The best part about predicting the distant future is that you are unlikely to be around when that future arrives and it becomes painfully obvious you had it all wrong! But we’re (reasonably) sure the points covered here will come true as the seeds for them have already sprouted early shoots.
Robotics and AI
While Skynet and Terminators may never roam the Earth in search of humanity to squash, it is certain that machines of the future will be agile, smart and almost human. Advanced algorithms and cloud-side processing will give them immense power to understand and respond to human needs. In countries with large ageing populations — Japan and Korea especially — smart robots will play the role of caregivers and domestic help, while developed nations with gentrified populations will task autonomous machines with keeping cities clean and doing jobs too lowly for humans.
Robots will also become the default go-to for disaster recovery and in conditions too dangerous for human presence. But no matter how smart they become, some experts insist robots can be considered truly intelligent only when they can spontaneously crack a great joke! Or perhaps, laugh at your joke no matter how poor it was.
We have a famous backer for the idea that human minds will be able to communicate directly with each other — Mark Zuckerberg. During an open Q&A session held on June 30, the Facebook CEO was asked questions about the future. One of his responses: “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. This would be the ultimate communication technology.”
Zuckerberg believes this is a logical progression from text to photos to videos to immersive experiences like VR headsets to the “power to share our full sensory and emotional experience with people whenever we’d like”.
So how will it work? Well, that’s the million-dollar question. And the answer will surely be worth trillions of dollars. Though it’s not difficult to imagine a tiny sensor embedded in the brain, or worn on the outside, that picks up brainwaves and beams them to a receiving unit worn by the recipients. So don’t be surprised if Facebook someday renames itself Brainbook.
During the same Q&A, renowned scientist Stephen Hawking asked Zuckerberg about the biggest questions in science he would like to see answered. Turns out Zuckerberg is most interested in questions about how the mind works, superintelligence and immortality. “What will enable us to live forever?” he asked. “How do we cure all diseases? How does the brain work?”
Well, future tech may not offer eternal life, but it will certainly deliver an extended, disease-free existence with the help of genetic manipulations.
Expect controversies to rage around genetically modified humans, designer babies who have been artificially enhanced, human cloning and cyborgs — part human, part machine. We can already replace a few defective human parts with 3D printed ones. A June 2015 Forbes report lists five: blood vessels, heart valve, skin, liver cells and the ear. And in a few decades, switching just about any faulty part with an artificial one might be as simple as checking in for a day at the local hospital.
The current crop of VR headsets, like the Oculus Rift, put you inside a 360-degree video — imagine you are at the centre of a sphere and things are unfolding all around you, even up and down. The illusion-shattering limitation, however, is that you are still on terra firma and gravity is constantly reminding you of this fact.
But the future wave of VR set-ups will literally suspend you inside large capsules or chambers — the kind of tech used by Nasa to train astronauts, where you will lose track of what way is up and become truly immersed in the experience.
Mind you, VR is not only about gaming and wowing your peers — it has serious applications in medicine, architecture, scientific simulations and, of course, fitness. Imagine going for a jog on Mars, dodging rocks and skipping craters. If that gets too tedious, well, a press of a button and you might be climbing up the Jebal Al Jais in Ras Al Khaimah.
Current 3D tech is able to print everything from a home to an iPhone case. Even pizzas and candies. It is also increasingly used for rapid prototyping and creating customised parts in automotive, aerospace, health care and many other industries. So what comes next? Skylar Tibbits, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Architecture, believes the next wave will be 4D printing, where products react and adjust to changes.
In his Forbes column, Rick Smith, TED speaker and 3D printing entrepreneur, offers examples of a construction brick that is light to handle, but reaches its full weight and structure only at the exact location where it will be used. Or hydraulic pipes that automatically repair themselves if they are damaged. Or sneakers that morph into running shoes the moment you start jogging, but grow cleats if you walk on grass, or turn waterproof if it starts raining. And while we are at it, also imagine a Matrix-style factory where machines build themselves. “While this technology is still new, it promises to take 3D printing to an entirely new dimension,” adds Smith.
(Inter)face the future
Predicting future user interfaces and designs is perhaps the trickiest one, though we can be sure conventional displays, buttons, dials and switches won’t exist. Instead, we are likely to get things done using voice and gesture commands. Smartphones, too, will vanish. Instead, we will communicate via holograms and holodecks, or perhaps smart contact lenses and implanted sensors. Eye-tracking will also gain traction, allowing users to control devices through eye movements and the occasional wink. Perhaps we could also ask Siri and Cortana about what the future holds for them — will they get a promotion, or will they be pink-slipped?