I love science fiction. I sometimes wish I was born in the future because I believe the most interesting times are yet to come. Still, within our life time we will see remarkable changes. Here are some of my predictions of technology that will make it into the mainstream in the coming decades, and with it bring massive change.
Phones and AR
It wasn't long ago phones were used for making calls. Today they are the command center of our digital lives. They notify us about contact requests, they help us remember appointments and contact details, store our videos and photos and help us separate what's interesting from what isn't.
This trend will not abate, instead it will only accelerate. As the physical becomes more and more entangled with the digital, phones will provide even more information and be more and more essential to the average person's lifestyle.
Something we have seen glimpses of is AR, "augmented reality". A technology that lets us overlay reality with meta information such as directions, signs and instructions. So far this has been done using a phone and its camera, depending on its GPS and compass to overlay the picture with relevant information as you are panning and looking at its screen. But this will become a lot more integrated as the Google Glass goggles hit the market in a very near future. For an idea of what I am talking about, check out this video (in fullscren).
Your personal aura
But phones will not just tell us about the world but will also tell the world about us. Phones can easily emit a field, a "digital aura" which tells those in close proximity about you, your interests, preferences et c. This is your manicured and public profile. This has a number of applications. Match-making, professionally or personally is an obvious one. But it can also be used to automatically adjust environments to your taste. For example hotel rooms and meeting rooms in shared offices. These spaces could pick up your aura, and adjust lighting and temperature to your preferences. And your front door could unlock when you arrive home, avoiding the need for keys. A company called Lockitron has developed a product that does this using existing near field communication technologies like Bluetooth.
Parts of the future are already here, it would seem, and this kind of technology isn't far away. We will probably see this in 10 to 15 years.
Not so long ago, electronic reading tablets were hypothetical or prototypes in labs. But the Amazon Kindle changed all that and even though it wasn't the first tablet, it was the most popular one. In spite of its restricting eco system and lack of openness, it popularized ebooks and reading tablets.
Tablets today use so called "e ink" displays or versions of it. It's a passive display that only needs power to change state since it uses stable particles in a matrix and uses power to change their state, i.e. dark or light. Particles can rotate to be either light or dark thereby letting the display show an image. Because of this, these displays only need power when you change page. They are currently unable to produce colors as doing so would require rasterizing (just like print), which requires semi-transparent particles and higher resolution than is available today. They are also rather slow, making them unsuitable for any application that needs to show fast motion images, like video.
However I don't see it as completely unlikely that these displays will be able to display colors in a near future. Furthermore, the materials will be cheaper and they will be possible to print on regular paper. Using an attached microprocessor, also printed as a circuit board on paper along with printed solar sells, they can be integrated in many different products.
Hey, look at me!
One application of this technology is to use it to replace printed labels on products in stores. Imagine that as you enter an aisle, the labels come to life and run videos in full color with content customized to you based on the information you've made available about yourself in your personal "digital aura". Your "digital aura" being a radio field around yourself powered by your phone which submits information about yourself such as age or preferences.
Once you pick up a product you will be able to interact with it since the digital paper is also touch sensitive. You can scroll through content or see videos describing how it's used.
It wouldn't surprise me at all if this happens in the next 30 years.
In 2011 I attended the first TEDx in Stockholm. The TEDx conferences are independently organized events on the same theme as the original TED. Despite being a lot more low key, and with a dramatically lower budget, and consequently much lower ticket price, the content is often top-notch.
One idea that was presented at this conference was "matter net" as in the physical form of Internet. Developments in independently flying, electrically powered toy size helicopters, called quadcopters, have opened up possibilities that may revolutionize how physical goods are shipped in the future and even the quality of life in cities.
The quadcopter in its small version has long been a lab experiment, with limited application due to the limited payloads it can handle. But these things don't need to be able to lift cars, 500 grams is more than enough for them to make an impact. It's the progress made in making these able to make decisions independently using AI that will pave the way for mass scale deployment and application. The idea of "matter net" sees quadcopters employed to carry packages between locations in places where roads do not exist. In the example given, a blood sample from a clinic in a flooded area needed to reach the regional hospital, be analyzed and the results carried back. The usual means of transportation is by motorcycle as its the only vehicle able to negotiate such terrain. This takes hours and is dangerous to the driver. Not to mention it uses fossil fuel thereby having an environmental impact as well.
