The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 29, 2003
Lead Article

Illustration: Kuldip Dhiman

Experts agree that we are on the brink of a technology explosion that will influence every aspect of our lives from health to employment to relationships to crime to evolution and, perhaps, eventually even our extinction, says Prerana Trehan.

IF this were the year, say, 2030, you wouldn’t be holding a newspaper in your hand right now, or at least it wouldn’t be paper. Instead you’d be reading this article on a flexible, paper-thin display screen while your robotic pet dog would be rubbing itself against your legs. Elsewhere in your home, a robotic vacuum cleaner would be doing the cleaning, navigating around the rooms all by itself, while your washing machine would be washing your clothes after having received verbal instructions from you. Earlier in the morning, your alarm clock would have chosen the best time to wake you up. Outside, a minicopter would be waiting to take you to your office.

Science fiction? Not really. Scientists around the world are working to make flexible computers that can be folded just like paper. In May this year, the world’s first robotic vacuum cleaner, Trilobite, made by Electrolux, went on sale in the UK. It is completely independent and efficient and uses sound waves to detect obstacles in its path and find its way around the house. A British researcher has made an alarm clock that decides what time to wake you up, all you have to do is enter your travel details for the next day before going to bed. Sony’s pet dog Aibo is an old story, but its latest upgrade has given it more artificial intelligence and it can now recognise its owner’s name, voice and facial features and re-charge itself.


A German company has made a washing machine that introduces itself as ‘Hermine’ and can talk and recognise spoken commands. And if you have never done laundry before, it gives you advice on how to tackle the task. Peter Bunniss, an aviation specialist from Bristol University, is working to update a minicopter from the 1920s so business travellers can use it to get to work.

When 2030 finally rolls in, Steven Speilberg will have reason enough to rub his hands in glee and say, "I told you so." In the next world, Issac Asimov will nod in agreement, while in this one Bill Gates’ vision — termed Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT), which he unveiled at Las Vegas in November last — of a world in which artificially intelligent everyday devices that would be able to draw on the Internet for working, would have long ago found practical application.

The future is already here, we just don’t know it yet. Information overload causes discoveries and inventions, that have the potential to change the course of human history, to go unnoticed. Gates expects the first SPOT products to be available within a year, while, with genetic engineering, man will, for the first time in the history of humankind, be able to directly influence the course of his own evolution and give it the direction he wants. Here is what futurologists like Ian Pearson and Patrick Dixon have to say about the future awaiting us:

Smarter machines

Many people don’t believe that machines will actually become smarter than us some day, an eventuality that experts say is inevitable. Even going by current trends, by 2015 desktop computers should be at least 50,000 times faster with 50,000 more memory. What these predictions ignore is the positive feedback loop that technology provides. As machines become better, faster and more intelligent, they assist in designing improved versions of the next generation of machines. This means that as machines become smarter, the possibility of making still smarter machines within less and less time becomes greater.

As technology feedback brings us super-computers in a very short time, computers are expected to overtake us in most fields by 2015. Until they become as good as people in computer design, the progress will be slow. Beyond that point it will accelerate to such an extent that it is difficult to say where it will stop. Futurologists feel that machines could be at least a million times smarter than us by 2030.

Asking whether machines will be as smart as humans is not really relevant since machines will not compete directly with humans but instead develop a parallel system of intelligence that will build on their strengths of speed and accuracy as opposed to the human attribute of creativity. Researchers at labs from MIT to IBM are trying to build computers that can run by themselves, adapt to circumstances and allocate their resources to efficiently handle tasks.

American scientists are developing a machine that can make fully assembled and functioning electronic toys, mobile phones, bulbs, radios and other gadgets, all without any human intervention. This technology can lead to new industrial revolution, signalling the end of traditional production lines.

Soon these machines will exhibit common sense traits and become ‘thinking’ machines. They will have artificial nervous systems, surpass human learning, knowledge and logic and might eventually learn to be creative.

