The early months of 2011 saw masses take to the streets to topple longstanding autocratic rulers. These upheavals differed from others in history in that there was no one charismatic leader or ideologically-driven group leading the charge. It's as if millions came together to act as one gigantic entity. And with the help of technology, they kind of were.
While some observers have likened this flashmob ether to some insect-like "hive mind," television has a far more apt example at the ready: the Borg. Yes, it appears as if we are steadily transforming into Star Trek: The Next Generation's collective of bionic albinos who have united with technology in an unyielding mission to enslave the universe in cyberpunk servitude.
In the short term, we probably won't be cruising in a giant space cube in search of civilizations to assimilate. However, the next decade will see a spate of advances that will foster a collective linked-in consciousness. Here's a look at the tech that will literally, figuratively, and irrevocably break down the walls between our machines and our selves.
Resistance is futile. Or some such.
1. Social Media
The Internet allows any individual to share information with millions over vast distances in real time. We are the first generation of humans with this power. Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Kanye West have all learned that brief missives can spread faster and farther via social media than a sleekly worded PR release sent to a thousand news outlets.
In short, this is the infrastructure of the superconciousness.
Facebook and Twitter are currently at the top, but that doesn't mean it will remain that way. Just ask LiveJournal and MySpace about the precariousness of the social hierarchy. Meanwhile niche sites support specific social needs: Yelp provides its users with super local restaurant and business reviews, Flickr allows its users to disseminate images to the masses or specific friends, and Chatroulette facilitates the anonymous mingling of drunks, slumber parties, and lonely exhibitionists.
While social media has demonstrated its potential for creating political upheaval, the technology affects our culture more subtly in the form of cultivating social trends and spreading memes. Just check out this explosive documentary starring Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen.
Timetable: The future began in 2007.
2. Super Wi-Fi
Remember all those public service spots from a few years back that warned all TV signals would be switching from analog to digital? Well, the FCC wasn't just running them for bits and giggles. The federal government mandated a nationwide turnover to more multifaceted digital signals. This transition also had the added benefit of clearing bandwidth in the TV-side of the spectrum, creating so-called "white spaces."
Wireless transmissions flowing through the white spaces have been described as "Wi-Fi on steroids." These super powerful signals can penetrate thick walls and provide 20mb/sec download speeds over a span of miles. This tech will connect nearly every corner of the country, no matter how remote, from sea to shining sea. Our devices, our robots and our fellow humankind will be with us always.
Timetable: The FCC is currently running tests with super Wi-Fi in regional markets. There are some lawsuits from network broadcasters and wireless mic manufacturers to sort through, but hopefully we will see nationwide super duper Wi-Fi by mid-decade.
3. Augmented Reality
Okay, so virtual reality never took off quite as the The Lawnmower Man had promised. Besides, the nation has since developed a taste for reality TV and prefers a bit of cinéma vérité mixed with fantasy. Enter augmented reality (or AR) — the merging of the digital and natural worlds.
AR is an ideal component to the smartphone age when so many of us are carrying small, powerful computers around in our pockets. Today's cellphones are nearly always connected to the web and are integrated with ever more sophisticated cameras, displays, and gyroscopes. These are the keys to living in a digital world in real time, at all times.
The technology is still developing and will become an integral part of our culture in the very near future. We've already seen some cool branding campaigns utilizing AR. Even established apps such as Yelp's utilize AR to help direct you towards local eateries and watering holes using your phone's camera (just click the "monocle" tab on the front page). Of course, the technology will also open the door for explosive new gaming experiences, like turning any background into a Star Wars battle scene.
Timetable: Available now, though it's definitely in a young, exploratory phase. As smartphones and tablets become more plentiful and powerful, we will see AR apps gain traction.
4. Truly Transparent Displays
The problem with augmented reality via a smartphone or tablet is that your private digital world is exposed to the lookie-loos in your immediate area. Do you really want everyone on a crowded sidewalk to know that you need directions to a proctologist's office? Well, imagine wearing a pair of glasses that will project an email message, Facebook comment or proctologist's address that only you can see. We're not that far away.
