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AARP Bulletin
January 2000
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January 2000 Feature

Hello to Y2K Graphic
Our Future

Illustration © Wayne Vincent

By Susan L. Crowley

Consider the possibilities: robots to clean your house and your arteries. Signet rings that hold your bank records. Surgery performed in your living room. Luxury hotels in space.

Pretty dazzling ideas, and many of them not so far off. After all, driven by curiosity and an awe of the unknown, we have long sought to understand and control our environment, our health, our very existence.

The result has been a steady flow throughout history of increasingly sophisticated technologies. And the odds are, say experts and forecasters the AARP Bulletin consulted for this article, people in the new century won't be disappointed with the upcoming array of show-stopping gizmos and "smart" technologies intended to improve everyday life.graphic of nurse robot

Sebastien Thurn of Mellon University in Pittsburgh created "NurseBot," a robot known as Florence, to assist ailing people at home or in nursing homes. Flo can fetch and carry, monitor vital signs and link you to your doctor.

Photo © Andy Starnes

It helps to remember, too, that advances in technology and science do not march along in a continuum. There will surely be bumps on the road to a more perfect world.

Figuring out how to foot the bill may slow things down. So will breakthroughs that turn out to be false starts, sending researchers back to the lab.

Then there are the unforeseen disasters—earthquakes, floods, perhaps a virus toxic enough to harm millions of people. Or catastrophic war.

The biggest—and most unpredictable—bump of all may be the contrariness of human nature. While we yearn for the convenience and helpfulness of high-tech marvels, many of us may be unwilling to give up our books for words on a screen or a live Broadway show for the virtual-reality version.

We are apt to balk at the electronic invasion of privacy.

Reality check

SOME PEOPLE MIGHT be better off staying out of the prediction game, such as the flummoxed forecasters quoted in “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation,” by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky (Villard, 1998):

Electric light: “... good enough for our transatlantic friends ... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men,” British Parliament report on Edison’s work, 1878.

The telephone: “That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?” President Rutherford Hayes, 1876.

Television: “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night,” Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century-Fox, circa 1946.

Computers: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home,” Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977.

Aviation: “The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic and carrying innumerable passengers … It seems safe to say that such ideas are wholly visionary,” Harvard astronomer William Henry Pickering, 1908.

Nuclear energy: “Nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within 10 years,” vacuum cleaner manufacturer Alex Lewyt, 1955.

Medicine: “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will be forever shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon,” leading British surgeon Sir John Erichsen, 1837.

Videophones failed to catch on because they're intrusive—people don't want to be seen on the phone in their underwear. How, then, will we feel about smart walls that chart our every move, even if for our own safety and comfort?

Technology may extend human life spans by years, even decades. "But do you really want to remain married to your spouse for 90 years?" asks William B. Schwartz, M.D., of the University of Southern California.

We may wish to stop pain or aging, but will we be put off by the thought of tiny devices roaming through our bodies making tissue repairs? Artificial-intelligence expert Ray Kurzweil predicts computers will be able to calculate as well as the human brain by 2019, but do we want machines smarter than we are?

Finally, we will have to wrestle with moral and ethical questions. Will new technologies further divide rich from poor? Will they be used for malevolent purposes?

As commentator Meg Greenfield pointed out in 1997, in the new millennium "science/technology will be different. Its human manipulators, subjects and beneficiaries won't."

Yet whether you greet the new age with grins or grumbles, it's important to look ahead. Science and technology "decide the kind of futures that are possible," writes distinguished science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. "Human wisdom must decide which are desirable."

Some new technologies could be available within a few years, some not for decades. How will they change the daily life of you and yours? Scientists don't necessarily agree on what the future holds, but here are some best guesses, based on current research:

Smart homes

Yes, we may at last have robots picking up after us. But eventually housekeeping will go beyond robotics and computers toward "invisibility." The power of artificial intelligence will be pervasive but unseen—built into materials or piped into homes, as electricity is now. The goal is labor-saving devices that need no programming, no switches, no batteries.

Clarke has predicted that homes will even evolve to the

point where they are "completely self-contained and mobile, so they can be moved to any spot on Earth within 24 hours."

They never
saw it coming

FORECASTING is a dicey business. Here are some great developments of the 20th century that prognosticators of 100 years ago never glimpsed on the horizon:

  • The Internet
  • Shopping on the Internet
  • Post-It notes
  • Microwave ovens
  • Laser surgery
  • Air bags
  • TV dinners
  • Leaf blowers
  • Velcro

Other forecasts:

  • The "intelligent room" will have walls that can "see" you by sensors, "hear" you by voice recognition systems and "speak" to you in response to your requests.

