Post-digital computing.

An essay about the future of computing, what lies toward the horizon, and how to find out what is beyond.

The future of computing.

The future of computing is post-digital. What do I mean by this? To help us understand, let us talk about what it means to be post-radio.

The history of radio.

It takes some time for a thing to go from having been invented, to being safe, practical, and reliable (and not necessarily in that order). James Clerk Maxwell developed a theory of electromagnetism in the 1870's. Heinrich Rudolf Hertz proved that theory correct with the discovery of radio waves in the 1880's. Prototype radio signal transmitters were built in the 1890's by Guglielmo Marconi and Nikolai Tesla. It wasn't until the 1900's - three decades later, that the broadcast towers were built, and radio receivers were sold to the general public.

Television followed a similar trend as its sister, radio, the difference being an encoding of visual data in addition to that of audio. The first prototype televisions were invented a bit earlier than most people realize, in the 1920's, with broadcast and commercial production starting soon after in 1930's. Although they were theorized about at the same time, television lagged behind radio in development and commercial production, due to the more complex technology required to support it. The addition of visual data not only took more bandwidth, it also required specialized encoding and decoding - unlike audio which could simply be passed straight to the signal.

Despite being invented almost immediately after monochrome television, World War 2 really threw a spanner into things for color, and color television was delayed for decades after. Color suffered from similar issues of increasing complexity, as television had compared to radio before it. Even after the war ended, it took time for the commercial technology to be developed that could handle the increased bandwidth that color data required, and for color media content and standards to be created, and for the devices to become small and safe enough for home use.

Cable tv in the 1980's killed the radio, and we slowly entered the post-radio period. It was a mere change in transmission method, and yet it meant everything - an increase in not only the quality and reliability of a given signal was one thing, but signal-switching meant no longer being restricted to the limitations of a tiny slice of the EM spectrum, and so cable TV meant going from a handful of channels, to as many as you could handle.

The internet erupted in the late 90's and has never stopped interrupting everything ever since. The new method of transmission brought a new medium to explore new genres of whatever it is that we choose to talk about.

Throughout all of this, radio still exists. It still forms the backbone of our telecommunications system, and so does cable - the very thing that 'killed' it, and was itself 'killed' by the internet. Cable vs radio as a transmission medium will always be a contextual choice of cost-effectiveness. Television vs radio as a medium will always be a choice of information and entertainment. Smartphones came onto the scene a decade and a half ago, and now the internet lives in our pockets, instead of at our desks. After all, a smartphone is just a small computer-television-radio that fits in my hand. We live in a vast sea of radio chatter, the beat of wifi and cellular signals blanketing the planet in a silent, global conversation.

What does this mean for post-digital computing?

Does it mean that digital computing won't exist, or that we won't use it? Of course not. It only means that we will not be reliant on digital computing, and that it will be but one of many choices. Radio didn't go away when cable tv was invented, or when. It was subsumed.

In fact, since devices that are small, powerful computers capable of radio broadcast have only come about in the few decades, we were stuck waiting until then for radio to become more useful again in comparison to the development of cable transmission - because everyone hates dealing with wires, and so we avoid them if we can.

Don't confuse the media with the medium that carries it. Radio broadcasting lives on as podcasting, and radio transmission is used when it is appropriate. Cables still carry our internet signals, as do the airwaves. Digital computing will always be useful.

We've been 'post-radio' for a century, and radio is here to stay. So there's no such thing as post-radio, or post-cable, or post-internet, or post-digital computing either - only the direction of progress, towards the horizon and new things.

What lies towards the horizon.

What, then, is in the direction of post-digital computing? What can we see coming?

It is important to understand that digital is only a medium. This is true artistically, but also mathematically - Turing-completeness is Turing-completeness, and it does not matter whether something is encoded in analog, or digital, or quantum, or mental - these things are representation, and information is information regardless of representation.

To understand what lies to the horizon then requires knowing what new representations are about to come into play. Just as post-radio is not no-radio, the old is still available, to be combined with the new.

What new representations then be made available for computing to take in the future?

We can expect a few things. Our materials science may get better, and we'll be able to build the same computers with faster technology. Quantum computing and machine learning are posed to find efficient solutions to hard problems that we previously struggled to solve. Distributed computing seeks to turn all computers into one computer, as people tire of copying files and juggling a million logins. Brain-computer interfaces become a reality as we begin to understand how the brain stores and processes data, opening up real pathways to things such as mind-uploading. Reversible computing looks to take us from low-power computing to no-power computing. Information theory hints at a unification of information with physics, as the distinction between particle and data grows increasingly quaint.

All of these things give us clues as to what lies beyond the horizon. They paint a picture where availability and ergonomics of computing are no longer an issue, and tell us that we are limited more by our lack of organization of information more than the lack of any particular information, which in turn suggests that the answer to all of these things at least partially rests on a solution to that of distributed computing, as it is something that is a genuinely new dimension of computing rather than 'more of the same, but faster'.

Synchronizing information across computers is still a laborious process, and yet, that your brain and body are made up of trillions of cells capable of producing the coherent realtime experience that is you, suggests that a natural solution to distributed computing is possible, a hypothesis backed up by the equivalence of distributed turing machines with that of singular turing machines.

This perhaps illustrates why I believe that a natural solution to distributed computing is possibly one of the biggest affectors of what the future of computing might bring. We are no longer limited in bandwidth by our materials, but by our organization - and this bottleneck won't go away on its own, we must deal with in order to make the other things possible.

- Leo D., September, 2022