Cloud Security

Predictions Are Hard, Especially About the Future

The next installment of our science fiction series, "Silence Like Diamonds," is up. Read it here:

Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 3: Principle One

Or catch up from the beginning: Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 1: Family Business

Once you're caught up, come back here and we'll talk about the facts behind the fiction we've shown you so far.

The headline on this article is a joke that's been attributed to different people, including physicist Niels Bohr and of course Mark Twain. (Because everything eventually gets attributed to Mark Twain.)

If you change "future" to "near future" in the quote, it's not a joke. It's just how things are, and it makes short-range science fiction the hardest kind to write.

If you tell a story about an interplanetary federation centuries in the future, or a galactic empire tens of thousands of years from now, you'll be safely dead by the time reality catches up with your story. But if you tell a story set just a few years in the future, your prediction will be tested while you're still around to answer for it.

For example, previous generations wrote many books and movies about the first trip to the moon, but those stories became curiosities on July 20, 1969. Likewise, science fiction writers of the 1950s-80s filled libraries with stories about the future relations of the US and USSR. Those books books became fantasy in 1991.

That's the tricky line author John Barnes is walking with "Silence Like Diamonds," set in the year 2030.

Here's what Barnes predicts for the communications industry then:

  • Wall-sized video displays in home offices.
  • Voice-controlled smart homes.
  • Long-haul broadband delivered by aerial drone.

Two more predictions have huge societal implications:

In the world of "Silence Like Diamonds," the Internet is dominated by a cloud service that's run entirely by artificial intelligence, not human leadership.

This prediction reflects today's headlines. Productivity is increasing but unemployment remains high. Machine learning is getting smarter and robots are getting more agile. Some economists speculate that in the future there just may not be enough jobs to go around.

Over the past half-century or so we've seen automation eat the jobs of factory workers and, later, clerical employees such as typists, bookkeepers and travel agents. In the future of "Silence Like Diamonds," that process is complete and even the CEO has been replaced by a machine.

Another huge prediction in "Silence Like Diamonds" has to do with encryption. In one mysterious passage, Barnes writes, "Ever since the Yan-Dimri fast factorization algorithm had flipped the advantage from the encryptors to the cryptanalysts, only isolated systems could be really secure (at the cost of being really useless). Of course, that was also why there was so much money in either side of encryption, penetration and security."

The way I'm reading that, encryption in Barnes's future has gotten a lot trickier -- maybe impossible. In the real world of 2015, your inexpensive consumer phone or $150 laptop computer can encrypt data well enough to thwart even the most powerful and expensive supercomputers. Encryption is exceedingly asymmetric, in favor of the person looking to keep the secret.

In Barnes's imagined world of 2030, it looks like the balance of power has shifted drastically in the other direction, giving attackers the advantage. Encryption in 2030 is difficult to accomplish, and easy to break.

Want to know more about the cloud? Visit Light Reading's cloud services content channel.

Or at least that's the way I'm reading it.

Barnes shares his nine tricks for writing near-future science fiction, and talks more about "Silence Like Diamonds," on his blog.

That does it for today. Enjoy the current episode of "Silence Like Diamonds," and have a great weekend. We'll have the next episode for you Tuesday, and the one after that on Friday, continuing on that schedule until the gripping conclusion near the end of August.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected]

DHagar 8/3/2015 | 12:54:20 PM
Re: Inspirations not predictions John, great explanation. This is definitely a technothriller!
Mitch Wagner 8/3/2015 | 9:47:50 AM
Re: Inspiration not predictions My favorite defition of a technothriller is that it's science fiction where the President of the United States is a character. 
Susan Fourtané 8/3/2015 | 5:02:52 AM
Re: Inspiration not predictions Very interesting, John & Mitch. I believe these three are already possible, according to what I have seen in some recent exhibitions and trade shows: -Wall-sized video displays in home offices. -Voice-controlled smart homes. -Long-haul broadband delivered by aerial drone. They may not be mainstream, yet, but they will be getting there between 2020 and 2030. So, John may have very well written something that will become our reality in a little more than a decade. Now I have to play catch up with the story. :) -Susan
John Barnes 8/2/2015 | 11:49:04 PM
Re: Inspiration not predictions There's a definition that floats around in publishing, that a technothriller is a novel in which science fiction almost happens, that I think sums it up nicely.  Once the tech is something that has worked in some lab some place now and then for a small army of Ph.D.s, the legitimate speculation is always what will happen when you can buy it at Best Buy or Walmart.  And deployment is amazingly fast. In 1896, there were not yet ten cars in NYC; in 1911, there were more cars than horses. (Just add a hundred to each of those numbers and think how many technologies you could sub into that). 
DHagar 7/31/2015 | 7:56:14 PM
Re: Inspiration not predictions thebulk, and it appears that the lines are increasingly blurring.  These predictions don't appear to be that far off; maybe that's the point MitchWagner is making about the challenge in short-term predictions.
thebulk 7/31/2015 | 1:36:38 PM
Inspiration not predictions I have always liked to think of Sci Fi as inspiration no prediction, but I can see how it is fun to look at it as such. 
John Barnes 7/31/2015 | 12:48:23 PM
Thanks for the kind words.  And I'll be talking more about fast factorization and encryption in the blog next Monday or Tuesday, for Episode 4. 

Meanwhile, for those of you who don't know that at almost any time, one team or another of mathematicians might turn out to be right, and send everything connected to IT/communications into a decade-long tizzy (either by showing that security is really secure or by finding a way to break all of it) might start with this Wikipedia article, which covers the basics accurately in only slightly tech dense ways, and move on to this Stack Overflow conversation (in which some very well-versed people try to explain it to the not-so-versed, but isn't that what Stack Overflow is all about?) 
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