Hello, folks, just wanted to say I’m not dead or even cryogenically suspended. I’m working on a new post re an update on my “Dream Gadgets” post here. Most specifically, I think I’m now in a place to make it happen, or at least most of it. Further bulletins as events warrant!
In Aquaria, Xyl returns to the place where she lived with her best friend Pepper and their gang the Blue Meanies. She decides to rent a sleep tube from an old friend and has to go through Little Cairo’s bazaar to get there. Walking through the bazaar she sees:
The smells of garlic, yogurt, cinnamon, onions, vinegar, olives. A skeletal industrial bot pulled fresh bread from an oven in one of the bakeries, two of its arms slicing the hot loaves with mechanical swiftness. Two Japanese teenagers made sushi almost as quickly as the bot beside them could slice the vegetables and fish they used to make it.
This is a long-past common sight in the world of 2230.
And now, from Popular Science …
(And by way of trivia, I based the scenes in the Little Cairo bazaar on the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, from a trip I took there for ComicCon in 2001. I even ate some sushi at one of the tiny Japanese food stalls there, but alas not made by robot.)
Odd how many of the smaller, everyday technologies of 2230 seem to be appearing now while the larger, worldchanging tech isn’t. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad.
Here’s an update on the Siri program that seems to be an ancestor of the Workmates and Lifemates in Aquaria and Machina Obscura.
Siri is capable of understanding natural speech to retrieve information and perform various tasks when requested just as Wally does for Xyl. I expect it won’t be long until Siri and programs like it also carry databases of task-specific information as Wally does. It might not be NetRunning methods, exploits and illegal warez like Wally, but I can see such a program for a lawyer carrying up-to-the-minute legislation, law, precedent and procedure.
Siri is now available for free for the iPhone, and available in the App Store.
When Xyl returns to her old stomping grounds of Little Cairo, she arrives at the Bazaar where she first met her best friend Pepper —
The sound levels of the bazaar always threatened to give Xyl a headache. She grinned as she walked through the airlock’s blast of fresh air and into the giant high-ceilinged room, one great open space subdivided by pre-fab partitions into tiny open-air delicatessens and cafs and shops. Two Security men beside the door in the standard anti-shock/anti-ballistic vests and helmets scanned her as she walked in, their heavy tazers swinging to target her and then away. Even now, nearly three months after the Walking Dead riots, Security still lived high-strung and hypervigilant. Advertisements flashed on viewscreens above the crowds that thronged the aisleways between the shops, and her nanos switched into Augmented Reality mode as she walked in the door. Prices and sales alerts flashed into existence in her visual field, popped up for three seconds before fading out as she passed by the products they indicated. The bazaar’s Info icon remained in the bottom right of her visual field, a simple blue question mark.
And today, courtesy of the Great Bird of Cyberspace himself, William Gibson (via Twitter @GreatDismal) —
For many years I was a member of the World Future Society. I let my membership lapse because it seemed the quality of the articles in their magazine, the Futurist, seemed to decline and I didn’t see it improving. In 2008 I considered signing back up, but then we were informed at work our installation would be shutting down and within 5 months I’d be transferred elsewhere, and put it off due to the move.
Aside from that, I have still sometimes check up on their website, from which many of their articles can be accessed. To be honest and fair, they do an admirable job on their website – there’s a lot of info there, free for the reading with no paywalls. They also have a budding YouTube channel, on which I have just watched a video outlining their yearly predictions for 2010 and beyond. And I have a bit of a problem with it — perhaps not a problem per se but several questions, not just with the WFS but with the tone of the futurist community in general.
The “gee whiz” predictions — the confirmation or not of extraterrestrial life, living on the Moon or in orbit, nanotechnology solving every ill, effective immortality, direct mind-to-computer connections — are mental cotton candy. It tastes really good, but there’s nothing there but sweetened air that rots your teeth. We have problems now that need a futurist solution, and we need to think of the downsides of technologies that will be coming within the next few years and begin coming up with ways to mitigate or lessen the impact. Let’s take nanotechnology, for example. Nanoassembly, either directly in a vat or nanobots or via 3D printer, promises an end to scarcity, a world where we can design our own lives and the things we have around us. Okay. But if everything becomes all but free, it becomes disposable. If it becomes disposable, the garbage will begin to pile up very very quickly. How are we going to deal with all that garbage? We don’t even deal with the garbage we have now, we just bury it. The problem is going to only grow worse in the times ahead, possibly exponentially. And then there’s the changes to the culture. If everything’s disposable, what is the purpose of permanence? What about heirlooms, keepsakes, sentimental value? Why keep your grandmother’s Waterford crystal when a plastic mug costs only pennies, is unbreakable and can be microwaved safely? Where does a family’s heritage go when no one wants it anymore?
