October 21, 2015. Welcome To The Future.
So, does it really seem like we’re living in The Future?
Well, no, not really. But then, it wouldn’t. Our experience of time is continuous, so anyone who has been along for the wild ride we’ve experienced since 1985 has had ample time to get used to — and maybe even disappointed by — all of the cool technology that we have today.
- We don’t yet have real, working Hoverboards — although there are some promising but power-hungry prototypes. Probably the closest thing is the Green Goblin-like multicopter recently making the rounds on YouTube. We’ve solved everything except the battery technology. (Engineers from 1985 would nod sadly.)
- Nike does seem to have come out with a limited-edition run of Power Laces. This seems plausible to me (meaning, I can think of some possible approaches to making it happen.) It’s probably fragile and expensive as yet, but it seems to work. Easier to just stick with Velcro for now (a dazzling piece of 1960s high-tech spun off from Apollo-era research.)
- Self-drying clothes still don’t seem to even be on the radar. I guess the umbrella is just a little too practical an invention to be displaced that easily. Especially when you consider that you’d have to carry around a huge supply of energy just in case your clothes needed drying. Physics will be physics, and a dryer mechanism has to have something to eat, after all.
- Flying cars? No, thanks. Not until we can do something about Driver Ed, or come up with a good autopilot. When I think about driving across town on the Schuylkill, I don’t want to even contemplate the idea of all of these boneheads getting behind the yoke of a flying machine. Plus, there’s the energy costs…
- … and as for time machines? I don’t think they even can exist — at least, you can’t go back to a prior point in your own timeline and make changes. Think about it: Any time machine is pretty much going to require an electrical engineer or ten — and the very first thing that most EE’s would think of doing with a time machine is to go back and buy poor Ben Franklin a clue that he’s making a terrible mistake with the polarity of electrons:
Since this hasn’t happened, it isn’t going to happen. Therefore, time travel to the past isn’t looking good. But it does make for a great story.
If I were to meet the 1985 version of myself and take him on a tour of The Future, I know he’d be duly impressed. For example:
- Most of us carry around, without really thinking about it, a device which allows us to nearly instantly tap into all of human knowledge and learn about any given topic, often by simply asking (Google, Siri, or Cortana) about it in plain language. Smartphones would dazzle anyone from 1985 — and when they saw the circuitry involved, you’d be lucky to avoid being accused of witchcraft. Any 2010s-era smartphone would probably be confiscated by the 1985 DoD and put to use doing nuclear simulations — because it would count as a legitimate supercomputer.
- What makes these magic data devices work? THE INTERNET. Full stop. Here is true magic that even Back To The Future only really hinted at (although their hints do often point in the right direction.) This is not only amazing Future Tech — it’s right up there with the inventions of fire, the wheel, writing, and moveable type. Yeah — ARPANET was around back then, and just starting to evolve into the IPv4 TCP/IP network we know today — but the difference between today’s Internet and that is, as Twain would have put it, like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
- Along with ubiquitous data connectivity, GPS allows us to instantly know our position (at least outdoors) anywhere on the Earth, 24/7. 1985 would understand this technology — it was being developed even back then — but the scope of its use would blow them away.
- The 3D printing revolution would also amaze folks from 1985. Crude prototypes of similar things probably existed back then, but in 2015, we’re starting to see mainstream consumer companies like Amazon and Walmart start to take interest. We’ll see the $100 desktop replicator — at least for ABS and PLA plastics — yet.
- The Internet of Things, while admittedly in early infancy, is starting to make its presence known. The recently-offered Amazon Dash Button, for example, makes ordering consumable products literally as easy as the push of a button. You notice you’re running out of paper plates, press the button, wait for the green light, and a couple of days later, a package with the plates shows up. Downside: I now have WAY too many paper plates (and I only pressed it once). These buttons don’t work out so well yet for single guys. Not much use for a button which only gets pressed a couple times a year. Fortunately, there are hacks for that.
- We have two working rovers on Mars — one of which (Opportunity) has been going for well over a decade now.
- We have reasonably reliable text-to-speech (which 1985 would have found pretty cool), and reasonably reliable realtime speech recognition (which 1985 would have found amazing.)
- Our video games would blow away even the most diehard gamer from 1985. People were still regularly playing Atari in 1985. Today, you can get munched by a dragon in beautiful 1920 x 1080p, and capture the footage for posterity.
- We have social media like Facebook — where even total social recluses like me can keep in touch with all of the awesome people we’ve known (some of whom I even knew back then!)
- Our President happens to identify as African-American. And this is No Big Deal. It looks very much like our next one will either be Jewish or female. Again, No Big Deal.
- We have very nearly gotten rid of VHS tapes, and moved to reliable digital technology.
- CRTs are almost a thing of the past. Flat panels are so ubiquitous that we don’t think twice about them, and stare when we see someone using an older tube display.
- And last but not least, we even almost have holodeck-like technology.
Now for the tricky part — predicting what the next thirty years will bring! Technology advances exponentially, and we may well be heading towards Kurzweil’s Singularity. Here are a few of my thoughts on what we might see in thirty years. These are educated guesses, but very much guesses. It should be interesting to see which, if any, pan out.
- Aging: We are able, by the year 2045, to reduce human aging to 50% or less of what it was; the average lifespan in developed countries will exceed 100.
- Religion: Fundamentalism will give way to deism and/or agnosticism, or at least a more scientifically-aware version of current religions, as many of the wilder claims of mystics (stars falling from the sky etc.) are seen to have no basis in reality.
- Telework: As the more conservative generation retires, Gen-X and younger supervisors become open to the idea of people working from home. Most “Information Economy” workers can be just as productive, if not more, from home, anyway. For one thing, my home computer is a whole lot more capable than any work computer I’ve ever had.
- Consciousness: A high-powered supercomputer — like IBM’s Watson — passes the Turing Test around 2020-2025. Personal computing devices do so within five years of that. This leads to all sorts of interesting discussions about consciousness, intelligence, and what it means to be alive.
- The first cybersentients are created sometime in the 2030s, and proceed to create even smarter ones.
…and that’s when the afterburners will really kick in.
Buckle up. It’s going to be a fun ride.