Category Archives: interfaces

The IT dark age – The relapse

I long ago used a slide in my talks about the IT dark age, showing how we’d come through a period (early 90s)where engineers were in charge and it worked, into an era where accountants had got hold of it and were misusing it (mid 90s), followed by a terrible period where administrators discovered it and used it in the worst ways possible (late 90s, early 00s). After that dark age, we started to emerge into an age of IT enlightenment, where the dumbest of behaviors had hopefully been filtered out and we were starting to use it correctly and reap the benefits.

Well, we’ve gone into relapse. We have entered a period of uncertain duration where the hard-won wisdom we’d accumulated and handed down has been thrown in the bin by a new generation of engineers, accountants and administrators and some extraordinarily stupid decisions and system designs are once again being made. The new design process is apparently quite straightforward: What task are we trying to solve? How can we achieve this in the least effective, least secure, most time-consuming, most annoying, most customer loyalty destructive way possible? Now, how fast can we implement that? Get to it!

If aliens landed and looked at some of the recent ways we have started to use IT, they’d conclude that this was all a green conspiracy, designed to make everyone so anti-technology that we’d be happy to throw hundreds of years of progress away and go back to the 16th century. Given that they have been so successful in destroying so much of the environment under the banner of protecting it, there is sufficient evidence that greens really haven’t a clue what they are doing, but worse still, gullible political and business leaders will cheerfully do the exact opposite of what they want as long as the right doublespeak is used when they’re sold the policy.

The main Green laboratory in the UK is the previously nice seaside town of Brighton. Being an extreme socialist party, that one might think would be a binperson’s best friend, the Greens in charge nevertheless managed to force their binpeople to go on strike, making what ought to be an environmental paradise into a stinking litter-strewn cesspit for several weeks. They’ve also managed to create near-permanent traffic gridlock supposedly to maximise the amount of air pollution and CO2 they can get from the traffic.

More recently, they have decided to change their parking meters for the very latest IT. No longer do you have to reach into your pocket and push a few coins into a machine and carry a paper ticket all the way back to your car windscreen. Such a tedious process consumed up to a minute of your day. It simply had to be replaced with proper modern technology. There are loads of IT solutions to pick from, but the Greens apparently decided to go for the worst possible implementation, resulting in numerous press reports about how awful it is. IT should not be awful, it can and should be done in ways that are better in almost every way than old-fashioned systems. I rarely drive anyway and go to Brighton very rarely, but I am still annoyed at incompetent or deliberate misuse of IT.

If I were to go there by car, I’d also have to go via the Dartford Crossing, where again, inappropriate IT has been used incompetently to replace a tollbooth system that makes no economic sense in the first place. The government would be better off if it simply paid for it directly. Instead, each person using it is likely to be fined if they don’t know how it operates, and even if they do, they have to spend a lot more expensive time and effort to pay than before. Again, it is a severe abuse of IT, conferring a tiny benefit on a tiny group of people at the expense of significant extra load on very many people.

Another financial example is the migration to self-pay terminals in shops. In Stansted Airport’s W H Smith a couple of days ago, I sat watching a long queue of people taking forever to buy newspapers. Instead of a few seconds handing over a coin and walking out, it was taking a minute or more to read menus, choose which buttons to touch, inspecting papers to find barcodes, fumbling for credit cards, checking some more boxes, checking they hadn’t left their boarding pass or paper behind, and finally leaving. An assistant stood there idle, watching people struggle instead of serving them in a few seconds. I wanted a paper but the long queue was sufficient deterrent and they lost the sale. Who wins in such a situation? The staff who lost their jobs certainly didn’t. I as the customer had no paper to read so I didn’t win. I would be astonished with all the lost sales if W H Smith were better off so they didn’t win. The airport will likely make less from their take too. Even the terminal manufacturing industry only swaps one type of POS terminal for another with marginally different costs. I’m not knocking W H Smith, they are just another of loads of companies doing this now. But it isn’t progress, it is going backwards.

When I arrived at my hotel, another electronic terminal was replacing a check-in assistant with a check-in terminal usage assistant. He was very friendly and helpful, but check-in wasn’t any easier or faster for me, and the terminal design still needed him to be there too because like so many others, it was designed by people who have zero understanding of how other people actually do things.  Just like those ticket machines in rail stations that we all detest.

