SDSUPossible Futures for Software

to home page
This page last updated Wed Apr 14 22:04: US/Pacific 2005


Talk for USENIX'05, April 2005

At the moment, I have these html "slides" available at:

Defending against Futurology Foolishness

Hardware Trends and Software Futures

We have enjoyed a long period of exponential growth in hardware performance. Without the hardware, we don't have practical software, but what effect can improving hardware have on software?

In real life, what sort of things can happen to exponential growth?

I'll take each of these as a future for hardware trends, imagine how that development might come to pass and what the resulting software environment might be like.

Scenario 1: The Machines Stop

Or, no more computers, so no more software (and no more programmers). For the hardware trends, this corresponds to
exponential growth with catastrophic collapse.

How could this scenario happen?

The use of programmatic solutions implemented in embedded microcontrollers is a mind-bogglingly powerful economic miracle. It harnesses Moore's Law to make most classical goods as cheap as dirt. It opens the way to a standard of living that towers above the past. It also puts us way out on a limb. Is this a fact we can ignore? If not, what can we do about it?

No doubt, I'm going to continue be peddling the wondrous upside of computation in my fiction, but more fiction and scenarios about this risk should be undertaken, and perhaps suggestions for solutions. Some mitigating possibilities:

Science Fiction Related to Scenario 1

(I think these are good examples, but in some cases the connection is tenuous or with a very different point of view:)

Scenario 2: Legacy Software Forever

In terms of hardware trends, this one comes with exponential growth with saturation

For at least ten years, people have been saying that Moore's Law is soon to run out of steam, so there should be lot's of people who buy into this scenario.

It would be interesting to observe this leveling off. Some possible symptoms (depending on the underlying cause from above):

After equilibrium was achieved, some (naive?) programmers might give a deep sigh of relief: "Finally, we'll have time to do things right!"

Even more than now, programming would come down to a choice between software archeology and re-inventing the wheel.

Science Fiction Related to Scenario 2

Scenario 3: The Technological Singularity

In terms of hardware trends, this one comes from exponential growth continuing, at least long enough to create our post-human successors.

This is the scenario I've been peddling for a long time:

It's a little extreme, but in the wider view of future scenarios, I think it's the most likely of the non-disasters. (For numerous deadly disasters, see Martin Rees, Our Final Hour (nonfiction) (Basic Books).)

Why call it the "Technological Singularity"?

The Singularity as the dual of Fermi's Paradox

Singularity futures

Near-Singularity Software

Post-Singularity Software(?)

(A tadpole speculates on wetlands management. Some of the more extreme bullets in the preceding slide might be moved into this one, but post-Singularity speculation naturally goes beyond futurology into fantasy:)

Science Fiction Related to Scenario 3

I have some refs in the slides above. Also:

In my 1993 "Technological Singularity" essay
I have a pretty good bibliography of related fiction (and non-fiction). This is slightly elaborated upon at

As of 2005, there are lots of stories in this category. Many people writing hard science fiction feel a necessity for addressing this possibility -- if only to explain why they can keep it at least partially offstage! About half of modern interstellar adventure has a background that involves post-human or transhuman players (including almost all my stuff).

In the last few years, there have been more stories that look at the near future (when, after all, the Singularity is likely to happen) and try to do the nearly impossible -- that is, write a fun story with characters who are slipping beyond human ken. Charles Stross's Accelerando, to appear (Ace Books) is one of the most interesting of this genre.

Scenario 4: Ubiquitous Law Enforcement

Unlike the previous scenarios, this one does not correspond to one of the hardware curves. It does assume that hardware improvements continue for at least a few years more. A workable version of this scenario also assumes some spectacular (and malignant) improvements in software, but overall the situation in this scenario is not at all mysterious.

Science Fiction Related to Scenario 4

Examples solicited. I don't have any clearcut fiction examples of this exact idea. I waved my hands at ULE in A Deepness in the Sky (Tor Books). Also, Ubiquitous Law Enforcement is a major background element in the novel I am currently finishing up (working title: Rainbows End) -- where I use ULE to make plausible the success of the secret police against the hackers. :-)