Illustration © Wayne Vincent
By Susan L. Crowley
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.
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
© 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
disastersearthquakes, floods, perhaps a virus toxic enough to harm
millions of people. Or catastrophic war.
The biggestand most unpredictablebump
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.
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):
light: ... good enough for our transatlantic friends
... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men,
British Parliament report on Edisons work, 1878.
Thats an amazing invention, but who would ever want
to use one of them? President Rutherford Hayes, 1876.
People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every
night, Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century-Fox,
There is no reason for any individual to have a computer
in their home, Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment
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.
energy: Nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will probably
be a reality within 10 years, vacuum cleaner manufacturer
Alex Lewyt, 1955.
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 intrusivepeople 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:
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 unseenbuilt 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."
saw it coming
is a dicey business. Here are some great developments of the 20th
century that prognosticators of 100 years ago never glimpsed on
- The Internet
on the Internet
- Air bags
- TV dinners
- Leaf blowers
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.
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.
will let you change the color or pattern of your walls instantly.
Electronic image spots will display Van Goghs or any other art you
Keys, locks and bolts
will become antiques. You will enter and exit by voice command.
"Open Sesame" will become reality.
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 middlementelephone operators, bank
tellers, travel booking agents, among othersand 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
will "man" factory assembly lines. They will tailor products-everything
from the design of your car to the fit of your clothesto 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 areat 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 fleshyour programmed image will speak
Once liberated from a life
of toil, what then? Join "the search for knowledge and the creation
of beauty," suggests Clarke.
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
- 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 symboltill
a new fad comes along.
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,
"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
- Nanobotsminiscule 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
- 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
- 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.
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 entertainedlavishly.
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
- 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
- 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).
TURNED to numerous sources-scientists, philosophers, social
commentators, economists, hightech whizzes and futuristsfor
this article. We offer particular thanks to:
Bauer, medical economist and senior vice president of the Superior
Consultant Co. Inc. in Southfield, Mich.
Bird, social critic and author of "Good Years: Your Life in the
21st Century" (Dutton, 1983).
M.D., president, International Longevity Center-USA, Ltd., New
of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., a management consulting
firm in Chicago.
vice president for science and technology, Medtronic, Inc., Minneapolis.
Clarke, prize-winning science fiction writer ("2001") and the
first to conceive of geosynchronous orbiting satellites.
head of research at BT Laboratories, Ipswich, England.
Coen, Artificial Intelligence Lab, intelligent room project, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Cambridge.
Collins, M.D. , director of the National Human Genome Research
Institute, Bethesda, Md.
artificial intelligence expert and author of "The Age of the Spiritual
Machine: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence" (Viking, 1999).
Vere, digital archivist, Dreamworks Studios, Los Angeles.
T. Molitor, vice president of the World Future Society in Bethesda,
senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington and former
U.S. Commissioner of Labor Statistics.
of the Foundation on Economic Trends, Washington, and author of
"The End of Work" (Putnam, 1995).
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).
B. Schwartz, M.D., professor of medicine at the Keck School of
Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
head of documentaries, CBC Television, Canada.
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).
biophysicist and robotics inventor, Los Alamos National Laboratory
in New Mexico.
Dyke, president, and Kevin Foy, vice president, Multi-Modal Applied
Systems, a software development firm in Princeton, N.J.
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