This particular ramblings episode was supposed to be a vast and broad-reaching dissertation on the future of mankind. Just some light reading before tea-time. I had (still have) this vision of how unrecognisable the human race will become over the next thousand years or so. Technological, sociological and spiritual advances were to be melded together to eventually outline the ultimate human destiny, aiming for the time when we truly mature as a species. I planned to write some sort of future history of mankind.
But I never finished it. It was too huge, too vast, too much work. Maybe I’ll write it one day and turn it into a book, or something. It’s still a topic that fascinates me.
I still wanted to put
something up on the net, so I decided to post just one small excerpt – the immediate future of computers. Certainly not the most exciting area to focus on, nor have I looked very far ahead – maybe fifty years or so, but the predictions I’ve made herein are fairly specific, they’re the most likely of all the predictions in my opus to actually come true, and if they do, they’ll impact everyone alive today rather than distant generations. And they’re still mildly confronting. So have a read, and, once again, let me know what you think.
most people don’t think about the future of technology too much. Most people are either struggling to keep up with the accelerating pace of technological change, or believe the notions that Sci-Fi movies and TV shows (like Star Trek) throw at us. Or both. Here’s a couple of visions into the future of technology that will hopefully get those brain cells firing…
Many people have already predicted that it won’t be long before we see the Internet merge with the telephone, television and radio networks. In fact, this has already started – it’s called "convergence". However, convergence is just the tip of the information iceberg. As bandwidth increases over the next few years, expect to see virtually all publishable media disappear and be replaced with online versions thereof. Books, newspapers, magazines, journals, videos, recorded music, maps, catalogues and (naturally) computer software titles will all slowly get engulfed by the growing spread of the Internet (or its successors). In Western societies, these everyday items (books, etc) will become historical relics (curiosities or collectibles), and their use relegated to specialty areas.
Less obvious, but just as inevitable, is the trend that all personal
data will also migrate onto the Internet. Throw away all your photos, home movies, letters, schoolbooks, diaries, note pads, cassette tapes, floppy disks – even your computer hard disk. Instead, visualise all this "information" residing on vast information storage machines – servers – on the Net. Most people are uncomfortable with this notion, usually for the following reasons:
- They have a fear of the technology (including the fear of "losing control" of their property if it resides in some distant, intangible, incomprehensible form), and
- They imagine the inconvenience that they might experience in accessing this information.
In answer to the first point, it’s interesting to note that few people these days have any fear of using, say, a telephone (a surprisingly large number of people were afraid of or confused by telephones when they first appeared), and similarly few people these days have any difficulty with "losing control" of their money
when it resides in intangible, incomprehensible form in some distant bank
. As for the second point, well, read on.
Many would also say that the storage of these items in digital format is impersonal and unromantic. That’s a perfectly reasonable viewpoint, and I even agree (today). Nevertheless, in thirty years from now this notion will be considered quaint and amusing. "I don’t understand, Grampa, why exactly do you own books?
Corporate and government records too, will inevitably end up somewhere on our vast network. Industries that make their money today from all the newly-obsolete media (publishing houses, video stores, libraries, manufacturers of printers, photocopiers and fax machines, etc) will simply disappear. One might wonder what use we will have for paper
in this future of ours. What use indeed? Well, let’s see. Apart from bodily hygiene, there aren’t a whole hell of a lot (the forests of the world hereby breathe a collective sigh of relief). Paper will always have some
use, even if it’s only for the ancient art of drawing
So the long-promised paperless office will eventually become a reality.
With all this data available online, how might we access it? Surely a computer (even a laptop) is far too bulky and awkward for such continuous, ubiquitous usage. Indeed. Picture instead a truly "personal" computer, say about the size of the current Palm Pilot, with a permanent, wireless connection to the Internet. But don’t stop there. Give it a means for playing and recording sound (say, a small speaker and microphone, or perhaps a jack for headphones), a means for recording images (a small lens, such as those found in today’s mini digital cameras), and infra-red capabilities (similar to a contemporary TV remote control), allowing data to be exchanged with nearby compatible gadgetry. And let’s throw in a global positioning system (GPS) while we’re at it. What we end up with might be called a global, portable, personal multimedia terminal, to use today’s parlance.
Okay, fine. So what use could such a device possibly have? Well, for starters, with a device like that, you would no longer have any need for:
- your home telephone, mobile phone or pager,
- your CD or tape walkman, radio or VCR,
- your diary, address book, notepad, calculator or wristwatch,
- your camera, Dictaphone or video camera,
- your maps, street directories or compass,
- your cash, chequebook, credit cards, security cards, tickets, personal
identification papers, or medical records.