  • Most household equipment, from lights to toasters, will respond to voice commands. In an emergency, you'll call into the air, "Get the ambulance!" and it will be done.

  • Today's techno-clutter will vanish. An all-purpose screen, flat to the wall, will "converse" with you on the stock market; diagnose failures of in-house systems; conjure up relatives in Australia so they can join you for dinner in "real time."

  • Smart cupboards and fridges will automatically reorder foods that run out. l Clothing and household linens will be made of smart fabrics that clean and press themselves, making washing machines and ironing boards oddities of the past.

  • Bathroom surfaces will repel mold and scum. Tubs and showers will give way to "human washing machines": plastic pods (already used in Japan) that cycle you through a soaping, washing, rinsing and drying-sauna or jacuzzi style.

  • Electronic wallpaper will let you change the color or pattern of your walls instantly. Electronic image spots will display Van Goghs or any other art you dial up.

  • Keys, locks and bolts will become antiques. You will enter and exit by voice command. "Open Sesame" will become reality.

The workplace

As we leave the Industrial Revolution further behind and move deeper into the era of technological wizardry, the workplace will undergo seismic changes. The new millennium, says Jeremy Rifkin, founder of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, will "signal the beginning of a new era in history in which human beings are liberated, at long last, from a life of backbreaking toil and mindless repetitive tasks." What might happen to the work world?

  • Automation and online transactions will eliminate middlemen—telephone operators, bank tellers, travel booking agents, among others—and middle managers.

  • More teachers, therapists, caregivers, golf pros and other personal-service workers will be needed for jobs requiring the judgment that robots don't have. Repair people will be needed to fix the robots when, inevitably, they break down.

  • Increasingly, robots will "man" factory assembly lines. They will tailor products-everything from the design of your car to the fit of your clothes—to your personal specifications. Materials, from steel to denim, will be built atom by atom, under the control of nanocomputers.

  • You won't get your hands as dirty as today's workers, but your working years will extend well beyond theirs. You will constantly learn new skills and have a variety of careers.

  • You will seldom commute, since your office will be wherever you are—at home, in the Alps, at the bowling alley. You will stay in touch via "hologram" sessions, where projected images of people in different locations come together. You need not be there in the flesh—your programmed image will speak for you.

Once liberated from a life of toil, what then? Join "the search for knowledge and the creation of beauty," suggests Clarke.

Getting there

Our favorite way of getting around, by car, hasn't changed much in the last century and won't in this one. Cars of the future will be made of molded plastic and powered by nonpolluting fuels. Other changes:

  • Motor vehicles will run on magnetized tracks on the interstates, traveling bumper to bumper at 100-200 m.p.h., with no real driving involved. Dashboard computers will warn of accidents and delays en route and tell the location of the nearest open parking spot. Parking signs, meters and tollbooths will vanish.

  • Onboard computers will monitor the workings of your auto and diagnose incipient or actual failures, automatically informing the shop of spare parts you'll need.

  • Aircraft will take off vertically, reducing noise and the size of airports.

  • Orbiting the Earth will be the first space cruise open to tourists. You'll rise from ground to satellite via a space elevator, soaring up a tethered cable that generates its own energy.

Orbiting hotels will quickly follow. Honeymoons in space will be the ultimate status symbol—till a new fad comes along.

Health and medicine

Almost everyone agrees that Americans born in the next century will live a lot longer than age 77, today's average life expectancy. While the U.S. Census Bureau conservatively puts the average life span for a person born in 2050 at 85 years, others say that huge leaps in medicine will enable many people to live to 120, or older.

"Regenerative medicine, tissue-based medicine and geriatric medicine will be the three major fields of the 21st century," noted geriatrician Robert Butler, M.D., says.

And yes, even with razzle-dazzle technology expected to come on line over the next 100 years, you will still have to exercise and eat your vegetables (whether in pill form or their natural state) for good health.

Here's what may lie ahead, in the next 10 to 100 years:

  • A scan of your genetic structure (with billions of bits of data about the estimated 80,000 genes in your body) will detect symptoms or susceptibility to particular diseases.

  • Nanobots—miniscule robots— will deliver medications to affected cells to prevent or treat disease. Or they will clear clogged arteries or repair damaged tissue.