When I got to my room, the thermostat used a tiny LCD panel, with tiny meaningless symbols, with no backlight, in a dimly lit room, with black text on a dark green background. So even after searching for my reading glasses, since I hadn’t brought a torch with me, I couldn’t see a thing on it so I couldn’t use the air conditioning. An on/off switch and a simple wheel with temperature marked on it used to work perfectly fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t do your very best to totally wreck it.

These are just a few everyday examples, alongside other everyday IT abuses such as minute fonts and frequent use of meaningless icons instead of straightforward text. IT is wonderful. We can make devices with absolutely superb capability for very little cost. We can make lives happier, better, easier, healthier, more prosperous, even more environmentally friendly.

Why then are so many people so intent on using advanced IT to drag us back into another dark age?

 

 

The future of publishing

There are more information channels now than ever. These include thousands of new TV and radio channels that are enabled by the internet, millions of YouTube videos, new electronic book and magazine platforms such as tablets and mobile devices, talking books, easy print-on-demand, 3D printing, holograms, games platforms, interactive books, augmented reality and even AI chatbots, all in parallel with blogs, websites and social media such as Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and so on. It has never been easier to publish something. It no longer has to cost money, and many avenues can even be anonymous so it needn’t even cost reputation if you publish something you shouldn’t. In terms of means and opportunity, there is plenty of both. Motive is built into human nature. People want to talk, to write, to create, to be looked at, to be listened to.

That doesn’t guarantee fame and fortune. Tens of millions of electronic books are written by software every year – mostly just themed copy and paste collections using content found online –  so that already makes it hard for a book to be seen, even before you consider the millions of other human authors. There are hundreds of times more new books every year now than when we all had to go via ‘proper publishers’.

The limiting factor is attention. There are only so many eyeballs, they only have a certain amount of available time each day and they are very spoiled for choice. Sure, we’re making more people, but population has doubled in 30 years, whereas published material volume doubles every few months. That means ever more competition for the attention of those eyeballs.

When there is a glut of material available for consumption, potential viewers must somehow decide what to look at to make the most of their own time. Conventional publishing had that sorted very well. Publishers only published things they knew they could sell, and made sure the work was done to a high quality – something it is all too easy to skip when self-publishing – and devoted the largest marketing budgets at those products that had the greatest potential. That was mostly determined by how well known the author was and how well liked their work. So when you walked through a bookshop door, you are immediately faced with the books most people want. New authors took years of effort to get to those places, and most never did. Now, it is harder still. Self-publishing authors can hit the big time, but it is very hard to do so, and very few make it.

Selling isn’t the only motivation for writing. Writing helps me formulate ideas, flesh them out, debug them, and tidy them up into cohesive arguments or insights. It helps me maintain a supply of fresh and original content that I need to stay in business. I write even when I have no intention of publishing and a large fraction of my writing stays as drafts, never published, having served its purpose during the act of writing. (Even so, when I do bother to write a book, it is still very nice if someone wants to buy it). It is also fun to write, and rewarding to see a finished piece appear. My sci-fi novel Space Anchor was written entirely for the joy of writing. I had a fantastic month writing it. I started on 3 July and published on 29th. I woke every night with ideas for the next day and couldn’t wait to get up and start typing. When I ran out of ideas, I typed its final paragraphs, lightly edited it and published.

The future of writing looks even more fun. Artificial intelligence is nowhere near the level yet where you can explain an idea to a computer in ordinary conversation and tell it to get on with it, but it will be one day, fairly soon. Interactive writing using AI to do the work will be very reward-rich, creativity-rich, a highly worthwhile experience in itself regardless of any market. Today, it takes forever to write and tidy up a piece. If AI does most of that, you could concentrate on the ideas and story, the fun bits. AI could also make suggestions to make your work better. We could all write fantastic novels. With better AI, it could even make a film based on your ideas. We could all write sci-fi films to rival the best blockbusters of today. But when there are a billion fantastic films to watch, the same attention problem applies. If nobody is going to see your work because of simple statistics, then that is only a problem if your motivation is to be seen or to sell. If you are doing it for your own pleasure, then it could be just as rewarding, maybe even more so. A lot of works would be produced simply for pleasure, but that still dilutes the marketplace for those hoping to sell.

