THE FUTURE Will It Work?

Chris Wood August 21 2000

THE FUTURE Will It Work?

Chris Wood August 21 2000

THE FUTURE Will It Work?



Chris Wood

“Doctor” John could be a retired rock legend. He has a braided pigtail and a great tan, set off by a “Joe Cool” Snoopy T-shirt and Birkenstock sandals. He collects vinyl records. But the doctorate is real—in good, grey computer science. Still, John Buchanans job is certainly one of the coolest in all geekdom: chief research scientist for Electronic Arts, a company that creates bewitchingly

lifelike sports simulations for game systems such as Sega and the soon-to-be-released Sony PlayStation2. He works in a gleaming New Age facility in Burnaby, B.C. Overhead, a wall-size screen mixes snippets of soccer, hockey and basketball videos with EA simulations. In a testament to the company’s skills, it takes a moment to realize when live action ends and fantasy begins. But only a moment. Dr. John wants to make it a lot harder. “By 2005, when you see somebody playing an Electronic Arts hockey game, ” he says, “I want you to have to look at it for at least a full minute before you know it’s not a broadcast.”

Before the century is 10 years older, Buchanan expects to see similar technology achieve virtual resurrection, bringing some great-but-dead actor like Humphrey Bogart back to the screen. “In fact,” he says, “I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t.” Blurring the lines between what is real and imagined, between who is living, dead and merely synthetic, technology’s k gifts have never offered humanity more god-like powers— M nor confronted us with more haunting questions. As CanaB dians head home from cottages and campgrounds, they can ■ expect to be pummelled this coming gift season by ads for H a new generation of Internet-enabled cellphones, game ■ consoles and personal digital assistants like the U.S.-made A Palm and Canada’s BlackBerry. The real invasion of B pocketbooks and personal space, however, won’t arrive H until at least 2003. That is when high-capacity wireless ■ Internet access and short-range radio are expected to be-

gies into a (supposedly) seamless new universe of always-on, always-online pervasive computing. Now less than 40 months away, this is the future we’ve read about: the fridge and Palm unit consult to put eggs and milk on the shopping list; the prescription botde sends a memo to say the Prozac is almost out; the boss e-mails a spreadsheet to the device on your hip while you’re canoeing at the lake. “The goal is to make the Internet a utility like electricity—it’s just there” says John McFarlane, the Canadian-born vice-president of networking products for Sun Microsystems Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif. “After that, we get into Dick Tracy stuff.”

And it’s just the start. Unremitting increases in computer power and decades of investment in basic research are forecast to pay off in the first three decades of the 21st century in a flowering of new invention. Try robot surgeons on for size. Or multi-day holidays in exotic, personalized “virtual” spaces—G-rated or XXX. “Smart” suitcases that never get lost. Eyeglasses that keep you from getting fuddled in your old age, matching the faces of people you meet to those of your friends—and then whispering their names in your ear (great for politicians, too). Artificial eyes; off-the-shelf hearts and livers. Or how about a visit to the clinic to de-select that family gene in your baby’s DNA that carries a vulnerability to Parkinson’s disease?

All this and more may be closer to today than the dawn of the 1980s. High-level seers believe the impact will be historic, and fundamental. Futurist Alvin Toffler compares the coming cultural shift to that of the Industrial Revolution or, before that, the discovery of farming. Programming genius Bill Joy, who helped found Sun Microsystems, thinks that before today’s newborns reach retirement age, ultra-intelligent robots may supplant humanity as Earth’s masters (page 20).

'By 2005, I want you to have to look at our hockey game for at least a full minute before you know it's not a broadcast'

Maybe. But expectations for the most promising new technologies may come in conflict with more urgent global challenges. Nanotechnology, for instance, might let us build almost any object out of chemical feedstocks, molecule by molecule, perhaps as early as 2030—a date no further in the future than Woodstock is in the past—but only if society can sustain the

necessary investment (page 26). That is no certainty. In a future-gazing passage of a new book, Where on Earth Are We Going.?, Canadian environmentalist Maurice Strong argues that by 2030 the shock of climate change may halt society’s progress. Speaking to Macleans, Strong offered a grim vision for the new year three decades hence: “a new feudal society, a techno-feudal society,” in which walled and guarded elites wield technology, encircled by starving, chaotic masses.

