Friday, November 25, 2011

The Future Is ...

"The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed." -- William Gibson

I've said before that predictions aren't something I ought to do very often, because I normally don't do them very well. And when we're talking about things like who's going to win an upcoming election, or which players will do well this season, that's a good rule of thumb. But today, I'm going to talk about technological trends. The future holds both wonders and horrors, and most of both are already with us in some form or another. Specifically, I'm going to be talking about the implications of a piece of modern technology that many of us already carry with us on a daily basis: smart phones.

This is part of what Gibson was talking about: the future is already here, it's just not uniformly distributed. The modern cellular telephone is still called a telephone, when in reality it's a palm-sized computer that has a telephone function. It can also send and receive text messages, e-mail, and function as a web browser. It can hold a small library of books, movies, and music. And it can function as a calculator, stopwatch, camera for both still and moving images. And a map. Never forget the map. We are raising a generation that has no clear idea of what it means to be involuntarily lost. In their mental universe, we've always been able to reach up into space and pull down our exact location.

However, that's just a drop in the bucket. The bottleneck, the thing that keeps these devices from being more pervasive than they already are, is the interface. There's a limit to what can be done with a few square inches of screen space.

We are about to transcend those limits. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are designing an optical display that can fit within a contact lens. This means that future smartphones will be able to paint their displays directly upon your field of vision. The implications of this are immense.

You've heard of "virtual reality." This isn't it. This is something I've heard called "augmented reality." It's your world, with more information. That's both a good thing, and a bad thing. First, the good.

Right off, let's take a look at that turn-by-turn navigation feature that you hardly ever use while you're driving. Augmented Reality makes this far more useful. Instead of a tiny map that you cannot use safely while driving, you get a green line pasted on your field of view, telling you in no uncertain terms where you need to turn in order to get where it is you want to go. Merely asking, "How do I get home from here?" results in a path popping out in front of you, leading the way. And since you'll probably be able to use your fingers as a pointer, you can frame questions about anything you can point at. Asking "What is that?" can tell you anything from what species of bird that is, to what kind of airplane, to where that specific flight came from and where it's going. (Most UFO sightings will be disposed of within seconds.) You'll be able to see weather alerts, if you want to. It's already just about true that any of us with an internet connection can find the answer to just about any question whose answer is known, in the future that answer is available by voice query, and can be immediately displayed in front of your eyes, anytime, day or night.

But, it's not without disadvantages.

A horrifying new dimension of message spam opens up, when a hacker can hijack your visual display to force you to see anything they want you to see. Going by the contents of my spam bucket, most of this will be advertising for products you shouldn't mention in a family publication. Some of it will consist of more innocuous advertisements, say, a blurb about coffee when you walk past a Starbuck's. Others will be pranks played on you by ... friends. And we all have at least one friend like that, with a wildly inappropriate sense of humor. Worst of all, closing your eyes may not even block it out, depending on exactly how these things work. Personal data security will be of paramount importance, unless you like the idea of being bombarded with horrifying images on a fairly constant basis.

Further, an entirely new etiquette will have to be developed to account for this. We're already heading down that road, establishing when it is and isn't appropriate to use cell phones. However, things change when you no longer have to be looking at the device to interact with it. The guy who looks like he's politely paying attention may be doing nothing of the sort. He might be watching Casablanca. He might be playing Call of Duty. Unless you can tap the data stream, you have no way of knowing. I have no idea how we'll sort that out. But we'll have to figure it out once we get there.

And we will get there. The advantages so far outweigh the drawbacks that we won't be able to avoid it. There are parts I'm really looking forward to, and parts that I'm dreading, but on the whole it's a huge opportunity. Opportunity for what, we just don't know yet.

But it'll be fun to find out.


Manifesto Joe said...

I fear that the disadvantages here are going to be far worse than the hijackings.

Something I started noticing long ago is the ineptitude of younger, technology-dependent people in job functions. They can't add a column of numbers without a calculator. They can't do fractions or percentages. In other words, they can't do eighth-grade math! And many of these people have college degrees.

I wasn't even that much of a math or science hot-shot as a youth, but I'm amazed at all the math and science that our youths of today just aren't able to deal with. And about every other time I try to do a simple thing like get an insurance claim processed, it gets screwed up.

I am worried that, without the high-tech support, the average human of tomorrow is going to be virtually helpless, as a consequence of intellectual disuse.

Tim McGaha said...

I won't disagree. The real problem is that we don't really expect people to think anymore. A related problem is that, somewhere along the way, we decided that it was OK for non-science professionals to be pretty much ignorant of science.

I'm not sure what the remedy is, or if a remedy exists. What we need to recover is the ideal of the well-rounded gentleman, who could talk intelligently about all manner of things. But that would require us to demolish this nonsense of "the two cultures", and insist that not only will our scientists become cultured, but also that our liberal artists become scientifically literate. That'll be a hard sell. But that's about the only way to avoid the consequence that you fear.

In short, it will have to become shameful to be ignorant.

But whether we do or not, this particular change is coming. I don't see any way to stop it. We will have to adapt to it, one way or another, when it arrives.