As 2015 comes to a close, it’s the perfect time to daydream about the future, and the technological wonders that will become commonplace in the coming years.
We reached out Ian Pearson, a senior futurologist at the U.K.-based company Futurizon. What, you may reasonably ask, is a “futurologist”? It’s somebody who’s paid to advise large companies like Virgin, Microsoft, Disney, and Nokia on the technology should be investing in.
Pearson claims he has an 85% accuracy track record for making “logical deductions for tomorrow based on things we can already see happening.”
(No, we’re not entirely what that means either. But that’s why we’re not futurologists.)
Spoiler alert: What you’re about to read may or may not actually be happening in the nearish future. We have no idea. But if any of this even remotely happens, it’s going to be a weird few decades.
FLYING CARS and/or LANDSPEEDERS
Men’s Health: What are the chances we’re going to get flying cars anytime soon?
Ian Pearson: A few prototypes have already been built. The trouble is, if any of the engines fail, they fall out of the sky. You really don’t want anything falling out of the sky in the middle of a city.
MH: They sound like floating Ford Pintos.
IP: Yes, that’s not far off. And to sell them, they would pretty much go for helicopter prices. They’ll become commercially available soon enough, but when it happens, there’ll be about as many flying cars as helicopters.
MH: So only rich douchebags will be able to afford them?
IP: [Laughs.] Yes. Those with very deep pockets.
If you’re willing to get a little closer to ground level, we have the technology for something similar to a Star Wars landspeeder.
MH: Are you being serious right now?
IP: I’m being completely serious.
MH: Because if you’re messing with me, this is not even funny.
IP: If we’re talking about hovering a few centimeters above the ground, you can do that.
MH: See, that doesn’t sound as impressive as it did in my head when I was 7 years old and all I wanted in the world was a landspeeder.
IP: These are actually a great alternative to the Google self-driving cars, which has a camera looking every which way, and there is a lot of potential for accidents. With these levitating cars, it’s essentially a very cheap box with a couple of metal plates on the bottom. It’s levitated using a linear induction motor, which is laid out on the road surface.
MH: So you’re following a track on the road?
IP: It’s basically a large rubber map that you make in a factory and you roll it out on all the roads and highways late at night when there’s not much traffic. In the morning, you’re ready to go.
MH: And how does that work? You just . . . get in the cheap box and tell it where you want to go?
IP: The electronics would be in your mobile phone. You’re talking about some pretty simple wiring. You don’t need the engine or the wheels or the electronics inside the car.
The big benefit here is cost. Instead of costing $40,000, it would cost two or three hundred dollars for each vehicle. It’d be a ridiculously cheap alternative to self-driving cars.
MH: Or any cars.
IP: Exactly, right.
MH: It’s perfect for people who say, “I wish driving was more like those really slow and clunky rides at Disney World.”
IP: But at a fraction of the cost.
AMATEUR DERMATOLOGIST BATHROOM MIRRORS
MH: You’ve made some recent predictions about smart bathroom mirrors.
IP: The idea is that the mirror looks at your face, and identifies blemishes that you can’t see using normal vision. It can identify skin damage or potential problems that you might not be noticing.
MH: Didn’t Panasonic reveal something like this at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show?
IP: Yes, but they’re developing a mirror that’s more about helping people with their make-up. What looks good on their face, what doesn’t, it evaluates all of that for you while you’re putting on eyeliner or whatever.
MH: But you’re saying that we should expect a smart mirror that examines our face and is like, “Um . . . you might want to have that mole looked at?”
IP: Essentially, yes. They’ll have LED displays and high-resolution cameras, and they’ll be connected to the Internet so you could have a video check-up with your dermatologist.
MH: So when or if the mirror notices something odd on your face, it alerts your doctor?
IP: No, not exactly. Let’s say you’ve got a rash on your face or something, and you’re a little concerned about it. Well, your mirror is connected to Google Image Search, so you can do a quick self-diagnose.
The mirror runs a search, and it finds some matches, and it’s like, “Well, your rash looks awfully like this picture on Google, which suggests you’ve got meningitis or blood poisoning.”
MH: Wow. So this technology gives you the capability of completely freaking yourself out before you even put on your pants in the morning?
IP: Or it can put your mind at ease.
MH: Have you ever Googled symptoms? Doesn’t matter what you ask, every result is “cancer.”
IP: Well, you can also make an appointment to see a doctor. The mirror is just there to make suggestions.
SMART ROBOTS THAT COMPLAIN AND ARE SCARED OF FLYING
MH: We already have smart robots, and they seem to be getting smarter.
