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Computing, 2016: What Won’t Be Possible?

Computer scientists from academia and companies like I.B.M. and Google discussed topics including social networks, digital imaging, online media and the impact on work and employment. But most talks touched on two broad themes: the impact of computing will go deeper into the sciences and spread more into the social sciences, and policy issues will loom large, as the technology becomes more powerful and more pervasive.

Social networks, noted Jon Kleinberg, a professor at Cornell, are pre-technological creations that sociologists have been analyzing for decades. But with the rise of the Internet, social networks and technology networks are becoming inextricably linked, so that behavior in social networks can be tracked on a scale never before possible.

The new social-and-technology networks that can be studied include e-mail patterns, buying recommendations on commercial Web sites like Amazon, messages and postings on community sites like MySpace and Facebook, and the diffusion of news, opinions, fads, urban myths, products and services over the Internet. Why do some online communities thrive, while others decline and perish? What forces or characteristics determine success? Can they be captured in a computing algorithm?

Future trends in computer imaging and storage will make it possible for a person, wearing a tiny digital device with a microphone and camera, to essentially record his or her life. The potential for communication, media and personal enrichment is striking. Rick Rashid, a computer scientist and head of Microsoft’s research labs, noted that he would like to see a recording of the first steps of his grown son, or listen to a conversation he had with his father many years ago. “I’d like some of that back,” he said. “In the future, that will be possible.”

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