Friday, April 26, 2013

Getting Pumped (and Hyped) For the Future

I like to say, both here and in real life, that we are living in the future. After all, I own a device that fits easily in my hand or pocket, which I acquired for "free" (two-year telecom contract) that can;

  • Store 1,000 songs (or more) and play them back at high quality at any desired time
  • Connect in under a minute to any page on the Wikipedia, which holds a substantial portion of the collective knowledge of mankind
  • Connect in under a minute to Reddit, which holds a substantial portion of the collective moronic circlejerking of mankind
  • Store thousands of books including the collected works of Shakespeare (haven't read), Arthur C. Doyle (partly read), nearly all popular modern authors, and a whole host of popular or serious non-fiction.
  • Automatically download and display the results and highlights of professional sports games.
  • Synchronize with my email and schedule
  • Find and purchase movie tickets
  • Find and display weather, news, and other sundry information
  • Store and index a complete Japanese-English dictionary, as well as study materials for my failed attempt to learn another language
  • Store note, both text and voice
  • Tune a guitar
  • Measure a heartrate through a camera
  • Take pictures or video
  • Connect to youtube to watch or send videos
  • Listen to a song and tell me what the title and artist are
  • Play recordings from various intensities of thunderstorms to provide soothing ambient noise
  • Play an assortment of games and puzzles
  • Emulate an old-style Game Boy Color to play even more games
  • Connect to the internet to find and interact with anything left off this list
  • And make telephone calls.
If that isn't some mad future shit right there, I don't know what is.

But the great thing about the future is that it is not an end. Like the horizon it will always stretch out before us, holding our view with a still more glorious dawn, and while Sagan's dreamed of "galaxy-rise" is still out of reach, the next decade is bearing witness to the adoption of some absolutely mind-blowing awesomeness.

Oculus Rift:

Oculus Rift is a pretty awesome name for a pretty awesome device. The short of it is that VR, virtual reality, is finally a thing. This is not pie-in-the-sky; thousands of kits have already been sold to developers for under $1,000 each and the first generation consumer version is expected to be out in Q4 of this year.

If you don't play immersive video games, the first generation may not do that much for you (though wait a few years for 3D Planet Earth documentaries narrated the David Attenborough). If you do, however, this video here, featuring the omni treadmill input device, should be all it takes to convince you:
This time next year, I will be gaming with Oculus Rift. Just thinking that gets me tingly.

Soylent:

People are chemicals. Food is just window dressing for a chemical input system, and is expensive, time consuming, and not even optimized for human consumption. Soylent is an idea that has been around for a long time, but the current incarnation is the brainchild of one Rob Rhinehart, a dedicated amateur in the true enlightenment mold. Fundamentally, he takes all the individual nutrients necessary for survival, pours them in a cup of water, and drinks it down. The brown sludge is supposed to taste less bad than you would imagine, which sort of makes sense since there is a minimum of volatile benzenes and it is mostly oats and sugars by volume. After three months, he has mostly perfected the solution and now has created a single cheap, easy food that it is possible to live (and live well) consuming exclusively.

Certainly, this is also not a product for everyone all the time, especially not people who are anything other than healthy, non-pregnant adults, and the creator recognizes that. But the theory is absolutely sound, and in practice it seems like he has hit most of the rough patches he is likely to encounter (mostly by forgetting to include key micronutriants or by poisoning himself on phosphates) and by the time the year is out and his kickstarter has succeeded this looks like it will be an actual product that actual people can actually buy. By this time next year, the hassle of food will be completely optional.

Now, I have the same hesitation I suspect many of you have. Present-me quite enjoys certain foods. Present-me worries that my life will be duller for giving up chicken and bacon and homemade salsa. However, my conversations with vegetarians and other restricted diet types seems to indicate that future-me is likely to have his preferences change as his diet changes and that he will miss the favorite foods much less than present-me expects. Additionally, even the creator says, "This past month 92% of my meals were soylent. I haven't given up food entirely, and I don't want to." He cites times of eating out with friends, going to sushi places, and eating occasional bacon, stressing, "I didn't give up food, I just got rid of the bad food."

Ultimately, 
"Soylent doesn't force you give up food any more than email forces you to give up talking. The point is having another option. Perhaps this does not constitute the ideal diet, but I am quite confident that it is healthier than any easy diet, and easier than any healthy diet. I'm touched so many people are concerned about my intake of possible unknown essential nutrients. No one seemed to worry about me when I lived on burritos and ramen and actually was deficient of many known essential nutrients. The body is pretty robust. If you can survive on what most Americans or Somalians eat, you can surely survive on Soylent. I'm no longer just surviving, though. I'm thriving."

3D Printing:

Everyone is really excited about 3D printing already, and the fact is that there are enough 3D printers, design shares, and 3rd party manufacturers that a real renaissance in small scale production is well underway. As 3D printers get cheaper, easier, larger, and more durable, these will become the physical counterpoint to the internet. Much as the internet has made the problem of not having the answer to a trivial problem obsolete (apparently people used to argue about who played what role in a film), a good Makerbot will make the problem of not having exactly the right part for a repair or improvement project obsolete. You will have every size screw, every type of fitting, and every sort of pipe. You will always have the exact right size part to stick under a wobbly table leg, or a snap in arm for your child's broken action figure.

And, of course, beyond the practical applications, 3D printing supports a whole new field of artistic endeavor  Already a very particular wiry aesthetic has emerged that could well define fashion and decor for the next decade or two. The great thing about a Makerbot is that it isn't a thing, but a platform for other things onto which the creativity of humanity can step and find itself elevated ever closer to godhood.

I am unlikely to participate actively in this particular revolution for quite a number of generations, simply because I don't have the time or general inclination to create novel physical items and because my need for arbitrary spare parts is minimal. But this is the sort of rising tide that I will benefit from simply by having it existing and growing in the background.

Personal HUDs:

Already we have stodgy sorts bemoaning the dystopian potential of Google Glass, which is probably just a testament to the power of Google, but once the input UI is perfected (no, voice only is a terrible idea) there is no doubt in my mind that these or their successor devices will be replacing smartphones, and will be doing so within five years of the first successful model. I have to make myself get excited about my phone, chiefly because I view it as a poorer, though portable, version of my PC, and my PC is an incredible machine, so I suspect I will be no more than a mainstream adopter of this technology, which means I am looking at a five year horizon for my Glass.

Automated Cars:

Yea, we have all seen these. A really cool way to save lives, but I drive like once every two weeks and if I actually paid all the vehicle fees I am supposed to (instead of panicking every time I see a cop) I would probably give it up for a motorcycle and rain jacket. So we are ten year from mass adoption, and probably longer before I get one (except in the likely case that they become mandated for safety reasons).

Delivery Drones:

This is already a thing: UAVs loaded with tacos and GPS navigation were deployed in San Francisco until the Government, the staunchest enemy of peaceful progress, shut them down. This is no longer a problem waiting for the right technology, it is a great idea waiting for a good team of lobbyists and lawyers. There was a similar project in Germany, for those still skeptical.

After all, the most important part about moving into the post-scarcity society of the future is automation, allowing people who would otherwise have to spend countless hours in the mundane task of pizza delivery to instead pursue higher (or at least more enjoyable) activities.

The bottom line is how could anyone living in America be anything less than super happy and super excited all the time by how many amazing things surround us all the time? A starving Ethiopian child has something to complain about, but the fact is that being unhappy in America is either character flaw, a temporary shock, or a medical condition.

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