The Future is not too Futuristic

Entering 2018, we cross into the future. What does it look like? During the last few decades we have enjoyed huge advances in information and communication technology. We now spend a lot of time staring at a computer screen and loving it. That was once unimaginable. So do we live in a radically new world?

In his blog The Electric Agora, Daniel Kaufman writes:

The New Year has always struck me as a time not for resolutions, but for musings.  Here are some from this New Year, in the order in which they occurred to me.

#1 The future is not very futuristic. One can drive down significant stretches of road – even in densely populated urban and suburban areas – and see no indication of whether it’s 2018 or 1980.  This would not have been true had one driven down such a street in 1980 and thought about what it would have looked like in 1942… I drove down a stretch of the Grand Central Parkway in NY and it looked exactly the same as it looked 40 years ago.  https://theelectricagora.com/2018/01/01/new-year-musings/

What Kaufman really means is that the present is not very futuristic. This perspective is sometimes called “Where’s my flying car?”  Maybe what’s remarkable is how little life has changed in the last 60 years or so. In 1958, there were personal motor vehicles with internal combustion engines.  Houses had indoor plumbing and electricity. TV. Walk out on the street and other than the body styles of the cars, it looks like 1958. Driving around, much of the San Francisco Bay Area looks about the same. All five bridges across the bay were in place. Today there are some new buildings and new freeways, everything is more crowded, but a visitor from 1958 would not be shocked by anything.

In 1958, you could drive to SFO and travel by air anywhere in the world, just like now. 

But go back another 60 years, to 1898, and the difference is shocking. No internal combustion. No automobiles. Indoor plumbing was very rare. No electricity. No airplanes.

Computers are an amazing technological advance, but compared to the advent of electricity itself? The 60 years from 1898 to 1958 was when life changed dramatically. The last 60 have been more a matter of refinement and consolidation. Jets replaced props. Cars with electric engines, instead of internal combustion.

In 1968, the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey came out. Its special effects depicting space travel were stunning and surprising. What was not surprising was the space travel it predicted for 33 years in the future. By 2001, there would be permanent bases on the moon. Large numbers of people would be stationed there. Travel to the moon and back would be like routine air travel. Expeditions would be mounted to Jupiter on large spaceships, during which most of the crew would be in suspended animation. All that seemed plausible in the distant future, which is what the 21st century seemed like in 1968.

The year 2001 has come and gone. Here’s my prediction for when there will be permanent moon bases: never. How about travel by humans to other planets in our solar system? It will never happen. It will always make more sense to send robots to places like Mars. They can take photos and test the soil, and you don’t have to bring them back. 

Maybe the most gripping technology prediction by the movie 2001 was HAL,  the computer system on board the spaceship. HAL was portrayed as a conscious entity. He is tremendously competent, but goes murderously berserk. He has his own ideas about how the mission should be accomplished and does not need humans. Sentient computers have been a sci-fi movie mainstay, from Blade Runner to more recently in Ex Machina, and Her, and the HBO series Westworld. That there would be computers functioning like persons by the 21st century seemed entirely plausible in 1968. That was the ultimate goal of Artificial Intelligence.

ex-machina-poster.jpg

 

Alas, in 2018 there is no HAL and no prospect of him showing up anytime soon. Today “AI” just means any advanced programming, maybe involving artificial neural nets. The focus is on getting the job done, not on simulating anything humans do the way humans do it.

Progress on some tough problems like language translation and pattern recognition has been made. Playing chess seemed like a natural for a computer and original predictions were optimistic. Herbert A. Simon, following the success of his program General Problem Solver (1957), predicted that by 1967 a computer would be world champion in chess. (This unrealistic optimism was an element of the critique of artificial intelligence by Hubert Dreyfus.) Instead, it took an additional 30 years and a massive programming and engineering project to create Deep Blue. But the job got done. Nobody thinks twice about the superiority of the current “chess engines”. Your phone could beat most grandmasters.

So can the future be futuristic after all?

