Accelerated Living

September 24, 2001

Originally published September 4, 2001 in PC Magazine. Published on September 24, 2001.

Imagine a Web, circa 2030, that will offer a panoply of virtual environments incorporating all of our senses, and in which there will be no clear distinction between real and simulated people. Consider the day when miniaturized displays on our eyeglasses will provide speech-to-speech translation so we can understand a foreign language in real time–kind of like subtitles on the world. Then, think of a time when noninvasive nanobots will work with the neurotransmitters in our brains to vastly extend our mental capabilities.

These scenarios may seem too futuristic to be plausible by 2030. They require us to consider capabilities never previously encountered, just as people in the nineteenth century had to do when confronted with the concept of the telephone–essentially auditory virtual reality. It would be the first time in history people could “be” with another person hundreds of miles away.

When most people think of the future, they underestimate the long-term power of technological advances–and the speed with which they occur. People assume that the current rate of progress will continue, as will the social repercussions that follow. I call this the intuitive linear view.

However, because the rate of change itself is accelerating, the future is more surprising than we anticipate. In fact, serious assessment of history shows that technological change is exponential. In other words, we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the twenty-first century, but rather, we’ll witness on the order of 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate of progress, that is).

Exponential growth is a feature of any evolutionary process. And we find it in all aspects of technology: miniaturization, communication, genomic scanning, brain scanning, and many other areas. Indeed, we also find double exponential growth, meaning that the rate of exponential growth itself is growing exponentially.

For example, critics of the early genome project suggested that at the rate with which we could scan DNA base pairs, it would take 10,000 years to finish the project. Yet the project was completed ahead of schedule, because DNA scanning technology grew at a double exponential rate. Another example is the Web explosion of the mid-1990s.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve created mathematical models for how technology develops. Predictions that I made using these models in the 1980s about the 1990s and the early years of this decade regarding computing power and its impact–automated medical diagnosis, the use of intelligent weapons, investment programs based on pattern recognition, and others–have been relatively accurate.

These models can provide a clear window into the future and form the foundation on which I build my own scenarios for what life will be like in the next 30 years.

Computing Gets Personal

The broad trend in computing has always moved toward making computers more intimate. The first computers were large, remote machines stored behind glass walls. The PC made computing accessible to everyone. In its next phase, computing will become profoundly personal.

By 2010, computation will be everywhere, yet it will appear to disappear as it becomes embedded in everything from our clothing and eyeglasses to our bodies and brains. And underlying it all will be always-on, very-high-bandwidth connections to the Internet.

Medical diagnosis will routinely use computerized devices that travel in our bodies. And neural implants, which are already used today to counteract tremors from neurological disorders, will be used for a much wider range of conditions, including providing vision to people who have recently lost their sight.

As for interaction with computers, very-high-resolution images will be written directly to our retinas from our eyeglasses and contact lenses. This will spur the next paradigm shift: highly realistic, 3-D, visual-auditory virtual reality. Retinal projection systems will provide full-immersion, virtual environments that can either overlay “real” reality or replace it. People will navigate these environments through manual and verbal commands, as well as with body movement. Visiting a Web site will often mean entering virtual-reality environments, such as forests, beaches, and conference rooms.

In contrast to today’s crude videoconferencing systems, virtual reality in 2010 will look and sound like being together in “real” reality. You’ll be able to establish eye contact, look around your partner, and otherwise have the sense of being together. The sensors and computers in our clothing will track all of our movements and project a 3-D image of ourselves into the virtual world. This will introduce the opportunity to be someone else. The tactile aspect will still be limited, though.

We’ll also interact with simulated people–lifelike avatars that engage in flexible, natural-language dialogs–who will be a primary interface with machine intelligence. We will use them to request information, negotiate e-commerce transactions, and make reservations.

Personal avatars will guide us to desired locations (using GPS) and even augment our visual field of view, via our eyeglass displays, with as much background information as desired.

The virtual personalities won’t pass the Turing test by 2010, though, meaning we won’t be fooled into thinking that they’re really human. But by 2030, it won’t be feasible to differentiate between real and simulated people.

