Flying cars, robot butlers, and metallic jumpsuits — the science-fiction future that was to be our present is still not a reality.
But in most respects, our world is far more amazing than what was dreamed up in novels and movies decades ago.
We have access to the vast accumulation of humanity’s knowledge in powerful and portable computers that fit in our pockets. We can stream almost any movie, TV show, and recorded song and read almost every published book whenever and wherever we want. We can jump into digital worlds with virtual reality headpieces, navigate traffic through our watch, and let our cars parallel park, if not drive us to our destination. And while we don’t live in bubble-building communities, our homes have gotten smart enough that we can communicate with them from thousands of miles away to turn on the porch light and set the thermostat.
And if you think that’s astounding, just wait as technology picks up its already rapid pace with life-changing revolutions.
“It took 20 years from the first time when you saw a cell phone as a brick to now when everybody has one,” said Keith Instone, co-founder of Tech Toledo, a consulting business that helps companies make their technology easy to use. “Technology is changing and developing so fast, that it can be difficult to keep up with everything.
“Whatever comes next will happen in the next five years.”
In fact, some major advancements in technology are already here, “but people aren’t really noticing them so much because it’s happening in such a small, incremental way,” said Bonnie Mitchell, professor of digital art at Bowling Green State University, who teaches a class on electronics and art and has been involved with SIGGRAPH — an annual conference on computer graphics — for nearly 30 years.
Artificial intelligence, technology that is able to respond to and even predict human behavior, is pervasive: in our smartphones (Siri) and digital assistants (Alexa), in video and computer games as the non-playable characters, even in a seller’s website that learns about us through our purchases and makes follow-up suggestions based on those selections.
AI strives to understand a user’s preferences, wants, and needs, particularly when it comes to what we enjoy.
“Our entertainment is much more personalized,” Mitchell said, “and the technology that’s enabling it to be personalized is artificial intelligence.”
Already it’s possible to walk into a living room and ask a device like Amazon’s Echo to play a TV show, song, or film. It won’t be much longer before that same person can walk into that living room — one enabled with smart home technology — and have that space automatically adjust to his/her customized preferences: lighting, temperature, music selection and volume, and even window shades.
“Smart home technology is something that people don’t talk about as much but it is creeping up,” said Jerry Schnepp, an assistant professor in visual communication technology at BGSU and the director of the school’s Collab Lab, a space designed to foster collaborations between faculty and students. “It’s becoming a really important collection of technology with the integration of wearable devices and the Internet of all this stuff in our homes.”
Only a dozen years ago, Schnepp experimented with a crude home automation system that, for example, would enable him to turn off a light with a voice command.
“It didn’t work a lot of times because the technology wasn’t great,” he said.
With Echo and Google’s Home, though, the technology has made substantial leaps in ability, functionality, and user operability through voice commands that are complete sentences directed to the device’s AI.
“Companies like Amazon see a need for this and package it in an easy-to-use product” that will appeal to consumers — even those who aren't so tech savvy, Schnepp said. “Look at how many Echoes they’ve sold.”
Just as the AI in these digital assistants is becoming better, it’s also becoming more ... human.
This is leading to the not-so-future world posited in Spike Jonze’s brilliant 2013 sci-fi film Her, in which users fall in love with the ubiquitous AI they interact with through their devices.
“People are developing relationships with Siri,” Mitchell said. “They have conversations with Siri, they have arguments with Siri — especially people that are single. Our devices are already substituting for human interaction.”
It was at a technology conference sometime in the early 1990s that Instone watched someone from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology walk the halls with a cumbersome built-from-scratch VR headpiece strapped to his head.
Only now, decades later, is virtual reality reaching everyone else.
VR is making headway to consumers through the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR, and Google's Daydream View.
But how much of it is “buzz and how much of it is gold rush stuff,” Instone wonders, such as those tech-hyped and often-unfulfilled promises that VR users can have virtual experiences visiting the Grand Canyon or watching a movie in what appears to be a giant big-screen theater.
“There's a lot of money to be made talking about VR, but not as much doing VR,” he said.
Still, with a smart phone “now everybody has a virtual device in their hand,” he said. “And with the normal technology curves, [the VR] hardware and the software will get better.”
Those clunky head-mounted displays for VR today are really just stepping stones of technology to a more immersive experience.
“You won't just watch a movie,” Mitchell said, “but interact with that movie.”
Other developing technologies, she said, will create “immersive experiences without all that tethering and without all that expensive hardware. They’re trying to create the illusion of three dimensions with glass.”
Just as Fitbit and Apple Watch have evolved wearable technology, expect that same intelligence in the years ahead to be built into our clothes: a tracksuit, for example, with sensors that have many of the same health-monitoring functions — heart rate and steps taken per day — as a smart watch.
“Electronic sensor technology has come a long way,” Mitchell said. “Not only are they able to sense things we were not able to before on a macro and micro level, but we can imbed these sensors in our body and connect with our clothing in a seamless way.”
Even more revolutionary is the continued advancement of so-called “wet” technology. Sensors, for example, are already implanted into bodies to improve health or rectify situations such as an irregular heartbeat. In the future, similar chips could be implanted to download and store memories — much like we use a smart phone to take photos and videos — and improve intelligence with instant access to the Internet and the ability to transmit our thoughts into a computer.
Some technologies already in use enable patients to control their prosthetic limbs through their mind, draw a computer image with their thoughts, and even control the movement of others.
“We're just going to continue to become cyborgs more and more,” she said.
The question, then: Is this a future we want? After all, look at what the Internet was as a shining example of the power of technology to change our lives and what it has become in the years and decades since.
“In the big picture, technology can sometimes be scary,” Instone said. "But let’s think about who we want to be and who we are, and that will help us decide how we are going to use the technology.
“Technology is neutral. It can be used in positive and negative ways. It’s all about our values.”
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.
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