The Blank Future

"Bigger than ever" was a recurring theme at CES 2005. Bigger attendance (more than 140,000), bigger screens (including a 102-inch prototype plasma TV), and bigger bust lines on the manufacturers' spokesmodels. The number of exhibitors also broke the record. With the PC-centric Comdex gone to that big trade show in the sky, many traditionally computer-oriented companies - like Intel, Microsoft, and HP - had a big presence at CES. And no wonder: these days, it's hard to find a home-entertainment product that doesn't have at least one spec in gigabytes (GB) of RAM or megabits per second (Mbps). The ubiquitous ones and zeroes got me thinking about Moore 's Law, which famously - and accurately - predicts that the number of transistors manufacturers can fit onto a silicon chip will double every 18 months or so.

Growing up in the '80s, I remember when 64 kilo bytes was considered a lot of RAM and a floppy disk with 350 KB was fine for storing all of your computer files. Today, we surf the Web on personal computers that would easily outrun the mainframes of that era and casually trot around with portable 40-GB hard drives. This is great news . . . and actually, a little unnerving.

The limits of memory capacity and data rates keep going up and up. No surprise there, really - it's just progress. But Moore 's Law shows no signs of being invalidated, and it seems to me that in the near future we'll pass the useful limits of digital storage space. In fact, we're already pretty much there with the iPod. Chances are you either have one or really, really want one. And chances are that even though the 4-GB iPod Mini would suit you just fine, you find yourself drawn to the Venti 40-GB model. Never mind that your entire music collection might not come anywhere near filling that capacity. Now there's a 60-GB iPod, and you can bet larger capacities are on the way.

Video is about to enter this zone of data overkill. The high-def HD DVD and Blu-ray formats, both of which got serious at CES '05, offer tremendous capacity, and the storage space on video hard-disk drives displayed at the show was typically in the hundreds of gigabytes. Some are even talking tera bytes, or thousands of GB, and we may as well start getting used to the next prefixes up from tera-, namely peta- and exa-. These capacities were invented to accommodate formats like HDTV, but even for high-def video, they're enormous numbers. And for standard-def? You could fit five to seven years of a TV series on a single disc with room to spare.

But what about that room to spare? Very soon now, "room to spare" will constitute the bulk what's on all of our discs and disks. What will it mean when all of the audio and video we could possibly want won't even fill a fraction of our storage devices? Will most of that storage space stay perpetually empty, the semiconductor equivalent of genetic "junk" that makes up the vast majority of human DNA?

Having limited resources never held back true visionaries. In that vein, engineers developed compression technologies to do more with finite data space. By thinking outside the box, they made it possible to cram more stuff inside it. But soon, Moore 's Law will push the walls of that box so far apart, we won't even be able to see them, let alone think outside of them. There won't be a box anymore. Sometime soon, everyone will be able to store all of his or her A/V content inside a very tiny physical space.

Don't get me wrong. I think this is fantastic, on several levels. But there's something strangely disturbing about the picture of everybody walking around with virtually unlimited storage space, almost all of it destined to never to hold any data. The future never looked so blank. < < Back to the International CES 2005 index