When some of the computer industry's leading lights gathered last week for some crystal-ball gazing, few had anything to say about money or banking.
Electronic commerce, which bankers find so trendy and even revolutionary, was a given. Money seemed a post-industrial afterthought, so naturally morphing into nonphysical forms as to be hardly worthy of mention.
The one speaker at the San Jose, Calif., event who discussed banking at any length, former Chilean Finance Minister Fernando Flores, was more concerned with changes in corporate culture and society than with electronic transaction innovations.
"For these people it's not a question-it's a presumption," said Daniel C. Lynch, who played an organizational role in the Association for Computing Machinery's futuristic ACM97 conference, and made no apologies for its lack of attention to financial detail.
Mr. Lynch, a technology conference entrepreneur in his own right, is also chairman of Cybercash Inc., one of the better-known purveyors of digital money systems.
At ACM97, which included an extensive technology "theme park" designed to look like an archeological dig circa 2047, Mr. Lynch didn't need his sales hat. Bankers may not yet grasp the inevitability of it all, but the digerati do.
When the audience of 1,800 was asked, as part of an instant poll, whether in 50 years computers will have eliminated the need for cash, 86% said yes. When the question was asked again a day later, the result fell to 74%. Splitting the difference, eight out of 10 were in accord.
"Everybody knows it will win," Mr. Lynch said of the concept of cybercash. "It will win because it's cheap."
The closest thing to E-money skepticism came from Vint Cerf, co-author of the TCP/IP protocol that gave rise to the Internet.
A senior executive with MCI Communications Corp. and a big believer in the Internet's commercial potential, Mr. Cerf raised the possibility of the return of the century-old concept of the "penny novel." Such on-line, on- demand documents would have to be paid for with micropayments, of which Cybercash's cybercoin is one of several brands in search of a market.
"We're still not sure (about micropayments)," Mr. Cerf said. But he did predict the advent of a "virtual lifestyle" that would see "virtual banking, shopping, and learning rapidly evolve."
Besides Mr. Cerf, the "father of the Internet," those addressing the San Jose Convention Center gathering included the fathers of Ethernet (3Com Corp. founder Robert Metcalfe), minicomputing (ex-Digital Equipment Corp. developer Gordon Bell), and microprogramming (British computer pioneer Maurice Wilkes).
Others included Microsoft Corp. chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold, the MIT Media Lab's "autonomous agents" exponent Pattie Maes, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt.
This all-star cast took seriously the conference's title, "The Next 50 Years of Computing." It was a license to leapfrog.
Mr. Bell, currently a Microsoft senior researcher, gave a cautionary speech about the hazards of soothsaying. "For short-term predictions," he advised, "bet against the optimist." But he expressed faith in the use of history and science to produce accurate longer-term projections.
"Organizations usually behave poorer than anyone can predict," he said. "Mobs, and especially committees, predict poorly."
While questioning some of the more fanciful expectations of unlimited and exponential improvements in computing and communications-often based on "Moore's Law," the computer-chip rule of thumb named for Intel Corp. founder Gordon Moore-Mr. Bell is banking on a continual process of "cyberization."
He defined this as a point where "everything will be in cyberspace," from commerce to civic life to data emanating from computers in cars, homes, and even human bodies.
Mr. Cerf said in 2047 there will be "more devices on the Net than people," as the technology becomes embedded in everyday appliances, sensors, and bodynets-the "hardwear" and "softwear" Mr. Bell was hinting at.
Ms. Maes showed some pictures of "wearable computers," with private visor-like screens, on students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There was talk of computers eventually being implanted in humans, for medical or other life-enhancing purposes.
Ms. Maes is associate professor in the MIT Media Lab and founder of one of its commercial spinoffs, Firefly Network, a service on the World Wide Web that uses "collaborative filtering" techniques to build communities of people around common interests. Firefly provides a glimpse into what autonomous, computerized agents could ultimately do-matchmaking, augmenting memories, negotiating transactions with other people or their agents. "Prosthetics for the mind," she called them.
A sensor in a refrigerator can send a signal to a wearable computer to "buy milk," she said.
California Institute of Technology professor Carver Mead and Hewlett- Packard Co. research chief Joel Birnbaum looked beyond the limitations of digital systems and Moore's Law to potential computing breakthroughs based on quantum mechanics or DNA-based systems.
Raj Reddy, dean of the Carnegie-Mellon University School of Computer Science, wowed the audience with a notion that sounded like something out of "Star Trek," which he called "teleportation and time travel."
He also showed a film of automated road vehicles. (According to the instant polling system, the crowd moved up its consensus projection for "cars that drive themselves" to 2003 from 2012 after hearing Mr. Reddy's talk.)
Politics intruded. FCC Chairman Hundt asked longingly for a $500 personal computer and a better "look and feel" for the Internet. He chided local telephone companies for not taking full advantage of deregulation, and lobbied for the Clinton administration's "Internet in every classroom" proposal. But otherwise, the view toward 2047 was downright utopian.
"I will live to regret the timidity of my predictions," said Mr. Cerf.
Bran Ferren, a creative force in "imagineering" at the Walt Disney Co., said the measure of Internet and computing breakthroughs is not in Moore's Law, but in storytelling.
"Looking at history from a storytelling perspective, every new technology that is introduced changes the world," Mr. Ferren said. citing language, printing, radio, television, etc.
"The computers we have today are stupid, ugly, unresponsive," he added. In 50 years they will be "joyful, attractive, esthetically pleasing, nice to touch, part of you ... self-aware machines, and machines with storytelling engines embedded."
That helps explain why games and entertainment outpace banking and shopping in cyberspace.
Computers and agents can "change our sense of self," said Ms. Maes. "All our institutions will be affected. ... We'll become very decentralized. Suppliers, middlemen, and governments will become less important. We'll be able to organize ourselves with less bureaucracy."
The science writer and educational-television personality James Burke, the ACM97 master of ceremonies, summed up the speakers' outlook as "a customized world of extreme individualism ... a positive view of ineluctable progress."
Away from the podium, Mr. Burke expressed some frustration at his inability to generate more discussion about commercial issues and possible downsides, such as the disenfranchisement of the poor and the developing world. In the audience poll, 9 out of 10 doubted that technology would close rich-poor gaps; about the same number saw computers threatening personal privacy.
"These are techies," Mr. Burke said of the speakers. "They only know implementation."
Mr. Flores, founder of Business Design Associates in Alameda, Calif., uses words like coordination, commitment, flexibility, and impeccability in advising clients-including several high-ranking bankers in Europe and North America-to prepare for an "age of convenience" through "networks of commitments" that technology will define over the next 25 years.
He prescribes "storytelling" to redefine typical banking and other business relationships. "People talk about information overload," he said. "I believe information overload is the consequence of a lack of clarity about who we are."
"We can't invent our identities by looking at what we did in the past," the consultant said. "We have to take a stand about the future," though "we need history to understand our nature."
Are bankers getting the message? "They used to not get it, but not any more," he said in an interview. "They may not know where they are going, but they are asking questions. That's good."
Mr. Flores' unorthodox-sounding approach reflects his multidisciplinary grounding in such fields as philosophy and linguistics as well as economics.
Mr. Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate currently delving into the interdisciplinary science of complexity at the Santa Fe Institute, would approve.
Conventional specializations break "immensely complex ecological and social problems ... into manageable pieces," he said. "This has limitations" and cries out for "attempts to look at the whole."
He closed by quoting from Edna St. Vincent Millay about what sounds like information overload: "Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour, falls from the sky a meteoric shower of facts. They lie unquestioned, uncombined. Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill is daily spun, but there exists no loom to weave it into fabric."