Apart from the obvious telephone calls, with a terminal like that you would be able to:
- send or receive messages (text, image, voice, and video) to individuals or groups,
- read John Grisham’s latest thriller,
- browse through this month’s Vogue or Newsweek, or the World Wide Web,
- listen to the latest Eric Clapton album or your favourite radio station,
- listen to (or even watch) a live lecture from your philosophy degree course (then participate in the debate afterwards),
- watch TV or a video (hook it up to a nearby full-size monitor if you must, or perhaps even a set of special goggles – Sony already sell such goggles),
- notify any taxis in the vicinity that you need a pick-up,
- buy a sofa-bed or a Thai meal and have it home-delivered,
- vote in elections and referendums,
- find directions when you’re lost, or learn the whereabouts of your children
- play a game of bridge, chess or BattleStar BloodFest with your buddies across the street or across the Pacific,
- pay for a movie ticket, a motorway toll or dinner in a local restaurant (by beaming your credit details to the merchant’s point-of-sale computer),
- control any nearby machinery in your home, office, factory, school or car.
Undoubtedly, such devices will also be able to read you things aloud when you’re not able or not inclined to read them yourself, and, inevitably, to understand and act on your own verbal instructions. "Okay computer, send the Simpson Proposal to Bob for review, and book me two tickets for tonight’s basketball game. Oh, and I’ll be home early, so switch on air-conditioning at around three. Send that photo I just took of myself to Louise, and order a dozen roses to arrive at the same time, and remind me to buy a present for Mum’s birthday tomorrow. I’m feeling mellow – find me something to listen to by Paul Simon. Now, take a message …."
In fact, with everyone owning a device like that, what need is there for regular desktop computers at all? Surprisingly little, when you use your imagination. No wonder Bill Gates and Microsoft are investing heavily in miniature versions of Windows (Windows CE) that run on, amongst other things, mobile phones, VCRs, digital cameras and cars.
Fanciful speculation you say? All these technologies exist today
, and it’s only a matter of time before they are all squeezed together into a device that you can fit in your pocket.
And of course, as soon as you’ve gotten your head around all that, they’ll integrate those devices into the human body, thus giving us all de facto
telepathy. Thirty to forty years, tops.
A computer-based development that will conceivably be of even more importance than anything mentioned so far is Virtual Reality (VR). Virtual Reality is currently only in its infancy, but it is already having a significant impact in the arenas of education (including simulations and prototypes) and entertainment. Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the iceberg’s hardly even in sight – so far the water’s just starting to get a little chilly. When VR technology matures and is tied to the Internet, I fully expect it to have as much of an effect on society in the 21st Century as television did in this century.
VR may be thought of as the direct descendant of today’s flight simulators, Internet chat rooms and video games. For the uninitiated, Virtual Reality is a technology that attempts to subvert as many of your senses as possible in an attempt to get you to believe that you are somewhere you are not. Artificial universes are created, and you are led to believe that you are inside them. Today, this usually involves the user donning special goggles that project images directly into your eyes, and headphones to do the same for your ears. These are connected to a computer that is programmed to detect the attitude of your head (or indeed your entire body), and which modifies the images you see to conform with that attitude. In other words, when you swivel your head to "look around," the picture you see changes accordingly, as you would "expect." More sophisticated rigs require the user to wear a special suit that not only detects the position and movement of every part of your body (allowing you to "see" yourself and "move around" in the artificial universe), but also gives the illusion of pressure against your body when necessary, in order that you may more realistically manipulate objects in your virtual world. Pick up a virtual apple, for example, and from the feeling in your gloves you could swear that you’re holding a real object.
The real fun begins when you hook two or more participants up to the same VR computer (or connect two or more "inhabited" VR computers together over a network, such as the Internet). Clearly, there is no limit to the variety of virtual worlds that can be created and experienced in this manner.
Today’s hardware is slow, the simulations (software) are crude and simple, and the suits are heavy and cumbersome to wear, but all that will inevitably change. I predict that VR will become a consumer commodity within the next five to ten years. Consider the potential uses:
Education or Simulation
- In any classroom situation where it is easier to show a student something and allow them to experiment with it than it is to simply describe it – geography, history, economics, physics, biology, chemistry, sex education – the list is virtually inexhaustible.
- It is often risky or prohibitively expensive to train people on large or sophisticated machinery, or in life-threatening situations. VR would enable kids to safely learn to drive, pilots to fly, or surgeons to do open-heart surgery.
- Prototypes of objects that are expensive to design, such as cars, bridges, skyscrapers, cities, etc, could be "whipped up" in a virtual universe for determination of soundness or aesthetic value.
- The curing of phobias, like fear of heights or fear of spiders, could be facilitated without having to subject the patients to the actual experience.
- Why would you ever need to venture out to the shopping mall? With VR mock-ups of any object you could ever want to buy, you could simply "test-drive" them online, then purchase them from the online store. Bye-bye retail shopping as we know it.
- Unless you have a job that entails physical manipulation of real-world objects (like a bartender), there would be little need for people to ever physically "attend" work. Similarly, your physical presence would never be required at school, college, business meetings, training courses, seminars or conventions.