Using electrically powered quadcopters, the same package could be couriered faster, cheaper and safe even though quadcopters have much lower range, usually around 10 km. So how is this accomplished?
To begin with, quadcopters in this network configuration work very much like the Internet. Packages are sent between nodes and routed. For a package to reach from A to E it needs to pass through several points on its way. In a disaster zone you would set up several "nodes" where quadcopters can land, recharge their batteries and pass on their payload. A computer tracks the payload in the network, the location of each node and quadcopter and makes sure the payload is picked up and sent on its way to the next node, one step closer to the final destination.
What about redundancy? Quadcopters have not one rotor but four and can thereby keep flying even with engine failure. This sort of system is still susceptible to bad weather but I expect it to improve as well as the research gets more funding as a result of showing potential for mass market application.
Couriers will be a thing of the past
This technology has a wider application than disaster zones. Regular courier services can be replaced by automated aerial vehicles in almost all cases, meaning less cars in cities, less pollution, less noise, and better service to you as a customer. A scenario could be you have a package you need to have delivered to the other size of the city in an hour. You purchase the transport, enter destination and the time frame you need it delivered within. You then program a special tag by, for example, plugging it into the USB port of your computer. The tag is a radio transmitter which you then attach to the payload pouch. You place it outside your door in a place with open sky. Within a minute, an aerial vehicle homes in on the signal and arrives, the payload is picked up and brought into the network. The package is then delivered through the carrier's network, across the city and left at the front of the door of the recipient who is notified by phone and is there to pick it up.
I don't find it unlikely that the skies of our cities will in the future have streaks of swarms of aerial vehicles carrying goods back and forth and that the streets will be populated by people, not cars. Road vehicles will be used for emergencies and heavy goods. This is a development that may very well happen within the next 20 years.
Quadcopters are getting smarter every day. For an example, check out this video of how a swarm of nano quadcopters can coordinate their movements.
So what about cars. We will still have them, right? Yep, I believe so. Cars are a symbol of freedom. And I don't expect that to change any time soon. But I also believe that the advent of automated cars will make people realize what a waste of time driving your own car is. Face it, with all out sophistication we are still apes. And we have terrible reaction times compared to machines.
Google has been developing automated driver systems for years and they are supposedly better than human drivers.
Automated cars bring massive improvements to our quality of life, city spaces, road safety, effectiveness of mass transportation and the environmental impact of cars.
Imagine how many hours you spend driving your car. You sit behind the wheel in traffic. Imagine if you instead could just enjoy the ride, sip your morning coffee and check your email. Your work days would be shorter as you could start your day during your commute.
No garage for you
A scenario I picture is that car ownership will be very uncommon. You would own cars for pleasure, not transportation. It is likely that, because of safety reasons, human-operated cars will be banned from major roads and only allowed on smaller roads where people go to drive for fun.
For your daily commute you would order a car, it would arrive to your door. You step in and take a seat. The car whisks off to your destination. The car even knows where you're going so you can just enjoy the ride. When you arrive, you step out and the car drives off to serve another customer. You don't need to worry about morning traffic or finding a parking spot. And you can sleep in longer as you can be effective on your way to work.
Parking will be a thing of the past
Furthermore, parking spaces will be a thing of the past. Automated cars are packed tight in underground garages and will not be parked on roads or sidewalks. As computers can operate the car with millimeter precision, the cars can be parked in very tight configurations. Cities will feel less crowded, more human and be less dangerous as fewer cars move about with drivers stressed about finding a parking spot.
Apes aren't meant for driving
Automated cars are also better at making judgments. As our stress hormone-riddled brains are taken off the road and we let computers make fast decisions, accidents will be much less common. But not only that, the ability of computers to coordinate, just like the nano copters, means that traffic runs more smoothly. We won't need roundabouts or crossroads with traffic lights. Cars can pass each other within centimeters as the computers know exactly where their care is in relation to every other car in the area. This means that your commute takes less time. And traffic can be smarted distributed over the grid, ensuring less bottlenecks and jams.
