Tech visionary foresees mobile-phone revolution

At a RIM conference, inventor Ray Kurzweil predicted the changes coming to mobile phones, from speech-translation engines to hovering virtual displays

The mobile phone is already revolutionising societies around the world, but its impact is increasing as phones become more powerful and find their way into the hands of more and more people, according to futurist, inventor and author Ray Kurzweil.

Speaking at BlackBerry-maker RIM's Wireless Enterprise Symposium in Orlando, Florida, Kurzweil said: "When I was a student at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], we had one computer that was shared by all one 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."

"That's a billion-fold increase in price-performance," said Kurzweil.

He said the pace of mobile-phone adoption is accelerating exponentially and pointed out that 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. And they're much more powerful than they used to be."

Even as the number of mobile phones 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."

Kurzweil said display technology will also undergo a radical change, consigning the touchscreen-versus-keyboard debate to the history books — if his prediction of "virtual displays that hover in the air" comes to pass.

In the shorter term, Kurzweil predicted that mobile-phone users will soon have the ability to talk in their own language and be heard in another as speech-translation engines — a technology that 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 camera-phone that was able to convert a photograph of print into text and then read that information back to the user. Kurzweil said he believes such an application 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 about getting document-capture technology embedded on BlackBerry devices. "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 — one that 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," Kurzweil said.

He added: "In fact, BlackBerry and other cell phones are already using multi-layered 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 that 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. "I can't wander around 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 around, they see their local background behind me, and I'm life-sized and I can establish eye contact… Point to the right place, and it's actually quite convincing," Kurzweil said.

He added: "Last time, this guy tried to hand me a question on a piece a paper."