Hardware outpacing our needs as people?
March 14, 2013 12:19 PM   Subscribe

Is there any interesting work around the idea of hardware outpacing software or our devices becoming kind of "perfected" to almost everybody? Basically, the end of the "spec sheet race"....

Sorry if this is a vague and rambling question, but here goes:

It started when I got my Galaxy SIII. I used it for a week and had a rather uncomfortable realization:

This thing does everything I could ever want a device like this to do.

Then, a few months later I built a quad core desktop for a friend. 16GB of RAM, a nice set of GPUs in SLI, dual SSDs in RAID. Again, I found myself saying the same thing.

That was a weird moment as I've always found some big thing that a piece of hardware cannot do. The quest for more and better has been a big force in my life since I was in single digits.

Perhaps it's me getting older, perhaps I'm just less demanding, but it seems like a real thing to me. The "retina" display on iThings was probably the biggest example I can think of. We've literally out engineered our own visual system. This isn't strictly singularity stuff, but I know it's kind of related.

Has there been writing on this? Is there a term for it? What are the bigger implications?

posted by lattiboy to Technology (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard "mature technology," usually in the context of something like a bicycle or wristwatch, where the basic design has been settled for decades and the only changes are minor improvements in materials or accessories.
posted by theodolite at 12:31 PM on March 14, 2013

Disk and RAM are pretty cheap and plentiful nowadays. The constraints have moved on to other areas. For example, your phone has shit bandwidth and a short battery life. And come to think of it, your desktop also doesn't have enough bandwidth and uses too much electricity.

Bandwidth and power are the new specs we're trying to optimize.
posted by ryanrs at 12:37 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hardware performance is closely tied to the software we need, as games become more complex and have better graphics, as applications need more and more resource, hardware will become obsolete.

On the other hand, the price is another factor in the constant R&D for hardware manufacturers, as older components become accessible to more people, they need to sell higher priced innovation to generate revenue.
posted by lite at 12:37 PM on March 14, 2013

This thing does everything I could ever want a device like this to do.

Well, that's the issue. As hardware outpaces software, people will think of new things they want to do with such powerful tech. Then a new race begins to not just do that new thing, but do it better, faster, and easier than previous tech...and the vicious cycle continues.

I'm sure you've seen the old Bill Gates quote about 640K memory being more than anyone could ever need. He made that statement because computers at that time could do anything anyone ever wanted them to. Until someone came along and created new things that then-current tech couldn't do yet.

Can your SGS3 project onto a larger screen? Can it provide a 3-D holographic image? Can it recognize voice commands that allow you to fully control the device, even within apps ("add boss to the cc field")? These are all ideas that are already out there but haven't happened yet - so development of ever-more sophisticated software will continue to drive development of hardware to keep up.

I'm not sure of a specific term associated with this - but there are lots of articles and things said whenever new generations of software or hardware are introduced that address this very topic.
posted by trivia genius at 12:39 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Never mind the holograms. If you tried to use a smartphone as a basic FM radio, you'd run out of battery in less than a day, and a 10GB data plan in a week. Smartphones are very much still in their "awkward new technology" phase.
posted by ryanrs at 12:52 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Until my hardware can beam the matrix into my brain when I'm anywhere in the inner solar system it can't do everything I ever wanted it to do.

The goalposts will always be moving. Oh a TB harddrive fits in the palm of your hand cheaply? You'll need more than that to have the sum total of all human audiovisual data with you all the time. &ct.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:16 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, faster hardware and more storage capacity make it possible to optimize for labor. It makes it possible for programmers to use higher level tools that are less efficient in terms of size and speed, but allow them to write the same program in less time. There was a time when all programs were written in assembly language, and apps for your Android phone are all written in Java, with automatic garbage collection and objects and other high level language features that tend to make programs slower, but easier to write correctly, and therefore, more reliable and cheaper.
posted by chrchr at 1:40 PM on March 14, 2013

I feel bad I didn't actually answer your question, so I thought about it and noodled around on the web but haven't turned up much on what you're describing.

Google around and there's a lot of stuff about the end of Moore's Law, or the idea that even if it technically holds true it's not giving us meaningfully better computing performance. (also 1, 2)

You could also try Googling "technorealism" which isn't exactly what you're asking but is a school of thought that tries to position itself between neo-luddism and techno-utopianism.

I wonder if a foray into the psychology literature on openness to change would be fruitful? It is generally accepted that as people age they are less open to change. I don't think its unreasonable to extrapolate from that to people being satisfied with the IT tools they have, rather than craving new ones.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:44 PM on March 14, 2013

In the gaming space, there is a lot of debate about whether the quite old current generation of consoles is holding down the system requirements for PC gaming, because most of the biggest commercial games want the console audience. Here is a DICE Exec talking about this effet on Battlefield 3:
“Yes, absolutely. That's the biggest problem we have today. Most games are actually still based on the same core idea that the consoles are your focus, the superior platform or something. I don’t know why. That was the truth 5 years ago, but the world has moved on. PCs are way more powerful than the consoles today and there are actually almost zero games out there that actually use the benefits of this. So for our target of what we want to hit, we are now using the more powerful platform to try and prove what we see gaming being in the future rather than using the lowest common denominator, instead of developing it for the consoles and then just adding higher resolution textures and anti-aliasing for the PC version. We're doing it the other way around, we start with the highest-end technology that we can come up with and then scale it back to the consoles.”
posted by kithrater at 2:37 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, with the release of the iPhone 5 last fall, there were quite a few articles around the idea that the smartphone market had sort of leveled off and there wasn't much new to add to them beyond incremental and marginal form-factor improvements.