An AI could just write all by itself and cut you out of the loop completely. It could see what topics are currently fashionable and instantaneously make works to tap that market. Given the volume of computer-produced books we already have, adding high level AI could fill the idea space in a genre very quickly. A book or film would compete against huge numbers of others catering to similar taste, many of which are free.

AI also extends the market for cooperative works. Groups of people could collaborate with AI doing all the boring admin and organisation as well as production and value add. The same conversational interface would work just as well for software or app or website production, or setting up a company. Groups of friends could formulate ideas together, and produce works for their own consumption. Books or films that are made together are shared experiences and help bind the group together, giving them shared stories that each has contributed to. Such future publication could therefore be part of socialization, a tribal glue, tribal identity.

This future glut of content doesn’t mean we won’t still have best sellers. As the market supply expands towards infinity, the attention problem means that people will be even more drawn to proven content suppliers. Brands become more important. Production values and editorial approach become more important. People who really understand a market sector and have established a strong presence in it will do even better as the market expands, because customers will seek out trusted suppliers.

So the future publishing market may be a vast sea of high quality content, attached to even bigger oceans of low quality content. In that world of virtually infinite supply, the few islands where people can feel on familiar ground and have easy access to a known and trusted quality product will become strong attractors. Supply and demand equations normally show decreasing price as supply rises, but I suspect that starts to reverse once supply passes a critical point. Faced with an infinite supply of cheap products, people will actually pay more to narrow the choice. In that world, self-publishing will primarily be self-motivated, for fun or self-actualization with only a few star authors making serious money from it. Professional publishing will still have most of the best channels with the most reliable content and the most customers and it will still be big business.

I’ll still do both.

The future of freedom of speech

This is mainly about the UK, but some applies elsewhere too.

The UK Police are in trouble yet again for taking the side of criminals against the law-abiding population. Our police seem to have frequent trouble with understanding the purpose of their existence. This time in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, some police forces decided that their top priority was not to protect freedom of speech nor to protect law-abiding people from terrorists, but instead to visit the newsagents that were selling Charlie Hebdo and get the names of people buying copies. Charlie Hebdo has become synonymous with the right to exercise freedom of speech, and by taking names of its buyers, those police forces have clearly decided that Charlie Hebdo readers are the problem, not the terrorists. Some readers might indeed present a threat, but so might anyone in the population. Until there is evidence to suspect a crime, or at the very least plotting of a crime, it is absolutely no rightful business of the police what anyone does. Taking names of buyers treats them as potential suspects for future hate crimes. It is all very ‘Minority Report’, mixed with more than a touch of ‘Nineteen-eighty-four’. It is highly disturbing.

The Chief Constable has since clarified to the forces that this was overstepping the mark, and one of the offending forces has since apologised. The others presumably still think they were in the right. I haven’t yet heard any mention of them saying they have deleted the names from their records.

This behavior is wrong but not surprising. The UK police often seem to have socio-political agendas that direct their priorities and practices in upholding the law, individually and institutionally.

Our politicians often pay lip service to freedom of speech while legislating for the opposite. Clamping down on press freedom and creation of thought crimes (aka hate crimes) have both used the excuse of relatively small abuses of freedom to justify taking away our traditional freedom of speech. The government reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was not to ensure that freedom of speech is protected in the UK, but to increase surveillance powers and guard against any possible backlash. The police have also become notorious for checking social media in case anyone has said anything that could possibly be taken as offensive by anyone. Freedom of speech only remains in the UK provided you don’t say anything that anyone could claim to be offended by, unless you can claim to be a member of a preferred victim group, in which case it sometimes seems that you can do or say whatever you want. Some universities won’t even allow some topics to be discussed. Freedom of speech is under high downward pressure.

So where next? Privacy erosion is a related problem that becomes lethal to freedom when combined with a desire for increasing surveillance. Anyone commenting on social media already assumes that the police are copied in, but if government gets its way, that will be extended to list of the internet services or websites you visit, and anything you type into search. That isn’t the end though.

Our televisions and games consoles listen in to our conversation (to facilitate voice commands) and send some of the voice recording to the manufacturers. We should expect that many IoT devices will do so too. Some might send video, perhaps to facilitate gesture recognition, and the companies might keep that too. I don’t know whether they data mine any of it for potential advertising value or whether they are 100% benign and only use it to deliver the best possible service to the user. Your guess is as good as mine.

