Monthly Archives: August 2010

What do you do with a spaceman?

Park in it, man. How old is that joke? It has probably existed since the fifties. Space culture and science fiction have been influencing us for such a long time that it’s hard to conceive of life without the promise of the future. In recent years it has seemed to fade into the distance a bit, but has it faded, or have we just forgotten how futuristic our lives actually are?

Lots of people ask the question, “If this is the future then where is my jet pack?”. But while flying cars and jet packs are all very well in theory, they aren’t really terribly practical. Even if the technology worked perfectly, people never seem to consider the practical concerns. What would you think when, having bought a quiet place in the country – away from any busy roads, you suddenly realise that your house is, as the crow and now every other bugger flies, the quickest way from A to B. So do we build lanes up in the air? Why is this better than what we have now? At least if your car breaks down mid-journey you don’t drop to the ground like a stone. If you are at this point thinking, “Hello, I said jet pack not flying car!”, then you are only allowed to hold this argument if you regularly ride a motorbike.

Consider auto-focus on cameras. This was, at one point, considered one of the most complicated things to achieve – now it is ubiquitous. Handwriting recognition is pretty much there now, just late enough for most people to have realised that handwriting was never such a good system in the first place. Speech is pretty close now as well. I am writing this article by tapping my fingers on a solid piece of glass. If that’s not from the future, then I don’t know what is. How long ago did Graham Bell say that he could outlandishly predict that one day every town would have a telephone? How many telephones are there on this train with me?

When we looked at the future in the 1950s we predicted: auto-focus, handwriting recognition, speech synthesis and recognition, artificial intelligence and we imagined they would be in machines that would do our dishes for us and vacuum for us. We have dishwashers now, we have little machines that will do the hoovering for us, will mow our lawn for us. People don’t like to call them robots just as they don’t consider artificial intelligence to be working in their camera when it artificially decides what it thinks you want to focus on.*

Next year IBM are going to complete the next of their big projects. These big projects were made famous with “Deep Blue” the computer that beat Gary Kasparov at chess. The current project will pit a computer against humans playing Jeopardy (the US game show). It will answer questions that involve understanding categories of things, word play and puns and will do it faster than the best players of the game – if it works. An amazing step when it happens. Of course when the same technology is in your computer a few years later it becomes known as just another computer program.

We don’t notice the things that are happening by degrees. We look back and see times like the 1850s when so much seemed to happen in just a few short years and marvel. How could we go from the invention of these devices to their widespread adoption in such a short space of time? We assume that people living in the 1850s must have been amazed, but I have a different view. Mobile telephones are only around 30 years old and their adoption is far wider than technologies like the train and the car (in the first 30 years). And yet we are all pretty blasé about our mobile phones. I once heard somebody using a mobile phone on an aeroplane that was flying in the sky above America. They were calling Europe and complaining about the poor reception. We come so far and yet what is brilliant about us humans, and endearingly frustrating about us too, is that we are never really satisfied. This is why anyone who thinks we will ever arrive in the future is wrong. We’ll always long for the next version, next time it’s going to be awesome.

Open the iPod bay doors HAL.

*For those reading who think that it is less artificial intelligence and more artificial sight there is a difference. Making a device like the eye that can be set to focus based on instructions from a brain is like a manual focus camera. It is the brain that says, I want to focus on this bit. Cameras use all sorts of tricks (the artificial intelligence) to determine which bit of the image in front of it is foreground and background and then which of the several bits of foreground is most likely to be the one you want to focus on.