I see no predictions for dealing with air, water or soil contamination, all of which have major impacts on vast regions of the planet and billions of people, not to mention the animals poisoned or killed by such pollution. I see no predictions for dealing with the dangers of crime and the deteriorating social environment. What’s the use of slowing or stopping aging if the environment will kill you? I grew up walking around suburban streets in bare feet or flip-flops, cracking open and eating hickory nuts I picked up off the ground and riding my bike alone half a mile down the main thoroughfare of my home town to buy comic books. No sane parent would allow their kids to do any of that now. What kind of kids are we raising when they can’t play unsupervised, can’t run around in a wooded area and discover nature, can’t be responsible for themselves? It’s more than “helicopter parenting”. It’s life in a fish bowl. Kids will be so sheltered and their lives so contained that they will not know how to live once they are grown up and on their own. They’ll learn to be afraid of unstructured environments, and be afraid to explore.
I guess what gets me is that so many of these projections are either so large they would require billions of dollars and political willpower, or they’re frivolous or vague to the point of irrelevance. The large-scale projects such as a hydrogen fuel economy, a biofuel economy, geoengineering to stabilize the climate, changing to a sustainable energy model, will all require vast sources of capital and political will. These things will not happen. They’re pie in the sky. There will never be the political will to carry out these projects until it becomes economically advantageous for the special interests that dictate to the government. When the profits of the petroleum and pharmaceutical and healthcare industries begin to decline or when they determine they can make more money by using these new technologies, then maybe it will happen. But not before. As for the other predictions, why should I care if the elderly are playing video games more? And what relevance does the confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligence have to my life here on Earth? Will the discovery of ET create jobs? Will it make college tuition free? Will it make the streets safe for my kids to ride their bikes alone? No. And being able to live for 150 years is a pleasant thought, but am I going to be able to get a job when I’m 65? Or will I have to live those 85 remaining years on welfare? And if so, who’s going to pay for it and where will the money come from?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the “gee whiz” stuff. I’m a science fiction writer and that kind of thing is meat and milk to my imagination. But there’s more to it. We have to think about what is relevant, what is likely, what is realistic, and what consequences the coming technologies will have on the people who have to live with them. One of my fondest wishes is to be uploaded into a robotic body, to leave Earth and spend the rest of my electromechanical life exploring Mars. Do I honestly think it will happen? I think one day the technology will exist. Will I myself manage it? No. Not in my lifetime, and even if it becomes possible it will be a long time between the invention and general availability to the public. I know this flies in the face of many predictions that are accepted as baseline (here’s looking at you, Mr. Kurzweil). Let’s just all remember that all of these prediction, no matter how well researched, are opinion and theory. Until I open my optics to the sight of Mariner Valley stretching out before me into the hazy Martian horizon, it’s not fact.
New Scientist has an article about a study showing that tool use actually alters the brain’s body map to include the tool as part of the body.
I am somewhat chagrined to tell you that I did not address the issue of what cybernetic parts may or may not do to the people of the year 2230, mainly because technically every character was a cyborg. All of them had nanobot interfaces and collectives of medical nanos. Pepper, Kham and others had cybernetically-enhanced vision. Jodo, Xyl’s twin brother, had been completely rebuilt by nanomedical means after Kham shot him and he fell out a 237 story window. Nano-enhanced muscles were fairly common among the gang culture that Xyl, Pepper and their friends lived in. The culture of 2230 had reached a point where gross use of cybernetics (mechanical arms, hands, legs, etc.) had fallen out of fashion. It still existed, but it was simply seen as unnecessary and needlessly expensive and fraught with problems. They were no less cyborgs for being nano-enhanced or nano-reconstructed, it was simply that their mechanical parts were counted in the billions and could only be seen clearly with electron microscopes.
