Monthly Archives: April 2010

The end of innocence

In 1995 I invented what I called the ego badge, a device that would broadcast your personal information into the area around you wherever you go. Philips simultaneously came up with a similar idea and called theirs the Hot Badge. Anyway, other people’s badges would interact with yours as you passed each other and you would be introduced to them where your badges agreed it is appropriate. I later predicted that our mobile phones would do this, and that just by glancing at your mobile phone screen, you would be able to see where you friends are. It took a while before the mobile companies caught on, but the service was introduced partly in the late 90s as a niche mobile service for night clubs. Various other gadgets followed for introducing people at conferences depending on their personal profiles, seemingly rented out at exorbitant prices by their makers. But the idea that you’d be able to see when your friends are nearby resolutely failed to materialise until recently. But now it has, at last. Now, with social media in widespread use, with profile matching well developed and also part of everyday life, and with the mobile web getting better all the time, the phone is now becoming the platform of choice for social networking. On the move. Foursquare are in the news now, having just reached their first million users They offer a package of services around this same basic idea, that you should be able to meet other people automatically or see who is around you, with a device cutting through the ice for you to enable easier networking. They also offer some functions for finding nearby services, but those are irrelevant to this blog entry. I am far more interested in the function that allows you to meet other people based on their profile as you pass them, as opposed to using a dating site at your desk.

I’ve often commented that technology has recently given us mechanisms for tunnelling through strong social barriers that existed for tens of thousands of years. This is one of the major steps forward in that field. It will cause social disruption, some of it good, a lot of it bad. Let’s do a quick thought experiment, and please bear in mind that this blog is not rated for explicit stuff, so I will  avoid being too explicit here, you can use your imagination as well as I can:

Stage 1: Your phone allows you to see when one of your friends is in the shop next door, so you can arrange to go for a coffee together. Great. More real world contact with your friends. Nothing wrong with that.

Stage 2: You start using it for business networking. It introduces you to potential employers, clients and suppliers at events, provided they are mutually interested. Great. More and easier business. Better career prospects. However, on the downside, higher business mobility also means shorter periods with any one company and less return on corporate training investment. It also means less experienced staff in a particular role, so customers get lower value too. Gradual decline in service quality could result. Mmmm.

Stage 3: You see someone nice in a club, but are too shy to introduce yourself. Never mind. Your phone checks them out automatically, they are compatible, they have already discovered you too, and your phones tell you both that the other is interested. The phone suggests a place you would both enjoy, a time you are both available (perhaps right now), and even what you might enjoy doing together. Great. Level playing field for shy people. More friends. More dates. The downside is obvious too (or another upside if you are so inclined). It also makes easier cheating for those already in relationships.

A simple fact of life is that you chose your partner from a thousand people you have interacted significantly with (remember also that your great grandparents probably only met a few hundred in their whole lives but you still exist). Bearing in mind that many were in existing relationships, so weren’t available, you actually chose from a much smaller number, just 100-200. So, maybe 1% of the population are highly compatible and even potential upgrades on your current partner.

Now, on a typical day in town, you walk past 2000 people say. That means 20 guaranteed hot dates, if you can both find the time, even if you’re fussy. Today you walk right past each other, unaware of the potential compatibility, and can’t possibly stop and chat to everyone even if you wanted to. But your phone can. And it will. What then? You are frequently introduced to someone you can have  fun with, guaranteed mutual attraction and compatibility, your diaries are both clear at a specific time slot for a while. The phone integrates with service providers, so you can see at a glance that a nearby room is available for hire by the hour, (of course hotels won’t be able to resist such easy business). Means, motive, opportunity. So, will you or won’t you? I bet a lot of you will. The temptation will be there, in your face, clear as a bell, every time you are in the wild. And you are only human.

At the very least, we will see a big increase in cheating, and lots more casual sex. Casual sex is a fact of life and society copes with it so far. But the cheating matters, because it undermines existing relationships and therefore undermines longer term happiness for a quick thrill, OK, lots of quick thrills. But surely people need deep relationships, not just quick ones, and we don’t have the social structures or culture that lets us combine them. Do we want to hop from person to person several times a day? I’m sure it would be fun for some, for a while, but it wouldn’t produce long term well-being for most of us. And if we can’t trust our partners, then we can’t enjoy our relationships as much as we can when trust is healthy.

Not done yet. Stage 4: It all starts off nice and (reasonably) innocently, people just hooking up for, as Foursquare so sweetly put it, adventure. It is a safe bet that either they or someone else will introduce lots of derivative features. So it won’t be just one other person, it will be invites to group activities. It won’t be just conventional stuff either, but invites to anything, however sordid. It will be integrated into augmented reality too. If you set the preferences on your head up display accordingly, you will see people’s avatars as you walk past each other. If they are looking for someone like you, you will be shown their ‘special’ avatars, dressed however, doing whatever. You get the picture. Temptation won’t stay at your initial level of standards, it will try to drag you down, and it may succeed, maybe often. So we should expect a much larger fraction of the population becoming involved in more degrading activities, with all the spin-off problems that might bring.

