June 27, 2012
In 1987, Bill Gates became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, making the Forbes 400 Richest People in America list with a net worth of $1.25 billion, up from a measly $900 million the year before. Gates was just 32 years old and Microsoft Windows was still very much in its infancy, the operating system having been introduced just a couple of years earlier in November 1985. The world of 1987 was an exciting one for Gates and he saw even more exciting things ahead.
The January 1987 issue of OMNI magazine featured predictions from 14 “great minds” about what the future held; specifically the world of 20 years hence. Bill Gates predicted that the world of 2007 would be filled with flat panel displays, diverse forms of interactive entertainment, highly advanced voice recognition software and the ability to access vast quantities of information at the touch of a button — this was a capital I, capital A, Information Age.
Gates explains the typical home of 2007:
You’re sitting at home. You have a variety of image libraries that will contain, say, all the world’s best art. You’ll also have very cheap, flat panel-display devices throughout your house that will provide resolution so good that viewing a projection will be like looking at an original oil painting. It will be that realistic.
And the information that is accessed with the help of these displays will seem limitless. His idea of a world database sounds quite familiar to the 1981 predictions of Neil Ardley that we looked at a few months back.
In 20 years the Information Age will be here, absolutely. The dream of having the world database at your fingertips will have become a reality. You’ll even be able to call up a video show and place yourself in it. Today, if you want to create an image on a screen — a beach with the sun and waves — you’ve got to take a picture of it. But in 20 years you’ll literally construct your own images and scenes. You will have stored very high-level representations of what the sun looks like or how the wind blows. If you want a certain movie star to be sitting on a beach, kind of being lazy, believe me, you’ll be able to do that. People are already doing these things.
Gates predicts the perfection of a technology that has been around for decades, but one that many people of 2012 might associate with the name Siri: voice recognition.
Also, we will have serious voice recognition. I expect to wake up and say, “Show me some nice Da Vinci stuff,” and my ceiling, a high-resolution display, will show me what I want to see—or call up any sort of music or video. The world will be online, and you will be able to simulate just about anything.
I would love to see an iPhone commercial where Zooey Deschanel or Samuel L. Jackson say “Siri, show me some nice Da Vinci stuff.”
Gates continues by explaining that you’ll be able to realistically simulate racing formula cars in Daytona but worries what it might mean when people no longer have any reason to leave the house.
There’s a scary question to all this: How necessary will it be to go to real places or do real things? I mean, in 20 years we will synthesize reality. We’ll do it super-realistically and in real time. The machine will check its database and think of some stories you might tell, songs you might sing, jokes you might not have heard before. Today we simply synthesize flight simulation.
Gates believed that all of our technological advancements would also mean the end of credit cards and checks — old technologies replaced by voice and fingerprint recognition.
A lot of things are going to vanish from our lives. There will be a machine that keys off of physiological traits, whether it’s voiceprint or fingerprint, so credit cards and checks — pretty flimsy deals anyway — have to go.
Gates also welcomed the death of what he calls “passive entertainment.”
I hope passive entertainment will disappear. People want to get involved. It will really start to change the quality of entertainment because it will be so individualized. If you like Bill Cosby, then there will be a digital description of Cosby, his mannerisms and appearance, and you will build your own show from that.
Later in the article Gates is cautious and believes that we may eventually test just how much information the human mind can take.
Probably all this progress will be pretty disruptive stuff. We’ll really find out what the human brain can do, but we’ll have serious problems about the purpose of it all. We’re going to find out how curious we are and how much stimulation we can take. There have been experiments in which a monkey can choose to ingest cocaine and the monkey keeps going to create some pretty intense experiences through synthesized video-audio. Do you think you’ll reach a point of satisfaction when you no longer have to try something new or make something better? Life is really going to change; your ability to access satisfying experiences will be so large.
Gates ends his article by explaining that he doesn’t think we can really extrapolate with much accuracy from the year 1987.
But in the next 20 years you won’t be able to extrapolate the rate of progress from any previous pattern or curve because the new chips, these local intelligences that can process information, will cause a warp in what it’s possible to do. The leap will be unique. I can’t think of any equivalent phenomenon in history.
I’d argue that the vast majority of Gates’ predictions are actually fairly accurate. Here in the year 2012 we’ve seen many of his ideas about the world of 2007 become a reality. But perhaps the most interesting prediction of the bunch is about interactive entertainment. It’s fascinating that the internet has given rise to a remix culture that values slightly different modes of interaction — from the creation of a new video itself right down to the comments — though they’re typically unsanctioned by the original artists and rights holders.
