allows for highly customized interactions, making the barriers between humans and computers even less recognizable. Through machine learning, ambient computers can gather massive amounts of data on their users from multiple facets of the user’s life. The better the computer knows you, the more it will insinuate itself into the very fabric of one’s life.

As Gates said, “We are still a long way from a world full of disembodied intelligent machines, but the computing experience of the coming decade will be so seamless and intuitive that--increasingly--we will barely notice it.”

What Happens When Computers Are No Longer An Extension, But A Separate Entity

What Gates did not predict but what is becoming increasingly likely, is a future in which computers are not just an extension of our own physicality, but separate beings in of themselves. When we begin to treat computers as peers, or as we would another living being (even a pet dog), then the computer has not melted into the foreground of our lives, but become a sentient being.

Sentient computing doesn’t necessarily mean a dystopian world in which machines get jealous, love, hate, etc. Rather, it’s an expression for how we view the machine— when the machine becomes a companion, in addition to being a device through which to quickly accomplish daily needs; when a machine is an extension of our consciousness, in addition to an extension of our physicality. The computer will never be human. At a certain point, though, we may begin to view it as human because it will be such a flawless extension of our own humanity.

But as Gates’ prediction was 7 years too early (he predicted this all for 2010), so too is this prediction probably premature. Just as we are still years away from fully operational machine learning, we are even further from sentient learning. But when these computers do appear, it will be interesting to see if we even notice.

 

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