In pink of health

Genetically engineered babies, clones, artificial organs`85recent advances in biotechnology and healthcare have dwarfed centuries of progress in the field and opened the door to immense possibilities. Ten persons in the USA and a handful in other countries are living on artificial hearts. Some years down the line this might become a standard procedure for heart patients. Soon doctors might be able to develop artificial lungs, kidneys and livers. Despite widespread opposition on ethical grounds, designer babies have already made an appearance. Two British couples have already had babies genetically designed to help their sick siblings through tissue transplant. Israeli scientists have found a way to grow human and pig kidneys inside mice with deficient immune systems. If pigs had been used, the resulting kidneys would have been normal in size and could possibly have been used in transplantation.

Cloning, so long as it is used for therapeutic purposes and not for making people, also has the potential for the treatment of many diseases. The idea is to create replacement cells for sick people that would not be rejected by their immune systems because these would be genetically identical to their own cells. Earlier this year Hollywood actor Christopher Reeve said that trials for therapeutic cloning in humans were already under way.

Mapping of the human genome represents a milestone in history. Further research in the field is likely to result in a cure for most diseases. According to Nick Wood, neurogeneticist at University of London, common disease-causing genes will be identified in the next 15-20 years. A new gene therapy being developed at University of California, Los Angeles, offers a potential way to treat AIDS.

The bad news is that the future could bring many new diseases. Increased travel to other places could expose us to newer diseases. An overuse of antibiotics has already led to the emergence of newer strains of diseases that are resistant to all antibiotics. SARS, which is an antibiotic-resistant form of the more familiar pneumonia, is a case in point. Soon many diseases may have no cures. Biological warfare and genetic engineering gone wrong could also pose a threat to health. Smoking, depression and stress are all set to claim many more lives.

Future of cyber ties

With an increase in the use of Internet and mobiles, geography will no longer be a limiting factor in determining whom we spend our time with. Relationships will be based on mutual interest and not on physical accessibility. Networked communities, or cyber-communities, will become more influential as the rate of Internet access increases. Such communities will be able to generate a huge amount of support for any cause within much less time than is possible now. The speed of the e-mail and the fact that one can express one’s support simply by clicking the "yes" button makes this possible. Such demonstrations or protests have the potential to generate public opinion that might be difficult to ignore. According to a news report last week, a hint from the makers of the film The Hulk that the title character might not wear his trademark purple pants in a forthcoming film, so enraged the movie’s fans that they filled up websites warning the makers not the make any such alterations. In an apparent acknowledgement of the power of the cyber-protest, the purple pants have got a go-ahead.

An interesting offshoot of the emergence of cyber-communities is its impact on warfare and terrorism. Let’s assume that a cyber-community decides to attack the USA. Having systems that are more technology-dependant than in most countries, makes the USA more vulnerable to a cyber attack. So the members of the community simply recruit hackers who bring down their systems using viruses. If a few hackers have managed to shut down Yahoo!, Amazon and E-bay, it is not difficult to imagine what a coordinated attack by thousands intent on revenge could do. More interesting is the impossibility of a counter-attack. For as long as the enemy is confined to a limited geographical area, a counter-attack is simply a matter of bombing the area to the ground. But what do you do when the enemy is dispersed across the globe and can, in any case, not be identified? How can you launch a missile against a cyber-community?

More and more couples will have cyber-relationships. Cyber-dating and online sex have already changed the dynamics of the man-woman relationship. The concept of sharing living space with a partner might go the way of the dodo with couples sharing intimate relationships across miles. By 2020, experts say, you could transmit emotions across the Internet, and the person at the receiving end will actually be able to ‘feel’ these. There will also be the possibility of virtual partners and simulated sex. A machine that allows you to experience virtual orgasm might also appear.

Another interesting aspect of technology entering the workplace is working with artificially intelligent, thinking machines, which (or should it be ‘who’? See the problem has already begun!) might even be educated. Will we have to treat them as colleagues or as computers?