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In the 20 years since IBM Corp. introduced its personal computer, the machines have evolved from a clunky beige box with a bulky monitor to — a clunky beige box with an even bulkier monitor. Gains in technology have primarily come in computing power and networking, not in appearance. Over the next 20 years, that will change. “The PC as we currently view it is toast,” said Rob Enderle, a business analyst with Giga Information Group. “The thing you call your computer will be separated into many components.” The desktop PC will morph into Internet-access devices with shapes and sizes that cater to individual preferences. They’ll be flung about the home or office, carried in a backpack or shirt pocket, worn around the wrist or neck. The machines will keep getting faster, smaller and smarter. By the 40th anniversary of the PC — on Aug. 12, 2021 — computers might be as smart as people. “Ultimately they’ll become so small, you won’t need the physical object at all,” said Ray Kurzweil, the futurist author and inventor. “It’s going to be embedded in our environment.” The PC’s upcoming metamorphosis employs equal parts mobility, speed and network synchronization. Already, office workers are trading desktop PCs for laptops. In turn, laptops are flattening into stylus-operated tablet PCs that can handle different jobs. Fujitsu and Sony already sell tablet PCs, and Microsoft Corp. touts forthcoming tablet software. And, as cell phones and handheld computers grow stronger and smaller, they’ll assume many of the tasks associated with the PC. Soon, office computers might shrink into a brick-sized box that sits on the floor. Or a computer’s guts could sit inside a portable module the size of a pack of cigarettes. The module, with a person’s files and software, could slide into any number of docking stations: a handheld personal digital assistant, a laptop, or a computer screen embedded in an airline seat or coffee shop table. Further down, components will be small enough to fit into jewelry or stitched into clothing. Perhaps the display will be written on our retinas. Already, cell phones in Japan are tiny enough to wear on a necklace. “We won’t continue to carry around a laptop, phone, Walkman, MP3 player or Palm Pilot,” said Michel Mayer, IBM’s manager of pervasive computing. Perhaps more importantly, computing networks will enhance capabilities of other machines: cars, gas pumps, dishwashers, doorknobs or maps. Computing will become a utility — like electricity or running water — that gets noticed only when it fails. “These machines will have infiltrated into just about every aspect of our existence,” said Craig Mundie, a Microsoft strategist. “We’ll be wholly dependent on them, just like we are now with plumbing and electricity” For instance, a dishwasher might connect with the electric and water utilities to calculate an operating time when rates are cheapest. LG Electronics already sells a refrigerator with a touch-screen PC. Soon, smart refrigerators will alert us to spoiled milk. A smart door latch might even open the door and let your dog in — but not the neighbor’s. Such a mechanism “might even accept FedEx deliveries for you,” said Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. As new modes of input replace the keyboard, computers as we know them may all but disappear. When that happens, some folks will still use a desktop PC, but they’ll be viewed as quaint anachronisms, as typewriters and rotary phones are viewed today. But the keyboard and monitor won’t be easy to replace. Experts say they’ll stick around for a while, preventing computers from shrinking much beyond the size of a handheld. New inputs, like the writing stylus used in tablet PCs and PDAs, can’t yet challenge the keyboard. In 10 years or so, science might combine artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology into an input that surpasses the keyboard. Other options could track the movement of eyes, fingers or hands. Some predict that computer components will be implanted into the body and communicate through nerve connections. “We’re at a kind of plateau now,” said Clay Shirky, a New York-based computer consultant. “It doesn’t matter how small chips get if you have to have a keyboard and screen. The next step is when we get to implants, when we talk directly through the synapses.” Alongside hardware, computer tasks will change. Files will be shared and scattered across network storage machines, not personal hard drives. A computer’s status will slip to that of the telephone, a mere access device, said Tim O’Reilly, a Sebastapol, Calif.-based technical publisher. Microsoft’s vision for home computing finds images, music, video and information coursing from a central server — probably hidden in a closet, like a water heater — to TVs, speakers, monitors and other devices scattered inside the home, like a message panel on the front of the refrigerator, said Mundie. The company’s .NET, the system for developing Internet technology that works with most other computing devices, is its first step. Processor speed is another variable to watch. In 1981, the IBM PC ran at 4.77 megahertz. Today’s top-end machines whirr at 1.8 gigahertz — hundreds of times faster. Today’s fastest supercomputers approximate the brain of a mouse. In 20 years, machines will have almost as much computing power as people. “Before 2010, we will have computers with human brain capabilities,” Mayer said. By 2021, large portions of the human brain may also be replicated in software, Kurzweil said. Within another five or 10 years, computer intelligence may eclipse that of humans. If that happens, one thing is sure. As a life-changing technology, computing is just getting started. “We’re quickly entering a world where the most important computers are the ones that we don’t even know exist,” said Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. “The role is constantly changing for this machine. It’s going to keep changing, and it’s not going to go away.” Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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