Monthly Archives: July 2011

What if the future goes wrong?

In the future, our lives will be greatly enhanced by the ever-faster networks. Ultra-smart computers, sophisticated robotics and unlimited capacity communications will make every aspect of our everyday lives pleasant. Machines will do all the work while we enjoy the results on a beach. We will be always in touch, always in control. But sometimes, technology has a habit of turning out different than planned. Let’s remember that the telephone was once thought to be useless except for listening to opera. Here’s how it might be on a bad day in the future if we get it wrong.

So, at home first. You wake up. Beautiful original music is being composed in real time by your computer and is coming out of flat panel speakers that are cunningly disguised as paintings. Except that it is trance instead of Mozart because the kids were up first.

You need to visit the loo, but it’s a smart loo with built in health diagnostics. You’re developing a loo phobia and have started eating to please it. You have recently bought a chemical kit designed to fool it into leaving you alone. But the loo is also in collaboration with the smart fridge, conspiring to make you healthier. The fridge has time locks on the door and a video camera watching what you take out, in case you try to fool it by tearing off the smart packaging first. It won’t allow the microwave to cook it because it contains too many calories. Kitchen rage is becoming a major social problem. But you can’t break anything. The insurance companies insist on proof of accident in the form of video of the event before they will pay up.

The videophone rings and you put on your video bathrobe. This is made of ultra-flexible polymer display. It allows you to use a video-conferencing terminal when you have just crawled out of the bath. It actually simulates what you looked like after two hours putting on makeup and two months with a plastic surgeon, 5 years ago.

Your living room is devoid of black boxes, full instead of huge screens, tablets, virtual fish tanks and electronic paintings. You’ve flushed all the real fish down the loo, just to try to confuse it so it will leave you alone.

You talk to the home manager program via speech interfaces, using natural language, gesture interfaces etc. Unfortunately it remembers what you say and isn’t very good at keeping secrets. When your wife says she told you to empty the bin, she will be able to prove it. Computers will latch onto keywords to monitor significant conversations. In divorce proceedings, all those romantic interludes at the office party were recorded, digitally enhanced, and are used as evidence.

We will need personal screens to avoid conflict between the kids – one screen for everything would be unthinkable. We will also need 3d sound positioning to provide personal sound zones. The result is your whole family can sit together again, but are still all locked securely in their own private virtual worlds.

In the old box room, you now have a Star Trek holodeck, fully immersive inputs to your hi-res active contact lenses, but a movable floor panel that allows you to walk continuously in any direction. It also uses fractal robotic matter, T1000 technology, with direct sensory links. Social problems are arising, real world withdrawals are commonplace, you just surface to breathe, eat and sleep.

In public buildings, this same technology is used to simulate everything from plasma flooring to traditional oak beams, sawdust and dirt, with pubs changing period regularly. Each time you go anywhere, it takes several minutes to learn your way around again.

The TV learns what you like to watch and automatically finds us something suitable when you switch it on, recognising your face. Unfortunately this is not a good idea when the vicar comes round. ‘Let’s see a nature programme’. The TV starts showing ‘Emmanuel in the Amazon’.

You have a robotic cat with video-camera eyes and microphone ears. It is stuffed with electronics, and its batteries are recharged when it goes back to its rug in the corner. The robotic cat is the centre of home automation and is linked by radio to the global superhighway. It teases the real cat, while everybody teases it, trying to confuse its AI. There is a growing demand for robotic psychiatrists. You will also need a robotic vet when the dog eats the robot cat.

Insect-like robots are supposed to cut the grass and do the cleaning, but all the cleaning robots are stuck to the carpet where little Johnny has left his sticky half eaten lollipop, and the grass cutting robots have all been kidnapped by the local magpie. The baby magpies are suffering from severe indigestion and the RSPCA are on their way.

Your kids regularly spend hours designing ambushes for the surviving robots, now laying trails of sugar crystals to a cliff with a bowl of water under it.

Food shopping is helped by the smart waste bin that scans beans cans as they are thrown away. Of course it won’t work because your toddler peals all the labels off. We would also need a whole new field of custard proof electronics.

The supermarket van still delivers to your door, but leaves the ice cream melting outside because you’ve rushed the cat to the robotic vet at the last minute. Only the cat knows their number to arrange delivery times. Now you will have to go shopping yourself.

Clothes shopping uses computer simulations of you instead of Leonardo Di-Caprio or Kate Moss. Your body is scanned by laser, recording every bit of cellulite, every pimple. The shop becomes a try-on outlet with mass customisation, while the data on your figure is sold to plastic surgeons that later swamp you with junk email with pictures of how you could look. People have never been less happy about their shape. With smart materials we can of course have extra Lycra to smooth out the various folds until the surgery.

You give your kids electronic pocket money. Being digital cash, it can all be labelled: only two quid for sweets, none for booze; but kids will not be dictated to and a playground black market is becoming a problem at the local school. Digital cash has provenance too. This £17.23 was once spent by Kate Middleton and is highly collectable. Electronic cash is truly global and is used on the net and in the street, so the Euro is almost an irrelevance

So now it’s time to go out. But at least you are up and dressed. You are on the way to the supermarket.

