July 31, 2015
The next installment of our science fiction series, "Silence Like Diamonds," is up. Read it here:
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 In the future of "Silence Like Diamonds," that process is complete and even the CEO has been replaced by a machine.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.
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