What happens when what was only possible in the movies can happen in real life? When the far-fetched technology dreamed up by Hollywood screenwriters becomes the status quo? When the impossible becomes, well, possible?
Ten years down the road, Tom Cruise’s fantastical gesture-based computer system from Minority Report is no longer that fantastic and can easily be replicated with a few downloads and a trip to your local electronics store. If it’s mind-boggling technology you’re in search of, however, look no further than the real world.
A paralyzed woman with an implanted neural interface can use her mind to pick up a thermos of coffee with a robotic arm. The Port Authority of New York has turned to hologram-like avatars to improve customer service and robotic dogs are being used by the army to move gear around the battlefield.
A Russian media mogul is funding a sci-fi social initiative, Russia 2045, that hopes to see the creation of humanoid robots, artificial brains, and hologram-inspired avatars that will have the ability to host transplanted human personalities. This is oddly similar to the Avatar program currently being conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop surrogates for soldiers.
I can’t help but wonder what implications these future technologies will have on the human existence. Will the future be like a giant game of The Sims where you control your body from afar? Will we get to push the ‘restart’ button and pick up where we left off should we ‘fail’ a level? Will we all have our personality and human consciousness backed up should we need to transfer them to another physical entity?
With technological innovation occurring so rapidly, the line between what is and isn’t possible will inevitably become smaller and smaller. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we dreamed of the gesture-controlled computers that we saw in the movies.
Despite a decade-or-so age gap, my 25-year-old friend Adam and I share a surprising number of technological touchstones. He’s a part-time DJ who only plays vinyl 45s and owns (and actually uses!) a typewriter. Adam’s predilection for analog media might sound anachronistic, or even sadly unhip, but his anti-digital tendencies actually put him on the cutting edge of a contemporary subculture.
Adam is part of a small but growing number of artists and culture mavens who have begun expressing their frustrations with the digitization of everything. The fancy term for music, books and photographs being converted into zeros and ones is “dematerialization.” And for anyone who has lost a hard drive’s worth of photos or MP3s the limitations of a world where art and culture are no longer anchored to a physical object are clear.
In December of 2010, I began researching the emerging shift toward rematerialization during my residency at the Canadian Film Centre Media Lab. I discovered a company that prints posters of your Tumblr followers and another that can publish a book of your favourite Tweets.
The end result of this research was a group project called txt2hold.ca, an interactive experience that takes any text message forwarded to our system and incorporates it into a unique paper sculpture. Or, to be more precise, an origami pyramid that’s colour coded according to the emotional content of the text, thanks to the assistance of a sentiment analyzer called Lymbix.
Since then, I’ve seen numerous rematerialization projects, including BERG’s upcoming Little Printer and a hacked telegraph called Tworsekey that can send Tweets via Morse code.
The 21st century will not be predominantly Amish, however. Instead, I think the future will be a messy hybrid of digital and physical. Novelist William Gibson famously observed that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. The past, meanwhile, remains everywhere, which is why so many people are getting “physidigital” by jamming USB drives into old cassette tapes, to name one of many examples.
Even Adam, alongside his typewriter, owns an Android phone that allows him to remotely download and launch a torrent file on his home computer. He might be technologically eccentric, but that doesn’t mean he’s crazy enough to abandon all modern conveniences.
Every year, IBM publishes its predictions about what technologies will emerge over the next five years. The 2011 forecast included the extinction of passwords, replaced by smart devices that are able to recognize their user. This forecast is both welcomed and worrisome at the same time.
Password management has become quite a puzzle (and a major pain in the #$$). It was fine at the beginning – you chose an easy password based on a birth date or your pet’s name and used it everywhere. Then we were told that these passwords were foolish and dangerous because even the most inexperienced hacker could gain access to our bank account or steal our identity. So, we took a more complex approach to password strategy by coming up with all sorts of variations to match the requirements. But with certain sites imposing their own rules (such as minimum number of characters and the inclusion of $%?&^@!* plus caps, no repeated numbers etc.) it has become nearly impossible to find easy-to-remember tricks that work across the board.
To be automatically recognized by your favourite sites, like a returning patron at your neighbourhood bakery, is a good thing. However, the implementation of sophisticated recognition technology poses a security risk should it fall into the wrong hands. What we see in the movie remake of 1984 and Brave New World is becoming more and more realistic, and Big Blue calling it doesn’t help any.
But we cannot impede the progress of what has proven to simplify our digital lives. It will soon be time to lobby for the creation of regulatory bodies and biometric recognition control, like we did for databases, bio-ethics or GMOs.