Thanks to the ‘Software Age,’ humanity may yet survive, says expert

Thanks to the ‘Software Age,’ humanity may yet survive, says expert

While many people fear that technology will cannibalize their jobs, a top Microsoft executive says that technology -- specifically computer software -- is responsible for our high standard of living, which will only get higher

James Whittaker (Photo credit: Courtesy)
James Whittaker (Photo credit: Courtesy)

In history books, time is often defined by “ages.” We’ve had the Dark Ages, the Medieval Ages, the Industrial Age, the Atomic Age, and the Space Age, to name just a few. It’s not clear just yet what moniker historians will confer on the period we’re in now, but according to top Microsoft executive James A. Whittaker, the “Software Age” would be a good way to describe our era.

Whittaker, considered by many in the computer industry to be a visionary, is a recent migrant to Microsoft, having jumped ship from Google earlier in 2012. For someone who portrays himself as a forward thinker, the choice seems puzzling; to most people, Google is the company of today, controlling a vast online empire and raking in billions a year — as opposed to Microsoft, the company of yesterday, with its fuddy-duddy Windows and Internet Explorer. But Whittaker believes that the Microsoft of today is one of the top contenders to lead in the coming era: “Like Apple, Amazon, and Google, Microsoft has the devices, the apps, and the services to lead in the new era.”

That era will be built on new uses and application of software, Whittaker told a rapt audience at Microsoft Windows Accelerator for Azure in Herzliya as the New Year approached. Software has been responsible for many of the improvements in our lives in the past half-century, and despite the “grim slide” predictions of observers who point to ongoing recession, unemployment, and war, the best is yet to come, says Whittaker — better even than in 2012, a year in which we were healthier and wealthier than ever before.

“Technology, specifically software, is magic, and each year the magic gets better,” Whittaker said. “Things are moving faster, and improving faster, than ever.”

Like the printing press, jet transportation, and the Internet itself, the effects of previous technological revolutions have made major, and subtle, improvements and changes to our lives that have continuously raised our standards of living and will continue to do so, despite the challenges and structural economic problems the world faces. Today, technology improvement is largely based on evolving and improving software, which allows us to do things that only a few years ago would have indeed seemed like magic.

“In the 1950s, DNA was discovered, but there wasn’t much you could do with it until computers arrived,” said Whittaker, discussing one of the key events of the past few decades that is about to pay off in a big way for humanity, thanks to advancing technology. “They began modeling DNA in the 1990s, in what could be called the ‘store and compute’ era of computing,” referring to the analysis by a PC or a server of data stored on a hard drive. “By 2001, you could map anyone’s genome, for $95 million. Now, thanks to improved technology and software, it costs $7,800,” although for a couple of hundred dollars you could get just the “important” parts of your genome mapped, said Whittaker.

“By 2020, the whole genome map for anyone will cost less than $1,000. At that point, we will have personalized medicine, where a doctor will come up with a drug or therapy specifically tailored to your circumstances, instead of an ‘off-the-shelf’ standard prescription drug that is made for a lot of people with your general symptoms,” said Whittaker.

The next era, which began in about 2000, is the one most of us are familiar with — the “search and browse” decade. “This is where data started moving online, and people were able to collaborate on projects, thanks to the Internet,” said Whittaker.

One result of that revolution has been advancements in astronomy. “Once, astronomers were limited to what they could see in their telescope, and recording what they observed with pen and paper.” Today, thanks to online collaborative software and databases, “we are discovering new planets at the rate of one every 2.3 days. How long before we find one that has an oxygen atmosphere? That, too, is due to the magic of improving software and technology.”

“Search and Browse” has had a profound effect on non-astronomers, as well; it’s the way most of us access the reams of data on the Internet. “Search and browse is when data left the computer and jumped to the web. That’s where it is now, and most of us use browsers to search for the information we want,” Whittaker said.

But that era is now coming to a close. “In September 2012, Google searches were lower than they were the previous month for the first time in history,” Whittaker said – which means that fewer people were using Google to access data. That doesn’t mean that fewer people were online, though. “It means we are now entering a new era, which I call ‘know and do.’” In this new era, said Whittaker, information will come to the user, based on context and specific need, instead of having to search for it.

“If you lose your car keys enough times, your brain gets trained on where to look for them, or you come up with a system to make sure you don’t lose them,” said Whittaker, by way of example of what he means by know and do. “You don’t start a search for them from scratch. In the same way, we will concentrate on ‘finding’ things, not ‘searching’ for them” – with the heavy lifting of gathering the data and presenting it in a way that a user can access done by apps, mostly of the mobile variety.

Already there are some good examples of the direction such apps will take. Apple’s Siri, for example, will recommend restaurants in your area if you tell it that you’re hungry, and crowdsourced apps (like Israel’s Waze) that use your computer’s hardware to determine where you are and supply you with the traffic information you need to get to your destination in the shortest amount of time. “Just look at the results of a query on a typical Google search. You get 300,000, or maybe millions, of results, that you don’t need. We have all this information stored, it’s time to figure out better ways to access it, and that is what will happen in this new ‘know and do’ era.”

It remains to be seen what the solid benefits — along the lines of a mapped genome and the likely discovery of intelligent life somewhere in the universe — will be for humanity in this new era. But Whittaker has some ideas on that. “The software we are developing to find and serve the information people need is building a sort of ‘neural network’ of data, linking points and information together.” It’s a model that could easily be applied to studying the mind, he said. “I think this new magic will be used to map the human brain, about which we already know a lot and are learning more each day.”

Similarly, software is what will end up solving many of the problems the world is now facing. From Malthus on, scientists in each generation have imposed a “limit” on how many people the world can support before humanity starves, but each time that limit was reached, something technological happened to allow farmers to grow more food to feed more people. Today, software is making fields more productive than ever, and software will be developed to solve some of the other threats facing humanity.

“Who would have believed that the mighty Mississippi River would be closed to boat traffic in some areas in the summer because it’s too shallow,” said Whittaker. “That of course is due to global warming, which is real — but we will figure out solutions to that problem, and others, with software. Software development is the one, best chance for the survival of our species.”

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