Thursday, October 03, 2013

My Old Vision of the Future

A while back, I was awakened to the predicament humanity is in, due to our use over about 200 years of fossil fuels that took millions of years to produce, and the likelihood that a) we are running out of this stuff and b) our use of it is destabilizing the climate. But before that, I wrote a somewhat optimistic "background" piece about what would be happening in the year 2019. Here it is:
Year: 2019:
Simple, trainable (at the level of about a dog) appliances are beginning to be seen in society. Robotic cars are appearing on the road, and with their advanced performance, they are being accepted hungrily by society. Initiatives are beginning to be proposed that would allocate special lanes to these augmented vehicles. Some have even proposed that human drivers be banished from the roads, but most feel that's not necessary. Instead, safety devices have been developed that take control of the vehicle if the human driver attempts to make a dangerous move, falls asleep or becomes impaired.
Without the need to support a human driver, bus and taxi travel has become so inexpensive that most people - especially city dwellers - don't need to actually own a vehicle. Autonomous vehicles swarm like bees, with an empty one at your door in just a minute or two.

People are starting to realize that they will no longer be needed in jobs that consist of repetitive hand-eye coordination operations, like driving, assembling products, or even cooking. All new commercial trucks are robotic, and retrofit kits are selling wildly.
Scientists and Engineers - those who think and solve problems for a living - realize that their livelihoods are threatened too. Not nearly as quickly as laborers, but quickly enough. Many of these scientists speak of intelligence augmentation, the integration of computer interfaces directly into their heads. Along with this is a growing excitement that the heralded singularity - the birth of general artificial intelligence - is actually going to happen.
Grandiose plans for solving the world's problems: warfare, hunger, environmental conditions, are giving way to small, distributed solutions involving robotic distribution, ubiquitous automated surveillance, and open systems architecture for forming public policy.

Religious fundamentalism has begun to die off as access to information from all over the world has been able to spread, due to the development of instant human language translation. All phones have translation capability, and a real babelfish - the device conceived by Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe author Douglas Adams, that one inserts into his one's ear to hear any language translated to one's own - are on the market. Because language is no longer the barrier it was, any opinion can be shared among the world's population, and people are beginning to realize how much they have in common, even as they nurture their own unique cultures.
Appreciation of human performance has branched into two groups: performers including athletes, dancers and artists whose bodies have not been modified, and those whose bodies incorporate the latest biomechanical technology. The International Olympic Committee has advanced stringent screening policies to assure that only unmodified athletes can participate, but outside of the Olympics, there are a dazzling variety of world records being set in endurance, strength, speed and agility.
Against this technological background, humans still do what humans have always done: fall in love, get married, raise families, and work to improve their lives. They also enjoy unprecedented entertainment choices: besides participating as athletes or performers, anyone can participate in vividly realistic and elaborate alternative realities. Computer communication devices are everywhere, so where's nowhere that you cannot be tied into the world network. Wearing binocular display glasses that incorporate tiny cameras into them, your personal reality can be modified to include elements of fantasy, or to exclude visual clutter. The cameras intercept the scene in front of you; the computer adds, subtracts or modifies the image, then the displays present it to your eyes.
The cyborg label that used to attend anyone who wore complicated cybernetic eyewear is diminishing. The optical systems that sit in front of the wearer's eyes in a modern eye display are transparent, allowing others to make eye contact with the wearer.
For some people - a rising number actually - it is not sufficient to modify reality from outside the body. Drugs and now even electronic devices can enable the fine-tuning of emotional states. This technology is so far only able to effect gross changes, such as cheering you up, or preventing hunger or cravings of various kinds. Your thoughts themselves are still a dark secret. At least they are this year....
In a world of perfect connection, you can never be lost, but you cannot easily hide either, at least, not from the legal authorities. For everyone else, you can enter a "not available - do not contact" mode, with customizable lists of keep-outs and emergency break ins. No one outside the people you specify will be able to contact you. Many people have adopted strict off-the-clock times, and it's a matter of much discussion in etiquette circles. Excessive "absence" is seen as rude, so there's some care to be taken with your settings.
Interest in personal privacy has blossomed, in backlash to the excessive abandonment of privacy by many individuals in the early years of the century.
Increasingly, each year seems separate from the last by huge tides of change. The world is constantly dishing up surprise after surprise, with pleasant surprises finally beginning to outnumber unpleasant ones. After a decade and a half of unpredictable weather, failing economies, refugee crises, drowning cities, earthquakes and disease outbreaks, things seem to be settling into a calmer pattern.
The disparity between the intellectually gifted and those who are not is diminishing. Even without a hardware interface to the brain, computers are just so damn helpful. Long gone are the days when you had to learn all about computers to use one. These days, if you can state your problem, the computer can find the help you need.
Everyone is wondering whether there will be a giant employment crash, but so far it hasn't happened. When the financial system was overhauled a few years back, it was decided that there would be a human dividend: Every man, woman and child would be entitled to basic support, simply due to their membership in the human race, which collectively built the tools to get everyone here. This was a trickle-down effect on a massive scale, that took no time to catch on, but was a daring proposal at the time. Anyone who wanted more than this basic support - which, incidentally included food, shelter, unlimited access to information/communication and health care - could take on any sort of occupation that he desired. Reward systems were standardized, and rewarded not only those occupations that contributed to the economic system, but that contributed to the overall well-being of humanity. Many chose to relocate from their advanced societies in the west, to areas where people needed the most help.
Everyone knows that AI is just around the corner. Progress in both the top-down reverse engineering of animal and human brains and bottom-up development of machine intelligence algorithms has been a phenomenon. Today, the concern of many is that artificial intelligences will be unknowable, and this is almost certain. These intelligences will be unknowable by someone who isn't also augmented, incorporating a bit of AI into themselves. However, these AIs will be able to know us, and will be able to interact with us on our terms, even as they devote only a percent or two of their intellect to doing so. It is predicted that by 2025, a real general AI will appear, and that will be the “knee” in the curve of accelerating change; the inflection point or singularity beyond which all bets are off.
Kids entering college a decade ago had no guarantees that what they were studying in school would be at all useful in earning a living when they finished. Usually that was true, but the universities knew that the specific subject matter wasn't what was really being taught, beyond standardizing students in a set of common skills.. The thing that was being taught was how to acquire knowledge as needed, to incorporate it into one's intellect, and to use it do develop further knowledge. As the saying goes, "You don't really understand a thing until you can explain it to someone else."

That's where I left off. I couldn't think of a way of summarizing the darn thing, and after my "awakening", it didn't seem to matter.
It's interesting how I brush off the "unpredictable weather, failing economies" etc. with words that indicate that this was an aberration instead of a new normality.
I wonder how far along the path to the future we will get before we just can't, anymore. I have basically lost interest in this future, and instead, I'm finding new ways of living a much less complex, fragile existence. I plan on writing much more about it right here.