Every time you pull your smartphone out of your pocket, you’re touching a little bit of the future that pokes backwards through time, into the present. It’s clear, if you stop playing tappity-tappity games for a minute or so and think about it, that the phones we carry in our pockets are where computing will go next. They are computers, but they can’t do everything the things on desks we call “computers” can do. Not yet.
They’re not the only familiar objects from the future. Look around you—really look—and touch things that make sense. So many of them are future things stuck in our backwards century, biding their time until they’ve evolved (either with humanity’s help, or perhaps all by themselves) into something else. Reach out and touch something. It—or its electronically enhanced successors—will be there. Long after you and I are dust.
Touch the internet and you’ll eventually encounter Big Dog, grandfather of Smaller Dog, great-great-great grandfather of billions of Small Dogs, Average Sized Cats, Tiny Insects, and Micro Things that will surround us in the years to come. Every single one of them a drone or a bot.
Robots will come in every shape and size you can imagine, every one designed for a different task. Their mechanisms will be astonishing artworks of technology, from huge steampunk-esque robot ships to incredibly small, intricate, delicate flying insects that fly and crawl and wriggle and hop their way around us, our homes, everywhere.
Some of them will be capable of making copies of themselves. They’ll serve us, mostly. Sometimes they’ll kill us, but only by design. They will invade and destroy our privacy—again, by design. They will be despatched in their millions by governments, armies, media companies, and insurance salesmen. You’ll be able to buy anti-drone drones to patrol your home, ordered to seek and destroy anything you haven’t expressly allowed. Tiny droney warfare will be conducted around the light fittings above your head as you eat breakfast. Defunct drone insect exoskeletons will land on your hair, get crushed underfoot, or clog up your drains. Like cat hair, they’ll get everywhere.
Beyond drones, there will be dronedroids. Like drones, but more like us. Things that walk and talk and vaguely resemble a humanoid shape, but without the attitude and the mood swings and the sense of self. Kids will get dronedroids to do their chores and their homework. Politicians will get dronedroids to address rallies on their behalf. One day, a politician will win an election because his dronedroid is better than the other guy’s. The job you do now will probably be done by a dronedroid, or worse, just by a chunk of software running in a processor in the dronedroid’s hind leg. My job too. That one dronedroid will probably do the work of three or four people, comfortably.
Touch your desk. On it, there’s a mouse or a trackpad, both of them echoes of computing past, and simultaneously of computing future. As our TV screens become more enormous, so our computers will shrink and fade out of sight. Computing will simply be something that is, a part of our environment. Computers themselves are chips that store data and process it, very tiny objects even today. But right now we still wrap them with screens and keyboards and metal cases. Our laptops and notebooks have reached the point where we consider them beautiful, but future generations will point at them and laugh. Why would anyone need to carry such a mass of atoms around with them, they’ll wonder?
All of these tiny embedded computers will be able to talk to one another, and they’ll do so all the time. A world of secret conversation will take place around us, one that we will probably be able to tune into, if we have the tools and the motivation. Computer conversations may well be more interesting than they are now; we might be able to eavesdrop on arguments between bots, and laugh at them when they get stuck in a loop of logic and require a human to reboot something and help them escape.
Everywhere there’s an opportunity to put sensors and processors, they will be put. In your water pipes. In your water. In your gut and your blood vessels.
Everything will become a computer. Correction: Everything will be able to compute. Everywhere there’s an opportunity to put sensors and processors, they will be put. In your water pipes. In your water. In your gut and your blood vessels. In your bicycle. In your bicycle’s tires. Processing power will be something you can inject, like a drug. People will inject it into tree trunks, into animals, into the ground, and into themselves. Upgrades by the teaspoonful. By the gallon.
Alongside change to computers comes a change to computing, and a change to the nature of work itself. We still live in a world where documents rule our working day, but soon there will be software that can write most of our documents for us. When you have a data source larger than the human brain can comprehend, there’s little point in trying to compress it into a spreadsheet that makes sense for other humans. Tell the software what points you want to make, tell it where to find the data, and leave it working for a while. If it doesn’t get it right first time, suggest it tries a few other ideas. Both of you will learn.
With software writing most of our documents, doing most of our organizing and remembering, what will there be left for humans to actually do? Perhaps the only remaining thing will be making decisions. Computers will have the capability to do that too, eventually, but in the shorter term they will need help. Or perhaps we would like them to need help, because we’ll need something to keep us busy, and we won’t trust them to make decisions we agree with. That will pass too, sooner or later.
