Steve Brown, Intel

I can see clearly now: Intel futurist Steve Brown says our evolving computers are on the brink of some big advances.

There is something evocative, almost spiritual, about someone who gets to have the title ''chief evangelist and futurist'' on their business card.

Steve Brown is that person, the professional crystal-ball gazer for Intel. He has been a researcher at the computer giant's semi-conductor super-site in Oregon, in the US Pacific north-west, for more than 28 years, looking ahead as many as 10 or 15 years to see what's in store for consumer and business technology.

Brown was in Australia recently, talking to the Westfield Group about the future of retail. His advice? Prepare for a tsunami of technological innovation within a decade, from intelligent shelves that identify the ingredients of a medication to an allergy sufferer, to smart clothing and augmented reality that lets us see and experience the world with astonishing digital complexity.

Cathy Wilcox: colour cartoon/illo/illustration/toon/art work

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox.

''We're on the edge of the Cambrian era of computer evolution,'' he says.

''The Cambrian era of creature evolution was where creatures were at sea and grew eyes. We are now at that juncture in computing where, after 60 years of evolving, our computers will be able to understand what they're seeing, how objects and people relate to one another. And when you can do that, you get breakthroughs like self-driving cars, interactive robots and an augmented set of eyes that can help me see better, see further and remember things.''

It's a world where you could travel on a plane and be identified without needing to show a passport, where a firefighter could get a mapping display to guide him through a burning building, where a shopper could walk into a store and ask the robot seamstress for ''that skirt, in that colour, in my size'', and have it in 10 minutes.

Infused computing

At the moment, technology is a destination - you go to your laptop, desktop or phone. What's coming is infused technology, where computing integrates seamlessly into our objects and our environments.

''A smart room will be able to take minutes at a meeting,'' Brown says. ''Our world will be surrounded by invisible data.''

Intel's technology clairvoyant says computers will be small and cheap enough in a decade to build into many everyday products.

The trend towards miniaturisation will continue and combine with lower costs and power requirements so that you can turn anything into a computer.

''A smart purse can be aware of where it is, relevant to its owner. If you left it in a taxi or someone ran off with it, it could alert the authorities.''

Augmented reality

The smartphone or tablet is our lifeline to the digital world, but Brown says its reign will be limited. He gives it 15 years. ''It's almost become an extra organ, like a part of our body.''

But within 15 years, Brown believes, we'll no longer need the smartphone, instead using a series of smart wearable devices to work and communicate.

''Instead of a smartphone, it will be your smart glasses, your smart watch or your smart shoes. You just need some little piece of technology that identifies you when you want to be identified.''

The smart watches released this year are just the first primitive iterations of wearable technology. ''Watches like the Galaxy Gear, as elegant and wonderful as they are, are the equivalent in the wearable space today of brick phones in the '80s, those honking big cellphones that had to be attached to a car,'' Brown says.

Rather than fashion and technology fusing, Brown predicts wearable technology will emerge as its own category and be highly customisable.

''A one-size-fits-all wearable is never going to work,'' he says. ''People will choose a different wearable, based on whether it goes with their outfit.''

Google Glass is leading the charge. ''The computing capability is slowly moving closer to our brains and it's doing that by getting in through our nervous system, like the nerves on the ends of our fingers touching our phones,'' Brown says. ''The next step will be our ears and our eyes, and much more intuitive and useful.''

Computer implants

Don't expect to see huge numbers of people having radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags implanted to give them home-automation control, Brown says.

Rather than submit to invasive surgery, he suggests people wait for the advent of 3D cameras.

''I think you can achieve much of that experience without having to insert technology into your body. All it takes is a good camera that can see in three dimensions, and that's a big breakthrough that's coming in the next couple of years. You already see it in Xbox Connect, but imagine that three more generations ahead, where a camera in a room can see you gesturing and will figure out what you mean.''

Implants could figure prominently in medicine, though, he says. For a condition such as type-1 diabetes, Brown sees huge health benefits for smart computers in the body.

''Being able to have a computer in your body that senses your blood sugar, with a pump that could release insulin automatically based on the readings, would be life changing.''

Ingestible computers are also coming, he says. A patient could swallow a computer embedded in a pill, which would move through the person's body, taking readings and reporting them out to an external device such as a smartphone.

''We have to target our technology to solve real problems in people's lives and, overwhelmingly, our research shows that consumers want a personalised experience,'' Brown says.

 

Six tips for 2014

Wearable technology
You saw them on Star Trek, and now Google has smart glasses. Smart watches will also gain popularity, plus clothing that gathers information about the wearer's body and sends it to their smartphone for analysis. ''Football players will be wearing smart jerseys, giving commentators more to discuss,'' says Geof Heydon, business development manager, digital productivity and services, at CSIRO.

Privacy
New privacy laws will encourage transparency in customer data. ''It will be harder for Google and Yahoo to get information about you for free,'' says NICTA professor Aruna Seneviratne. There will be a surge in privacy-preserving tools, such as Silent Circle's app that encrypts and transfers files securely, he says. ''We will be prepared to pay more for apps that provide a service without revealing information about ourselves.''

Driverless cars
We'll see more safety technology in cars, which will use sensors to avoid collisions, says NICTA technology strategist Dr Dean Economou. ''Cars will be able to detect pedestrians and take evasive action.''

Personal drones
It started with pizza delivery, but delivery drones will soon fill our skies, Economou says. ''Safety will be an issue with this technology, as you can't have them falling out of the sky.''

Everything connects to the net
TVs and security systems hooked to the internet are just the start. Expect devices from airconditioners to light bulbs to be connected to communicate, be monitored and be analysed. But having more connected devices will provide more ways for hackers to enter the home, says David Hall, consumer technology expert at security firm Symantec.

Identity management
Governments will be able to provide more services online, so there will be better ways to identify people, such as mixing biometrics and passwords, CSIRO's Heydon says. ''But who do we trust to manage that?''

Cynthia Karena