Many technologies show up with loud proclamations of how they will change our lives, while others arrive more quietly, but just as surely revolutionize the way we live. Two men wake up at 7 in the morning on August 10th. The difference is one wakes up in the year 2017 and the other wakes up in 1717. The latter wakes up chilly, to the sound of a rooster crowing, from a bed of straw he shares with lots of bedbugs. Neither his night shirt nor his bedding is terribly clean, and he splashes water on his face from a bowl to help wake up before looking outside to try to guess what the weather will be like today. He, like all of his family and most people he knows, is a farmer, so the weather matters a lot to him, and any other news will be a long time coming, including that his brother, who lives just a couple towns away, broke his leg a few days back and passed away from an infection.
He works from sun up to sundown because he has little machinery and he would probably work longer if he had access to something better than candles to provide light. Our other man wakes up in 2017 to the sound of an alarm clock, he is not hot or cold because his home has central heating. His pajamas and bedding are quite clean because he has a washer and dryer.
He is a bit groggy because he can light his home at the flick of a switch so often stays up later than he should. Fortunately he has hot coffee and a hot shower to help him wake up, and he checks his email while drinking that coffee and listening to the news and weather. He already knows his brother broke his leg a few days back, even though he lives a long distance away, and of course he does not die from an infection, he’s just at home bored and probably would welcome a phone call. These are two very different lives. They are separated by three centuries, a dozen generations, and a slew of inventions both major and minor. Those inventions, major and minor, have altered our civilization profoundly during that time. Our topic for today however is not those inventions, but rather the ones emerging nowadays that will change our lives once more, many of which get little notice in the news.
Even those emerging technologies that get reported with much pomp and hype often bypass a lot of the simple yet drastic changes they will bring to how we go about our normal day. This was a topic picked by a poll of the channels supporters on Patreon and it’s a great topic, but one that’s surprisingly hard to discuss. A survey of technologies that don’t get talked about a lot, but will change the world we live in, requires introducing those technologies and explaining the potential of each. The trick is that technologies that don’t get a lot of fanfare don’t get it because their value and applications are not too obvious.
Fundamentally, technology is about making our lives better, safer, and more convenient. To talk about the impact technology will have on our lives we need to go deeper than just what the technology does, like how a fusion reactor makes electricity cheaper and renewable, an obvious benefit, but also how it alters our day to day life. Cheaper electricity is awesome, an energy source that doesn’t run out or cause environmental problems is awesome, but it is easy to overlook all the other benefits that come along with them. We once devoted an entire episode to just that one technology back in the early days of the channel. Today we need to cover several such technologies. So to do this we will walk through a day in the life of two people, Sam, who lives nowadays in the year 2017, and Hannah, who lives just a few generations from now in 2077.
Sam wakes up, hits snooze on the alarm clock, then wakes up again five minutes later and grumbles as he gets out of bed. He gets the coffee maker started, then heads into the bathroom to shower, shave, and brush his teeth. Unlike most of his ancestors, he has all of his teeth, though some are fillings or caps. He drinks coffee and has a bowl of cereal, checks the news, dresses, and plots out his day. So Sam gets in his car, and unlike his grandfather, he can remotely start the car before heading out so the vehicle is all warmed up when he gets in. He stops for gas before getting on the freeway, and spends maybe five minutes pumping it. He doesn’t need to speak to anyone though, it is 2017 not 1987, so he just slips his debit card into the machine rather than going inside to wait in line for a cashier.
He doesn’t need to grab another coffee either, because large thermos cups are cheap and easily available. When he gets back in the car he has a phone message from his boss saying not to come to the office, everyone is going to a meeting hall and here is the address. Sam’s company makes software and he’s going to go demo that software this morning to a company in the area. He’s got it on his laptop and keeps a projector in the trunk, they’ll tweak the usual presentation and email it to him with some notes on the prospective customer. He doesn’t recognize the address, but that is what GPS is for. So he gets on the road and almost rear ends someone while trying to read those notes, but arrives at his destination and gives the presentation; thankfully they seem happy with the product. He doesn’t know the area well, but searches the internet for a good restaurant for lunch; then heads back to the office, gives his boss a report on how it went, and they spend some time strategizing how to close the deal.
It’s been a bit of a stressful day, so he goes and gets a drink after work, just one though because he needs to drive. He then goes to the grocery store and thankfully he remembered to put his list on his phone so he doesn’t forget anything. He heads home, microwaves some dinner, and settles in to watch some TV and play a video game to finish unwinding. His son Ted calls from college and they chat for awhile, and then Sam heads off to bed.