However, since the principle has already been demonstrated, we should expect that the police may one day force them to give up their accumulated data. They could run a smart search on the entire population to find any voice or video samples or photos that might indicate anything remotely suspicious, and could then use legislation to increase monitoring of the suspects. They could make an extensive suspicion database for the whole population, just in case it might be useful. Given that there is already strong pressure to classify a wide range of ordinary everyday relationship rows or financial quarrels as domestic abuse, this is a worrying prospect. The vast majority of the population have had arguments with a partner at some time, used a disparaging comment or called someone a name in the heat of the moment, said something in the privacy of their home that they would never dare say in public, used terminology that isn’t up to date or said something less than complimentary about someone on TV. All we need now to make the ‘Demolition Man’ automated fine printout a reality is more time and more of the same government and police attitudes as we are accustomed to.

The next generation of software for the TVs and games consoles could easily include monitoring of eye gaze direction, maybe some already do. It might need that for control (e.g look and blink), or to make games smarter or for other benign reasons. But when the future police get the records of everything you have watched, what image was showing on that particular part of the screen when you made that particular expression, or made that gesture or said that, then we will pretty much have the thought police. They could get a full statistical picture of your attitudes to a wide range of individuals, groups, practices, politics or policies, and a long list of ‘offences’ for anyone they don’t like this week. None of us are saints.

The technology is all entirely feasible in the near future. What will make it real or imaginary is the attitude of the authorities, the law of the land and especially the attitude of the police. Since we are seeing an increasing disconnect between the police and the intent behind the law of the land, I am not the only one that this will worry.

We’ve already lost much of our freedom of speech in the UK. If we do not protest loudly enough and defend what we have left, we will soon lose the rest, and then lose freedom of thought. Without the freedom to think what you want, you don’t have any freedom worth having.

 

A potential architectural nightmare

I read in the papers that Google’s boss has rejected ‘boring’ plans for their London HQ. Hooray! Larry Page says he wants something that will be worthy of standing 100 years. I don’t always agree with Google but I certainly approve on this occasion. Given their normal style choices for other buildings, I have every confidence that their new building will be gorgeous, but what if I’m wrong?

In spite of the best efforts of Prince Charles, London has become a truly 21st century city. The new tall buildings are gorgeous and awe-inspiring as they should be. Whether they will be here in 100 years I don’t much care, but they certainly show off what can be done today, rather than poorly mimicking what could be done in the 16th century.

I’ve always loved modern architecture since I was a child (I like some older styles too, especially Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). Stainless steel and glass are simple materials but used well, they can make beautiful structures. Since the Lloyds building opened up the new era, many impressive buildings have appeared. Modern materials have very well-known physical properties and high manufacturing consistency, so can be used at their full engineering potential.

Materials technology is developing quickly and won’t slow down any time soon. Recently discovered materials such as graphene will dramatically improve what can be done. Reliable electronics will too. If you could be certain that a device will always perform properly even when there is a local power cut, and is immune to hacking, then ultra-fast electromagnetic lifts could result. You could be accelerated downwards at 2.5g and the lift could rotate and slow you down at 0.5g in the slowing phase, then you would feel a constant weight all the way down but would reach high speed on a long descent. Cables just wouldn’t be able to do such a thing when we get building that are many kilometers high.

Google could only build with materials that exist now or could be reliable enough for building use by construction time. They can’t use graphene tension members or plasma windows or things that won’t even be invented for decades. Whatever they do, the materials and techniques will not remain state of the art for long. That means there is even more importance in making something that looks impressive. Technology dates quickly, style lasts much longer. So for possibly the first time ever, I’d recommend going for impressive style over substance.

There is an alternative; to go for a design that is adaptable, that can change as technology permits. That is not without penalty though, because making something that has to be adaptive restricts the design options.

I discussed plasma glass in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/will-plasma-be-the-new-glass/

I don’t really know if it will be feasible, but it might be.

Carbon foam could be made less dense than air, or even helium for that matter, so could make buildings with sections that float (a bit like the city in the game Bioshock Infinite).

