The problem with predicting the future is that there’s so much of it. You can predict some pieces of it because some trends are obvious, but you can’t predict how all the pieces are going to fit together, and even more difficult, you cannot predict what human beings will do with all those different pieces once they have put them together.
The smartphone is a great example. Robert A. Heinlein predicted cell phones in The Star Beast , first published in 1954. Other writers predicted tablets as well. But nobody predicted Twitter or sexting. Those were surprises.
We’re on the threshold of another leap forward in the punctuated evolution of computing technology and the first pieces are starting to appear. I think it’s inevitable that some of these pieces are going to mate, mutate, and evolve into something new.
GPS, for instance, is based on the reception of satellite signals and civilian units can give you a location accurate to a few meters. But advanced location systems can also triangulate on cell-phone towers for even greater accuracy. Recently, a system was demonstrated that can provide location accuracy of a few inches.
RFID chips can provide the identification and immediate location of an object when it is pinged by a transceiver. RFID chips have been used for everything from tracking merchandise in a store for both inventory control and preventing shoplifting. Livestock are microchipped as well as pets and some advocates believe that human beings should be microchipped with their medical records—and even criminal records.
The third piece is Wi-Fi. As you upgrade your various pieces of hardware, you will find that your phone, your TV, your DVR, your Blu-ray player, your new laptop, your Kindle, your Nook, your tablet, your music player, your camera, your car , will all have wi-fi capabilities. 3G, 4G, or whatever comes next.
A fourth piece is the technology to let you use your smartphone as a credit/debit card. Just wave it over the detector or hold it up to the bar scanner and your purchase is completed.
Let’s also toss in the coming maturation of OCR and speech-recognition technology. In the past, speech-recognition was limited by the power of the CPU. As chips have become more powerful, more processing cycles can be devoted to analyzing language and parsing sentences. This is a continuing evolutionary process, but already smartphones, and even some cars, are able to respond to voice commands. Some ATMs are now able to scan checks directly. Some banks even allow you to deposit a check by taking a picture of it with your phone.
And finally, “the cloud.” Much of your data is already in the cloud — Gmail and Dropbox and various gaming environments are only starting points. Once your data is uploaded, it’s everywhere. Today, you can use your phone to program your DirecTV DVR. You can use your phone to lock or unlock certain models of car. You can automatically send photos from your camera or phone to your Facebook page.
It’s not too much of a leap of faith to predict that in just a few years, all consumer electronics will include some form of wi-fi communication and all mobile devices will include some kind of location tracking as well—so as we evolve toward a set of common standards, all of our electronic devices are going to be able to communicate with each other.
What all of this suggests is an evolution of the entire electronic ecology. Not just an evolution, but a transformation, a singularity, a synergy, a congruency of purpose that changes our relationship not only with our data and how we use it, but also our relationship with the world and everything and everyone in it.
It looks to me as if we are on the threshold of each of us having our own PVPN—Personal Very Private Network—comprised of all the different devices that we own, all of them in perpetual communication with each other. Think of it as a personal OnStar tracking and managing and watching out for every facet of your daily routine.
How might this work in practice?
We’re going to see it first in little things. Suppose, while browsing through Amazon, you’ve bought and downloaded the latest George R.R. Martin and Terry Pratchett novels, the HD extended edition of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and the remastered Michael Hoenig soundtrack of The Blob. These purchases will be immediately available on your home TV, living room stereo, music player, Kindle or Nook, tablet, desktop, laptop, and phone. The soundtrack will also be available in your car as well. This will happen transparently, without you having to rip, port, convert, transfer, upload, download, or sacrifice a goat to Redmond. Your Personal Very Private Network will take care of all that automatically (everything except the goat.) Your Kindle and Nook apps already do this with purchased books. Having the same convenience with your music and videos is an obvious next step for applications.
But let’s say you have a terabyte of music and video on your home server. You don’t want all of that transferred into your laptop, your tablet, and your phone. What you want is to be able to stream that content on demand. And again, we’re starting to see apps that can do that. As I said above, the first pieces of this ecological shift are already happening. In the future, all devices will be wireless and interconnected—and applications will evolve to take advantage of those connections.
The above examples are obvious, because they’re already happening. It’s all the little evolutions that are going to trigger the big one. Add speech-recognition and the right app and things start to get interesting.
In the not too distant future, you should be able to pick up your phone and tell it: “DVR, record Torchwood 3D, Tuesday night, on the living room receiver.” A moment later, you get a text message on your screen: “Confirmed. Torchwood 3D, Channel 107, Tuesday 7pm, Living Room DVR.”
Suppose you’re at a restaurant with friends. You get into an argument—excuse me, heated discussion—about whether or not Han shot first. You pull out your tablet and say, “Star Wars, original theatrical release, Cantina scene, Greedo.” Your tablet says “working” in Majel Barrett’s voice as the starship computer on Star Trek, The Original Series, then pops up the scene in question so you can win the argument with your friend.
What we’re assembling, piece by piece, is the ability to access anything from anywhere—or vice versa, you can send anything from anywhere. Suppose you’re on vacation, maybe even your honeymoon, happily snapping high-res stills and videos all over everywhere. Your camera is full of the most astonishing memories—once in a lifetime photos. But one evening, while you’re relaxing at the sidewalk café, your camera is stolen. Okay, that’s distressing, yes—but not to worry, you haven’t lost anything. Your camera has been automatically uploading your files to your home server since you turned it on. And as soon as you can pick up your phone and say, “Sony Camera, report stolen,” several things happen immediately. The camera is bricked and is totally useless to the thief—and the locater chip in the camera immediately starts pinging the local constabulary that the camera is now in the possession of a thief. It is unusable and unsalable and a beacon to the cops. This particular insurance app, which covers camera, laptop, tablet, and phone, will cost you a reasonable 3.99 a month—and you’ll get a little red sticker to put on your electronics to warn off would-be thieves. A matching icon appears on the screen when the item is bricked. In the near-future, all of your electronics could be theft-resistant.
Here’s another one. You could be microchipped. The chip could warn you when you need your next insulin shot. If you have a heart attack, the chip could automatically call for an ambulance. And perhaps even chip could trigger an implant to release appropriate medications while waiting for the ambulance.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. When everything you own is talking to everything else you own, the synergistic possibilities will expand exponentially. Some of them are impossible to predict today, but the day after tomorrow they’ll seem as inevitable as another Transformers sequel.
What do you think? What would you predict?
David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com