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Sunday, 31 March 2013

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Will life in 2038 be computer-controlled?

Albert Einstein claimed he never thought about the future. “It will come soon enough,” he said. Today, we can see his point. What would have been the good of worrying about our destiny when it was not of our making?

An artist’s view of how cities will look in 2038. Concrete jungles with no human beings visible!

Yet, life has changed since the great physicist’s day. Sweeping changes of our own creation now plague our world: Carbon emissions, soaring populations, cloning, rising extinction rates... We are changing our planet in ways that were once unimaginable.

We are also developing lifesaving technologies that would have appeared equally incredible a few decades ago. Everywhere we witness change. For better or worse!

The change

This ‘change’ confronts us with a million-dollar question: Where will we be in the year 2038, 25 years from now?

All in all, it is a sobering thought. Maybe, we should not be too downhearted about our prospects for life in 2038. As a wise guy in my office once observed: “You needn’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow.”

I want to let my imagination run prophetical (not riot) and visualise the scenario of my home town in 2038. (Of course, I will be dead and gone and might not be able to judge whether my predictions came true or not).

Morning session

In the village of Rajagiriya, Sunil wakes up to soft music from a new song (that has been downloaded based on his preferences) to find the water in his shower preheated (hot water is at the shower head). By the time he comes out of the bathroom, his coffee is ready (the bedroom is powering down).

There is a slight hum as the family water purifier switches on, and as Sunil walks down the hallway, he taps the electricity meter which shows that the family is in credit: His own windmill generator and solar panels are contributing more energy into the grid than the household is using, adding to the family income.

In the kitchen, his wife is complaining. The “smart fridge” has malfunctioned and the order for milk and bread, which should have reached the local delivery service, has not been sent. The grocer, who employs a refugee from a Maldives island that disappeared three years ago as sea levels rose, will have to be telephoned instead. Food deliveries go in a special lockable box rather than on the doorstep, since theft of these increasingly expensive essentials is a growing problem.

Driving out

Sunil uses a hydrogen-powered car to travel. When he is at home, a telephone in his ear, which operates on electricity generated by his brain, allows his office staff to speak to him at any time during working hours. This, among many new electronic devices which are supposed to make him more efficient, are regarded by Sunil with scepticism.

Today, as he drives to pick up a foreign delegate, he carefully selects his route to avoid congestion charges on the motorway or in any of the towns on the way. His company long ago moved out of Colombo district to cut costs.

Sunil has a daughter, adopted like many other children: Sperm counts for the average male have dropped to 30 percent of the 1950s level, because the chemicals widely used in food and farming have damaged fertility.

It is no satisfaction that many large food manufacturers have gone bankrupt in the last few years because of legal action brought by people who are no longer able to have children.

Outdoor scene

The clampdown on food preservatives and high oil prices mean that sending fresh food long distances is prohibitively expensive. The family keeps chickens to have a supply of fresh eggs and grow vegetables because imported food is now an expensive luxury. The warmer climate means melons can be grown outdoors, although it also has led to a malaria scare in villages.

Is this the car of the future? The CityCar is a small super efficient electric car that is designed to transport commuters around urban landscapes and campuses. The car is smaller than a Smart Car and gets up to 200 miles per gallon and is well suited to redefine sustainable urban mobility

On the brighter side, the air in the cities is cleaner, public transport is much better, and because of congestion charges and working from homes, traffic jams are becoming a distant memory.

Sweeping floors, dusting, cleaning windows and cutting grass are done by domestic robots. The public have happily accepted robots scuttling around their homes and gardens. They are smart, ready to attack their tasks out of the box and are comfortable with humans and other smart robots. Most home robots have names and are treated like pets.

Personal life

Sunil is a senior partner in the company, but there is no corporate headquarters to visit and no city-centre office to travel to each morning. Technology means that daily commuting is a thing of the past.

Like most people in the 21st century, Sunil now works largely from home. While he has been eating breakfast, the computer-controlled household administration system has laid out his virtual desk with jotter and touchpad, turned on the communications systems and opened the files it knows he is going to need today. Sunil clicks on the secure company intranet. On a second screen on the wall is a football match taking place on the other side of the world. Leisure and work are seamlessly integrated.

This morning, Sunil needs to contact a lawyer in USA. In the early days of his career, he relied on old-fashioned webcams, Skype and instant messaging to talk to people on “the outside”.

However, a conference call today is just a matter of summoning work colleagues into your own virtual study environment and discussing sales figures face to face, even if the participants are all sitting tens of thousands of miles apart. And nobody has to put up with a dreary, unproductive nine-to-five job just for the pay. Work is by definition creative, knowledge-based, intellectual, stimulating and fun. The latest versions of massive bandwidth Internet using super-efficient cabling ensures that information of all types can be accessed immediately and interchanged instantly.

Most “dirty” jobs are done automatically by machines. Sunil would be amazed to meet someone driving a delivery truck, sweeping the streets or mixing concrete, while those who once operated ticket offices or sat at reception desks have simply been replaced by automatic devices.

Human interaction

Even jobs such as nursing or policing will become dominated by automation: A nurse will care for a patient by sensors, data banks and screens, administering drugs remotely, while the job of a police officer will be carried out once a suspect is handed over to the automatically controlled combined police/courts/prison complex.

However, everyone agrees there will remain a need for human interaction every now and again. So, on Tuesday night, Sunil will go by electric taxi, paid for by universal credits transferred to his smartcard, for a sociable after-work meal and a chat with a colleague, a real human being. And they’ll talk about football and the shortcomings of the latest computer-controlled oven. Some things never change.

At the core of all of these initiatives is the idea of freeing up time, giving people their lives back, and using technology to provide more time to enjoy life rather than filling up every free moment with additional technology and management chores. So if our lives are indeed improved by 2038, it is probably a safe bet that Intel likely had a lot to do with our brave new future.

 

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