IP: In the past month, I’ve done some tests with AIs versus people on image recognition, and the computer won hands down. Several times this year, we’ve had AIs that’ve proven to be smarter than people. Next year, we’ll have 50 robots that are smarter than us. And the year after that, most computers will be smarter than people.
MH: What about consciousness? Are we heading towards robots who feel and think?
IP: A robot that’s smarter than you is one thing, but being conscious is quite another.
MH: Because if our robots are conscious, we’re going to have to hire a bunch of blade runners to kill them eventually?
IP: Well, to some extent, we already have computers that act as if they’re conscious. You can talk to a computer, like Siri or Cortana or Google Now, and it’ll talk back to you.
But you know it’s not real, it’s a pretend conversation. If you knew your computer was real, that it had a consciousness, that it was actually listening to what you were saying and processing it, you’d treat it with more respect. And you’d trust it a little more.
MH: Why? What about a consciousness makes a computer more trustworthy?
IP: Well let’s say you’re on an airplane that’s being piloted by a robot. Wouldn’t you want that robotic pilot to have a consciousness, to be as scared shitless of crashing as you are?
MH: I guess I would, yeah.
IP: I want that computer to want to stay alive as much as I want to stay alive. When you go to McDonalds in 2030 and you’re served by a robot, do you want it to just come over to your table and be like, “Here’s your food, enjoy your meal?”
Or do you want it to have a consciousness, and it’s able to chat with you about the day, and be like, “Oh god, I hate my job. Have you read that thing in the news? What is the world coming to?”
MH: Wait, are you saying that’s a good thing? We want complaining robots who won’t leave us alone and let us eat?
IP: If a robot acts like that, with real human emotions, you’ll bond with it and accept it as more real. You’ll treat those transactions with more value.
MH: You’ve claimed that by 2045, planes won’t have windows. Why the hell not?
IP: If you don’t have windows, you can make a lighter-weight plane. To put in all of those windows, you need a lot of solid structures to reinforce it and protect them, and that adds a lot of weight. But by making a plane windowless and thus lighter, it means it can travel faster for the same fuel.
If you think about it, you don’t really need the windows anyway.
MH: I need the windows. It’s the only thing keeping me from a panic attack.
IP: Well, they could just put up a polymer screen. It would look like a window, behave like a window, but it wouldn’t be one. There’s no reason to have actual, real windows.
MH: I can’t even think about a windowless plane without getting nervous.
IP: Really? I honestly don’t believe getting rid of windows would make a difference for most passengers.
MH: Let’s say I’m on a plane and we hit turbulence. If I look out the window and all I can see is an obviously fake pastoral setting, it is not going to calm me down.
IP: But think about this: Without the windows, you start getting into supersonic speeds. And that really cuts down on your travel time. You wouldn’t give up a window if it meant your trip was half as long?
MH: I absolutely would want that. But I also like making sure the plane isn’t upside down. It’s the illusion of control.
IP: You have to give up that illusion. By 2040, airline passengers will have forgotten all about windows. They’ll be fine with virtual reality, especially when they realize the big benefits you get from not having windows. They’ll just disappear.
VIBRATING HOTEL PILLOWS
IP: We can make fabrics that contain polymer threads that change shape when you apply electric voltage. Now, if you used these same materials instead of the yarn that goes into pillows, it would basically shrink and relax and shrink and relax.
MH: Your pillow would do this?
IP: That’s right. It would gently vibrate you to sleep. You could also make the entire bed do the same thing, or the sheets.
MH: Your sheets could vibrate?
IP: Yes. So imagine you check into your hotel room after a long flight, and you get in your bed, and you’re gently massaged to sleep.
It’s basically just frequencies of vibrations. Any music or sound works in the same way. It’s a mixture of different frequencies and vibrations. If you can make fabric that vibrates in that way, it’d be quite easy to do wrap-around audio environments.
MH: In your bed?
IP: Coming right from your pillow! So you’d go to sleep hearing the sound of waves on the beach or a bubbling brook in a forest. The vibrations of sounds can relax people, and pretty soon these sounds can be created directly in your fabric.
MH: But you know what’s going to happen if hotels start using vibrating pillows, don’t you?
MH: You’re going to have hotel guests fucking their pillows.
IP: [Laughs.] I suppose.
MH: And that’s actually going to make sleep more difficult. Because you’ll be lying there, thinking, “I wonder how many dicks have been ‘gently massaged’ by this pillow. And now it’s right next to my face!”
IP: Hmm. Well, you might want to consider bringing your own pillow.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Men’s Health.)