Silicon Insider: The Next Billion

Adapted from a speech given last week at the graduation of the Information Resources Management College at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

High-tech may seem pretty quiet these days, still shaking off the shell shock of the dot-com bubble and its subsequent bursting. But one thing history teaches us is that when tech seems most quiet on the surface it is usually just about to erupt once again. That's because, when things are the most quiet, corporations use the time to drive research forward, and entrepreneurs take advantage of the lull to start new companies and chase new dreams.

And that is just what's been happening out there in the technology world. And there are just enough clues out there -- a new communications initiative at Intel, an impending new operating system from Microsoft, a powerful new game player from Sony, chip design breakthroughs at IBM, a burst of new venture capital investments -- to let you know that powerful forces are at work underground. The fruits of these initiatives -- new products, new services and new markets -- will begin to emerge in the months ahead, turning the current tech mini-boom into a full-blown tech blast next year.

But, though that represents hundreds of billions of dollars in new business, this is only the little stuff. Even bigger forces -- technological, cultural and demographic -- are at work … and they portend radical changes in our world and how we live it.

Let me give you an example. You may have read a few weeks ago about how Google, the world's hottest search engine company, had quietly cut a deal with a half-dozen major university libraries around the United States and in Great Britain to digitize the works in their collection. An interesting story. But what you don't know about is a larger initiative emerging among those schools, led by the Bodelian Library at Oxford, to take this massive new database and create what it is calling the "Library of the Future." I happen to be part of that project, and I'll tell you where it's headed: to make every book, journal and report in the world available to every person, anywhere and at any time.

Ambitious, eh? But not impossible. Not anymore. Not with those millions of miles of dark optical fiber that was wrapped around the world during the last boom getting lit up at last. And not with processor companies like Intel announcing that they will put wi-max wireless communications technology on every chip they make in the years to come. Wi-Max, as may know, is the big brother of the wi-fi wireless communications you encounter these days in places like Starbucks. The difference is that, instead of a few yards, Wi-Max can carry broadband up to 75 miles. And that means very soon, the entire world, from the bottom of the Dead Sea to the summit of Mount Everest, will be one gigantic wireless hot spot.

And what will we talk about within this new linked world? Just about everything. After all, Moore's Law, the fabled bi-annual doubling of chip performance, continues apace, and will for the foreseeable future. On the one hand, that means that the most powerful processors of today, the Pentiums and Athlons, will soon cost only pennies and will be embedded in everything from walls to asphalt to human flesh. On the other hand, it means that we will soon be designing systems around processors containing 100 billion transistors -- a number equal to the amount of neurons in the human brain. Add to that some recent breakthroughs in what can only be called MegaMass Memory -- Hitachi just announced the first terabyte disk drive for PCs -- and you can be sure that our thinking machines are going to do a lot more thinking for themselves in the years to come. At the very least, the boundary between the natural world and the digital world is going to largely disappear.

The Consumer Explosion

All of this cheap, powerful new technology is going to set off another giant wave, this one demographic. It took 20,000 years to create the first 1 billion consumers in what we currently call the developed world. It's going to take 20 years to create the next billion. These people, representing the greatest economic explosion in human history, are going to come from all over the developing world, bringing with them customs and cultures we can hardly even imagine. For example, the dominant religion will probably not be Christianity or even Islam, but Animism, the worship of trees and rocks and spirits. Most will have never flown in an airplane, driven a car or owned a television set, but they will be selling and buying goods on eBay using their new, cheap cell phones. Whoever figures out how to sell to these folks will be the world's first trillionaires, and the companies they build to do that selling will be larger and more powerful than many of today's nations.

And that brings us to the third, and most profound, force about to be unleashed: culture. Every time in human history that there has been a technological revolution, those in the midst of it inevitably assume that it will only affect their lives on the periphery; that society itself won't change, only its tools and toys. And they are always wrong. You cannot merely bolt terahertz personal computers, global wireless communications and a billion new customers onto the world as we know it today. On the contrary, any one of those things will shock society -- together and in concert they are going to shake the modern world right down to its foundations.

No institution is going to be safe, no place will be secure and unreachable, and no life will be untouched. The world that emerges at this end of this next revolution, sometime in the middle of this century, will look very different from the one we know today. By then, even the very definitions of words will have undergone a radical transformation: war and peace, here and there, real and illusory, us and them -- and, given the current pace of the biotech revolution, which is even faster than Moore's Law -- even life and death.

The good news is that these three forces, together, hold the promise of bringing a measure of prosperity, education and health to everyone on earth within this century. And a prosperous world is a peaceful world. Better yet, the combined intellectual capital of one billion new consumers, creators, inventors and entrepreneurs is certain to unleash an astounding array of new inventions, new business models and, ultimately, new ways of living.

Will We Be Ready?

The bad news is that right now we don't have a clue how to adapt to these new technologies, assimilate 1 billion new consumers or cope with the seismic, global cultural changes that are about to take place. Whether we know it or not, we are in a race: will we rule this emerging world or will it rule us?

There will be no hiding from this period of chaos. No office or house on the planet will be untouched. Even now, the shop on the corner is being challenged by competitors on eBay from Africa and South America; our career plans are being defined as much in Bangalore as by the executives upstairs, and the way we see the world is being rewritten by code writers in Bulgaria and Phnom Penh.

Even if you didn't hear the pistol shot, the race has begun. The pace of life has been picking up speed now for nearly 50 years, since the invention of the integrated circuit. Now it is accelerating into hyperspeed. Decision cycle times are getting ever shorter, the event horizon ever closer. And, whether are ready or not, the once unbreachable line is rapidly disappearing between then and now.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor at large of Forbes ASAP magazine. He has covered the Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 20 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He has hosted two national PBS shows: "Malone," a half-hour interview program that ran for nine years, and in 2001, a 16-part interview series called "Betting It All: The Entrepreneurs." Malone is best known as the author of a dozen books. His latest book, a collection of his best newspaper and magazine writings, is called "The Valley of Heart's Delight."