Dynamic magnetic levitation could allow features that hover or move about. Again, this would need ultra-reliable electronics or else things would be falling on people. Lightweight graphene or carbon nanotube composite panels would provide both structural strength and the means to conduct the electricity to make the magnetic fields.

Light emission will remain an important feature. We already see some superb uses of lighting, but as the technology to produce light continues to improve, we will see ever more interesting and powerful effects. LEDs and lasers dominate today, and holograms are starting to develop again, but none of these existed until half a century ago. Even futurologists can only talk about things that exist at least in concept already, but many of the things that will dominate architecture in 50-100 years have probably not even been thought of yet. Obviously, I can’t list them. However, with a base level assumption that we will have at the very least free-floating panels and holograms floating around the building, and very likely various plasma constructions too, the far future building will be potentially very visually stimulating.

It will therefore be hard for Google to make a building today that would hold its own against what we can build in 50 or 100 years. Hard, but not impossible. Some of the most impressive structures in the world were built hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

A lighter form of adaptability is to use augmented reality. Buildings could have avatars just as people can. This is where the Google dream building could potentially become an architectural nightmare if they make another glass-style error.

A building might emit a 3D digital aura designed by its owners, or the user might have one superimposed by a third-party digital architecture service, based on their own architectural preferences, or digital architectural overlays could be hijacked by marketers or state services as just another platform to advertise. Clearly, this form of adaptation cannot easily be guaranteed to stay in the control of the building owners.

On the other hand, this one is for Google. Google and advertising are well acquainted. Maybe they could use their entire building surface as a huge personalised augmented reality advertising banner. They will know by image search who all the passers-by are, will know all aspects of their lives, and can customize ads to their desires as they walk past.

So the nightmare for the new Google building is not that the building will be boring, but that it is invisible, replaced by a personalized building-sized advertisement.

 

Stimulative technology

You are sick of reading about disruptive technology, well, I am anyway. When a technology changes many areas of life and business dramatically it is often labelled disruptive technology. Disruption was the business strategy buzzword of the last decade. Great news though: the primarily disruptive phase of IT is rapidly being replaced by a more stimulative phase, where it still changes things but in a more creative way. Disruption hasn’t stopped, it’s just not going to be the headline effect. Stimulation will replace it. It isn’t just IT that is changing either, but materials and biotech too.

Stimulative technology creates new areas of business, new industries, new areas of lifestyle. It isn’t new per se. The invention of the wheel is an excellent example. It destroyed a cave industry based on log rolling, and doubtless a few cavemen had to retrain from their carrying or log-rolling careers.

I won’t waffle on for ages here, I don’t need to. The internet of things, digital jewelry, active skin, AI, neural chips, storage and processing that is physically tiny but with huge capacity, dirt cheap displays, lighting, local 3D mapping and location, 3D printing, far-reach inductive powering, virtual and augmented reality, smart drugs and delivery systems, drones, new super-materials such as graphene and molybdenene, spray-on solar … The list carries on and on. These are all developing very, very quickly now, and are all capable of stimulating entire new industries and revolutionizing lifestyle and the way we do business. They will certainly disrupt, but they will stimulate even more. Some jobs will be wiped out, but more will be created. Pretty much everything will be affected hugely, but mostly beneficially and creatively. The economy will grow faster, there will be many beneficial effects across the board, including the arts and social development as well as manufacturing industry, other commerce and politics. Overall, we will live better lives as a result.

So, you read it here first. Stimulative technology is the next disruptive technology.

 

Laser spirit level with marked line

Another day, another idea. It probably already exists but I couldn’t find one. If it isn’t already patented, feel free to develop it.

Spirit level

The future of zip codes

Finally. Z. Zero, zoos, zebras, zip codes. Zip codes is the easiest one since I can use someone else’s work and just add a couple of notes.

This piece for the Spectator was already written by Rory Sutherland and fits the bill perfectly so I will just link to it: http://www.spectator.co.uk/life/the-wiki-man/9348462/the-best-navigation-idea-ive-seen-since-the-tube-map/.

It is about http://what3words.com/. Visit the site yourself, find out what words describe precisely where you are.

