Every Friday, I post a new E-mail chat with a forward-looking thinker about the road ahead. Today, our prescient Friday Forward prognosticator is John Smart, president of the Institute for Accelerating Change a nonprofit futurist community based in San Pedro, Calif., that conducts research and holds conferences on the future of technology and the accelerating pace of technological change. IAC's major conference in September, for instance, will explore the increasing connectivity of physical space, the increasing accuracy of simulation space, and the increasing intelligence of our physical-virtual and human-machine interfaces.
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Next News: What tech trends do you see developing over the next 10 to 25 years that the average person today has little awareness of?
Smart: A surprising number of today's technologies, like most nanotechnology and biotechnology, will be much less powerful in the next several decades than many futurists presently realize. Perhaps the most underappreciated accelerating transition we are participating in today is the emergence of the Linguistic User Interface or LUI. The LUI is the natural language front end to an increasingly intelligent and profoundly humanizing and malleable Internet. LUIs exist today in primitive form in interfaces like Google, but will be increasingly powerful in coming years. So what will Windows 2015 look like? For one thing, it seems clear now that it will have some very sophisticated software simulations of human beings as part of the interface. First-world culture finally spends more on video games than movies, and this will apparently be a permanent feature of our world from this point forward. These "interactive motion pictures" are more compelling and educating, particularly to our youth, the fastest-learning segment of our society, than any linear scripts, no matter how professionally produced.
Now imagine that we have begun talking to our computers in a crude but useful verbal exchange circa 2015. It is now very clear that we will not simply want to talk to a disembodied machine. We will want to relate to our favorite virtual human beings, from a wide range of possible choices, as those agents will have an ability to nonverbally communicate, to frown or place their hand on their chin until they understand what we are telling them to do, to smile when they detect we are smiling at their jokes, to talk and act in calm and relaxing manner when their voice analyzers tell them we are upset, to speak more rapidly when they detect we are bored or hurried, etc. This parallel, nonverbal visual channel makes all our linguistic communication a lot more efficient. It's why face-to-face meetings are preferred over telephonic meetings for a wide range of interactive tasks. These LUI-equipped virtual avatars will thus model and display human emotion and body language, albeit with a speed and consistency that no biological human being can match.
Next News: What trends do you often hear talked about but think may not play out the way people expectif at all?
Smart: People who think we are going to see flying cars and suborbital space planes, for example, don't realize that automated highway systems are far more likely, perhaps even statistically inevitable, when you compare the costs, complexity, social benefits and efficiencies involved. I've recently written an article predicting the start of underground AHS networks in our highest density cities circa 20302060. Halfway through this century, there will be increasing numbers of near-zero emission vehicles driving themselves both above and below ground, the Cisco routers under their hoods guiding them automatically to their destination while the occupants do other things, in a seamless merger between individual and mass transportation. The actual start date is evolutionarily unpredictable, but I'd argue the emergence is developmentally inevitable.
People who think genetic engineering and biotechnology are going to have accelerating affects on human and social complexity are also entirely mistaken. Almost every single futurist I've talked to who advocates this simply doesn't understand the massive limitations to using our "top down" interventionist technologies on something as intricate, interdependent, and "bottom up" developed as a biological system. This insight takes some exposure to biological science to fully appreciate, but I've written an article that explores some of the fundamental limitations on 21st-century biotechnology, since so many futurists still don't get that we are going to have an infotech but not a real biotech revolution in coming decades. Certainly biotech, neurotech, and cognotech will continue to incrementally solve all kinds of important social problems. We'll see agricultural advances and the restoration to functionality of a lot of diseased and terribly incapacitated people, but humans will never learn how to make significantly faster, smarter biological humans by tinkering with biology, whether through implant schemes, DNA hacking, or any other theoretical route.
Next News: What kind of computer do you have?
Smart: IAC runs a number of Wintel PCs, and Macs for digital video. We have extra monitors and keyboards sitting on our desks at home and work because they are supercheap, and most of us just move our boxes between work and home. I've tried remote control solutions like GotoMyPC, removable hard drives, and laptops as the primary PC, but nothing is yet as simple, fast, productive, and economically efficient as putting a handle on your box and taking your Outlook, productivity apps, and data with you. Remember the first Compaq PC in 1983? They called it a "transportable." That's what we will continue to do until a very dependable and affordable alternative comes along. I call it the "hi-tech, low-rent" strategy. For mobile computing, I wear and recommend an NEC MobilePro 790 (the 900 is too new, not yet a great value buy). This is an HPC (handheld PC), halfway between a laptop and a PocketPC. It has a 10-hour battery and a touchscreen.
Next News: What is the most recent electronic device that you have purchased?
Smart: A Sony G-Shock sports CD player, for $90. This is still a better buy than an iPod if you have lots of CDs and want to exercise with them. I'm waiting for a convergence device, an iPod-like unit with an integrated CD player that uploads your CDs into RAM as you play them, so we can incrementally retire our CDs, and delete songs we don't like with the push of a button.
Next News: What magazines or Web sources do you read that the average person may not have heard of?
Smart: There are so many good ones, all depending on your interest. Our top 100 recommended periodicals and many more Web sources in the sci-tech, business, sociopolitical, and humanist categories can be found at the IAC Community Directory. One great acceleration-aware specialist mag I read is Technological Forecasting and Social Change. For generalist technology futures, the best monthly is usually Technology Review, but several others can beat it from issue to issue; it's a close race. For long-term, big-picture futures, certainly the best E-newsletter is Accelerating Times, our IAC rag. It's even free, so get on board.
Next News: What is the last book you read that gave you some insight into the road ahead?
Smart: I read quite a lot, so let me give you two. For sociopolitical, read Thomas Barnett's The Pentagon's New Map, 2004. It's a brilliant portrait of the convergent security goals for technologically advanced countries in coming years: to shrink the gap with the remaining disconnected, poorly networked, economically under-integrated countries on this planet. Like the ozone hole, the gap will steadily disappear over the next two generations, and there will be many challenges to this monumentally worthy task. For science, read Life's Solution, 2003, by Simon Conway Morris, who marshals some of the best evidence yet that the universe is not a random accident, that the physics and chemistry of Earth is developmentally tuned to create human beings. Excellent work.