Some (Crazy?) Thoughts on the Future

Some (Crazy?) Thoughts on the Future

[I wrote this a while back but took it down due to lack of interest – some of my predictions sounded preposterous and at the end I actually warn readers not to repeat them. But technology has advanced enough that they’re no longer completely incredible. In fact I stand by them, I think there’s a good chance they’ll all come to be.]

Like being there

In hindsight it seems obvious what lay in the future in, say, 1980 (e.g. the personal computer). It’s not so easy in 2020. One strategy is to identify existing trends and extrapolate them.

One obvious trend is (still) to use computers for communication. Increasingly they’re used for visual as well as audio links. Zoom is currently the leading example, thanks mainly to the pandemic.

But there’s obviously room for improvement. The images are tiny and sometimes distorted. They often freeze and latency problems means the video can lag the audio. As bandwidth rises we will see these problems disappear. [Zoom has come a long way since 2020] Screens will get bigger eithout losing resolution. Eventually whole walls will become screens presenting life size images. It will be like having friends and family in the same room

Embedded computers

Another trend is to put computers in things, like refrigerators, cars, washing machines, lamps, and so on. The generalization is to have computers in almost everything – coffee cups, shoes, toothbrushes, glasses (spectacles), and so on. In fact I’m generalizing to a future in which almost every object has a ‘brain’ in the same way that every animal – even an insect – has a brain.

And these brains would be linked together, by wifi or bluetooth or some currently non existent system. And these brains would all be running software.

This sounds like the internet of things but could be more elaborate. And what software would these brains run? Applications, obviously, but it seems they would need a standard common operating system. Yet to be written?

Screens, screens, screens.

Another trend is the proliferation of screens. More of the things we use (phones, of course, but also cars, fridges, air conditioners etc) have screens. What does it mean to generalize this tendency?

The generalization is that almost everything has a screen. Consider a coffee cup. Its screen could simply be its cylindrical surface. Normally it could display a decorative pattern or a slogan, like a contemporary cup. Except it could change this display, choosing amongst thousands according to some algorithm or at random.

But it could also display information, like the temperature, or the nature of its contents, coffee or tea or beer, for example. When the coffee cools off you could put it in the microwave and the cup could tell the microwave how much heating it needs.

Shoes could have a decorative surface which occasionally displays information such as the number of steps taken since a starting point.

There’s a place for big screens too. Whole walls could be screens which sometimes display solid colors, sometimes patterns or scenery. If all the walls in your house are screens, you could ‘repaint’ it with the click of a mouse. Don’t like the yellow? Try blue.

These ideas are currently impractical for financial or technical reasons but we’re talking about the future, when these problems may be solved.

Eventually screens will be thin and flexible and can be used for clothing. Imagine a shirt with millions of possible patterns. Or patterns that shift as your mood changes. Or that displays warnings about health conditions, like fever or high blood sugar.

Faster and faster

One obvious trend is that computers are getting ever more powerful. Moore’s law was that chip density doubled every year and a half. That no longer happens but with multicores it’s probably still true that computer power doubles every 18 months.

What can we do with this immense power? Implement some of the ideas above, obviously. AI and machine learning are good candidates. With assistance you could remember and recognize everyone you’ve ever met, and be able to translate whatever they say in whatever language.

At this point you’re probably thinking about quantum computing but my advice is to forget it. It’s been just around the corner for at least 25 years.

There is no shortage of sensationalist predictions about quantum technology but what I look for is references to entanglement. It’s known that entanglement cannot be used to transmit information. But often these sensationalist articles state otherwise, claiming, for example, that quantum computers will be able to send information faster than light; in fact instantaneously. These claims are bogus and articles containing them should be ignored.

Collaborating coffee cups

If cups and shoes have brains and skin (screens) why stop there? They could have eyes (cameras) ears (microphones) and touch – touch sensitive skin. And why not voices – speakers?

You could have a conversation with your cup while you enjoy a perfectly heated coffee. Or enjoy a perfectly heated bedtime hot chocolate while your cup hums a lullaby.

This may seem like a ridiculous extrapolation but remember we’re talking about the (possibly distant) future. About a century ago Tesla predicted that we would carry around telephones in our pockets that would allow us to talk to anyone anywhere in the world. Think how ridiculous that sounded. He didn’t predict that these phones would transmit live images – that would have been too much.

And why would the coffee cups talk (or communicate silently) only with us? They could collaborate, say, by singing to us in multi part harmonies.

They could get together and agree on a decorative pattern for the day. And coordinate the decoration with the plates and even with the kitchen walls and your pajamas.

There’s clearly no end to this speculation. On special days, like Halloween, the external walls of houses and buildings could get in on the act and transform whole cities into wonderlands. If we wanted to.

There are serious hardware and software challenges to make this all work. One starting point might be an IoT operating system that can be used soon.

I have no idea how realistic this is. My guess is there is no technical obstacle, in the long run, to having a coffee cup chorus. It depends on whether we want it.

In the meantime it’s best not to talk about the plates and the walls and your pajamas getting together. Who do you think you are, Tesla?

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Ava Chan

Ava Chan

I'm a researcher at Utokyo :) and a big fan of Ava Max