How can you tell you are dealing with someone who have never read or watched any science fiction? It’s simple. They think that the current state of the art technology is some sort of pinnacle, and that we can’t really improve it much. The other day I was talking with a co-worker about the iPad 2 and how it is only marginally better. My point was that if you already own a working iPad then there is really no point in upgrading right now. The new model is just small, incremental improvement over the original, but nothing revolutionary. It’s not like a gaming console – where every new version completely out-classes and obsoletes the previous one. Personal computing machines don’t work that way – they slowly improve over time, and skipping one or two generations usually won’t cause you to be left out of the software loop.
My co-worker completely misinterpreted what I said and agreed with me by saying:
“Yeah, I mean, how much more they can innovate with these things. They will just keep making them smaller, lighter and thinner but beyond that, what else can they do? What else could they release that would be revolutionary?”
Silly question, right? Here is a person who have never watched Iron Man, or Avatar and saw the interesting designs portrayed in these movies. That’s where most people think we are going. That the future iPhone will look like Tony Stark’s phone:
That’s only partially true though. What is more likely is that we are heading into a future where smart phones and tablets are no longer luxury items but cheap, disposable, paper thin devices. The phones of the near future will probably more like this in terms of form factor:
Now, you have to keep in mind that the above is just a rough prototype. I don’t think the bend-gestures and e-ink screens will catch on, but Sony and Samsung both already have bendable full-color LED screens. So it is just a matter of time before we get bendable multi-touch phones that are no thicker than your credit card. And probably also half transparent, because that’s the other running trend – transparent LED’s are big research area.
But that’s just the beginning. It is just a matter of time before we start mounting these paper, thin, transparent screens onto eye glass frames. There are tons of people working on the software side of this already. Right now we are calling this Augmented Reality but eventually I believe these techniques will be put to use in building functional Heads Up Display interfaces.
Once again, this is not science fiction. Workable HUD glasses are not that far away. We already have all the technology we need to build them. All you really need is a pair of cameras, to track the eye movements and the users POV, some gyros to track head position, and software to mesh it together. Eye tracking is the only thing we are not that good at yet. But I think we will have it shortly.
Then, eventually we will get wetware. We won’t need devices anymore because the HUD will be displayed directly onto our optical nerve, and the UI will pick up impulses directly from our nerve endings. Such interfaces will probably require some training, but in the end they will be much, much more efficient than anything we have had up until now. Besides, new generations will be born into these devices. They will have them implanted at a very early age, and they will be as natural to them as walking and talking is.
That’s pretty much where I lose most people. They can sort-of see the glasses, but they recoil at the very thought of close integration with a machine. Which is fine, because they are the same people who wouldn’t want to live forever even if they were given a chance. The future shocked will be left behind in a cloud of dust, as we race towards the unknown, and unknowable destiny that awaits us.
I don’t tell them that we are probably going to dismantle the solar system and convert all that dumb matter into computronium. They probably don’t need to know that, and they likely won’t be around to see it… Or you know what… Maybe they will. Maybe the small incremental steps and refinements at which our technology progresses will give them enough time to get used to these changes.
There is actually a pretty good short story written by Marc Stiegler that is very apropos this discussion. It is titled Gentle Seduction, and it deals with the exact problem I described: the woes of techno-muggles facing imminent singularity. It is written from a perspective of a un-imaginative, outdoorsy woman who is positively terrified by technology. Just like my coworker she can’t even fathom how anyone could improve on what we have right now… And then things start to gradually change. At first she resists the changes, and is righteously outraged that people would actually undergo rejuvenation procedures to make them younger or wear a headband that connects their brain to the internet. But slowly, but surely she warms up to these things. When she is no longer able to hike in the woods (something she really loves to do) she gives in, and buys some nano-machine therapy pills that restore her body to a more youthful state. When her memory starts to fail, she gets another pill that boosts her mental faculties. And when she is almost killed by an avalanche she could not predict, she finally gets some chips implanted, so that she can have access to weather forecasts, GPS and satellite imagery while hiking. She is always a few steps behind the early adopters, but she is never completely left out. Eventually she learns to embrace the change and surrender to it.
Perhaps that’s how it will unfold. We are drag out techno-neophytes behind us, even if they are resisting, kicking and screaming all the way. After all, it is already happening. Seriously, next time pay attention to the phones of your technologically impaired friends and coworkers. Most of them probably have smart-phones by now. And yet, they are probably the same people who few years ago probably scoffed with great indignation at the very idea of internet enabled phone. Even though they have no imagination, they are being gently sucked.
My dad used to cycle when he was younger, and he always loves to talk about the aerodynamics of the sport. When you see a large peloton of cyclists all clumped together on the road, only the few people at the head of the group are doing real work. The cyclists in the middle and in the back are benefiting from a slipstream effect, and they feel much less drag and resistance. They are effectively being puled forward by the cyclist up front. That’s us – the early adopters and the technocrats. Our work, and our imagination will allow all these people to live long enough to see the wondrous new world we are going to build.