Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Next Steps

The Next Steps

From the very beginning of our existence as a species, humans have been imagining new technologies that will make it possible for us to work, play and live in novel ways. Leonardo da Vinci is famous for having imagined such things as helicopters many centuries before we had the actual know-how to build them. Science fiction writers of the last century, including actual scientists like Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov, have oft imagined what the future might be like from a similar point of view.

As a geek I have long been fascinated by technology, real and fictional. While you can never really identify a single point for massive changes in the way we live - there are myriad influences and forces at work in anything that happens on this earth (as the wonderful British documentary series Connections shows) - I believe we are at the dawn of a new revolution in the way we work, play, and in general go about our everyday lives. A lot of people I talk to are sceptical about my view of where technology is heading - it sounds more science-fiction than science-fact to many - but I don’t see anything science-fictiony about the technologies that are coming out of today's research labs and tech corporations.

Few people would argue that the personal computer and mobile phone/computing revolutions haven’t already transformed the way we live our lives. Most of the time we are now in front of, or at least have in our pockets, a device connected to a wonderful interconnected network of knowledge and computing tools. You can even go into the mountains and remain connected so you might upload (in real time) the photo of an eagle that just flew overhead or stream your marriage proposal beside a glacial lake. The remaining blackspots are fast being filled - even the poorer countries of Africa are being connected to “the web” at breakneck speed. Soon we will be connected to the internet wherever in the world we go - sometimes whether we like it or not.

Before talking about the 3 current technologies that, when they mature and come together, will transform our lives, it would be remiss not to talk about two of the major difficulties that have limited the turning of science fiction into science fact in the recent past. One is safety, the other is energy. These are actually closely related, and the current (fissile) nuclear energy debate is a perfect illustration of the issues. In spite of the resources spent on alternative energy technologies1, we are still to find anything remotely as good as fossil fuels in terms of energy density, dependability, cost and safety. And fossil fuels suck! The promise of clean, safe and basically free, energy for all has not come from fissile nuclear technologies. The ballooning costs of the few new projects that are under construction make nuclear look ever less defensible, and that was before Fukushima. Now entire countries have decided to completely remove existing nuclear installations - with a few exceptions like China, fissile nuclear tech looks like it is going to die a slow death. The reason is simple - it produces nasty, nasty radioactive material that we still have absolutely no idea what to do with, and if things go wrong, they can go very, very wrong. In order to have any sort of certainty, and so safety, the money and resources required make it far too expensive. Nothing apart from nuclear looks doable at reasonable cost for producing energy with high reliability.

This brings us to one of the great failures of scifi-to-science - where are the flying cars? A quick search on the net will turn up many ideas but almost no substance, certainly nothing like the novels and films have been promising. Safety and energy are the problem here too. Keeping an object large enough to safely hold humans and transport them at high speed is hard enough when many people are involved and the routes (start, end and in between) are highly restricted. We are absolutely nowhere near the majority of the population being able to fly to the bakery to buy their fresh croissants and Sunday paper. Fossil fuels simply don’t have the energy density and anything similar is simply too volatile/dangerous to send hurtling around at high speeds.

So moving around heavy objects quickly and safely is beyond us for the moment. But what if we don’t move? Or rather, what if what we are moving are not whole atoms but just electrons and photons? We can very safely move large quantities of information from one side of the planet to the other in micro-seconds. I am writing this in a web browser, and the movement of my fingers is being translated into binary on magnetic platters somewhere thousands of kilometres away in mere micro-seconds. While teleportation technologies are still far from reach2, projecting ourselves and interacting with others’ projections is very quickly becoming a reality. One of the main areas of research in computing today, whether it be for military or consumer purposes, is undoubtedly freeing ourselves from the mice, keyboards and screens that shackle us in our daily lives, whether it be in work or play.

About a decade ago when I was doing my computing degree, I went to see a talk by a guy from the University of Washington who was visiting the Human Interface Technology ( at Canterbury University in Christchurch, NZ. One of the things he talked about was a fighter pilot helmet project they were working on with the US military. The goal was to “increase the bandwidth to the brain”. Maybe I just didn’t stick with it enough but at the time it struck me as a little fanciful. When I saw the latest Google Glass demos that talk came back to me, I realised that we are now truly talking about “bandwidth to the brain”.
There have been many advances visible outside the military since I heard that talk - one that proves just how close we are to having this tech in our everyday lives is that shown by Pranav Mistry and the others in his team (which is run by Pattie Maes I think). Most of my colleagues thought this video was a hoax when I first discovered and showed it to them back in early 2010. The tech was apparently doable with $300-odd worth of hardware and he was going to post the code as open source3. Mistry hasn’t made the headlines much since then but others, like Google, are happy to do so! The idea behind all of this is the same though - free ourselves from fixed screens and let information enrich the world as we move through it.
There are some advantages in using glasses over actual surfaces - other light sources won’t interfere as much and you don’t necessarily want passersby to be looking at your personal photos while you’re sorting through them waiting for an ice cream. Glasses avoid that problem. Glasses are not perfect though - they can fall off, break, and they get dirty. It would be much better if this stuff was just “installed”.
Chip technology is now at a point where blind (or almost) people can be helped to see again using implants.
This technology will get better quickly - it has massive and obvious medical applications for blind people, much like cochlear implants for deaf people. Unlike the audible channel, humans are well adapted to absorbing massive quantities of information through the visual channel. Military and law enforcement would benefit hugely from an overlay of information on normal sight. Glasses like Google’s will become common in the coming years. For driving, flying, or basically anything where large amounts of information can save lives, these objects may well soon be mandatory. When people are used to wearing these glasses and they become internalised as objects of our daily lives, many people will start asking for them to just get implanted. “Then I don’t have to worry about forgetting/breaking/losing them.” The accompanying processing and power sources will get smaller as to be almost negligible - see what has happened to pacemakers over the last few years and you will realise that this is not just a fantasy. Technologies are emerging that may in fact let these body-internal electronic objects be powered directly by the body’s heat or other natural electromagnetic or kinetic sources.
When we arrive at a sufficient level of sophistication, probably only a few years from now, we will be able to experience a fully immersive visual experience from the comfort of our own couches.