Let’s have a computer generated movie. We want a new romantic comedy starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, the way they looked in 1940 (e.g. The Philadelphia Story). Start with copies of all their movies around that time and then synthesize a new one. Every movie is just an arrangement of bits, so no problem, right? We want the old actors doing new things. Make it good.

This sounds plenty futuristic, yet there is a hint of progress:

At a lab in Finland, a small team of Nvidia researchers recently built a system that can analyze thousands of (real) celebrity snapshots, recognize common patterns, and create new images that look much the same — but are still a little different. The project is part of a vast and varied effort to build technology that can automatically generate convincing images — or alter existing images in equally convincing ways. The hope is that this technology can significantly accelerate and improve the creation of computer interfaces, games, movies and other media, eventually allowing software to create realistic imagery in moments rather than the hours — if not days — it can now take human developers.

A second team of Nvidia researchers recently built a system that can automatically alter a street photo taken on a summer’s day so that it looks like a snowy winter scene. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have designed another that learns to convert horses into zebras and Monets into Van Goghs. DeepMind, a London-based A.I. lab owned by Google, is exploring technology that can generate its own videos. In August, a group at the University of Washington made headlines when they built a system that could put new words into the mouth of a Barack Obama video. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/02/technology/ai-generated-photos.html

philadelphia-story-the-1940-002-cary-grant-katharine-hepburn-james-stewart-00m-nhf-1000x750.jpg
publicity photo for The Philadelphia Story

 

The futuristic future is coming via the self-driving car, due any day now. Prototypes are seen routinely in the Bay Area, especially near Google headquarters in Mountain View. Will people be willing to trust their lives to a robot? SD car will not be conscious— see BQTA “Help, My Self-Driving Car is a Zombie”and also “Does Information Smell”. Nobody has any idea how to give SD car the feel of the road or the pain of a flat tire and nobody cares. The focus is on getting the job done, not on doing it the way people do.

SD car will be a big move out of the virtual world of information and communication and toward taking charge of the physical world of roads and weather and people.

2001 - Behind the scenes.png
The distance future meets the distant past on the set of 2001 A Space Odyssey.

 

Addendum

In 1968, a group of academics wrote a book trying to predict the future, Toward the Year 2018, as described in the New Yorker on new year’s day.  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-1968-book-that-tried-to-predict-the-world-of-2018

“more amazing than science fiction,” proclaims the cover, with jacket copy envisioning how “on a summer day in the year 2018, the three-dimensional television screen in your living room” flashes news of “anti-gravity belts,” “a man-made hurricane, launched at an enemy fleet, [that] devastates a neutral country,” and a “citizen’s pocket computer” that averts an air crash. “Will our children in 2018 still be wrestling,” it asks, “with racial problems, economic depressions, other Vietnams?”

More restrained predictions, mostly about information and communication technology, they got nearly right. 

But for every amusingly wrong prediction, there’s one unnervingly close to the mark. It’s the same Thomas Malone who, amid predictions of weaponized hurricanes, wonders aloud whether “large-scale climate modification will be effected inadvertently” from rising levels of carbon dioxide. Such global warming, he predicts, might require the creation of an international climate body with “policing powers”—an undertaking, he adds, heartbreakingly, that should be “as nonpolitical as possible.” Gordon F. MacDonald, a fellow early advocate on climate change, writes a chapter on space that largely shrugs at manned interplanetary travel—a near-heresy in 1968—by cannily observing that while the Apollo missions would soon exhaust their political usefulness, weather and communications satellites would not. “A global communication system . . . would permit the use of giant computer complexes,” he adds, noting the revolutionary potential of a data bank that “could be queried at any time.”

What “Toward the Year 2018” gets most consistently right is the integration of computing into daily life. Massive information networks of fibre optics and satellite communication, accessed through portable devices in a “universality of telephony”—and an upheaval in privacy? It’s all in there.

The question we would ask now: will the futuristic future involve more than information and communication?

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