So while we’re still in the business of deciding things, the inevitable result will be even more meetings. Meetings to discuss and decide. With computing embedded in everything, everywhere (in your clothes, in your bathroom, in your pillow, in your hat), the location of those meetings becomes irrelevant. So office buildings and business parks begin to fade into the background. Not abandoned overnight, but simply used less, and for different things. Your office will be where you are. Your work will be a part of you.
Touch your house, and look carefully at its roof. In the UK, it has become fashionable to install solar cells on your roof, thanks in part to government subsidy and soaring energy bills. The sun shines down on every Englishman’s castle, and even in a country as wet and flooded as this, there’s enough of it to keep your lights burning and perhaps warm up a tankful of water. Like computer processors, the solar cells will become cheaper, more efficient, and thinner with every year that goes by.
Ignoring solar energy is dumb, because it’s so astonishingly plentiful. The sun does nothing else but throw out energy in all directions, vast amounts of it. Every tiny twinkling star you see at night is doing the same. So much of our human efforts are directed at harvesting energy, but all we need do is reach up to our parent star and grasp what it offers. When solar cells are cheap enough and efficient enough to wrap our houses with, we will wrap them. We’ll wrap our roads, our sidewalks, every surface that faces upwards. Like a flower seeking the light, humanity’s petals will unfold, and drink.
Beyond solar power, we will seek out energy elsewhere. We’ll improve those promising technologies that you read about in the newspapers—like petrol from air, or micro wind turbines to put on your roof. As fossil fuels become a luxury product, we’ll have to learn to live in a lower energy environment. Motor racing will continue, but every year that goes by will see more spent on gas and less on racing drivers’ salaries.
Perhaps wave energy will come back into fashion, with the rising tide. Our cities, as they expand, will move too: inland, upwards, away from the rising oceans. This change won’t be sudden, it will be gradual, noticeable over decades. The places that start to flood and keep on flooding will be abandoned to the sea, and rebuilding will concentrate on the higher contour lines. It will be a reshaping, an adaptation. Houses can adapt if necessary. Build them on stilts. Build houses that float. Build a ground floor that can flood with ease, like the Venetians do. Build upwards, into and beyond your roof, to reclaim the lost space. Cities will do the same, but on a larger scale. Imagine a future time-lapse video shot from above a city (probably by a hovering drone). It shows the jerky realignment of a city as successive inundations reshape the coastline. Tendrils of development curl inland and uphill; roads stretch themselves out and the homes and businesses follow. Construction drones will help out, of course. Depends how much you want to pay. Depends how fast you want it done. Depends how desperate you are.
Touch your car. Through these changing cities will zip small, low-energy electric cars, mostly automatic. When not taking people to places, they’ll drive themselves, booked by software, or perhaps by speaking into the air around you: “I need a car here, please.” One will turn up to collect you. At your destination, you’ll pay for the energy you’ve used and the miles you’ve travelled—earning loyalty points along the way—and the car will turn away to find its next fare.
Road accidents, injuries, and deaths will plummet in the cities. People will still die on rural roads, though, where robots just aren’t as efficient, and gasoline still moves most things around.
Self-driving cars mean new ways of using and controlling roads. Cars with occupants will obviously have priority; empty ones will pull over to make way. Road accidents, injuries, and deaths will plummet in the cities. People will still die on rural roads, though, where robots just aren’t as efficient, and gasoline still moves most things around. Hideously expensive gasoline.
The streets these cars traverse will be lined with screens, and the screens will be there to advertise.
In the future, advertising will eat the world whole. As money loses value, your attention—even for the smallest split-second—will become more valuable. Advertising will never stop experimenting, innovating, twisting itself further and further into unreality to stay ahead. Advertisement drones? Well, of course. Ads during sex? Why not? Ads that follow you around. Ads that wake you from your sleep. Ads that watch your personal routine and know exactly the right moment to enter your thoughts. Ads that accept bribes: ads you can pay to go the fuck away and leave you the fuck alone, if only they will shut up. There will be lots of those.
It will be a world without gadgets, because the gadgets will be out of sight. There’ll be no need for a slab of electronics that you carry in your pocket. Your personal computing will be done by button-sized devices that you can hang around your neck or wear around your wrist. Not everything benefits from being small, though, so there’ll be a variety of wireless extras—you’ll still be able to buy expensive, high-quality, over-the-ear headphones for listening to music, and you’ll still need some sort of lens if you want to take photos.
Eventually, someone will make a printer that doesn’t make you want to scream with rage every time you use it, but it will be too late. Hardly anyone will want to print anything by then.