A few months ago, Samsung announced that it would begin mass production on 22-inch translucent LED displays that could offer 5% transparency for color versions, and 20% transparency for black and white. This was completely eclipsed shortly after by LG as the company revealed plans to begin production of translucent displays that were high-definition and touchscreen enabled. The transparencies aren't ideal yet, but they will be.
Aside from glasses, clear displays will be used in storefront windows, windshields and even facilitate advertising and local information on public buses and subways. All surfaces, clear or opaque will have a capability for interactivity.
Timetable: Translucent displays will start being utilized by PR firms and marketing companies this year. As the technology develops, it will work its way into mobile devices in the next decade. Expect to see an Apple event debuting the iSpecks and the iPadClear around 2016-ish.
Bell's Law of Computer Classes illustrates how newer, smaller, more powerful types of computers arise roughly once a decade — from ENIAC to desktops to laptops to smartphones. The next step will be millimeter-sized nanocomputers.
To this end, the University of Michigan's College of Engineering recently unveiled a fully-functioning micro PC (pictured) that checks in at just over one cubic millimeter. The device is designed to be implanted in the eyes of glaucoma patients to monitor pressure. The engineering team also designed a new approach to wireless transmission that will allow small millimeter-sized robots to communicate with each other while maintaining diminutive weight and power needs.
In the future we may never need to have surgery again, and biological functions can be monitored in vivid detail and sent to you or your doctor. This will be possible because tiny robots will be living inside of us.
Kidney stones can be obliterated, arteries can be cleaned and wrinkles can be smoothed from the inside thanks to our little robotic friends. Theoretically, these computers could also be used to connect us on an even more intimate scale by being able to broadcast private audio messages directly to our eardrums.
These tiny computers will also, in essence, also make any inanimate object "smart." Google recently unveiled Android @ Home, which is a set of tools and APIs using an open-source wireless protocol that can connect every object in your home. Everything will be interlinked. Never again will you misplace your GPS-enabled socks. Your bottle of Jameson will email you if the babysitter sneaks into your wet bar. Forks will display the calorie count of each bite.
The future will be far more like Beauty and the Beast than Disney could ever have anticipated.
Timetable: Expect to see the first human trials of long-term implanted nanobots within three years. We will see linked-in appliances and light switches in the next two years. Smaller domestic objects utilizing nanocomputing will make their debut later in this decade.
6. Actual Retinal Displays
Apple likes to pimp out its somewhat over-hyped retina display tech. But the real future of displays will project visual information directly into the retina. This past summer, the FDA approved an implanted pea-sized telescope device that will help patients suffering from macular degeneration, a retinal condition, by projecting images directly into the eye. And more recently, a University of Washington team has designed a contact lens that can project LEDs directly into the retina. This is extreme must-see TV.
Remember that augmented reality business I was talking about earlier? Actually that was just the training wheels. Beyond that, get ready for augmented vision.
Timetable: The eye telescopes are available now. The projecting contact lenses will reach the first intrepid early adopters by the end of the decade.
7. Bionic Limbs
You can see it either as a sad twist or as a silver lining, but the Pentagon has invested heavily in creating artificial limbs for the benefit wounded warriors and civilians alike. DARPA has teamed up with Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab (APL) to create advanced bionic limbs to aid soldiers who lost arms in combat. [Image]
The program has already designed a system to digitally monitor nerve signals that can be translated into robotic arm movements. Current research has been able to design prosthesis that can even give the user a sense of touch, temperature, pressure, and vibration.
Research like this will eventually lead to breaking down the barrier between our minds and our robotic counterparts.
Timetable: The research is ongoing, but will hopefully be able to provide a functional arm replacement by the end of the twenty-teens.
While there are elements of dystopic Sci-Fi that paint this communal connectivity as a means to losing our humanity, there's really no technology on the horizon that could subjugate our free will. This is just an inevitable path that will foster a true sense of global super community. "Assimilation" may just be another way of saying "kumbaya."