That was a day in the life of Sam. Sam’s day is a fairly normal one for modern times, different from a generation ago in many ways but similar in many others. Different from the one his son Ted will live, but likely similar in many ways too. It is worth noting that while Sam has access to virtually all the knowledge of humanity, he can’t particularly learn it faster than someone with access to a classic library could. He, and his son away at school, can access just about any information near instantaneously, but other than it being easier to find visual examples beyond text and a diagram, how he intakes new information hasn’t changed much over previous generations, even if his mode of access has.
Okay, 60 years later, Hannah wakes up, but she is not groggy so doesn’t hit the snooze button on her alarm clock because she doesn’t actually have one. Unlike her grandfather Sam, or her dad Ted, she does not own a smartphone either. She has a supercomputer in her wristwatch, and some thin contact lenses, and tiny implanted speaker by her ear that feed her information instead. Lots of her friends have no wristwatch or contact lenses either, just stuff wired into their brains more directly, but she’s a bit of traditionalist. She’s not groggy because every day she eats a couple of capsules, the same way we might take a multivitamin or allergy medicine. They are gel-capsules that dissolve into lots of tiny pills which in turn can be sent a signal to release their contents or simply let them pass through the system unused. Some of those micro-pills contain things like melatonin to help her get to sleep or others to help her wake up.
There’s no alarm clock on the nightstand next to her bed, instead, a little while before she wakes up, those medications get triggered to help her transition comfortably to wakefulness and her ear-speaker starts talking or playing music. The lights in the room turn on too, and grow brighter. She doesn’t start the coffeemaker, because all the smart electronic shadows that follow her around made a good guess she’d want some, and some toast, and delivered those to her nightstand instead. She doesn’t brush her teeth in favor putting in something like a mouth guard that she just bites down on and it goes to work brushing and flossing in a very precise and guided way, then relays that data to her dentist’s computer, which analyzes and collates it to see if she needs an appointment.
She knows what cavities and fillings are, because she heard about them in a history class along with smallpox. Normally, Hannah would not actually go into work, because she mostly works from home. She does need to go in sometimes though, so she does find it worth the cost to have a car rather than just summon an automated taxi. She tells her vehicle to start while getting dressed, and feels a little chilly as she steps outside, but her clothing is smart too, with lots of small machinery and micro-sized solar panels and batteries and wireless energy receivers in it, so it instantly starts warming her up on her walk to the car, which is short because it drives itself up to her doorstep and opens the door for her.
She tells it to take her to work, and she sips some coffee, and reviews her notes and correspondence while it drives. She works through lunch and orders whatever she likes for drone delivery, she doesn’t even know who she ordered it from, or that it came from 2 different places that seamlessly coordinated their delivery to be simultaneous. After work she goes to a pub and decides to stick around for a second drink because she isn’t driving and she does not need to go to the grocery store. She just gets a note from her smart house requesting permission to buy things she’s low on and asking if she wants anything else. She scans the list, adds some ice cream to it, and says yes, all the while chatting with a random stranger at the bar.
Neither of them ever gave their names, since they are just used to seeing someone’s name pop up in their vision whenever they look at a person’s face and their various electronic shadows detect the mental equivalent of curiosity. She heads home and talks to her dad Ted along the way, he appears to be sitting in the car with her, with every sight and sound seeming to come from someone physically there, though her preferences are set to always give a certain halo and translucency to such folks so she doesn’t forget they aren’t actually present. He’s entirely digital though, her dad Ted is not there and not sitting, and from his perspective his daughter is walking alongside him while plays golf half a planet away. He remembers when the software for this was a lot less seamless, and would show a video window of their face, and when you used to have to remember to take your phone with you and had to mess around trying to get charging cables into the ports.
He hasn’t plugged anything in for a long time, and Hannah doesn’t even remember doing so, because for her whole life everything has just been wireless. Energy is transmitted to small devices by magnetic induction, or runs off stored energy in tiny, high energy density batteries that charge very quickly, and gets power off micro-sized solar panels in one’s clothing or by leaching a little energy off every swing of the arm or leg. She doesn’t think about it much but often it’s a little harder for her to move an arm or leg when her electronics shadows think she needs some exercise and divert that extra energy into the grid, or rent some of the processors in her clothes or bracelet out for cloud processing, signal boosting, and so on. Hannah works for the same software firm her father and grandfather did, but she never carries any equipment around for presentations, because she rarely does them in person, and when she does, she can just grab the files off the cloud and share them right to her audience, and the interface is so smooth and mostly thought or gesture controlled that she can shuffle through dozens of charts or images in real time and send them, or even make new ones as needed.