For the time being, it would seem that modern copyright law makes these forms of remix entertainment targets for litigation — despite many obvious examples of fair use. And it’s not just remix culture, but the right to parody itself that has been under attack with the rise of the internet. An animated parody show about Bill Cosby himself, called House of Cosbys received a cease and desist letter in 2005 for even daring to imitate Bill Cosby’s voice and likeness. And if you’ve ever seen House of Cosbys you can probably attest that it’s likely not what Bill Gates had in mind when he was picturing the future.
Image above is a screenshot from this video:
May 25, 2012
The October 1944 issue of Science and Mechanics looked at what technological advancements Americans might expect after WWII with an article titled, “Big Things Ahead — But Keep Your Shirt On,” by John Silence.
What makes this article so fascinating is that it looks at the advances of the future with optimism, but tempers that rosey outlook with realistic predictions. There were a number of stories in the early 1940s offering American readers a vision of the future after the war, but this is one of the few that asks people to keep their expectations in check. The article opens with the common assumptions of the day about the futuristic post-war world Americans would be living in:
Many of us have the idea that when Johnny comes marching home to his post-war world, he won’t know the old place. He’ll zing in on some contraption just short of the fourth dimension, and before he can zip himself out of his uniform and into his civvies, the walls of his pre-fabricated house will glow with electronic heat or his brow will be cooled by costless air conditioning.
The freezer in the basement will yield a perfect sirloin steak that the radio oven will broil to his favorite turn in something under 10 seconds, and while they’re bringing it in on an electric-plastic tray that keeps it hot, the dehydrated mush is being turned back into honest potatoes. And so on.
The piece then warns that you shouldn’t get your hopes up too much. It’s really one of the most sober and subdued pieces of futurism I’ve read from the last 100 years, but it gives us a fascinating look at the thinking of the time:
But don’t expect too much. And don’t expect it all at once. For many reasons, we aren’t going to turn things upside down as soon as the last shot is fired in this conflict. The people who risk their money to provide the things you buy are going to hold back to find out if you’ll take it before they plunge too deep. And all their research may be overruled on appeal.
The article says that frozen food will be the food of the future, with refrigerated trucks making regular deliveries to homes that have large freezers in their basements:
Foods—Quick freezing has pretty much passed its tests. People will buy frozen foods, and they’ll also store their own produce in rented lockers or home freezers. Which way will the cat jump? There are some folks who think the frozen food industry may eventually—get that “eventually”—work around to a system whereby you’ll keep a large frozen food locker in your basement, and make your purchases from a refrigerated delivery truck that comes around every week or so.
The article has a little fun with the idea that huge windows would be in fashion after the war, but may not be terribly practical:
Housing—It isn’t cricket to throw cold water on your ideas about letting the sun heat your home through huge plate glass windows. But please bear in mind that Mama is going to have something to say, too, and if your big windows open up the innards of your house to prying eyes 20 feet across the lot line, you may come in some fine sunny day to find the drapes drawn and the furnace pumping away.
The piece pointed out that advances in medicine would revolutionize our world, though they may not get as much attention as advances in consumer goods.
Medicine—Among all the scientific advances being made during the war, medicine and surgical methods probably will draw the least public attention, but they probably will influence your post-war life more than any other. The mold drugs give one example. Penicillin, the wonder mold derivative, already has been released, in controlled amounts, to the public.
And speaking of consumer goods, the writer acknowledges the sales pitches that were so common from peddlers of the era:
Household appliances—When the post-war planner regales you with stories about automatic washers, ironers, dish washers, garbage disposal machines, tell him to smile when he says it. You had all those things before the war, and you’ll have them again, if you’ve got what it takes—and that’s money and time to wait for more to be made.
In describing the community of tomorrow the writer makes reference to an illustration from 1895 that humorously imagined the future. The writer predicts that any changes in the community of the future really can’t be foreseen, but will likely be basic and simple.
Community Planning—A half century ago an artist did the same kind of thinking about his future that many people today are doing about ours. He came up with an idea of what the skyscraper of the future—say about now—would look like. [...] He reserved a large section of the building for a hay and feed store! He reckoned without the automobile, which was to change the whole complexion of things within 10 years and make his drawing appear fantastic. We can still count on a wonderful new world opening up before our eyes, but the man who promises you a preview of it just can’t deliver. The furbelows and fripperies that ease the life of the next generation are going to be governed largely on basic, probably simple, changes in our way of living that perhaps no one today can see.
The writer expects that tomorrow’s cars will be leaner and more efficient with engineers figuring out how to produce more with less. Curiously, he also holds out hope for a steam-powered car.
