And Still to Come...

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


Do-it-All Computer Notepad

Do-it-All Computer Notepad
Odds ?
Year ?
Cost ?

Well, we made it through the infamous part 26, and we're here at the book's last chapter, containing far-out inventions the Future Stuff authors think will totally blow your mind!

No pricing or predictive data for the Do-it-All Computer Notepad, because "there's no prototype yet". It's the winner of a contest sponsored by Apple to "come up with a personal computer for the year 2000. Their invention is called the Tablet." The whole contest entry is online, so technically I don't have to describe it to you, but I thought it would be fun to go through some of the parts Future Stuff considers noteworthy.

"You'll watch television on it. Actually, you'll be able to watch sixteen squares of different programming simultaneously." The contest entry presents this as an amusing hypothetical (it actually proposes thirty-six squares), but Future Stuff thinks someone might really want to do this. Actually it would make a good interface for choosing what channel to watch, assuming you could solve the problem of needing that many TV tuners, but who actually watches sixteen or thirty-six televisions at once? Only crazy artists, crazy supervillains, and crazy CEOs. Basically we've got a product here for the mentally ill.

"Around the edges of the tablet will be infrared sensors... [t]hese will enable the Tablet to talk to... any other compatible electronic equipment--including full-size computers." Future Stuff spends a lot of time (relatively speaking) on this. Could these sensors finally bring us the Smart House of the future?

The LaserCard Mass Storage Units, "credit card sized optical RAMs" (I'm quoting the contest entry now) which put your primitive CD-ROMs to shame. They're made of "huge arrays of independently addressable light gates", so unlike CD-ROM drives the readers can be made solid state. This is a different technology than, but similar to, today's flash storage devices.

"The Tablet will double as a cellular phone." (back to quoting Future Stuff). For those keeping track, this is FS's second mention of portable phones. They don't touch the capabilities of the Tablet's "DataLink" modem except to say "you'll even be able to send video images", so I thought I'd quote the contest entry on e-mail:

Electronic mail is a wonderful medium for ideas and does not intrude the way a telephone does upon its recipient. It sits there quietly waiting to be read. We will be able to integrate video and graphics as well as text in our email documents. It will also improve more traditional forms of communication. Filters can be used to eliminate unwanted junk mail. This will alter the face of advertising. Future advertising will be done by subscription, so if you want to be kept informed about new cars, let the industry know."

Finally Future Stuff promises "one more bit of magic. Using the government's [not Nissan's!] Global Positioning System, Tablet will tell you exactly where you are... [a]nd should you lose your previous computer, Tablet can phone home to tell you where to find it!"

Apple has been obsessed with this sort of device for quite a while. The Tablet ideas show up in the Newton, in John Sculley's Knowledge Navigator videos, and in the iPhone. And although little of this was available in 2000, pretty much everything described in the contest entry is available today, though not in one package. Of course, we don't pay for data "by the gigabyte" but by the cultural artifact (contest entry: "it is reasonable to expect newer information to be more expensive than old").

All seven contributors to the Tablet contest entry still have careers in the computer industry or in academe. The one you've probably heard of is Steven Wolfram, of Mathematica and cellular-automata fame.


Self-Cleaning House

Self-Cleaning House
Odds 50%
Year 1995
Cost $30000-$40000/1989 ($52000-$78000/2007)

This is like those self-washing dishes I invented when I was a kid. Francis Gabe still harbors anger from "twenty-seven years ago" when she "had a husband, a houseful of children, and a growing construction business. She had little patience for cleaning chores and resented the time they required. Thus the idea for a house that cleaned itself was born."

This shows up in books of futurism from the sixties: to clean the kitchen/house you just hose everything down like you would an elephant pen. Gabe lives the dream, installing "a two-part washing apparatus" in each room. There's "a small, rotating fixture located on the ceiling that sprays water and ammonia," and something that "looks like a baseboard, [which] shoots out the cleaning solution to wash the floor."

What about all those "valuable books, works of art, and furniture," which can't stand up to the harsh realities of today's self-cleaning house? "It's amazing how many things can be made waterproof," says Gabe. In particular, "books, art, and electrical appliances are either inserted in canisters with waterproof lids or into protective, sealable sleeves." In an attempt to curry my younger self's favor, the house includes "a kitchen cupboard that is really a dishwasher."

Gabe makes the sensible point that housework sucks. But it also sucks to have to have to waterproof everything that comes into your house, and make sure all your books and papers are packaged up before flipping the magic clean-everything switch. Near as I can tell, we actually dealt with this by lowering our standards for housework.