The label of “cybernetic organism” is a broad category denoting a spectrum rather than a black and white line. A cyborg is an organism that lives by a synthesis of organic and artificial systems, either for purposes of replacing the function of damaged organic parts or to gain capabilities beyond those of the natural form. There are cyborgs walking among us already here in 2009. Anyone with an implanted pacemaker or a cochlear implant is a cyborg because those machines take over the function of damaged organs to restore function (or provide it for the first time in the case of many profoundly deaf people who had no hearing at all before their implants). Insulin pumps also could qualify as a cyborg part since they provide a vital function to the body of regulating insulin, and soon there will be an implantable version as well. These first cyborgizations are a matter of survival for the people who have them. One day, that won’t be the case as cyborgization for enhanced capabilities becomes possible.
But by another perspective on the cyborg spectrum, we are all cyborgs.
Let me introduce you to my cyborg alter ego, a 2007 Honda Fit called Gumdrop.
If you broaden the definition of “organism” sufficiently, Gumdrop and I are a symbiotic cybernetic organism. Gumdrop provides me with the capability of cruising at 70 mph on the highway along with music and information via the CD/Radio. I have also added two other enhanced capabilities, a GPS for navigation and a cellphone for long-distance 2-way communication. As Gumdrop is a hatchback, there is also an enhanced cargo-carrying capacity. But Gumdrop is only a car. It can’t go anywhere without the organic system (myself) to provide guidance, fuel, and maintenance. Gumdrop not only gives me such enhanced capabilities but provides vital functions for my life — enabling me to go to work, shop for groceries and other necessities of life, and protecting me from the elements and potential harm while we are on the road. Like most people, I would not be able to live without my car. Taken together as one organism, we become one entity — a four-wheeled, GPS-guided, cellphone-connected, Loreena McKinnett-singing cyborg.
Similarly, if you use your computer or smartphone or PDA as an external memory archive (via Evernote, a personal wiki, or other life-organizing and recording software), or as a means to gather information you would not have access to otherwise (Google, Wikipedia, etc), and you can’t function without it and feel as if a body part has been cut off when you do have to go without it — you’re a cyborg. Your parts are simply not physically implanted within you, but provide enhanced capabilities and function all the same. Someday these devices will be implanted as well. It won’t be long. There are lots of people working on it. Clearly with that feeling of absence when without the technology, our brains are already incorporating these tools into its perception. It is becoming part of us, accepted by the brain as part of the body. You don’t have a smartphone anymore. You have a body organ that can access the Internet and make phone calls.
All right, so what does it mean?
In the RPG games Cyberpunk 2020 and ShadowRun (and other cyberpunk-based games) there is the concept of cyberpsychosis. It’s portrayed as a mental illness, a psychosis involving a deep-seated rejection of a cyborg’s mechanical parts, a reaction to the intense dehumanization brought about by parts or all of one’s body being replaced with mechanical construction. The metaphor seems to be that one is paying for these enhancements literally with one’s humanity, often quantified in the game mechanics as “humanity points”. But if our brains are accepting the technology we acquire as parts of our bodies, are we becoming dehumanized by it? Or are we becoming more human?
What do we use the great majority of this technology for? We use it to communicate, arguably the most human of characteristics. We use it to organize, correlate, and store knowledge, again extremely human activities. We use it to enhance our physical capabilities. What are the three most important characteristics that separate us from our closest primate relatives? Speaking, Culture, and Use of Tools.
So I would argue there will be no cyberpsychosis. We are doing nothing new by becoming cyborgs. We are simply progressing in human evolution, just as we did when we first learned to speak, share our knowledge, and use a sharp piece of flint to skin an animal.
Have you ever really sat down and thought about what your dream gadget would be? What functions would you truly want and use? How would it change your life?
Think deeply about it. What can technology do that would radically change your life for the better? You personally, not the world in general. Now think how it could be done.
I’ve thought about it, and here’s what I’ve come up with. I’ve kept this fairly realistic — all of this is either possible now or should be in the next 5 years. In most cases it’s simply a matter of putting pieces that already exist together.
Hand-held or wearable unit
Built in Camera
Low-resolution, short-range projector
Bluetooth foldable keyboard (optional accessory)
Bluetooth eyeglasses display (later, contact lenses)
Most of this you will no doubt find familiar, with the exception of the “expert social system”. This is something I’ve been coming up with in my head lately. Here’s how it works.