Crystal-ball gazers are often wrong. At the dawn of the Industrial Age, skeptics dismissed the possibility of trains reaching the diabolical speed of 20 m.p.h. as “palpably absurd and ridiculous.” IBM in 1943 famously forecast world demand for computers at five. Still, avoiding the urge to look forward in an age hurtling so furiously into the unknown would be like driving with our eyes closed. And in any case, the scene immediately ahead is more enticing than alarming.

A barrage of advertising set to strike this autumn will urge Canadians to sign up for, or switch to, new Internet-enabled cellphones. Already, virtually every new mobile phone can navigate the World Wide Web, but that ability is rudimentary compared with what’s to come. Surfing on today’s cellphones is limited both by the tiny size of the screen and the constraints of wireless Internet access—which typically handles less data than the worst dial-up connection. As a result, this generation of Net-enabled phones delivers only a stripped-down experience: plain text and very basic graphics. Even that much will be available only from Web sites adapted to the Wireless Applications Protocol or WAP. While WAP-enabled sites are proliferating, they are still just a tiny fraction of the billion or so pages on the Web.

Even so, cellphone makers and wireless service providers are drooling over the technology’s potential. Early offerings on your matchbook-size phone screen include e-mail, online banking and stock trading, weather and traffic reports, games, headlines and horoscopes. Citing experience in Japan and parts of Europe, where wireless services are more advanced, some forecasters expect a third of North Americans to be surfing by phone by 2003. By then, however, two further developments will provide capabilities much further up the Wow! scale.


To some techno-analysts, the personal computer has had its day. It’s too complicated, too expensive, too bulky for many households, they argue. If you only want the Internet, why bother with spreadsheets and operating systems? Enter the so-called Web appliances, such as Intel Corp.’s Dot.Station, which offer bare-bones computing: Web access, e-mail and in Intel’s case, a built-in phone. Intel is mulling giving away the terminals, likely through Internet service providers who will charge monthly fees for Net access under a long-term contract. Other U.S. companies have already been selling such devices for as little as $99 (U.S.), plus the monthly fee. In part, the trend reflects a drive to market the Internet to the technologically challenged. But expect to see many more specialized cyber-devices-from “radios” that tune in Web broadcasts to roving robotic cameras that transmit images over the Net. The first prerequisite is high-capacity wireless transmission facilities—called “broadband”—covering most North American population centres. Once in place, probably by late 2003, broadband should make cellphone data speeds equivalent to those of a good corporate network (two megabits per second or more). At that rate, the phones will be able to download full-colour images, streaming video and CD-quality audio. Many early services will be aimed at the techno-sawy young: expect multiplayer online games and instant messaging. Costs will be determined less by airtime and more by the amount of data you download.

The other key to the wireless future is agreement on a standard for short-range radio. Tiny transmitters whose signals travel less than 10 m will let almost any device with an embedded computer chip communicate with any similar devices in its vicinity. Among the immediate benefits will be conveniences, such as digital assistants that automatically update the address book of your PC when you’re in the office—and double as a remote for the garagedoor opener.

Down the road, visionaries foresee everything from rooms that dim the lights as the last person leaves, to refrigerators that keep track of their contents and automatically replenish them by ordering over the Internet. Medicine cabinets might do the same for pills. Outdoors, your cellphone, equipped with global positioning technology, might notify you when someone you know is nearby—while pointing out that the café on the corner has a special on latte and a muffin. “The idea ultimately,” says David Neale, vice-president of new product development for Rogers AT&T Wireless, “is to have completely pervasive access networks.”

While it’s not yet a lock, the leading candidate for a short-range radio protocol is named Bluetooth—after a long-dead Danish king. Backed by such major players as Intel, Nokia and Motorola, it is already being installed in some products. But there are still hurdles. One of the biggest is security: how to ensure that when every public space is awash in low-power broadcasts from every backpack and briefcase, Bluetooth can tell one user from the next. “If I walk past somebody’s Bluetooth box,” says NickTidd, general manager of 3Com Canada Inc., which is developing products to the standard, “does that mean they can see all my credit cards?” Chip giant Intel is putting fully half its wireless research budget into patching Bluetooth’s security cavities.

Still, all-embracing networks of wireless chatter, not only between humans, but among their digital servants, are likely to be reality within five years. Components already exist. Whirlpool Corp. this year began showing a prototype Internet-enabled line of smart appliances that includes a fridge with a removable control pad in the door: among its talents, it can scan bar codes to compile a shopping list for automatic restocking from an e-grocer. In Japan, instant messaging by cellphone is now the hottest craze among teenagers.

