Thinking ahead: The 2nd half of the Chessboard

9th May 2013

There is a story that the inventor of chess was offered the chance to name his reward by the ruler of his country (Persia or India – the origins are imprecise) he chose to have a single grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, 2 on the 2nd square and 4 on the next and so on doubling each time. By the time you are halfway across the square, the rice amounts to about 100,000 kg, a large amount indeed. However, the rice on the 2nd half of the chessboard rapidly rises to a pile higher than Everest and more than 1,000 times annual global rice production. Indeed the 1st square of the 2nd half of the chessboard contains more rice than all of the 1st half of the board.

Technology has already transformed our lives in many ways. I remember the IBM engineers carrying their mobile phones. It came in a case and weighed several kilos. Now, many of us have smart phones that do a wondrous selection of things that was unimaginable even 10 years ago. I once worked in a "Computer Department" and now computers are everywhere, indeed that smart phone has more computer power, memory and storage than the mainframe computer that used to run all our banking systems when I started work.

But this is only the beginning of the computer age. What is about to happen may be even more mind boggling than what has already occurred. Moore's Law states that computing power doubles every 2 years and this has remained true since the observation was first made in 1965. This is often quoted but little thought about. This means that the computing power available in 2015 will be double that of this year, and by 2017 doubled again and so on. We are on that chessboard, and now we are starting to enter the 2nd half of the chessboard.

What does this mean in practice? One thing it means is great uncertainty as it becomes increasingly difficult to keep abreast of the technical changes and the technological impacts of these changes. Let us consider the mobile phone again. I have already seen working devices that no longer come in the form of a handset. An ear piece and a lapel mike are linked wirelessly to the transmitter/receiver in a pocket. You can speak to the device to make calls, and use a keyboard displayed by a mini-projector onto your hand if you need to make calls or send text messages. The mobile phone as we currently know it, will disappear. That's significant if you are Samsung, Apple and the like.

What about cars? Self-drive cars are already under trial and are sharing roads with real drivers. So why not self-drive delivery vehicles? You simply load the vehicle, programme its destination and away it goes. What implications does this have? White van man, lorry drivers, courier services could all be shedding large numbers of jobs. What are the legal implications if there is an accident? What contingency plans should the operator have for failures such as GPS being affected by a Coronal Mass Ejection from the sun (see previous blogs)? When the vehicle arrives at its destination, does a robot then carry the goods to the householder?

Well, we cannot be certain about these changes, but we can say that they will challenge every part of our lives and in ways that we cannot yet envisage. So next time someone talks to you about horizon scanning, think about this: we are just entering the 2nd half of the chessboard.