Some links: a profile of Gabe, a 2007 "Weird America" video of her giving a tour of the house, complete with totally inappropriate creepy music. Gabe reminds me of my late mother and great-aunt LeJeune, though she's crazier. I couldn't help noticing a roll of paper towels in her kitchen. What happens to that sucker when you turn on the cleaner?

Since Gabe's house is a one-off prototype, and in 1989 she wasn't doing anything except giving guided tours ($5/1989 per person, five-person group minimum), I have no idea who came to the conclusion that there was a 50% chance of her technology being sold by 1995, or by what logic.


Electric Car

Electric Car
Odds 70%
Year 1997
Cost $20000/1989 ($35000/2007)

Before "Who Killed The Electric Car?" there was "Who'll Build The Electric Car?" According to Future Stuff, the answer was Volkswagen, with their "so-called hybrid vehicle." Electric cars have many advantages: they "don't produce carbon monoxide, a key ingredient in smog," and they'll shield you from the effects of "another oil crisis", the first oil crisis having happened only fifteen years earlier and still being fresh in everyone's mind--this is like the fourth time it's come up in the book.

According to Future Stuff the big breakthrough that would make an electric car possible is room-temperature superconductivity. This breakthrough has still not happened; the highest-temperature superconductors yet discovered only work at negative hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit.

As of 2008 Volkswagen was still working on a hybrid vehicle; according to Wikipedia they did create "a prototype diesel-electric hybrid car," but it doesn't say when and I can't find a better source. An electric car was produced (the General Motors EV1) in 1996, and although well-liked it became the subject of the movie I referenced earlier. Personally, I blame the Stonecutters. The first production hybrid cars were the Toyota Prius (1997 in Japan) and Honda Insight (1999), so this is at least a partial hit.


The Guerrilla Information Network

The Guerrilla Information Network
Odds 80%
Year 1999
Cost "Free"

This is as close as you're going to get in this book to the World Wide Web. Fen Labalme, previously seen hawking The Electronic Newspaper, has hedged his bets with this decentralized "customized news service" that harnesses "[t]he communal spirit of the sixties."

Tell your computer what you want to know and it will spend the day gathering that information... GIN will contain data from an infinite number of sources—newspapers, magazines, radical writers, grass-roots organizations, manufacturers, politicians, and individuals . . .even you.

Something I haven't pointed out much is how Future Stuff's implicit vision of the future sways with the wind of whoever the authors are talking to. Few entries refer to "your computer", because most of them are based on ideas by people trying to sell you hardware. Fen Labalme is a software guy and he's got a computer in 1989, so of course this stuff is controlled from your computer (the Electronic Newspaper was also delivered to your computer, through your cable TV connection).

GIN terminals will be in "bus stations, grocery stores, libraries, as well as in homes." They'll work over fiber-optic phone lines, "which will be commonplace by the late nineties." No one organization can control the information in GIN, because you can look up data by source as well as by topic. Future Stuff closes the entry with a right-on "The spirit of the sixties lives on!"

The entry's vague enough that you could treat it like a Nostradamus quatrain and use it to predict everything from mass adoption of the Internet, to the Web itself, to Wikipedia in particular. Fortunately, Labalme has put up a more detailed paper he delivered at the Anarchist Non-vention in 1983, which makes the system sound like a big hypertext bulletin board whose entries can be annotated by third parties. You can look at the bulletin board through the lenses made by your trusted third parties. Not so much prefiguring one specific thing as making a reasonable extrapolation of 80s networking technology.

It's not terribly surprising that the Internet we enjoy today has a lot in common with the Guerilla Information Network; people like Labalme are the people who built the Internet and the Web, and their assumptions are implicit in its architecture. What is surprising is how the Internet got cozy with and then destroyed the dozens of proprietary networks created by big companies in the 80s and 90s, saving us (for a while at least) from a wasteland offering nothing but Interactive Game Network, Dial 'M' For Movies, Computer Shop-At-Home, and the occasional Virtual World.

Incidentally, I think Labalme is the ultimate source of the term "broadcatching" that caused me some consternation in "Dial 'M' For Movies". Fen LeBalme owns broadcatch.com, and he did work in "what is now the M.I.T. Media Lab", probably along with Steven Benton (quoted in D'M'FM and also the Holographic Phone).


Non-Contact Pen

Non-Contact Pen
Odds 25%
Year 1995
Cost Under $25/1989 ($43/2007)

This is pretty weak tea compared to tablet computers and electric cars, but it's not bad. Michael Piatt and Harry March, two Kodak employees, have come up with a hand-held "miniature airbrush with just one nozzle" and interchangeable ink cartriges. No longer need you suffer the infomercial-like humiliation of "writ[ing] your name on a T-shirt with a ballpoint pen... The nib of the pen keeps jabbing the threads and you're sure you're going to rip the cloth before you get your message across it."