But passively absorbing information or having it overlain on our visual world is only half the puzzle. Tech like Mistry’s 6th Sense, or even Microsoft’s Kinect, tries to free us from computer input devices by enabling us to “ouput” information without using foreign objects like keyboards, mice, or game controllers. Make a rectangle shape with your fingers and a picture is taken. Make a grabbing gesture towards a picture of a chart on a physical page and throw it onto the computer screen to include it in your project presentation. Siri, and particularly the new Google Voice Search technologies appearing on our cellphones, are finally bringing the hands-free computing experience that we have been promised for so long. These are definitely interesting advances and will certainly transform how we interact with technology and others. They are in our living rooms and pockets now, and will soon be in our kitchens, garages, bathrooms and even bedrooms (“Hal, is that rain I hear? Is it going to rain all day?”).
All these technologies are, however, limited by physical presence and physical movement. If we are going to truly free ourselves from the shackles of physical output (or output for computer input) devices then we need to get past fingers, arms, or voice.
Technology is now appearing that will let computers directly read electrical impulses as they are produced in our brains. With or without electrodes.
Again, the first uses will clearly be for medical and military purposes. Severely physically handicapped people will be able to have some sort of autonomy again, and telepresence robots will become almost natural. Robotic soldiers, controlled by real humans from the comfort of HQ will finally be able to provide the “surgical” accuracy smart bombs were supposed to, all with no risk to a soldier’s (physical) health. Physical speed and coordination become obsolete - we can now enter into a world of direct interaction with the world via multiple outlets in multiple places without being constrained by height, weight, strength or any other physical trait.
Exactly the same comment about the miniaturisation and “installation” of this technology holds as it does for the input technology.

So what does all this mean? With these newfound means of interacting with the world, there will be new media (or is that mediums?) via which we will interact. As we increasingly rely on tech to interact with other human beings, behavioural analysis will be able to reach a level of sophistication only dreamed of now. As our entire online lives are now observed by Google, Facebook, or other next-gen tech companies, so our entire lives will be tomorrow, by these or new companies. Some will resist these “advances”. And like Google or Facebook don’t try and force you to be observed by them now, the companies of tomorrow won’t either. If you want to hang out in a true virtual world with your friends from all around the world then you’ll let them sit in though. You are more than welcome to unplug and actually go and see each of your friends. Wouldn’t you rather do both though? With this level of immersion and the vast computing resources of tomorrow, virtual realities indistinguishable from “real” realities, and true artificial intelligence may just be around the corner. Whether they are for sooner or later, virtual realities and intelligences that are at least helpful and fun are here now. As gigantic compute centres proliferate across the globe, what we now think of as mere “games” will become far more important. What if you had a virtual office where you could actually “walk” about, have “real” meetings, or even “shake hands” and do the latin morning kisses (all without the risk of those pesky germs)! Want to spend more time with the kids? Want to avoid travel but the boss still wants you to be “observable” at all times? Does the call centre person or front desk secretary really need to have a physical brain, or would a sophisticated expert system that is able to understand and answer questions not be better? If virtual contact can produce the same electrical impulses in the brain, then why bother with the risk of breaking limbs on a mountain bike, or of getting bitten by a real snake (or a metaphorical one ;-))? Better yet, why not mix and match and have both? Have a tennis game with your brother in Melbourne and then romantic walk along the beach in (virtual) Rio with your girlfriend, who is physically in New York?

Online games and realities are already becoming highly compelling places to spend both our work and leisure time. Is this not simply the logical extension of what Pranav Mistry says when he says we need to free ourselves of technology by immersing ourselves in it and letting it enrich our experiences?

None of the technologies I talk about here are new. None of them require fundamental advances - they just need to get more sophisticated. The “resolution” needs to get better, the batteries smaller, the memory bigger, and the networking and processing faster. Nobody doubts these things now. And it seems that every year the advances in technology get bigger and faster - not slower. Anyone over the age of 25 can only marvel at the thought of having a 1.5 GHZ quad-core, 2GB memory machine in their pocket. Was that even imaginable 20 years ago? Will we not be able to miniaturise today’s technology over the next 20 years? Make the resolution better? The processing faster? The batteries smaller?
There are definitely areas where our “imaginations have been bigger than our brains”, so to speak. We don’t have flying cars or intergalactic space travel, and alien encounters notwithstanding, I don’t see us having them even in the mid-to-long term. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t posed for a major revolution in the way we live...
Whatever technologies are going to take the world by storm over the next  couple of decades, one thing is certain: the next revolution is most certainly going to be televised!

1. Let’s not get into the “Oil companies buy up/get rid of the alternative technologies” debate. While there may be some of that going on - I refuse to believe that it would do any more than delay new tech, and we haven’t seen anything really useful at all yet. So whether it happens or not is a little irrelevant, proven by countries like China and India, who have no real interest in supporting Western Big Oil and are yet to make any serious advances, in spite of the resources poured into it.
2. Though 3D painting is starting to suggest how things might eventually get done...
3. Which he finally did earlier this year!

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