The idea in a nutshell is that there are so many words that combining three words is enough to give a unique address to every 3×3 metre square on the planet. Zip codes, or post codes to us brits, don’t do that nearly so well, so I really like this idea. I am currently sitting at stem.trees.wage. (I just noticed that the relevant google satellite image is about 2006, why so old?). It would allow a geographic web too, allowing you to send messages to geographic locations easily. I could send an email to orbit.escape.given.coffeemachine to make a cup of coffee. The 4th word is needed because a kettle, microwave and fridge also share that same square. The fatal flaw that ruins so many IoT ideas though is that I still have to go there to put a cup under the nozzle and to collect it once it’s full. Another one is that with that degree of precision, now that I’ve published the info, ISIS now has the coordinates to hit me right on the head (or my coffee machine). I think they probably have higher priorities though.

Forehead 3D mist projector

Another simple idea. I was watching the 1920s period drama Downton Abbey and Lady Mary was wearing a headband with a large jewel in it. I had an idea based on linking mist projection systems to headbands. I couldn’t find a pic of Lady Mary’s band on Google but many other designs would work just as well and the one from ASOS would be just as feasible. The idea is that a forehead band (I’m sure there is a proper fashion name for them) would have a central ‘jewel’ which is actually just an ornamental IT capsule containing a misting device and a projector as well as the obvious power supply, comms, processing, direction detectors etc. A 3D image would be projected onto water mist emitted from the reservoir in the device. A simple illustration might help:

forehead projector

 

Many fashion items make comebacks and a lot of 1920s things seem to be in fashion again now. This could be a nice electronic update to a very old fashion concept. With a bit more miniaturisation, smart bindis would also be feasible. It could be used with direction sensing to enable augmented reality use, or simply to display the same image regardless of gaze direction. Unlike visor based augmented reality, others would be able to see the same scene visualised for the wearer.

OLED fashion contact lenses

Self explanatory concept, but not connected to my original active contact lens direct retinal projection concept. This one is just fashion stuff and could be done easily tomorrow. I allowed a small blank central area so that you aren’t blinded if you wear them. This version doesn’t project onto the retina, though future versions could also house and power devices to do so.

Fashion contacts

OK, the illustration is crap, but I’m an engineer, not a fashion designer. Additional functionality could be to display a high res one time code into iris recognition systems for high security access.

The future of X-People

There is an abundance of choice for X in my ‘future of’ series, but most options are sealed off. I can’t do naughty stuff because I don’t want my blog to get blocked so that’s one huge category gone. X-rays are boring, even though x-ray glasses using augmented reality… nope, that’s back to the naughty category again. I won’t stoop to cover X-Factor so that only leaves X-Men, as in the films, which I admit to enjoying however silly they are.

My first observation is how strange X-Men sounds. Half of them are female. So I will use X-People. I hate political correctness, but I hate illogical nomenclature even more.

My second one is that some readers may not be familiar with the X-Men so I guess I’d better introduce the idea. Basically they are a large set of mutants or transhumans with very varied superhuman or supernatural capabilities, most of which defy physics, chemistry or biology or all of them. Essentially low-grade superheroes whose main purpose is to show off special effects. OK, fun-time!

There are several obvious options for achieving X-People capabilities:

Genetic modification, including using synthetic biology or other biotech. This would allow people to be stronger, faster, fitter, prettier, more intelligent or able to eat unlimited chocolate without getting fat. The last one will be the most popular upgrade. However, now that we have started converging biotech with IT, it won’t be very long before it will be possible to add telepathy to the list. Thought recognition and nerve stimulation are two sides of the same technology. Starting with thought control of appliances or interfaces, the world’s networked knowledge would soon be available to you just by thinking about something. You could easily send messages using thought control and someone else could hear them synthesized into an earpiece, but later it could be direct thought stimulation. Eventually, you’d have totally shared consciousness. None of that defies biology or physics, and it will happen mid-century. Storing your own thoughts and effectively extending your mind into the cloud would allow people to make their minds part of the network resources. Telepathy will be an everyday ability for many people but only with others who are suitably equipped. It won’t become easy to read other people’s minds without them having suitable technology equipped too. It will be interesting to see whether only a few people go that route or most people. Either way, 2050 X-People can easily have telepathy, control objects around them just by thinking, share minds with others and maybe even control other people, hopefully consensually.