Entertainment or Escape
Bored or overwhelmed by the world? Try another one! Uncomfortable with your current self? Be
someone else! Fulfil all your fantasies, interacting with others who share them. Be a woman. Be a child again. Be thin
. Be a cat. Be a king … Enter an imaginary universe, and play with:
- War games, battles and hunts (against any imaginable aliens, dinosaurs, bacteria, spiders, other countries, minority groups, spirits and evil renditions of Beethoven’s Fifth; using laser guns, spears, nukes, claws, W.W.II fighter planes, and poisonous thoughts)
- Sport and competitions ("motor" racing, basketball, skiing – in fact virtual versions of all current popular "real" sports and pastimes, and even more that could never be possible on earth)
- Interaction with genuine, but distant, family, friends and colleagues ("Hey Pat, long time no see! How about we meet for a drink in Bilbo’s Bar in Middle-Earth VII next Tuesday? I’ll be the Hobbit with the long blonde hair.")
- A "ball’s-eye view," for example, of an international football game; or a virtual front-row seat at a concert or the theatre (real, virtual or imaginary).
- Sex with anything you can think of, as anything you can think of. Considered fully, there is really no such thing as heterosexuality or homosexuality in cyberspace – you are simply whatever you want to be – male, female, androgynous, or a three-legged goat-fish – and then you look for someone that you are attracted to, and that is attracted to whatever youare
- Fantasy quests, explorations and adventures
- Participation in idealised or fantasy virtual communities (such as kingdoms, communes, nomadic tribes, etc. City life too fast for you? Spend your evenings living in a medieval feudal village, or as a tiger in the Bengali jungles.)
- Enact the God-like creation of your own imagined people, cities, worlds or galaxies
- Fantasy role-playing of any kind
- …. and a zillion more that my poor, Twentieth-Century mind can’t possibly conceive of.
Considering the number of people who tune out of the world today for hours at a time using the anaesthetic of television, is it really so difficult to imagine how people will take to the idea of being able to replace their tedious, unpleasant or overwhelmingly complex lives with an infinite array of fantasy escapes? Hey, you like M*A*S*H? Go and live there.
It’s easy to see that eventually the real world will be considered by some to be boring, limiting and grubby. People will become addicted to VR for exactly the same reasons that people today are addicted to drugs, television programs, work, gambling or virtually anything else – to escape from their life.
[Aside: I read in a computer magazine last week about a virtual "world" that currently exists on the Internet called Ultima Online
– it’s a game cum adventure world which has been up and running for several months now. They charge a nominal monthly fee to users. It’s "landscape" is limited in size, and, amongst other things, allows users to build permanent "houses" in advantageous positions. The thing that interested me the most about all of this was that the "prime" real estate has apparently all gone, and the "owners" of this real estate (translation: the people that have the appropriate username/password combination) have started to sell this real estate to other users. And I mean really
sell. Someone recently bought a "castle plus 2,500,000 gold pieces" for A$2,500! Those are "real" dollars. People are paying money – big
money – for virtual real estate – "land" that doesn’t really exist. Not to mention those gold pieces – are we eventually going to see a US Dollar to Ultima Gold Piece exchange rate? Food for thought for those that think that VR is just hype. End of aside.]
So where does it end? Well, it’s not too
much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a technology that allows the VR simulation to be fed directly into the brain, by "jacking in" to the nerve signals of the human body. Similarly, neural commands to our limbs could be intercepted by the computer and used to manipulate the objects in the virtual world. We could then do away with the pesky suits, gloves and goggles altogether. In fact, when the simulation became sophisticated enough, it would become almost impossible to distinguish between the "real" world and the variety of "virtual" ones. Which then begs the question, why would you want to?
Why not spend your entire life in the virtual realms? The technological hurdles are not that great. You’d simply get hooked up to a life-support system (sort of an iron lung for the whole body), plugged in to a VR computer, and – well – left alone. You would have everything that you need to live a complete, fulfilling life. You would have a far larger array of opportunities to choose from than in your present life, and, contrary to what you may imagine from your 1999 perspective, you would be perfectly capable of not only doing useful and meaningful work, but also forming and maintaining significant relationships with other "people." If you think about it, it would even be technologically possible for a union of two of these virtual people to produce a live, biological child (who would then naturally be immediately plugged into his own little VR rig/life-support machine). This, of course, conjures disturbing images of entire chapters of the human population living their whole lives (and dying) stacked on shelves somewhere, encased in machines that keep their bodies (well, brains
, really) alive, while their minds cavort in worlds that we can only guess at. Not only is that possible
, overpopulation or unemployment pressures may force
portions of the populace to volunteer for such a life (more about those social conditions later).
This does not seem outrageous to me. It is actually a very real possibility – nay, a probability
. If I was to go out on a limb, I’d say fifty to eighty years. Yet I’m well aware that many of you are going to be repulsed by such a notion. But think about it – if you were to "meet" such a person, could you really tell them that their lives are meaningless or soulless, and that the worlds that they live in are imaginary? How do you think they would feel about that? And how would you justify it? What can you do in your universe that they can’t do in theirs? Because I assure you, they can do a whole lot more in their universe than you can in yours. Is today’s racist going to be tomorrow’s "realist?"
One day, philosophers may speculate on the validity of considering the real, "actual" universe as any different from these virtual universes. It’s not, of course. It’s been self-evident for many years that our Universe is really a huge Virtual Reality simulation (or was that just a movie?).