One day last year, I was at a small gathering of colleagues and acquaintances. Someone who had apparently wandered in as a guest of someone else came up to me and said, “You’re a science fiction writer, huh?”
“Yes, I am,” I admitted.
“Okay. So predict something.”
I said, “I’m not in the business of predicting. I’m in the business of storytelling.”
I won’t repeat the whole ensuing conversation here, but the fellow was quite upset with me for refusing to tell him what year he would finally have a jetpack, a flying car and a steak dinner in a pill. I did tell him that he could have a wall-sized 3D TV in his home right now, but he wasn’t interested in that. It wasn’t science-fictiony enough.
Nevertheless, from time to time, I do engage in a bit of speculation and extrapolation, because the trend lines are so obvious. And here are the obvious trend lines:
1) Batteries are going to get better. Much better. Various researchers have demonstrated that a battery made of doped graphene layers can recharge much faster and last 10 times longer. Obviously, this will have an impact on everything from smartphones to hybrid automobiles.
2) The efficiency of solar panels will be increased by a variety of new technologies, including carbon nanotubes, multiple lenses, and being able to use light beyond the visible spectrum. Combined with more powerful batteries and more efficient chips, some devices may go days or even weeks before recharging.
3) Chips are going to get smaller and more powerful. Well, duh. That part is obvious. As die-sizes shrink, chips always become faster, but the real advances will come from multicore processors with cores specialized for different tasks, each core brought online only as needed. Add outsourcing of heavy-duty tasks, and personal devices could have petaflops available as needed within 10 years. While most of us may never need that much power, having the headroom still means increased functionality for everything we do use.
4) Memory cards will continue to expand in capacity and speed. The hard drive as we know it will disappear, replaced by solid-state units. The ubiquity of small memory chips will have profound effects. Devices will have large specialized software libraries preinstalled. Your stove will have a touchscreen to access its library of recipes, including the appropriate programming for the oven or the burners.
5) As processing power increases, speech recognition will continue to improve. The software’s ability to understand what was said will move to a near-conversational level. Your phone is already evolving the ability to function as a universal translator for every language except teenager and politician.
6) Micro-motors are going to become much more efficient because 3D printers will make it possible to fabricate micro-machines of all kinds, including one-wafer devices that will assemble themselves like origami. Large mechanical insects are already possible. Pretty soon, we’ll be making them the size of a housefly—effectively invisible.
These are the trend lines. Anyone keeping up with tech news already knows about this stuff. Other trend lines include increased pixel density in displays, OLED screens, Gorilla Glass, new kinds of cameras and image-processing software, self-driving automobiles, robots that walk, and robots that can play ping pong with other robots.
In short, we’re building all the separate pieces for a huge synergistic explosion of possibilities. For example, put together a lightweight quadcopter with enhanced batteries, solar panels and lightweight cameras, and you have a camera that can photograph a football game from just above the players’ heads. You also have a near-invisible surveillance device for the military and the police. I expect these will be moving out of the development labs within a year.
Better motors, stronger batteries and lightweight materials will make a household robot practical. With facial recognition, it could learn the habits of various family members; it will feed the dog, empty the litter box, dust the living room, hang up your clothes, and mix your dirty martini exactly the way you like it. We could see home robots before the end of the decade. The first iRobot will probably be slow, bulky and disappointing—compared to what we see in the movies—but by the time we hit 3.0, you should be able to say, “Get me a beer and a bowl of Doritos,” with a reasonable expectation of success.
The same technology that we use to build robots will also give us exoskeletons for military and industrial use, and as prostheses for the disabled.
The intelligence needed for robotics will also show up in other uses—everything from toys to cars. Self-driving automobiles have been demonstrated by Google, and the state of Nevada has already set standards for licensing. We could see self-driving cars on the road within three years. If and when such vehicles become ubiquitous, automobiles will be redesigned as mobile living rooms. You get in and say, “Take me to work,” and while the car drives itself, you swivel around to watch the news, log onto Facebook, or even take a power-nap.
Display technology is going to change dramatically. When manufacturers figure out how to print an OLED display (or even a whole device) onto Gorilla Glass, we’ll have thinner, lighter phones, tablets and TVs. HDTV will probably be surpassed by Ultra-Definition TV with 4000 lines of video information, refreshed at 240hz or even 480hz. For that, you’ll probably want a projector in your living room. You might not be able to get the 108-inch display in through the front door.
We’ll probably see touch-screens and interactive surfaces everywhere. Some will be with actual display panels, others will be projected onto cabinets, table tops and walls. Gesture recognition will be ubiquitous for televisions and game consoles. Lights will come on automatically when you enter a room and switch off when you leave.
The desktop could evolve into an “information tank.” Three huge screens in a triptych, or even a large curved wraparound display, could be the preferred work environment for high-tech professions and gamers. For the average person, the desktop computer will give way to the tablet or the laptop. Tablets will have wireless connectivity with peripherals, such as larger screens and keyboards. With touch-screens rapidly penetrating the market, the keyboard will be important only to touch-typists.
Your house will recognize you when you come home and unlock the doors for you. This might be done by facial recognition, or it could be by an RFID key-fob like the Prius already has.
Except for power cords, wires will disappear. Real soon now, all your devices will talk to each other by Wi-Fi, and that means you’ll have a virtual personal network that will go with you everywhere. Android and Windows are both evolving toward a cross-platform standard.
Most of this technology has already been demonstrated in the lab or is already poking its way into the marketplace in some embryonic form, so these are easy predictions to make. You don’t have to be a science-fiction writer. So just to be on the safe side, I also predict at least one totally unpredictable breakthrough in materials or fabricating technology that will transform all of our expectations of what’s possible. I’ll go that one better and predict at least one synergistic collision of technologies that will result in a transformation of existing product niches.
As all of these pieces become available, software agents like Apple’s Siri and Android’s Majel will become the unifying glue. This is the real future; we’re on the threshold of “do what I mean” software. The key has always been processing power. Multicore chips can do enough work to simulate intelligent listening and sort through appropriate responses.
And that’s the real point: The most spectacular advances won’t be the hardware, they’ll be the software that makes all this hardware work, especially the software that makes all the hardware work together.
In the past, an advance in technology usually meant bigger, stronger or faster. It was about increasing the muscle power of the machinery. That’s no longer the case. Now, we’re shifting to a new paradigm: making our machines smarter. A smart machine is more efficient—it’s more useful. If it understands its function, it can make appropriate choices. If it monitors itself, it can notify you before it fails. If it manages its own data, it can organize, sort, remember and remind. All this new technology is going to make our lives a lot more interesting—easier in some ways, more challenging in others. We’re going to be more interconnected than ever.
Bottom line? It’s going to require a lot of new software. I see a lot of interesting possibilities for skilled programmers.
David Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including the famous “Star Trek” episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He is also an authority on computer software and programming, and takes a broad view of the evolution of advanced technologies. Readers may remember Gerrold from the Computer Language Magazine forum on CompuServe, where he was a frequent and prolific contributor in the 1990s.