'I think we're going to split into two species. Instead of "haves" and "have-nots," it will be "knows" and "know nots." Frank Ogden, futurist

The fusion of wireless telephony and short-range radio will break down most remaining barriers between things like pagers, cellphones and personal digital assistants. By middecade, Suns McFarlane and others expect devices to be tailored to each distinct and identifiable market niche. Leatherbound digital portfolios, with two screens like facing pages, might hold not only a vast personal library but also a DayTimer, client list, stock-tracking software and sizzling set of jazz tracks. A cellphone might play your music collection and sport a colour screen and a mini-joystick for games. Either unit might also serve as a transaction device for buying anything from a cola to a car, or as a personal locator to tell you where you are and how to get where you’re going. If industry goals are met, such devices will be as personal and indispensable as wallets by the end of the decade. Predicts George Cope, president and CEO of wireless provider Clearnet: “A 17-year-old will get his first wireless device and it will be with him for the rest of his life.”

By then, playing either games or Gershwin on our PDAs may be old hat. Pervasive computing isn’t the only mindbending technology waiting to be unwrapped. “We’re watching the birth of three great new technologies simultaneously,” says Stanley Williams, director of the Quantum Structures Research Institute for Hewlett-Packard Labs. “Those technologies,” he told a symposium on the future last month in San Francisco, “are biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology.” And, Williams predicts, they will alter our lives “beyond anything we’ve ever experienced.”

Experts at George Washington University, in the U.S. capital, agree. There, management professor William Halal has been surveying experts in scores of research fields for more than a decade, to identify and track emerging technologies.

“We see stunning achievements everywhere,” says Halal. “Today’s wave of technological change seems destined to transform life over the next 20 to 30 years.”

Some of what’s coming, and approximately when we can expect it:

Mass customization. As the Internet expands consumer choice, vendors will tailor services and products to ever-smaller market niches, down to the individual, over this decade. Robo-surgery. Advances in miniaturization, robotics and “haptics” (the study of tactile feedback, used in remote hand-like actions) could make remote-control surgery on people in distant communities possible in eight to 10 years. Pharms. Genetically modified fruits and vegetables could treat chronic disorders like diabetes by producing common enzymes or hormones such as insulin within the decade. Optical computers. Devices using light instead of electricity could process information 1,000 times faster than today’s silicon chips by the next decade (page 30).

Genetic selection. Ethics aside, the rough mapping this year of the human genome is likely to make babies à la carte an achievable—if not legal—concept by early next decade. Virtual resorts. “Immersive reality,” incorporating haptics and synthetic intelligence, could let travellers spend days on digitally created alien planets, or in the arms of virtual lovers, by the mid-teens, or sooner. (The X-rated version of this activity has already been given a name: “teledildonics.”)

Cloned and bionic organs. Both already exist in a crude form. Bionic retinas for the blind and cloned organs for transplant may be routinely available in developed countries by 2020.


In the future-say, later this week-your routine gym workout could become a lot less routine. Instead of just staring off into space as you work up a sweat on the StairMaster, try on the Olympus Eye-Trek 150W, a $1,499 pair of eyeglasses with built-in liquid crystal display screens and surround-

sound headphones. When Eye-Trek is plugged into a DVD player, VCR, game console or camcorder, it’s as if you are watching a 62-inch TV from two metres away. In the further future, be prepared for more devices that involve eyeglasses or slim headsets. Olympus, for instance, probably won’t need those plugs much longer, as wireless transmission speeds up. Then there’s virtual reality: you'll “meet” images of other people via the Net. And expect transparent glasses with cockpit-style “heads-up” displays on the lenses, showing data emitted by wireless devices all around you.

Cyborgs. Neural implants, aka “brain prostheses,” could plug directly into our grey matter to allow uploading of skills, “memories” or even the sensation of direct experience, by midway through the third decade of the century. Nanomachines. Constructed by manipulating individual atoms, nanodevices could create virtually everything else we need out of raw chemicals or garbage. Prototypes could appear by the quarter-century mark.

Androids. Special-purpose robot servants will arrive much sooner, but machines with a flexible intelligence matching or surpassing that of humans may be only a matter of amassing sufficient computing power—a point some expect to reach by 2030.