Indeed her audience can usually alter the parameters of a given chart without even having to ask her, they just say they want the chart they’re seeing projected over 5 years not 3, as she showed them, and it does. When she gets home she has dinner with her son, who is off at college, but is actually in the house in the flesh right now, because he just attends lectures by watching them and he asks his professor questions by calling during office hours, which are all day every day, because dozens of professors around the planet nominally teach that course, and his study group for doing homework is likewise spread all over the planet. An individual course might be taught by many different people, and he just finds the lecturer whose style he prefers and watches those, but it’s not live, so he needs someone else to ask questions. Hannah doesn’t ask him about his grades because he doesn’t get them, he finishes a class when he knows the material, be it a day or two years, and he never takes tests either because the folks who designed the course also designed tens of thousands of questions or other progress monitors, and those just get injected from time to time in the course.
When he’s nailing them 9 times out of 10 it moves on to more advanced stuff, or tells him he has proficiency and that gets recorded in his file. Hannah does not need a second mortgage on her house to pay for his tuition and lodging, because paying a couple dozen different professors to prepare an instructional segment on a topic everyone around the planet can pick and choose from is a lot cheaper and more cost and time effective than paying one professor to stand in a room repeating the same lecture once a semester to students that may or may not be receptive to his presentation style, or have to miss a class and fall behind.
There is no class to fall behind on, just subjects, and the ability to assess with solid accuracy how knowledgeable an individual person is at any time on that subject. So Hannah doesn’t have much trouble falling asleep because she isn’t too stressed out by life, and her personal health monitor can send a signal to some of the pills left in her system to dissolve or tell her how much of something to take if she needs a hand getting to sleep. What’s interesting about Sam and Hannah’s lives is that they both live in a pretty automated and high tech civilization. We spend a lot of time on this channel talking about futures in Hannah’s Era or even centuries further ahead, and we tend to focus on big things. New spaceships, new energy sources, giant constructs we could build around our own star or other stars and the ships that will get you there. Not today though, for today it does not matter that Ted was actually playing golf in a rotating habitat orbiting the Earth, complaining about how the spin throws off his normal swing.
We care that his golf partner was actually lying down at home on his bed playing with him in virtual reality, and that he, Ted, and Hannah were thousands of kilometers apart, but all felt like they were in the same environment chatting, even though they were not in the same place and quite possibly all saw different environments. We don’t care that they have rocket ships with big fusion powered drives that can get to Mars in a week, we care about them having cars they can sleep in, fully relaxed in the knowledge that it could drive through a blizzard without a risk of accident and that if one did somehow happen, a dozen safety systems would pop on deploying airbags and restraints before the vehicle even hit the target, and that if somehow even that wasn’t enough, an automated ambulance would be on the scene in moments with robots controlled by experts hundreds of kilometers away piloting them, and already knowing from the vehicle monitors exactly what happened and where all the injuries were and how severe.
We also don’t particularly care that Hannah’s son can do classes online, we already have ever-improving technology allowing that. We care about the automated interactive aspects of that, something called Affective Computing, or computers and systems that can recognize, interpret, process, or simulate human body language and affects. Fundamentally it is this sort of technology that holds the strongest potential to revolutionize our lives. Sure, a student can watch a recorded lecture and pick from several variations of it by other people covering that same topic, just as you can do now on YouTube for instance.
But it is a bigger gamechanger when the system can actually recognize that you are confused or distracted and act accordingly, by simply bringing up a different or expanded presentation. One that can recognize what sort of voice tones and manner or accent you respond better to and suggest speakers based on that. It can even real-time alter theirs. Or even perform text-to-speech functions that don’t pronounce each word mechanically, but can simulate it like a normal person would say it, and possibly even produce a simulated speaker who doesn’t trip all your mental flags as inhuman and disturbing. The Uncanny Valley, our tendency to respond more negatively to things which seem closer to human than further away, is a big hurdle to making such simulations, but if you can get past it, you open the door for books that don’t just get read aloud by some cold disjointed voice, but can be real-time performed like a TV show or interactive virtual environment without needing actors.
It’s a lot easier to learn the history of the world when instead of a book or lecture or even historical TV drama, a person can land in that environment where the bits they find boring can be seamlessly detected and altered, so they remain focused on the important knowledge while enjoying themselves. It’s nice to have a test that doesn’t need to have questions checking your reading comprehension, because it already knows what that was from monitoring you while you read, and even nicer if most text can adapt as you’re reading it to rephrase the information or the question to better communicate to you as an individual.