Your cars has full RTI and in car entertainment, and runs on fuel cells. Tourist information is provided on the way. Unfortunately you are on the M25 and you don’t want to hear yet again how many cars travel every day on the A12, coming up on your right. So you turn it off. You’ve been plotting a scam for your next holiday: Planes can carry 1000 people 10000km in 10 hours, so they have jogging tracks and cinemas on board. You can spend so much time on board doing other things you can sub-let your seat and make a profit on the trip.

Before it died, your cat booked you a slot on M25, and you need the computer to drive you because otherwise you’ll miss it if a rabbit jumps out on the way and have to wait a day for another slot.

E-cash and electronic tolling has evolved to allow paid overtaking. Your agent negotiates with other car’s agents to pull over and let you past. It is the same in queues at shops. You can make a living just by clogging up queues and waiting for people to pay to get past.

You are wearing a video T-shirt, with cartoons or adverts showing depending where you are. In the supermarket, store positioning systems enable location dependent ads, appearing on your video T-shirt as you walk past other shoppers, depending on their customer profile. You get paid in extra loyalty points for this.

In the shop, in store positioning allows precise alerts to special offers etc. With an electronic shopping list, you could almost shop blind. Active contact lenses give you information wherever you go. There are arrows for navigation and robocop style information overlays, so the beans shelf could be flashing so you can actually find it. The chips in the products themselves can write onto this lens, with competing brands trying hard to attract your attention as you walk past. With another piece of software, you can actually watch them slug it out in a cyber-boxing match.

The lenses actually communicate via your Star Trek com-badge that doubles as an Ego badge. This stores various aspects of your personality, hobbies, job, marital status, sexual preferences etc. It cuts through the ice at parties, and you spend a lot less time chatting up the wrong people and much more time getting to know the partner of your dreams.

Some of your shopping takes place in shared computer generated spaces, where you make new friends as well as meeting various computer generated personalities, again offering the means of withdrawal from dull reality. The computer is intent on introducing you to every compatible person in the country. This is often used by government to keep people off the streets. But later you go to a real party anyway.

At the party, there is always a bore, but at least now, digital bore enhancement uses the latest sound cancellation and 3D sound positioning technology to replace his boring voice and boring message with much more stimulating conversation, and your active lenses can even make him look fashionably dressed. A new era of apparent tolerance will result where everyone seems to be nice to everyone else regardless of their actual behaviour.

Surveillance technology is everywhere. It is of course linked to traffic control and collects photos of you speeding. Fines are replaced by blackmail since they can now identify the passenger too, and The Shame Show is one of the most popular on digital TV. Government know everywhere you’ve been, who with, what you did, everything.

You’ll still have to work to pay the bills though. We will all be care workers in 2020, partly because of the extreme stress caused by the technology around us trying to make our lives more fulfilling, and partly because all the other jobs are automated. Tech-free zones are the main holiday camps where you go for technology detox.

When you go to Macdonald’s, the meal comes out of a vending machine, but in the French restaurant down the road, you are paying for the French waiter to sneer down his nose at you when you choose the wrong wine. Some jobs just can’t be automated. When you are in hospital, you will still prefer a nice cuddly nurse to R2D2.

We need human child care workers too. Nothing is 3-year-old proof. They regularly dismantle the robot cat, and pull the legs of the grass cutting robots, while repeating the mantra “Daddy will fix it”. Kids only love technology because they haven’t lived long enough for experience to take over. They are simply too young to know any different.

People either work in virtual companies or virtual co-operatives. Many companies don’t have any human employees but you can’t tell which ones because they all use synthetic personalities at the customer face. It is only by trying to make someone angry that you can tell if they are human. Consequently, most humans are frequent victims of aggression, keeping the care workers busy, while the computers don’t mind at all.

For non-caring jobs, AI agents are used mostly instead of people, computers dominate the board, pocket calculators replaced half the board in 2020.

Information companies are just roaming algorithms so they don’t pay taxes any more, making industrial companies rather miffed.

But what of the further future?

When you are very old and very grey, engineers will be able to link your brain to a computer that will be thousands of times faster. Surprisingly, at one atom per bit, it will only take one ten thousandth of a pinhead to store your whole mind. Then it won’t matter if a bus runs you down, you will be backed up on the network. Your kids will still have a parent, but best of all, your company just gets you for free afterwards. In fact, this is an irresistible side-line for bus companies, which will use satellite positioning and tracking to hit you at exactly the right point to ensure a clean kill with minimal damage to the bus.

But you won’t mind. Your body has died, your soul cleared off to whatever afterlife you’ve booked for. Meanwhile down here, once you have become entirely electronic, you can travel around the world at light speed and pick up a hire android at the other end. You can make multiple versions of yourself. Everyone is linked together in a single global mind. With immortality, infinite intelligence and mobility, keeping up with the Jones’s will ensure that everyone will make the jump to Homo Machinus. Biological humans will eventually become extinct. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. Enjoy.