Another technology that will greatly enhance the realism of virtual reality is nanobots: miniature robots the size of blood cells that travel through the capillaries of our brains and communicate with biological neurons. These nanobots might be injected or even swallowed.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute have already demonstrated electronic-based neuron transistors that can control the movement of a live leech from a computer. They can detect the firing of a nearby neuron, cause it to fire, or suppress a neuron from firing–all of which amounts to two-way communication between neurons and neuron transistors.

Today, our brains are relatively fixed in design. Although we do add patterns of interneuronal connections and neurotransmitter concentrations as a normal part of the learning process, the capacity of the human brain is highly constrained–and restricted to a mere hundred trillion connections. But because the nanobots will communicate with each other–over a wireless LAN–they could create any set of new neural connections, break existing connections (by suppressing neural firing), or create hybrid biological/nonbiological networks.

Using nanobots as brain extenders will be a significant improvement over today’s surgically installed neural implants. And brain implants based on massively distributed intelligent nanobots will ultimately expand our memories by adding trillions of new connections, thereby vastly improving all of our sensory, pattern recognition, and cognitive abilities.

Nanobots will also incorporate all of the senses by taking up positions in close physical proximity to the interneuronal connections coming from all of our sensory inputs (eyes, ears, skin). The nanobots will be programmable through software downloaded from the Web and will be able to change their configurations. They can be directed to leave, so the process is easily reversible.

In addition, these new virtual shared environments could include emotional overlays, since the nanobots will be able to trigger the neurological correlates of emotions, sexual pleasure, and other sensory experiences and reactions.

When we want to experience “real” reality, the nanobots just stay in position (in our capillaries) and do nothing. If we want to enter virtual reality, they suppress all of the inputs coming from the real senses and replace them with signals appropriate for the virtual environment. Our brains could decide to cause our muscles and limbs to move normally, but the nanobots would intercept the inter-neuronal signals to keep our real limbs from moving and instead cause our virtual limbs to move appropriately.

Another scenario enabled by nanobots is the “experience beamer.” By 2030, people will beam their entire flow of sensory experiences and, if desired, their emotions, the same way that people broadcast their lives today using Webcams. We’ll be able to plug into a Web site and experience other people’s lives, the same way characters did in the movie Being John Malkovich. Particularly interesting experiences can be archived and relived at any time.

The ongoing acceleration of computation, communication, and miniaturization, combined with our understanding of the human brain (derived from human-brain reverse engineering), provides the basis for these nanobot-based scenarios.

A Double-Edged Sword

Technology may bring us longer and healthier lives, freedom from physical and mental drudgery, and countless creative possibilities, but it also introduces new and salient dangers. For the 21st century, we will see the same intertwined potentials–only greatly amplified.

Consider unrestrained nanobot replication, which requires billions or trillions of such intelligent devices to be useful. The most cost-effective way to scale nanobots up to that level is through self-replication–essentially the same approach seen in the biological world. But just as biological self-replication can go awry (cancer), a defect in the mechanism that curtails nanobot self-replication could also endanger all physical entities–biological or otherwise.

And who will control the nanobots? Organizations (governments or extremist groups) or just a clever individual could put trillions of undetectable nanobots in the water or food supply of an entire population. These “spy” nanobots could then monitor, influence, and even take over our thoughts and actions. Nanobots could also fall prey to software viruses and hacks.

If we described the dangers that exist today to people who lived a couple hundred years ago, they would think it mad to take such risks. But how many people living in 2001 would want to go back to the short, brutish, disease-filled, poverty-stricken, disaster-prone lives that 99 percent of the human race struggled through? We may romanticize the past, but until fairly recently, most of humanity lived extremely fragile lives. Substantial portions of our species still live in this precarious way, which is at least one reason to continue technological progress and the economic enhancement that accompanies it.

My own expectation is that the creative and constructive applications of this technology will dominate, as I believe they do now. And there will be a valuable (and increasingly vocal) role for a constructive Luddite movement.

When examining the impact of future technology, people often go through three stages: awe and wonderment at the potential; dread about the new set of grave dangers; and finally (hopefully), the realization that the only viable path is to set a careful, responsible course that realizes the promise while managing the peril.