Destination: Tomorrow!

The World According to Hank Our favorite futurist predicts…
Eric Dregni and Jonathan Dregni

Implantable Cell Phones
By about 2020, Lederer predicts, there will be a range of cell phones in use, depending on what people feel comfortable with. One might be a big screen that can unfold; another would be integrated into a pair of glasses, and would project information onto the retina. But the most popular models, he believes, will be implanted under the skin of their users. He is certain of people’s willingness to merge body and phone: “They already have it hooked behind their ear, why not just implant it?” Furthermore, call screening will become intuitive: “The answering machine in there will be so smart that it’ll know when you don’t want to talk to someone. It’ll seem like telepathy.” Another feature of this future cell phone: Since it’s implanted, you won’t talk into it; instead, people will learn how to “subvocalize.” So instead of walking down the street, talking and gesturing at nothing, users of this invisible cell phone will merely gesture at nothing—unless they also learn to “subgesture.”

Supercomputers Render Human Brain Obsolete
“We’re not even in the Model-T era of computers,” says Lederer. “In order to make computers a million times more powerful, they have to be much, much smaller.”

Once we get to that point, though, in about 2025, “computers will mimic the brain’s architecture. This is a big deal, because then you can have robotic assembly systems” that will effectively take over the last remnants of manufacturing currently done by humans. That development also could portend the rise of real-life HAL 9000s.

“Hyperintelligent computers are going to change the world more than anything that has ever changed the world in the history of man. The only thing that man has going that other animals don’t have is the human brain. Other animals can smell better, can fly, can hear better than we do. But the computer is going to have a much better brain than we do. Computers will start thinking for themselves. Once one computer knows something, all the others can know it instantly. We’ll have no idea what the computers are doing or thinking, and they won’t be able to explain to us—it’ll be like explaining the law of supply and demand to a chipmunk.” So maybe the only way to beat the computers is to become one with them. As Lederer puts it, “If you want to live life in the fast lane, you’ll have to upgrade your brain with computers. And if you want to live in the really fast lane in outer space, you’ll have to dump your intellect into a computer.”

Smart Glass
Over the next quarter-century, glass is going to up its IQ considerably. Dust-repelling glass is already on the market, but, says Lederer, smarter glass would be self-cleaning as well: “You could write on it with a felt pen and in ten minutes it’d be clean.” Extra-smart glass “repels or retains heat or light when you want it to. It will let sunlight through in the winter but keep it out in the summer.” And by 2020 “we’ll have glass powered with electricity,” Lederer predicts. “If someone goes by your house with a boom box, a smart-glass window will cancel out that sound” using the same technology as the noise-canceling headphones that are currently available. This ultra-smart glass will have some give, so it won’t kill birds that fly into it, or crack if hit by a baseball. Finally, by 2030 or so, picture windows could provide most any kind of view desired. “If you want the ocean to look at, or a forest, it’ll change. You can have a sunset that’ll change colors as you walk by it. Or it can turn into a TV screen.” The ultimate window, in Lederer’s view, is smart enough to act as a wall or a door, depending on one’s wishes.

Dirty Viruses and Genetic Warfare
Here is the flip side of those wealthy people chasing everlasting life (see above). “People used to worry about NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) warfare,” says Lederer. But by about 2030, “It’ll be GNR (genetic engineering [genomics], nanotechnology, and robotics).” In 2000, Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, wrote an influential article in Wired magazine claiming that GNR will make humans into an endangered species. “He wanted to stop all research in these areas because of all the potential problems,” says Lederer. “He’s right, this is really dangerous shit. You could figure out a super virus that would only get people with a certain genetic make-up: ethnic cleansing. Or a super virus that goes into the brain to make everyone docile, as a sort of tranquilizer.” He compares us to “kids in a pool of gasoline playing with matches—as soon as we drop one, we’re all dead.”

RFID Chips
Radio Frequency ID is a current technology that might finally spell the end of the cash economy. According to Lederer, Wal-Mart is already using it on pilot programs, “but it’s still too expensive, at ten cents a chip.” RFID stands to replace the universal product codes on everything we purchase. The tiny RFID chip includes that bar code, and, “like a transponder on an airplane, it reflects the signal from the radar and tells what it is.” With RFID, you’ll simply walk out of the store with your purchases and be automatically charged for them. Foods will be implanted with digestible chips. By 2015, says Lederer, this technology will be everywhere. “Active RFID chips will actually transmit a signal. Global positioning systems will read everyone so your kids can’t be kidnapped and you can always tell where your spouse is.” Of course, the implications for privacy are huge, but Lederer believes “people are going to continue to sacrifice privacy for security. With more technology and more people we’ll have less privacy, and therefore less freedom.” But don’t blame RFID. Says Lederer, “Once again, it’s people that cause the trouble!”

Miracle Food Builder
It’s not quite the long dreamt-of miracle pill, but by 2050, Lederer predicts the development of a box “the size of a microwave” that will take air, water, and sunlight and turn them into “meat, milk, or brussels sprouts—whatever you like.” This box won’t produce food instantly, however. “Every two hours you can get a glass of milk out of it and every six hours you can get a hamburger.”The box will take in solar energy, air, and be “open to the dirt” on the bottom. That way it can send “little microscopic tubes into the ground, sometimes hundreds of feet down, “for water, minerals, and other nutrients.” As Lederer points out, a cow’s meat and milk come from grasses, which themselves come from air and water. “The first food creator will cost about a billion dollars,” he says, but like any technology, the price will eventually come down.

Extreme Life Expansion and Human Redesign
Immortality is within reach—at least for those of us who make it to 2015 or so. That’s when, according to Lederer, we will enter the age of “Extreme Life Expansion.” At that point, advances in medical science will expand the average life span, on an annual basis, by more than one year.

And with tissue regeneration, radical plastic surgery, and other technologies that Lederer calls “human redesign,” appearing youthful (or even appearing to be the evil twin of your favorite celebrity) will be a snap. Lederer acknowledges that curtailing the death rate “will create a huge population explosion. If everyone is on the planet for three times as long, you have three times as many people.” Not everyone will be able to afford “Extreme Life Expansion”—in fact, “it might be only for the very wealthy,” he says; he also foresees people growing weary of never-ending life. “I don’t think most people will want to live more than two hundred years. Many will probably just get bored and kill themselves, but that’s my opinion.”

Nanotech Clouds
Cloud creation is the next generation of cloud seeding. Along with carbon-sequestering technology and the depositing of CO2 into empty natural-gas deposits under the North Sea, the ability, through nanotechnology, to make clouds will control some of the damage from global warming. More clouds, Lederer points out, will reflect sunlight and mitigate temperatures. “By 2040 or so,” he says, “we’ll be able to juggle the environment and eliminate global warming and start reducing pollution enormously.”

Adapted from Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of our Fantastic Future by Eric Dregni and Jonathan Dregni (Speck Press).

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