OK, so that is far enough for now, though I could go to stage 5 and 6. I know you’re wondering what they are, but you can carry on wondering.

So, lots of benefits will come from this new technology platform. Shy people will have more fun, we will see more of our friends, and have better career prospects. The price though is a high one, and it isn’t advertised up front as well as it should be.

The future is 30 years away

I’ve been a full time futurologist since 1991, part time since I started work in 1981 on missile systems that didn’t enter use the late 90s. I am irritated when people say you can’t predict the future, because in some areas driven by basic technological progress, it is obvious that you can. With experience you can get 85-90% of it about right at the ten year horizon. The downside of thinking about the future full time is that the present is way behind in terms of what it offers, so it is hard to be content with today’s gadgets and services, and of course there are far fewer surprises in life. The upside is that when stuff finally does arrive, it is already much more familiar so takes much less getting used to.

But the pace of change is usually much slower than the imagination in the short to medium term, and faster in the long term. For example, the new ipad from Apple is pretty much the sort of coffee table tablet we have been talking about since 1991. It is still too thick, hard, heavy and underpowered compared to what we knew even then will one day be routine. We knew that because of Star Trek.  We knew it would take a long time to implement, but it has actually taken a bit longer than we thought, and it still isn’t quite there. In IT, the pace of change is falling slightly behind what should have been the case. Mobile phone capability has run way ahead of our expectation curve in the last 20 years, but bandwidth and AI are falling behind, while memory, processing speed and storage capability are pretty much as expected (though poor software badly lets down the speed of computing actually delivered to the user). But perhaps the biggest surprise during my time as a futurologist is the lack of surprises. Mostly, tech has rolled out more or less as we thought it would.

Devices like the ipad will be very common when the technology is mature and costs have fallen, and general purpose interactive displays will lie on surfaces all over the place. That will be nice, but not surprising. It will be another decade before this trend fully catches up with early 1990s expectations. That puts the future as 30 years away. Obviously just for the ipad in this case, but perhaps that figure applies elsewhere. Let’s check a few areas. Virtual reality, first uses in military in the early 1980s, civil world by 1990, still only embryonic due to display limitations today, but promising perhaps to finally hit the big time in a decade or so, boosted substantially by its cousin augmented reality, 30 years again.

When I was at school, doing religion O level, we did a project on euthanasia, picked up by our teacher as an area we would have to deal with during our careers. He explained that although it would be a long time before it would be legal to kill people who were in pain or suffering, it might eventually be allowed. UK law started allowing assisted suicide in some circumstances last year, after a few years of unclarity. 1976-2009, just over 30 years again.

Genetic modification is another area that entered serious public debate in the late 80s/early 90s, now commonplace. 30 years

Car design follows suit. The sci-fi comic cars of my childhood became the standard shape of most new family cars about 30 years later.

So the 30 year period applies in some areas. In other, such as android and AI technology, the imagination has been more powerful. We still don’t have the machines envisaged in the 60s, so we have past the 50 year mark already and still at least 20 years from some of those visions. Visions of direct brain-machine links go back to the 60s at least and although there are some primitive connections today, the whole thing won’t be a reality this side of 2040 and it won’t be common till the 50s or 60s, 100 years after the imagineers came up with it. So I guess the 30 year period is actually quite a short horizon for futurology.

Satellite navigation is probably an exception though (in normal civilian life). We saw very little expectation of its impact before the mid 1990s and it is already quite mature. So it has only really taken 15 years. Maybe that is because it was important in military and aviation prior to that.

Of course there are always some smaller scale surprises, people invent new things every day. Most of these are incremental improvements on stuff already around, or eventual implementations of things thought of decades earlier, where the technology has finally caught up and it is possible to build it. Things like the ipod and memory sticks are examples of this. So when new things appear on the net, they are usually well expected in terms of kind, it is only the specifics that vary. Social networking was very well anticipated 25 years ago, but implementations such as Twitter or Facebook are just more recent instances and still very far from mature. I think we need at least another 15 years of development before electronically mediated social networking can be considered a mature technology. 40 years, but then it’s a big field. Some may argue it is limited by social rather than technological evolution, but actually the technology isn’t anywhere near mature yet either, and people have actually been fairly quick to adapt to what capability there is. But I am waffling. Back to the point.

The point is that apart from a few big areas well developed in science fiction such as robots, brain-machine links and AI, most things we can think of are not very far away, just 3 decades. Using my favourite analogy, futurology is like looking through fog. Some things are visible quite far ahead such as bright lights, but details are not visible until you get close. We could argue that a few bright lights such as full machine-brain links, conscious machines and electronic immortality are visible now even though they are several decades away, but mostly we are limited by imagination at that range. Our mental fog limits futures reasonable visibility to about 30 years. And visibility is excellent at 10 years.

I’m sure there is a deeper point in this, I’m just thinking out loud at the moment. I’ll blog the rest when the fog clears a bit.