This doesn't preclude changes that will still "make our lives better" but the innovations won't be as amazing -- they'll be on the order of more bandwidth (a mostly invisible thing) and perhaps social or cluster types of applications where the nature of the beast is altered. Google Glass is being touted as a sort of next-generation application but it remains to be, uh, seen whether that will be widely adopted. The Segway looked pretty damn cool too, but our cities haven't ended up being redesigned around them. Heck, there are even plenty of critics of the smartphone as being, generally, an inferior phone.

Personally I think technology is moving beyond the "personal device" phase and into more of an "internet of things" phase, where the stuff we can interface with and control is more important than the actual device we use, which can vary enormously.
posted by dhartung at 2:51 PM on March 14, 2013

Can your SGS3 project onto a larger screen?

It could, and it would, if the energy density of the battery allowed a tiny projector to be housed in the chassis. As other comments have pointed out, the battery is the most severe bottleneck in mobile and laptop technology. Technological miracles would ensue if someone developed a battery with 10x the energy density of the batteries we use now.
posted by Crotalus at 6:48 PM on March 14, 2013

Well, I was going to start a new blog today to use in thinking through the implications of these and related trends, but I ended up spending the afternoon looking for better alternatives to Wordpress, or frameworks/tools to develop my own.

This is illustrative of an important point, not everyone is satisfied by current hardware or software capabilities. In the past, one consumer of hardware capabilities has been to reduce development time/effort. That trend is likely to continue into the future, so you may again see a time where hardware seems insufficient.

Another way of looking at the situation is that hardware to satisfy your needs is now affordable to you (and others). The truth is it is beyond affordable, and is dipping into the territory of being cheap. We can already see some of the results of this, but the implications aren't yet completely obvious.

Lots of people think the smartphones are significant in that they herald the dawn of the era of truly mobile computing. That is important, but i'd argue they also signify a bigger transition: a transition from a time when computing devices had to be as general as possible in order to justify their cost, to a time where computing devices are cheap enough that they can be specialized for a purpose, just as smartphones are specialized for mobility.

I think a lot of the mental models people use to make predictions about where technology is going will prove to be obsoleted by this transition.
posted by Good Brain at 6:51 PM on March 14, 2013

the end of the "spec sheet race"....

O ye of little faith.
posted by flabdablet at 6:54 PM on March 14, 2013

Best answer: Actually, there's one area of engineering and design where I think we've been outpacing end-users for the last generation at the very least: the cutting edge of performance sports cars and supercars. Maybe not exactly in the same way as computing technology could be "perfected", but I think we've seen the "hardware", meaning the cars, outpacing "software", the squishy organic thing behind the wheel, for a fair few years now.

Pardon me for getting a bit nerdy with this, but the perfect example of this is the Porsche 911 range. The basic 911 Carrera 2S is plenty quick and powerful (395 HP, 0-60 MPH in 4.3 seconds), but the average person, with a small amount of instruction, could drive around a track at a pretty quick pace. It's within the abilities of most people to see 9/10ths of the performance and power.

However, the 911 range goes much faster. The upper end of the 911 range was the 911 GT2 (the current generation does not have a GT2 yet), a twin-turbocharged roaring beast of a car that made 523 HP, went from 0-60 in 3.3 seconds, and was balanced on a knife's edge as far as handling is concerned - there's very little faster than the GT2 when you're in control, but the line between "in control" and "upside-down and on fire" is so thin as to be practically non-existent. It was so fast that when Dan Neil reviewed it for the LA Times, he described the acceleration as follows: "...it's the sort of performance you dare not access on the street. Drivers a half-mile ahead can dutifully check their mirrors before changing lanes, and in the time it takes to signal and turn the wheel, the GT2 can materialize beside them like it's dropping out of hyperspace." And the new Porsche 911 GT3, just announced last week, is just as quick, and it's not even the fastest 911 they're going to make in this generation. We still have the GT3 RS and GT2 to look forward to. I'm not even talking about even more obscene exotica, like the new Ferrari LaFerrari, which offers a mind-bending 949 HP from its hybrid-V12 powertrain in a car that probably weighs just over three tons. It'll hit 100 KPH in under three seconds (probably far under, official figures haven't been released yet), and I can guarantee you it'll be a lairy-scary handful for even the most experienced racing drivers.

And that's my point: the upper end of performance automobiles have become so fast and so hardcore when it comes to cornering that no mere mortal can helm them to even 7/10ths of their full potential on a track, and they're positively ludicrous to drive at even half-throttle on the street. It might not be exactly what you were talking about? But when it comes to technology being "perfected" beyond the ability of the end user, or hardware outpacing software, I can't think of a better example.
posted by Punkey at 3:36 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

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