First transistor
Image: Lucent Technologies

FIRST TRANSISTOR. These tiny switches touched off the digital revolution.

The last time the century turned, telegraphers were tapping Samuel B. Morse's dot-dash binary code into wires spanning the continent and Atlantic Ocean. Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone and voices were beginning to sound through strands of copper. Although no one knew it yet, Guglielmo Marconi had ushered in the era of wireless communications by demonstrating that signals could be carried on radio waves. And Thomas Edison's marvelous electric light bulbs had just begun to glow.

These developments laid the foundations for the communications revolutions of the 20th century, although no crystal ball gazer at that time could have quessed how they presaged the incredible technological breakthroughs to come. Among thousands of incremental advances, such as better microphones, amplifiers, filters and transmitters, came a few great leaps-->digital computing, the transistor, the laser and satellite communications.

All contributed to the global communications infrastructure that we take for granted now in the waning days of the millennium. Giant digital switches route billions of messages; hair-thin wisps of glass carry thousands of messages simultaneously. Signals bounce from hundreds of satellites orbiting above the Earth and are relayed over vast distances on the ground in the form of microwave signals. A network of cellular transponders is on the verge of making it possible to communicate from nearly everywhere. Map databases and Global Positioning System satellites can pinpoint your location--and direct you to the nearest McDonalds.

Indeed, today computers can share data from around the world as easily as if they were in the same room. And all the systems are beginning to coalesce: computers are taking on the characteristics of phones and television while phones gain the capabilities of computers.

First laser

LASING LIGHT. The invention of the laser opened the way to transmitting voice and data over strands of glass.

So what's ahead in the next millennium? Few would take the chance of speculating so far ahead. But we did find a few willing forecasters at Bell Labs, who descend in spirit, at least, from the inventer of the telephone and work in a place that churned out a hefty share of the current communications technology, including both the transistor and the laser.

Even the folks at Bell Labs were not willing to risk looking beyond 2025. But in that conservative span, they foresee some pretty radical developments. As of now, the driving forces of the new technology are broader bandwidth, steady miniaturization of components and advances in software.

Among the most pervasive changes will be encasing the world in what Arun Netravali, president of Bell Labs, calls a communications skin. "We are already building the first layer of a mega-network that will cover the entire planet like a skin," he says. "As communication continues to become faster, smaller, cheaper and smarter in the next millennium, this skin, fed by a constant stream of information, will grow larger and more useful."

According to Netravali, the skin will form an electronic sensory system, consisting of millions of electronic measuring devices--thermostats, pressure gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, microphones. These sensors will monitor cities, roadways and the environment and transmit data directly into the network, "just as our skin transmits a constant stream of sensory data to our brains," said Netravali.

Telstar I
Image: Lucent Technologies

TELSTAR I. The first communications satellite was lofted in 1962.

These sensors will be just one source of an increasing amount of machine-to-machine and object-to-object communication in the future. In fact, Netravali predicts that by 2010 the volume of this "infrachatter" will actually surpass communication between humans. The sensors will be used for anything from constantly monitoring the traffic on a local road, or the water level in a river to the temperature at the beach or the supply of food in a refrigerator. "At home, your dishwasher will be able to call its manufacturer when it is malfunctioning and the manufacturer will run diagnostics remotely," he explains. "Or your lawn sprinkler could check the web site of the National Weather Service before turning itself on, to make sure the forecast doesn't call for rain."

This is not to say that humans will be pushed aside. Indeed, "software-driven intelligent networks and wireless technology will enable people to be reached wherever they are and will give the consumer the power to choose if a message will be an e-mail, voice mail or video clip," predicts Rich Howard, wireless research director at Bell Labs.

The arrival of this "anytime communications" will be propelled by "system on a chip" technology that will create a future in which communications devices are the size of jewelry. These "metaphones" will be able to understand our voices. "Dialing a phone will be a concept learned only in history classes. Placing a call to mom will be as simple as saying 'mom'," argues Joseph P. Olive, director of language modeling. "The small metaphones on your lapel will be able to read web sites and e-mail to you." A postage-stamp-sized "camera on a chip" and microscopic microphones may form the basis of a videophone that could be worn on wrist.

Newspeak for the Communications Millennium

Metaphone: A tiny telephone that is at least as smart as its user.

HiQNet: Much brainier than the Internet--and invisible.

Cyberclone: Net emmisaries that know what you want--and get it.

Infrachatter: When your lawn sprinker reads the weather report.

Anytime Communications: You will always be connected.

Servlets: Programs that keep the news you need available at all times and dish it out on demand.

As the technology grows more "immersive," there will no longer be a need for business colleagues to gather in one building. Advances in videoconferencing and high-speed networking will lead to a rise in telecommuting to virtual offices and to virtual business travel as well. In the Age of Virtuality, videoconferencing will evolve into more realistic "virtual-conferencing." Thousands of 360-degree cameras and stereo microphones placed around sporting events, music concerts and business meetings will give web participants full control of what they are seeing, hearing and experiencing.

Meanwhile, the Internet will transform from an avalanche of data into a smarter "HiQNet" in which personal "cyberclones" will constantly anticipate our information wants, needs and preferences. Users will have their cyberclones screen the Web, filter out irrelevant information and present it in the best format. This HiQNet, which will be as immediate as dial tone is today, will be so integral to our lives it will become practically invisible. People will use anything from a TV to a wireless lapel phone for access. "The Internet will evolve from being a complexity in our lives that we have to spend time mastering, to a behind-the-scenes tool that will improve our quality of life and, in the end, make us more human, not less," says Kenan Sahin, Bell Labs vice president of software technology.

The final outcome: a third wave in communications. "The first communication revolution of the 20th Century gave us telephone-based communications. The second gave us computer-based communications, including e-mail and the Internet. The 21 st Century, though, will bring us a "knowledge-based communications revolution," predicts Sahin.

Of course, we all know that the odds of batting 1,000 on these predictions is about as likely as guessing the winning team in the 2025 World Series. Something like this scenario may happen--or it may not. And it is almost certain to happen in a different way. As in the past, unexpected breakthroughs are sure to alter the picture.

But when they look back, the experts at Bell Labs may get some satisfaction. Some of their newly-coined buzzwords--metaphone and cyberclone, for example--might at least have made it into Webster's dictionary by then.