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The Future of Information

Matt Ellsworth and I met while making Second Skin, a documentary I directed on virtual worlds. He’s one of the boys from Indiana who loves to game. Our conversations over the years have led to a few things, one of them was finding a common love for Johnnie Walker Black Label, and the second was a penchant for postulating about the future. From being obsessed with science fiction, black holes, and the internet to caring too much about Carl Sagan and Kurzweil. We’ve been desperately trying to look around the corner at what our next gen tech will look like. We handed this concept back and forth over the last few months each of us writing a little bit here and there. While we understand the overall difficulty with predicting a realistic future (even in one sector of technology) we’re excited to unleash a theory on the world.

The goal is surgically implanted data interfaces using nanotechnology. This would allow wired and/or wireless access to data networks similar to the Internet through direct sensory input by either stimulating appropriate receptors (i.e. optic, auditory nerves) or through links with the associates areas of the brain. The technology would likely begin as a series of external accessories such as viewing glasses and headphones; these would essentially be “souped-up” versions of their modern counterparts. Integration and acceptance of these kinds of devices has already begun, primarily in the areas of electronic gaming, scientific research, and military training (i.e. “virtual reality” helmets and tactile feedback gloves). The advances in our technology in some cases have been developed to help those with serious injuries or disabilities.

Applications for this hardware will be created and extend its uses from simple tasks to much more involved ones. For example, an interactive google map, coupled with a satellite GPS system, and a set of on board sensors in your car will allow you to drive it remotely to any destination. Simultaneously, you could be chatting with 1 or more of your friend’s wirelessly, and playing a video game tournament with yet others. In fact, I think the ability to multi-task in the future is going to create a real divide between older generations and newer ones. What follows is a test of brain to brain communication through a computer interface. The result is what one might consider elementary telepathy.

The current step in the evolution towards implanted interfaces is the trend towards multifunction smartphones and low-cost personal media players and netbooks. The next iteration will be focused on enhancing the mobile web browsing experience in an augmented reality. Picture Facebook or Twitter feeds implanted on real life through clear screens that help disseminate information faster. A handheld device in a few years will most likely be paper thin, translucent may look something like this, but with an interactive screen with multiple ways to guide its behavior.

It will provide extra interactivity with the existing World Wide Web and content designers will begin to customize their designs to better take advantage of its capabilities (as they already have with the iPhone); these capabilities will almost certainly be combined with other functions, such as a phone or music player, rather than the device serving as a dedicated Internet browsing device or the aforementioned personal media player. A single hardware manufacturer will likely dominate the field in the beginning, with the lure of licensing fees and governmental regulation quickly bringing in new competitors. As more manufacturers produce the devices and they reach a larger portion of the populace they will supplant the mobile phone as the must-have portable electronic device. As the complexity and prevalence of these devices increases, so too will the demand for services taking advantage of its capabilities. Existing telecom providers, especially current cellular phone companies, will continue increasing wireless data access speeds to meed the growing demand. As of right now we even have conducted tests on monkeys who can us BCI devices.

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The progressive advancements of technology make it difficult to anticipate the new forms of what a cellular phone may look like in just a few years, but I posit that its evolution could be in glasses. At CES this year Vuzix displayed a 2d/3d augmented reality experience that lacked incredible programs, but pointed to a very tactile virtual/real space. Certainly some sort of video overlay much closer to our eyes in the form of glasses or contact lenses will become normal. These devices will pick up signals from ‘the cloud’, and receive their electricity wirelessly. These waves and how they bounce off of each other will also track distance between one responder and another. Our hands could have receiver devices in the form of a ring or gloves that would allow for any surface to become an interactive space. The lens and its connection to one’s hands could create difficulties in full awareness in both spaces although toggling between one world and the other would be as simple as saying a word or a specific motion. Much like braces, in the future, we could have a ring around a molar that would allow for uttered words to become commands.

The change from physical devices to embedded or nanotechnology I believe will be steeped in good reason. The most innocent of which is the pursuit of helping those with serious injuries, trauma, debilitating diseases, or physical disabilities. This changeover will happen over the next decade, and we’ll be seeing incredible strides in the field by 2020. Having nanotechnology working within us will have two likely advantages: First, like our cells, these small bionic bodies will be capable of surviving on their own, fixing themselves, and will not need to be replaced or repaired. Second, the proximity and ability to interact with our neurons so closely with create a symbiosis with our bodies that cannot be replicated by outside interference.

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Deep societal impacts and ethical issues will be gradual and mostly unnoticed until the leap to completely implanted devices is made. A world in which these effects are obvious and widespread would definitely be a lot more dramatically satisfying, but don’t seem as likely until the truly scary device comes out that switches us over to being truly immersed in both realities. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a radical difference, either; class divisions in America today aren’t really a hot-button issue on a day to day basis, but they’re definitely real and sometimes quite dramatic in individual cases.

