Another Look at 2050
1/27/2003

Home

Investment Index

The more things change...
    Today, we had a birthday party. As we sat there, I realized that things would have looked, and would have been the same if this had been 1953. The only difference was that the TV would have been black-and-white, and we wouldn't have had a microwave oven. The topics of conversation were the same as they would have been in 1953 (e. g., about a leaky water pipe and problems with the electric hot water heater). Then I thought about the disconnect between our expectations for 2053 and the lack of change between 1953 and 2003. The movie "Minority Report", set in 2054, depicts a flashy future in which cars are magnetically levitated, and zip up the sides of buildings. Police rely upon pre-cognitives, who  can predict a crime before it happens. They can then arrest and convict the criminals even though no crime will ever be committed. Homes are ultra-modern, done in glass and chrome, with thinly padded chairs, and lots of open space. "Liberty Mall" looks like a spaceport, with lots of stark, high-domed, empty space. As the shots below suggest, police fly around in air-cars, and personal jet-packs, just as, back in 1953, we predicted would be happening by the year 2003
Movie ImageMovie Image

So what will the world really be like in 2050?
     I'm sure I don't know. However....

The Legacy Effect

    My offhand notion would be that changes will come upon us slowly, and that the family rooms of 2050 will look very much like the family rooms in 2003. The same kinds of furniture will be present... and, in fact, some of the same furniture will still be present, passed down from mother to daughter. A family get-together will be just about what it is today, because that's the way everyone will want it, and that's how everyone will vote with their wallets. 
    How will this relate to a vision of robots running the world, with humans living for entertainment? I suspect that may stretch out a bit, not because it's technically impossible, but because social, political, and economic factors might slow the process.
It doesn't have to work that way.
    Of course, not everything is slow to change. The Internet spread throughout the land in only a few years, and is dispersing to the four corners of the earth in only a few more years. But usually, things change slower than that.
So how does this square with a world run by robots?

2003 to 2010


HDTV

The Internet

Cell Phones
    Cell phones will expand to include PDA functions and Internet access. Of course, this already exists, but it will probably spread beyond the early-adopters into the mainstream. One of the incentives will be the availability of severe weather alerts. However, in-store broadcasts advertising "blue-light specials" may also offer the bargain-hunter an inducement to sign up for Internet access on their cell phone/PDA's. Fuel cells and organic displays may help improve this experience, along with lower-cost Internet access. Roll-up organic displays could be expanded when they are needed, while maintaining a petite cell phone profile.
    I'm surprised at how few people employ hands-free headsets with their cell phones.
    Some day, chips might be implanted in people that would "read" the neuromuscular signatures that characterize sub-vocal speech for wireless transmission. Then receiver chips might reproduce this "silent speech" either through an in-the-ear transducer, or through an implanted chip that would deliver reconstructed speech directly to the auditory nerve.

Automobiles
    I own a 15+-year-old Acura Integra. Tommie's car is a one-year-old Toyota Camry. How do these two cars compare?
    The Camry has some features that have been added to cars since 1987, and in particular, it has airbags. Otherwise, the two cars are very much alike.
    If I look back 50 years to our old Dodge sedan, I see differences, but not huge differences. Our Dodge lacked air conditioning, although living in northern Ohio, we didn't really need it. Our Dodge had an automatic transmission. It was comfortable, and was capable of driving across the country.
    The major metamorphosis that I hope will be underway within the next 15 years will be the beginning of the transition to fuel-cell-powered cars and trucks. However, even after fuel cell cars and trucks are first available, it may be some number of years before people opt to buy fuel cell cars in lieu of gasoline-powered cars.. And after that critical mass, it will be at least another decade before gasoline-powered cars disappear from the highways. There will be too many gasoline powered cars on the road that are still operating. 
    I would expect that adaptive speed controls and lane-changing warning signals will become available options on many upscale  cars. I would expect that on-the-road Internet access will also become quite popular.

2010 to 2020:
Robotics
    During this period, I would expect autosweepers and automowers to possibly reach the Walmart stage. There will be a lot happening as robotics picks up speed. There may be general purpose robots, with manipulators. 
    Factories might be expected to be more highly automated, with machines taking over more and more production-line functions. Improved farm equipment should reduce the labor requirements for farming. (The farmer may still be driving his tractor because of safety requirements,  the need for human-level judgment, and the human ability to respond to the unexpected.) Most of the improvements might well be be subtle, deriving from elaborate software rather than from any presumption of self-awareness.

Cars
    I'm backing away from forecasts of autonomous vehicles by 2020. What happens if a cardboard box drops off the back of a truck? A human driver would be able to guess at whether it were empty by the way it fell, and by the way it moved after it hit the road. But what would an autonomous vehicle do? Autonomous vehicles may have to await the arrival of very smart robots.

(To be continued)