  • You can have your checkup anywhere, anytime. You can have your vital signs tested by machines at the drugstore and send the results to your doctor via the Internet for analysis.

  • Hospitals will fade away. A surgeon in Boston will do your hip replacement at your home in Cleveland via virtual reality. The doctor will view the surgical site on a screen and remotely manipulate surgical instruments inserted by a technician.

  • Implanted biochips will monitor your vital signs, alerting you or your doctor to an impending crisis.

  • Replacing diseased or worn-out body parts will be as routine as replacing auto parts today.

  • Most diseases will be cured, perhaps with one exception. "I think we'll cure cancer before we cure the common cold," says Francis Collins, M.D., director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Entertainment and leisure

"Leisure-oriented businesses," futurist Graham T.T. Molitor wrote in The Futurist, "will account for 50 percent of the U.S. gross national product shortly after 2015."

And with people then devoting more than half their time to leisure, what they will want is to be entertained—lavishly. They should be pleased with the whiz-bang amusements that virtual reality and artificial intelligence will bring:

  • In the near future: one remote, one screen and no channels at all. Forget real time. On Monday at 3 a.m., you can call up the Broadway opening of "A Chorus Line" (or scan a list of offerings). Or watch the 1976 NBA finals, the news, the text of "King Lear" or the first Beatles performance on the Ed Sullivan show.

  • Seated in a special chair that senses if you're cold or uncomfortable and adapts accordingly, you pull the bubble-screen down around you. Your computer/entertainment center can teach you any language you want, produce a jazz bass line to go with your computerized melody or let you play a round of virtual-reality golf.

  • Thinking will make it so, says forecaster Kurzweil. The nerve cells of a human brain can be linked to computer circuitry, creating a network that can interact with similar networks, and with computers and other databases. The upshot: Just THINK, for example, of the 1973 World Series or Barbra Streisand singing "The Way We Were," and there it will be. One possible kink yet to be resolved: The contents of the brain could be scanned and downloaded into an external database, where they could be manipulated, stolen or even erased.

  • Expanded leisure will prompt people to continue their educations and solve social problems. Some experts foresee not just technological revolution but a new desire by humans to look inward and to each other for old-fashioned values like peace and contentment.

At the end of the 1990s, while the world buzzed about the coming of the robotized human brain, a book by the Dalai Lama quietly made the bestseller lists.

It's called "The Art of Happiness" (Riverhead Books, 1998).

Our futuristic sources

THE BULLETIN TURNED to numerous sources-scientists, philosophers, social commentators, economists, high—tech whizzes and futurists—for this article. We offer particular thanks to:

Jeffrey Bauer, medical economist and senior vice president of the Superior Consultant Co. Inc. in Southfield, Mich.

Caroline Bird, social critic and author of "Good Years: Your Life in the 21st Century" (Dutton, 1983).

Robert Butler, M.D., president, International Longevity Center-USA, Ltd., New York.

John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., a management consulting firm in Chicago.

Paul Citron, vice president for science and technology, Medtronic, Inc., Minneapolis.

Arthur C. Clarke, prize-winning science fiction writer ("2001") and the first to conceive of geosynchronous orbiting satellites.

Peter Cochrane, head of research at BT Laboratories, Ipswich, England.

Michael Coen, Artificial Intelligence Lab, intelligent room project, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

Francis Collins, M.D. , director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, Md.

Ray Kurzweil, artificial intelligence expert and author of "The Age of the Spiritual Machine: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence" (Viking, 1999).

Andrea La Vere, digital archivist, Dreamworks Studios, Los Angeles.

Graham T. T. Molitor, vice president of the World Future Society in Bethesda, Md.

Janet Norwood, senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington and former U.S. Commissioner of Labor Statistics.

Jeremy Rifkin, of the Foundation on Economic Trends, Washington, and author of "The End of Work" (Putnam, 1995).

Theodore Roszak, history professor at California State University at Hayward and author of "America the Wise: The Longevity Revolution and the True Wealth of Nations" (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998).

William B. Schwartz, M.D., professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Mark Starowicz, head of documentaries, CBC Television, Canada.

Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University and author of "Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness" (Riverhead, 1999, paperback reprint).

Mark Tilden, biophysicist and robotics inventor, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Carl Van Dyke, president, and Kevin Foy, vice president, Multi-Modal Applied Systems, a software development firm in Princeton, N.J.



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