Motoring—On the basis of our wartime scare on the scarcity of petroleum products, it would almost seem safe to predict that the automobile of the future will be lighter and more efficient, getting as much as 50 or 100 miles to a gallon of the best grades of gasoline. The engineers probably will add strength while casting off weight. But who is to say that we won’t be extracting a fuel like gasoline from other products that will permit us to continue running our two-ton heaps because, if for no other reason, we like ‘em? And besides, although steam was tried and discarded once as an automobile power source, such improvements have been made in boilers and heating plants, as well as in the engines themselves, it is entirely possible someone will market, some day, a steam automobile that will go when you press your foot on the accelerator first thing in the morning. There are startling things afoot in both power and fuel developments. But they will be announced slowly and carefully. Watch also transmissions, especially in the hydraulics and electrical fields.
The writer predicts quite accurately that after the war the American public will see FM radio and television.
Radio—What can we look for may be these things:
- At first, a set just like we’ve always had, because the manufacturer will have all he can do at first just to fill the demand.
- Then, likely, FM, because it was about ready for the public when the conflict started, and the transmitters are already reaching a good portion of listeners.
- Television—later. Because of the short carrying qualities of television waves, it will come out first in heavily populated centers where there are transmitters.
The machine tools of war are seen as the most obvious advances that would be quickly converted for peacetime purposes.
Machine Tools—It’s most likely that the greatest advances are being made now, and not waiting until after victory is won. The stress and pressure for speedy production is bringing about advancement in the field of specialized machine tools that make our country the undisputed leader of the world’s industrial production. It may be this will prove our real victory in the war.
Futurists of the 1940s had a particular interest in helicopters, predicting that there would be a flying machine in every garage after the war. But the writer of this article is quick to explain the hurdles to such a helicopter-centric society.
Aircraft—A helicopter in your back yard? The picture is bright. You go out behind the apple tree, give the rotors a whirl, and whizz!—you’re on the office roof. At the end of the day, whizz!—and you’re back in Suburbia, tending your delphiniums. Beautiful picture, isn’t it? But you’ll probably have to keep your machine in perfect condition, to be passed on by some safety agency, and it won’t be the perfunctory windshield wiper and horn test, either. The neighbors may not care if you crack your own skull, but they won’t want you doing it on their sun porches. So for some years after the war is over, the first helicopters, and other airplanes for that matter, will be flown by people who can scrape together enough money to insure: (1) a machine in perfect condition; (2) maintenance that will keep it that way; (3) expert training in the operation of the machine. The designers say helicopters are harder to fly than airplanes.
May 22, 2012
Remember paper maps? They used to be the only game in town. But the 2000s (the aughts? have we named that decade yet?) saw a radical shift in the way that befuddled drivers could figure out how to get from point A to point B. Suddenly, global positioning systems (GPS) became affordable enough that the average consumer could buy stand-alone units for their cars and GPS technology began showing up in smartphones (though often early smartphones were simply using cell tower triangulation). It wasn’t very long ago that consumer GPS devices were super-futuristic technology.
The 1989 book Future Stuff by Malcolm Abrams and Harriet Bernstein looked at the various technologies that people might see in the 1990s and beyond. The book assigned an estimated year, an estimated price and gave the odds as to whether we’d see this technology at all. One of the technologies was “car video” navigation, as well as satellite navigation. The “video navigation system” relied on a rather primitive design—a “casette-tape data source” that allowed you to input an “electronic road map” on a video monitor mounted on your dashboard. The satellite navigation described in the book is much closer to what we actually see today:
The video navigation system, which we’ll see introduced early in the decade, should be passe by the end of the decade. It will be replaced by satellite navigation, an amazing system that will be able to pinpoint your car’s location anyplace in the world, alert you to an upcoming traffic jam and show you all alternate routes, warn you of approaching bad weather, and so on. Your car will be bouncing signals off satellites in space just like the most advanced communications systems.
Japan’s Nissan Motor Company is spearheading the technology with its Satellite Drive Information device. Your location will be shown on your car’s computer display screen, using Nissan’s Global Positioning System. Forget video road maps and memory banks. The picture on your screen will be the real thing transmitted via satellite. The display screen will even tell you where to make turns and also measure distances (to the next intersection or to your final destination).
Satellite navigation is going to make it difficult for someone even with the worst sense of direction to get lost.
So when did they think this technology would finally arrive? The authors predicted that it had a 70% chance of becoming a reality by 1998 and early models would cost $2,500 (about $4,340 adjusted for inflation). That prediction turned out to be fairly accurate. In 2000, a simple portable GPS device—which could indicate your current location—sold for $699. But the top-of-the-line portable GPS devices, which could provide driving directions, cost $2,799.
