The following essay was submitted by Zachary Czarnecki from Missouri Western State University as part of the Future of Technology Scholarship competition.
Society (for the purposes of this paper limited to an American perspective) seems to have a technological-esteem issue, in the way people always seem to undervalue the world’s current technological progress. Maybe it’s because we always over estimate exactly how far and how much we can advance in a given amount of time, and we just let ourselves down every time we look up and see we still can’t commute via jetpack. However, even though we may not flying cars, hoverboards, jetpacks, or Jaws 17, we still take for granted and don’t acknowledge the, admittedly surprising, ways we have been able to further the technology in our world. However, this kind of mentality also makes it difficult to pin down exactly how humanity will have progressed by 2040, but I can use the how and what of the progress we have made in the past in 26 years to make an educated guess.
Throughout history, futurists and those that look towards tomorrow in general have used the vision of a chrome colored city on the moon where everyone travels via flying car, jetpack, or teleporter (for long distance travel) and communicates via a radio like device attached to their head’s or wrist. The 1920’s thought we’d be at this point by 2000, but fourteen years late of that and all we’ve managed to get so far is the permanently attached communication device, in the form of cell phones and tablet computers. Going back to our benchmark of 1989, the first cell phones were enormous bricks of metal, wires, and radiation made primarily for military use as more reliable walkie-talkies, but they quickly found their way into civilian life and the growth from there has been exponential. The first thing to go was the size, as the compacting of the necessary parts and chips gave rise to the classic flip-phone design, with the smart phone later replacing that in ubiquity around the turn of the millennia with the introduction of the Blackberry and its ability to run business software as well as function as a portable communication device, itself building from the foundation laid by another device, the IBM Simon. Today, we have the iPhone with the iOS operating system and the much more prevalent Android operating system in nearly every phone on the market, enabling access to the World Wide Web, a seemingly endless amount of touch screen games and apps. Think of that last word “app.” This short-ended version of the word “application” didn’t even exist in the public lexicon 8 years ago, but now everyone knows it as “those things my phone does, like a cookbook, or a game where I throw birds at poorly constructed forts, or watch that movie from the 80’s I have memorized inside and out and videos of cats when I’m on the john.” Think of all the devices we once needed to perform those acts; an actual cookbook, a television, a gaming console with a physical storage device (cartridge or disc) for the game, a VCR/DVD player, the cassette/DVD of the film, and a cat. What was once just a walkie-talkie with a calculator can now do the work of 6 different devices (don’t forget your cellphone also functions as a phone) at once. In the future world of 2040, I see the use of, and dependence on, cellphones and larger cousins tablets growing exponentially, with the only limit being the tasks we can think up. In the past 26 years, of all the walks of life technology impacts, it was communication that increased the most, at least as far as civilian’s are concerned.
Thanks to military and NASA research, we now have our first robots in the form of military drones and space probes like the curiosity rover, respectively, but the possible routes these technologies are so varied that it’s hard to think of an exact path. The drones’ futures could be anything from glorified mailmen for Amazon.com, to Skynet. There is an outlier to these possibilities; however, the Google Maps Streetview cars that drive themselves around the world to photograph it in its entirety. Meanwhile the probes and rovers of NASA and similar space programs can spend an eternity in the vastness of space and never find anything resembling intelligent life or another habitable planet, which are, despite all the other wonders of the cosmos that we’ve found in the past 26 years, the only things that would make an immediate impact on an average person’s life baring the discovery of light speed engines, which, let’s face it, isn’t happening in this century unless the Men in Black turn out to be real. Though the field of robotics has increased the most in the past 26 years, in that it now exist to a measurable extent, it will take longer than 26 years for them to see consumer use. At the very least though, I can predict a definite increase in the use of drone mail carriers, maybe a garbage truck that’s fully automated if we can get people to put their garbage in the same place at the same time every week. Back on the Streetview cars, that technology will most definitely be perfected into an automated taxi service thanks to the increase in AI use in everyday life.
Though we cannot build bodies meant for use outside of battle yet, it seems we are perfectly capable of making minds. Released upon the masses by Apple on October 4, 2011, Siri is the first of what I predict to be many types of AI to grace the world in the future. To clarify my earlier remark on cellphone/tablet dependence, it is these very assistants, Siri and soon-to-be Microsoft rival Cortana, will know us better than we know ourselves. They already catalogue everything about us, for better or worse, including the places we go, the people we see, the sites we visit. As personality algorithms continue to increase in complexity, they’ll eventually become almost human, or at the very least convincing copies of the real deal. By 2040, AIAs (artificial intelligence assistants) will grow to such a detailed and customizable point that people will be able to choose their perfect personal assistant personality, and hold full conversations with it; asking more than just advice to eat, but on career goals, relationships, and life in general, just like flesh and blood secretaries. The only thing I cannot predict is how these interactions would impact the human user psychologically because of how unpredictable the human mind itself can be. Talking to the device that you once only saw as a highly multi-purpose tool like it’s an actual human being could cause any number of societal shifts, including a fight for AIA rights and justices.
So we have our vision for the year 2040, and not much has changed. Your phone and everything else that uses a computer chip is faster now, of course, but now it can talk back to you when you give it lip for having too little battery life. That voice can also be projected from any number of devices in your house thanks to a new type of router. Your TV, your desktop set-up which in 2014 terms is just an extra-large tablet with a keyboard as towers became wholly irrelevant around 2035, even your fridge and oven all have the same voice and personality. This voice also sounds suspiciously similar to the driver of that new Google sponsored cab service, because it is. They still don’t fly, but the computer driven cars navigate the traffic so well that everyone’s commute time is cut in half regardless. Your AIA can also hook up to the new GPS (Global Postal Service) to keep track of your packages, sometimes. Even when run by machines, the mail system still manages disappoint. Some things never change.
Now that everyone relies on the AIA’s in their phones for, pretty much everything has been re-formatted to be compatible with them. Most television providers have given up on boxes and dishes in the face of competing with AIA’s for entertainment use since 2040 smartphones can be hooked up to a television and serve the same function, minus the encumbrance an airtime schedule. Because of this, the former cable and satellite companies have either become internet service providers only, became competitors to Netflix in the streaming circuit (although Netflix still has virtual monopoly), or just went bankrupt. Traditional movie theaters suffered similarly because televisions/monitors can now be affordable on such massive scale that most consumers found the only real difference between a night at home with a rental and a night at the cinema to be the $15 tickets for the later. Because of this, film companies are forced to go straight to video for all their releases. Critics are still arguing over whether that’s a good thing or not, but that’s what they do for a living anyway. Gaming seems to be the only exception to this all in one rule, if only because Nintendo is so attached to the role of console and keep making devoted consoles, though they only seems to put out Pokemon games anymore. Microsoft and Sony jumped into the AIA business early on, though, even though Sony also still puts out devoted Playstation consoles, if only to spite Nintendo. But again, everything else is all in one thanks to your AIA.
With every facet run through the AIA, people are content with the world. War’s still rage on, and politics still seem to run fully on a combination of slander and bad press, but you’ve got your AIA to keep you company no matter how dark the world gets. Things are happier, no matter what your overly political grandmother says on her MySpace page. Oh yeah, Facebook imploded so now everyone uses MySpace. I said I wasn’t going to be 100% accurate.