Nanotechnology, using nanobots etc to achieve possibly major alterations to your form, or to affect others or objects. Nanotechnology is another word for magic as far as many sci-fi writers go. Being able to rearrange things on an individual atom basis is certainly fuel for fun stories, but it doesn’t allow you to do things like changing objects into gold or people into stone statues. There are plenty of shape-shifters in sci-fi but in reality, chemical bonds absorb or release energy when they are changed and that limits how much change can be made in a few seconds without superheating an object. You’d also need a LOT of nanobots to change a whole person in a few seconds. Major changes in a body would need interim states to work too, since dying during the process probably isn’t desirable. If you aren’t worried about time constraints and can afford to make changes at a more gentle speed, and all you’re doing is changing your face, skin colour, changing age or gender or adding a couple of cosmetic wings, then it might be feasible one day. Maybe you could even change your skin to a plastic coating one day, since plastics can use atomic ingredients from skin, or you could add a cream to provide what’s missing. Also, passing some nanobots to someone else via a touch might become feasible, so maybe you could cause them to change involuntarily just by touching them, again subject to scope and time limits. So nanotech can go some way to achieving some X-People capabilities related to shape changing.

Moving objects using telekinesis is rather less likely. Thought controlling a machine to move a rock is easy, moving an unmodified rock or a dumb piece of metal just by concentrating on it is beyond any technology yet on the horizon. I can’t think of any mechanism by which it could be done. Nor can I think of ways of causing things to just burst into flames without using some sort of laser or heat ray. I can’t see either how megawatt lasers can be comfortably implanted in ordinary eyes. These deficiencies might be just my lack of imagination but I suspect they are actually not feasible. Quite a few of the X-Men have these sorts of powers but they might have to stay in sci-fi.

Virtual reality, where you possess the power in a virtual world, which may be shared with others. Well, many computer games give players supernatural powers, or take on various forms, and it’s obvious that many will do so in VR too. If you can imagine it, then someone can get the graphics chips to make it happen in front of your eyes. There are no hard physics or biology barriers in VR. You can do what you like. Shared gaming or socializing environments can be very attractive and it is not uncommon for people to spend almost every waking hour in them. Role playing lets people do things or be things they can’t in the real world. They may want to be a superhero, or they might just want to feel younger or look different or try being another gender. When they look in a mirror in the VR world, they would see the person they want to be, and that could make it very compelling compared to harsh reality. I suspect that some people will spend most of their free time in VR, living a parallel fantasy life that is as important to them as their ‘real’ one. In their fantasy world, they can be anyone and have any powers they like. When they share the world with other people or AI characters, then rules start to appear because different people have different tastes and desires. That means that there will be various shared virtual worlds with different cultures, freedoms and restrictions.

Augmented reality, where you possess the power in a virtual world but in ways that it interacts with the physical world is a variation on VR, where it blends more with reality. You might have a magic wand that changes people into frogs. The wand could be just a stick, but the victim could be a real person, and the change would happen only in the augmented reality. The scope of the change could be one-sided – they might not even know that you now see them as a frog, or it could again be part of a large shared culture where other people in the community now see and treat them as a frog. The scope of such cultures is very large and arbitrary cultural rules could apply. They could include a lot of everyday life – shopping, banking, socializing, entertainment, sports… That means effects could be wide-ranging with varying degrees of reality overlap or permanence. Depending on how much of their lives people live within those cultures, virtual effects could have quite real consequences. I do think that augmented reality will eventually have much more profound long-term effects on our lives than the web.

Controlled dreaming, where you can do pretty much anything you want and be in full control of the direction your dream takes. This is effectively computer-enhanced lucid dreaming with literally all the things you could ever dream of. But other people can dream of extra things that you may never have dreamt of and it allows you to explore those areas too.  In shared or connected dreams, your dreams could interact with those of others or multiple people could share the same dream. There is a huge overlap here with virtual reality, but in dreams, things don’t get the same level of filtration and reality is heavily distorted, so I suspect that controlled dreams will offer even more potential than VR. You can dream about being in VR, but you can’t make a dream in VR.

X-People will be very abundant in the future. We might all be X-People most of the time, routinely doing things that are pure sci-fi today. Some will be real, some will be virtual, some will be in dreams, but mostly, thanks to high quality immersion and the social power of shared culture, we probably won’t really care which is which.