What is information? Is it energy, matter, or something completely different? Although we take this word for granted and without much thought in today's world of fast Internet and digital media, this was not the case in 1948 when Claude Shannon laid the foundations of information theory. His landmark paper interpreted information in purely mathematical terms, a decision that dematerialized information forever more. Not surprisingly, there are many nowadays that claim - rather unthinkingly - that human consciousness can be expressed as "pure information", i.e. as something immaterial graced with digital immortality. And yet there is something fundamentally materialistic about information that we often ignore, although it stares us - literally - in the eye: the hardware that makes information happen.
As users we constantly interact with information via a machine of some kind, such as our laptop, smartphone or wearable. As developers or programmers we code via a computer terminal. As computer or network engineers we often have to wade through the sheltering heat of a server farm, or deal with the material properties of optical fibre or copper in our designs. Hardware and software are the fundamental ingredients of our digital world, both necessary not only in engineering information systems but in interacting with them as well. But this status quo is about to be massively disrupted by Artificial Intelligence.
A decade from now the postmillennial youngsters of the late 2020s will find it hard to believe that once upon a time the world was full of computers, smartphones and tablets. And that people had to interact with these machines in order to access information, or build information systems. For them information would be more like electricity: it will always be there, and always available to power whatever you want to do. And this will be possible because artificial intelligence systems will be able to manage information complexity so effectively that it will be possible to deliver the right information at the right person at the right time, almost at an instant. So let's see what that would mean, and how different it would be from what we have today.
If you want to build an information system today, well, you need to build it and design it, code it, test it, maintain it, and so on. And although millions and billions of dollars are spent in information systems we often forget the reason why we need those information systems in the first place: to be able to do something else. Information is always the means not the end, an insight that often goes amiss in the huge investments that companies make in information systems. Going back to the comparison with electricity, it is as if every time a company needs something to do it needs to create it own electricity plant that is unique and fit for purpose. Indeed, it needs to build many electricity plants each powering a different operation, from marketing and sales, to manufacturing and logistics. Cloud computing is steadily transforming "on premise" investments in information systems. By pushing companies to share computing resources, the cloud has introduced many of the characteristics of a utility; but there is still a long way to go before information becomes a utility like electricity or water. The next big barriers to surpass are the disparity and complexity of data, and also the way we humans interact with information through intermediary hardware devices.
Both those barriers will be brought down by powerful artificial intelligence systems that will add a new layer of intuitive communications between us and information systems, and thus render intermediary hardware devices unnecessary and invisible. Just like we are unaware and uncaring about the electric power generator that provides us with the electricity that powers our home appliances and soon our cars, so we will be with information that will power the things that will make up the interconnected world of the mid 21st century. The "Internet of Things" will not be just things with an IP that can connect to the Internet and exchange data. It will be about things becoming smarter through the right information flowing through them. This information will be dynamic, relevant and unique, and delivered at the right time, at the right place, simply by connecting the whatever "thing" into a global information grid. Moreover, this new way of accessing information will change completely what we do with it. By not having to worry about the computing aspect of things, we will be able to create whatever our imagination allows and watch it "come to life". The future will make us more like producers and less like consumers.