It’s like the automatic translator that doesn’t just hear what someone said in another language and translate it word for word, but instead can convert all the idioms and expressions into another language and its own idioms and expressions. It will be even cooler if one day we can just download knowledge and skills into your head, like in the film the Matrix where they upload for a few seconds and suddenly that person knows martial arts.
In the absence of that, while we can only use our eyes and ears to input data, which are limited to their format and bandwidth, being able to maximize those by tailoring the input to the individual could massively boost how well and quickly people acquire knowledge and skills. Nothing would more powerfully alter our day-to-day life than the ability to absorb skills and knowledge quicker than we do now. Even many of our conveniences come from simply making a task so easy you don’t have to invest any time into learning it. A civilization where everyone is a jack-of-all-trades, and an expert at a few, is fundamentally different from ours. We didn’t focus on cool new power production methods like fusion today, we focused on ways to conveniently get power.
Wireless energy transmission by magnetic induction or energy beaming, smaller and better batteries and solar panels, or harvesting energy right from the person. Leaching just a little energy away from every motion, maybe even putting devices in the body that could steal a bit of energy from your own food to transmit it to devices in or on you. I never really said how Hannah’s car operates, that it is an electric vehicle ultimately powered by some big fusion reactor somewhere, because Hannah doesn’t think about it. She knows the batteries in her vehicle replaced a combustion engine when batteries finally got small enough and fast charging enough to remove the inconvenience of recharging compared to refueling. But she just doesn’t think about it anymore than you or I spend much time thinking about our light bulbs or light switches, or what makes our refrigerator cold, even though those devices changed our lives profoundly. We’re not too interested in the super-powerful classic or quantum computer that could simultaneously play every human being at chess and beat them all, or even the social media network that can help you find other people in your area that enjoy chess.
We’re interested in the hardware and software that notices you like playing chess, and can let you know the person you are talking to does as well, and likes gardening like you do, but does not share your joy of cooking, or parachuting off kilometer tall buildings. Predicting the future of technology is always a hit and miss game, often in hindsight the stuff is obvious, but can’t be predicted in advance, something we call a Black Swan, and have discussed before. Some technology and its impact is easy enough to predict, but what makes them inaccurate in most cases is all those tiny secondary advantages and changes and those tend to focus on human desire and convenience. It’s not that hard to predict faster computers, the internet, satellites, or cell phones. What’s hard to predict is people using those to post a picture of what they ate for lunch.
Once you do, you can imagine that a lot of restaurants will advertise online and show photos of the menu. It will seem obvious in hindsight that someone is going to make a piece of software that can look at that image and make some smart guesses about its nutritional value and calorie count. It will seem obvious in hindsight that as we get more Affective Computing able to monitor your reactions, your computer will get better at showing you bits of stuff on your social media newsfeed that you’ll enjoy, and that advertisers will be able to hit you with an ad showing a picture of pizza with the toppings you like when you are just getting a little hungry and haven’t had pizza recently, and tomorrow you’ll get shown sandwiches instead. It’s predictable that 3D printers, and fast, cheap, delivery might put a dent in classic retail shopping. It’s predictable that automated vehicles, not needing expensive drivers, will make it much cheaper to deliver things or take a taxi, so that fewer people might own individual vehicles. It’s less predictable that these might start including a casual chat function that notices two strangers sharing a vehicle are uncomfortable and bored and can drop an icebreaker so they can talk to each other.
It’s less predictable that some software company will make a fortune designing algorithms for that which can seamlessly drop a targeted advertisement in there where the automated driver can say that it noticed you’re hungry and like Italian food, and there’s a great bistro just up ahead. Automated vehicles, wireless energy transmission, affective computing that can read your moods or even mental implants that can sync directly to your thoughts are all technologies that are emerging and do tend to get a fair amount of attention in the media. However, it is very easy for us miss a lot of those secondary applications that can quietly sneak in there to revolutionize our lives just as much as landing on the Moon did, or going to Mars will.
Next week we will be starting up a new series looking at just that. We spent a lot of time recently in the Upward Bound Series discussing how to get off the planet, and in the new Outward Bound series, we’ll be visiting some other planets and moons and talking about how to get there and what to do when you arrive, and we’ll start with Colonizing Mars. For alerts when that and other episodes come out, make sure to subscribe to the channel. If you enjoyed this episode, hit the like button and share it with others.
And let me give a thanks to folks who support this channel on Patreon and selected this topic as the winner for the month. Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week! .