In less time than has passed since the first successful space flight, such accomplishments may indeed transform civilization far more than did the birth-control pill or the PC. But nothing is assured. Some developments may simply not pan out. Others may be indefinitely delayed.

One critical juncture will come in about a dozen years. That is when the exponential growth of computing power described by Intel co-founder Gordon Moores oft-quoted law (under which processors double in capacity and halve in cost every 18 months) will hit a wall at the limit of physics. By then, conventional microcircuits will be so small the layer of silicon separating conductors, barely a few atoms thick, will no longer insulate. In effect, chips shortcircuit. Researchers are exploring new forms of computing based on molecular reactions, optics, the design of the brain and even the chemical code of DNA. But if silicon chips max out before a replacement is found, expectations based on ever-increasing computer power may prove elusive.

Meanwhile, other processes at least as inexorable as Moore’s law will be at work. Global population continues to climb. Residents of poor countries outnumber those of rich ones 5:1. By the time nanomachines make a debut, it may be 7:1. And the divide is not only between developed and developing nations; in both, the gulf between poor and opulently wealthy is growing. Futurist Frank Ogden, whose office in Vancouver harbour is a floating showcase of cutting-edge toys, expects fewer than half the world’s people will benefit from the coming advances. For the rest, he foresees a fate anticipated by Aldo us Huxley. “I think were going to split into two species,” Ogden says. “Instead of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ it will be ‘knows’ and ‘know-nots.’The ‘know-nots’ are going to become a lost species. Over time, they’ll just vanish.”

They may not be the only ones. Sun’s Joy raises an even more apocalyptic vision. In a controversial dissertation in Wired magazine early this year, he warned that wildly self-replicating robots, more intelligent than humans and exploiting discoveries in genetics and nanotechnology, could ultimately supplant people. “We are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil,” Joy wrote. “The last chance to assert control— the fail-safe point—is rapidly approaching.”

Even without that catastrophic outcome, many futurists expect technology to radically change civic life. “Democracy has had its run,” says Ogden, who expects benign dictatorships to take its place, at least among the “knows.” Others think democracy will survive, but will find new forms as the familiar system of national governments fades away. Even relentlessly upbeat trendspotter Faith Popcorn expects brands, not national symbols, to command our future loyalty. “Nation-states will fight a losing battle,” Popcorn predicted in a commentary last year. “Corporations will become corpor-nations, taking on traditional government responsibilities like education and child care.”

And while our mounting numbers continue to put pressure on the planet, the planet increasingly is pressuring us back. Ever wilder weather

Brands, not national symbols, may command our future loyalty

has contributed to an exponenC.AT the “ re

building after disasters. By one forecast, much of the droughtplagued U.S. South will be well on its way to becoming North America’s Gobi by mid-century. Long before then—as early as 2030, according to Strong—social and environmental stress could tip even developed countries into “general anarchy and collapse.” Strong, an organizer of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, says his apocalyptic vision is not inevitable, merely “plausible” if we carry on as we are. But, “if it were to happen,” the veteran executive and diplomat warns, “we could see not just the cessation of the advance of science and technology, but actually regression.”

Enthusiasts reply that emerging technologies will address many of the very woes alarming Strong. Genetically modified food could both feed the starving and immunize them against pandemic disease. Nanotechnology could clean pollutants from the biosphere and relieve pressure on natural resources. Clearnet’s Cope is one who appreciates the pessimists’ warnings, but thinks mankind will find a way—and a technology—to master any crisis the future presents. “If the world is hitting a theoretical limit 20 years from now,” he says, “that’s not a bad horizon to have. We’ve got 20 years to figure out how not to hit that limit.” Techno-topia—or new Dark Age? Our future may hang less on the dazzling new power machines placed in our hands than on how we choose to wield them. But there is little sign that new technology is making mankind much the wiser. Edward Cornish, founder of the World Future Society, based in Bethesda, Md., thinks some may even do the opposite. Consumers, spoiled by mass customization, could turn “increasingly narcissistic,” Cornish suggests. Seduced by virtual realities, “we may become poorly integrated electronic hermits, unable to work well together because we no longer play together.” At worst, “people may lose their ability to think rationally and make wise decisions.’

In other words, the technology in our future will probably work just fine. It’s us well need to worry about. EH]