I’ve become fascinated by the possibilities of tags and tag clouds. What if everything — not just articles on Wikipedia or books on Amazon, but everything — had tags associated with it? Events, objects, people, places, e-mail, photos, literally everything. Even you yourself. Your unit acts as a life manager, a constant log-file of everything you do, everywhere you go, all your interests, the work you do, the calls you make, the people you associate with. All of this is stored in your personal wiki, searchable by date or tag or association. Objects and places in the real world would have something similar to QR Codes that would be readable by the camera on your unit, and show up on your Augmented Reality view if they have a web presence or info available. People who have their units set to transmit would also show up on the Augmented Reality and their associated info and tags — according to whatever level they feel comfortable making public. You’d see all this via the eyeglasses display, or later via contact lens displays. The glasses or contacts could also track eye movements and that could become your cursor — you focus on something and click a button on the unit or (later) activate a subcutaneous pressure switch to activate whatever you have chosen.
So where does the “social” part come in? Your unit would have an expert system that would build up an increasingly detailed virtual model of you. It would gather tags from everything you do, everywhere you go, the people you associate with, the subjects and context of your e-mails and interests. All of these tags become your personal tag cloud. The frequency of use of each tag raises it higher in the tag cloud rankings. From this, the expert system weights each object and then constantly searches out similar tags and associations, which it would then suggest to you. Let’s say my tag cloud’s highest ranking subjects are anthropology, Jungian psychology, science-fiction, computers, popular science videos, writing and books. My unit would search out events, people, places, and things that have the highest correlation to these tags and any strongly associated tags and then suggest them. Let’s say the unit finds a new public lecture series on Jungian psychology and mythology being offered by a local college. It would suggest it to me and ask if I’d like to schedule it. If I say yes, it automatically schedules the times into my calendar and will remind me of it at appropriate intervals. It will also note the tags associated with the event and add in any new tags to my collection or add points to tags I already have, thus increasing their relevance scores in my tag cloud. It would do the same with people, making me aware of people around me who have similar interests. It would be a way to meet people with whom I would already have a lot in common, and most likely in a context where we’d have something to talk about. That kind of thing would be a godsend for people like me who are not the most social of folk, who have trouble finding anything to talk about to strangers.
The unit could do the same with regards to work and education. Let’s say I get laid off from my job. The unit would be able to search for possible new jobs that have my top tags associated with them, factoring in commute distance, education and experience, and even Myers-Briggs type. If I need help with career counseling, I have the unit search for a career counselor in my area and contact them. The unit could automatically generate a resume with my education and experience and my top tags. The counselor would have all the info needed to begin working with me immediately, and could advise me on any education or preparation I’d need to help my future prospects. The unit could also suggest relevant college courses or resources for strongly associated tags on a continuing basis, to help keep my knowledge of my field current and expand my knowledge of related fields.
The unit would also be capable of a certain level of health and psychological monitoring. It could be programmed to record everything I eat and call up all relevant nutritional data. It could advise me on calorie intake and help keep me on my diet. It could also deduce when I may be withdrawing from people and the world by my level of activity and social contacts, or if I’m under too much stress or doing too much. In the future it will also be possible that the unit would be able to gather more direct info from implanted sensors to keep a check on vital signs and biochemical levels within the body, and to automatically call for help if something went wrong.
The unit would not be artificially intelligent per se — but it would increasingly seem so the user. As time goes on the unit would have an ever more complex model of the user, and thus its suggestions would be increasingly more relevant. It would not preclude learning new things or acquiring new interests, it could easily be programmed to suggest things associated with lower ranked tags or associations to provide a wider variety of experiences. It could act as a social intermediary, providing a means of introduction to people who have common interests. And of course it could provide directions, book hotels and flights, send e-mails, schedule appointments, provide information, make phone calls, and all the other mundane things we ask our phones and computers to do for us.
The longer I think of this dream gadget the more I realize how deeply it would impact my life. The personal wiki would save everything I come across, from articles I read on the ‘Net to books I want to buy. The unit could retrieve info I need from the ‘Net and store it all for me for later reading or watching, like news and blog articles and YouTube vids. With the tags associated with each thing it could suggest increasingly relevant information and ideas. If units like this came into popular use it could lead to a total rethink as to what constitutes education and knowledge — sitting at desk in a college classroom would be only one way of a myriad to acquire an education, and the old academic categories would blur even more than they are today. Groups of people could find each other more frequently on the grounds of common interests and temperament, not simply by random chance.
That’s my dream gadget. What’s yours?