April 23, 2012
In 1987, a small Dallas-based company launched a floppy disk magazine that was supposed to be a grand experiment in the future of the medium. At $19.95 an issue, The New Aladdin was a bi-monthly general-interest magazine that hoped to give readers an entirely new kind of interactive experience; complete with animated graphics, computer games, music, puzzles, and feature stories that allowed you to ask questions.
And though you couldn’t “wrap a dead fish in it,” the magazine hoped to make up for this short-coming with fancy 8-bit graphics. The New Aladdin editor John Henson is pictured above, recording a scene in miniature for the magazine.
From an Associated Press story in the June 27, 1987 Galveston Daily News (Galveston, TX):
The magazine is two disks in a case with a label on it that looks like a miniature magazine cover. The sophisticated artwork is in a style reminiscent of The New Yorker magazine. Insert a 3 1/2-inch disk in a disk drive and an image of Aladdin pops up on the screen seated next to a lamp billowing smoke where tiles of stories appear and then fade with the push of a button.
This was to be more than a passive magazine-reading experience. As the July-August, 1987 issue of The Futurist magazine explains:
How does it work? One sample magazine story might be about how to refinance your home. With most magazines, you would have to read hypothetical stories that may not apply to your own situation. But with The New Aladdin, you plug your own facts and figures into the story to find out precisely how much refinancing your home would cost and how much it may save you in the future. Another possibility is to conduct your own “press conference” with the president of the United States, asking the questions you want answered.
The AP story elaborates a bit on what a virtual presidential press conference looks like:
In a recent issue, The New Aladdin carried a cover story that was a spoof on a presidential news conference with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. “Meet the Pres” starts with the music “Hail to the Chief” and allows readers to ask an animated Reagan questions from a list and to create their own. They also can respond to questions from Reagan about the press. The Reagans talk to the reader, mouths moving with sentences rolling out of them, word by word. Some of the answers are taken from actual press conferences, others are creative satire.
It sounds like some of their experiments may have worked better than others. The article in The Futurist describes one story that sounds like a Choose Your Own Adventure, minus the whole “choosing your own” thing. There were 65,000 different possible versions of the story:
For a fictional story in one issue, five writers contributed a different version of a story developed form a master outline. The computer randomly assembled the paragraphs, so the reader could enjoy a different story each time it appeared. More than 65,000 different versions of the story were possible, says Henson. The magazine also features animated graphics, computer games, and puzzles.
The AP story also explains that they’re targeting a mass market, attempting to make it as user friendly as possible.
No knowledge of computers is necessary to read the stories or respond to them — they work with the push of a button or the movement of a “mouse” hand controller on Commodore Amiga computers, Atari ST computers and Atari 8-bit computers. Magazines programmed for the Apple IIg will be available soon.
It was obviously difficult to define this new form of publishing, as editor John Henson told The Futurist:
“It’s a magazine; it’s software; it’s a video game; it’s literature,” says Henson. “Content-wise, we are a family entertainment and information journal. The New Aladdin has similarities to everything from a news magazine to a science-fiction digest to a children’s book. But because the user can interact with The New Aladdin, that makes it fundamentally different from any printed publication.”
March 7, 2012
There’s no denying that devices like the iPad, Kindle and Nook have dramatically changed the way that many people consume media. Last year, online retailer Amazon announced that electronic book sales had surpassed print book sales for the first time in history.
The future of the book has quite a few failed predictions in its wake. From Thomas Edison’s belief that books of the future would be printed on leaves of nickel, to a 1959 prediction that the text of a book would be projected on the ceiling of your home, no one knew for sure what was in store for the printed word.
The April, 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics included this nifty invention which was to be the next logical step in the world of publishing. Basically a microfilm reader mounted on a large pole, the media device was supposed to let you sit back in your favorite chair while reading your latest tome of choice.
It has proved possible to photograph books, and throw them on a screen for examination, as illustrated long ago in this magazine. At the left is a device for applying this for home use and instruction; it is practically automatic.
Additional text accompanying the illustration reads, “You can read a ‘book’ (which is a roll of miniature film), music, etc., at your ease.”
Though René Dagron was granted the first patent for microfilm in the year 1859, it was New York banker George Lewis McCarthy who developed the first practical use for microfilm in 1925, allowing him to make miniaturized copies of bank documents.
Eastman Kodak bought McCarthy’s invention in 1928 and the technology behind the miniaturization of text was adopted rapidly throughout the 1930s. In 1935 the New York Times began copying all of its editions onto microfilm.
Microfilm was a practical instrument for archiving printed material for a number of institutions in the 1930s, including Oglethorpe University, which was preparing the Crypt of Civilization. The Crypt was sealed in 1938 and is intended to be opened in the year 8113. The December, 1938 issue of Popular Science included an article on the preparations necessary for that enormous time capsule, including the use of miniaturized text not unlike the concept above.