A more human urban landscape
Regardless of fuel type, automated cars also better for the environment. They are more fuel conservative and aren't prone to revving engines or doing burnouts. But it's most likely these cars will be electrically powered. They will also be better at respecting environmental concerns such as noise levels in cities. Not only will the air we breathe be better, cities will be filled by the sounds of humans again, not machines.
I believe this is a shift that will take a while because of the symbolism of the car and is something I hope to see happen in the next 30 years.
A technology that has matured very rapidly is 3D printing. Having been a curiosity, there are now Kickstarter projects aiming to mass produce 3D printers that you can buy at a reasonable price. The possibilities of this technology are endless and it can potentially disrupt some very basic fundamental principles of the market economy. Some even claim it could erase manufacturing altogether.
Something I've seen happen more and more is how the barrier of entry to markets gets lower. Some of my fascination with the web and Internet startups is how a garage operation can challenge established brands and companies by producing a better product using far less resources. It used to take massive capital and marketing to get into a market. Today you can bootstrap a business much more easily, often within months provided you have a dedicated team. Channels are also bidirectional and social media lets you get your message out using people's own networks of trust and recommendation. Traditional marketing has become less important as a way to reach out.
The physical goods business isn't protected from this development. 3D printing challenges a lot of "truths" about the economy of good and manufacturing. Using off the shelf products, you can set up your own small scale manufacturing in your home, sidestepping the investment in building supply chains traditionally required.
This scares the shit out of the existing businesses. And for good reason. As the ability to make an impact depends more on your ambition and discipline and less on how much capital you can raise, existing business models are threatened.
But 3D printing also has the promise of reducing our abuse of the Earth's resources. Using 3D printing we will need to store less, package less and transport less. Products will be available as we need them. And the ownership isn't physical but intellectual – who owns the right to reproduce something. Imagine we will see not just open source software, but open source items. Products designed under an open source license and available for anyone to replicate given a 3D printer and the right raw materials.
The Pirate Bay has had a "physibles" section for quite some time now. Apparently, filesharers have a better sense of the future that industry analysts. But don't expect this change to go down easily. The physical goods manufacturers will likely "do an RIAA" in the near future and yell "Napster!" when they realize their business model isn't protected from the free sharing of information, designs and blueprints that the Internet enables.
What is the future economy all about?
As physical ownership loses its significance, ideas will become more important. At the same time, there's a strong reluctance to limiting the sharing of ideas. DRM and laws to protect IP aren't in line with how most people think about the right "own" ideas.
The concept of having the right to own and protect an idea is a result of the physical limitations of the medium used to transfer it. The idea that it was natural to "own" ideas came about when it was physically possible to limit the distribution. Paper was scarce and expensive. Writing and reading were rare skills. Music could only be shared on LP's which you needed expensive equipment to produce. There was money to make here. The idea of intellectual ownership was a result of a business opportunity.
The rights industry runs a massive lobbying effort trying to make people believe that the idea of "intellectual property" and the rights they associate with it are universal. They aren't and as it's almost free to duplicate a text or design, people do it. It's in our nature. Our culture is based on exchange. Trying to fight our natural inclination to share is like trying to win against an avalanche.
But sharing will not take the form of copying MP3 files copyrighted by some massive record company. In the future, music and video will likely be produced under different terms. Using crowdfunding, and without a major investor taking a chance on a band or script and requiring return on it to stay in business, sharing will not threaten the livelihood of a performing artist. By insisting on jailing our ideas the media rights conglomerates force creatives to look at Kickstarter and similar services to find funding.
But if selling goods and ideas isn't commercially possible, what will future economies revolve around?
I believe the answers to be:
As we depend more and more on technology, energy becomes key. Our machines can't run without electricity. Those who can produce electric power will hold power. In both senses. But even here we're seeing democratization taking place. People build their own wind power plants and place solar cells on the roofs of their houses. This isn't an option for everyone however.
To reproduce something we need raw materials. And eventually we'll develop the technology to reduce and reuse and break things down. Making technology reusable. But in the short term, we will rely on those that can produce the metals and rare materials needed to build the components of our gadgets.
As it becomes more and more pointless to protect ideas, the minds that produce ideas will be more and more valuable. Selling your expertise or time is likely a safe way to make a living. Even in the future. Dedication to achieving mastery, passion for what you do, curiosity and a yearning to learn are key skills and personal attributes to be able to draw a salary, regardless of what century you live in.