Much as the Internet has come to have an impact on nearly every aspect of daily life in developed nations, these data interfaces will bring a myriad of changes to the world. Many will be improvements that enrich people’s daily experiences with their world and with each other, but as with any technology, there will be darker sides to be dealt with as well. While society will be profoundly changed by this technology, it will be in subtle ways.
Overall, the speed at which we build technology and devices is exponential. In this sense market niches will divide and create new world orders (a Google for the next gen). The following are descriptions of areas of American society most impacted by data interfaces:
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  • Economic/class divisions
    • Existing divisions between individuals and families of varying economic standing will be thrown into sharper relief than at any previous period in history. The presence and quality of an individual’s data interface will become the single greatest determining factor in quality of life.
    • Society as a whole will see great increases in overall quality of life, but class differences will be thrown into sharper relief than ever before as those without interfaces form a disenfranchised, disadvantaged underclass.
    • We will also see a growing chasm with those who want to adopt these sorts of devices, and those who do not want such interaction.

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  • Education
    • Modern classrooms and lecture halls will be almost unrecognizable.
    • Primary and secondary schools will continue, for the most part, to be held in physical buildings because of the need for children to develop physically and socially, though “remote education” will achieve wide acceptance.
    • Many physical classroom materials, such as pencils, textbooks, and chalkboards, will be replaced by virtual equivalents.
    • Younger students will still have physical crafts and activities, but by junior and senior high school almost all instruction will take place through data interfaces.
    • Homework assignments and tests will be distributed and turned in through an encrypted e-mail style system, and special hardware and software will be implemented to block outside data access when necessary to help curb cheating.
    • Students from poor backgrounds, unable to afford the best interface hardware and software options
      • Federal and state aid programs will try to bridge this divide, but will be unable to meet the needs of the population
    • Most activities will not be teacher oriented but rather group task oriented.
    • Individualized focus for each student on a 1:1 level will be achieved through software/curriculum creators
    • Students will be engaged with direct learning and apprenticing through A.I. mentors.
      • They will begin contributing professional materials much earlier through this method of learning
      • Students of engineering will learn at their own pace
      • A more democratic education will allow for hyper specialization
    • A board of teachers for individual subjects will be given the ability to program better A.I. teachers.
      • A rise in the need for psychological care among our youth will lead to more integrated programs
      • Common issues such as anxiety, depression, and anger management will be part of core psychological learning courses
      • Leadership, problem solving, and self-direction will be used as guidelines for all courses
    • The margins of error will be diminished by a complete change to digital mediums
    • The results of our schooling will be an ongoing challenge with metrics being created on a day to day level.
    • Our programs will have the capacity for agile change

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  • Business
    • BCI implants will become commonplace because fellow co-workers without these interfaces will be unable to compete
    • The modern businessman will have nearly nothing to lug back and forth on business trips other than a few changes of clothes.
    • Cloud computing will allow for hands free use of much smaller CPU’s tucked away in a pocket.
  • Media
    • With the change in wireless speeds it could be that we record absolutely everything from birth.
    • Media will have new meaning as experience of life becomes too segmented to follow.
    • Films like ‘The Truman Show’ will crop up in much different ways.
      • Already on YouTube there are groups of friends who create channels that are simply their lives working together.
    • People will tune in on news media in geographical ways.
      • When a crisis is happening various people in those areas will allow live access to their channel.
        • Similar to when Iran’s twitter users were able to relay what they were seeing live during the revolution
      • Finding these ‘channels’ will be simple and your eyes will be linked to their ‘sight’.
        • The experience will be completely visceral.
        • Wars will be viewed on a very personal level.
    • Pop Culture will have highly specialized curators
      • With a growing world population – the ability to focus on world occurrences will be next to impossible.
      • A canon of websites will curate the content from other sites.
  • Our cells will be host to nanotechnology throughout the entire human body, and essentially we’ll be one with biotechnology. The most concentrated points of contact (in so far as how psychologically we perceive the world) like our hands, eyes, mouth, nose, and face will be the most sensitive areas.
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    • How the technology looks
      • A person may look at the surface quite normal with little to no sign of digital attachment. In fact since most of the body would be infused the sensations of being in a real space or a digital space would be almost innate. Revolving through both places would be a matter of neurally agreeing to be accessing one place or the other, and to what degree.
      • In some cases you may want to be completely immersed. At this point it would be necessary to have a completely intuitive way to guide yourself through a virtual space while still living fully in the real space.
      • It would look like real life now in one sense, but our eyes could “see” overlays everywhere. Our hands would literally have so many nano-computers in it that any subtle gesture would be sensitively felt in our digital space. In this way our hands would act as active mice with many more data points. They would have infinite palettes at their disposal. Our hands would have an overlay right underneath them. We’d be able to see the words come up above where they were. Absolutely any surface could be a keyboard. Your eyes could immerse with others into a film. You’ll always be in complete contact with absolutely everyone you know.
    • Seeing someone else in the real space will have infinitely more meaning as we grow into our digital world. Without the need to be in true human contact a certain amount of respect will be put on the ‘home visit’. Much like a business meeting today where people go to meet with others all the time.
    To finish I thought it appropriate to salute the men and women at the forefront of robotics, and am most intrigued how we couple our advances in BCI with robotics in the coming years. Come 2015 I would like to have my own R2D2 that understands me better than R2 ever could get Luke.

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