Cheap T-shirt creation is generally the provence of felt-tip pens, but the miniature airbrush could be "the felt-tip of the nineties". The patent shows a device that clearly had no human factors work done on it. (I guess that would be a separate design patent.) "The ink spray is highly controlled and... doesn't blotch or skip or create other problems often associated with regular pens."

All I can find searching the web for products like this are digital airbrushes for drawing tablets. There are a number of reasons why this might not have been produced, such as airbrushes and pens not really being part of Kodak's business. But the one that springs to mind is that if you produce this you're giving teenagers across the land an easily concealable graffiti applique.


Dome Homes

Dome Homes
Odds 40%
Year 1996
Cost $5000-$15000/1989 ($8700-$26000/2007)

Nice dome home, chrome dome. Michael Busick has given his company the could-be-generic-but-isn't name of American Ingenuity, and he and his wife have developed a way to make geodesic dome houses using polystyrene. Here's the patent on "Geodesic dome prefabricated panels." Future Stuff runs down the energy-saving benefits of a geodesic dome home and gives out American Ingenuity's number. I, in turn, will link you their web site.

I like geodesic domes significantly more than the next guy, but would I want to live in one? It turns out the answer is no, mainly because I don't think I'd be able to build one anywhere I want to live. I've seen geodesic dome homes only in rural areas, of which I've had my fill for my lifetime. High living is the life for me, and in the city, building codes and insurance problems stymie would-be dome dwellers. (AI website: "When Insurance Companies ask you questions about what you are going to build, do not volunteer that it is a dome.") I do hold out hope for the old-school futurism prediction that says whole cities will one day be covered by domes for no good reason.


Flying Saucer

Flying Saucer
Odds 50%
Year 1999
Cost "Good question!"

"Bet you've always wondered why no one has ever come up with a real flying saucer. The reason is that no one could make an engine that could move a vehicle from any point on a 360-degree circumference." So basically, it is impossible. But Peter Hsing did the impossible! (You might remember Hsing from the excellent Digital Tape Measure.) "His ten-page patent text describes an aircraft that uses four hundred [!] mini-engines and a gyro stabilizer that keeps the aircraft level."

For somebody who's got "sixteen patents and another six on the way", Hsing sure doesn't show up in the patent database. At all. Maybe Peter isn't the name he goes by on patent applications, but there's a distinct shortage of Hsings associated with patents that mention strings you'd expect to find, like "gyro". It's possible that no such patents exist, and that Hsing's claim that "NASA says it could work. They are studying my plans." is a desperate boast from a man defeated by Stanley Tools and their infeior sonar tape measures.

We may never know, unless by some freak chance this Peter Hsing is the same one who's former managing director of Microsoft's Corporate Stragegy Group. Given the general online interest in any kind of flying saucer patent, I'm going to tenatively call this absence of evidence evidence of absence. A disappointment, I know.


Freezing Humans

Freezing Humans
Odds 35%
Year 1999
Cost $125000/1989 ($220000/2007)

It's been a strange trip through 1989's future, and if you're like me it's whetted your appetite for more. What predictions were made in the 90s? What heady wine was bottled throughout the Internet boom and hurriedly smuggled out of the country during the bust? What about predictions made in the early years of the twentieth century? Was anyone writing that down? And what of today's great unknowns? Will the Semantic Web ever truly reach its full potential? And after the humbling experience that has been The Future: A Retrospective, do we have the audacity to speculate about what predictions we will make in the future?

I say yes! And the best way to audit those predictions is to freeze yourself and be revived at a later time! While cryonics will "almost certainly become reality someday... whether it happens before the end of the century will depend more on money than on science." Hal Sternberg (then of UC Berkeley, now of BioTime) says "The technology is not far away."

Indeed, we've been freezing recently dead people since the 1960s, but thawing them back out is a different story (and only one of those dead people from the 1960s is still frozen). Future Stuff talks about a 1987 experiment in which a beagle had its blood replaced with synthetic no-clot blood, was frozen, then had the process reversed after an hour. (Future Stuff quoted about a paragraph from that article without citing, in case you want to be scandalized about something that doesn't matter a whole lot.) This is depressingly similar to research performed in 2005, though those dogs were frozen for three hours.

"The repercussions boggle the mind," concludes Future Stuff. Indeed they do. Our peanutlike, un-augmented preSingularity minds, that is! To the super-man of the future, cryonics will be child's play! This is why I'm having my blood replaced with vitrification cocktail right


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:31 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Sunday, April 20 2014, 19:00:08 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2014 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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