Coded gray.

Saturday 15 September 2001


Pic of the day: In the near future, crystall balls will be replaced by PDAs - Personal Divination Assistants.

The near future

There is one certainty about the future: That it will surprise us. A week ago, the political future of the world looked very different from what it does today. Luckily, technology is somewhat slower in its effects, even though it has certainly been moving fast lately.

When I was a boy, we had ideas about how the world would be in the year 2000. Now that year is well behind us, and we know that the predictions were all wrong. For instance, we thought that human-like robots would be common in factories and probably in well-to-do homes. But human-like robots still stay in the movies. Instead we've got microwave ovens and dishwashers. And in the factories, there is Computer Assisted Production: Machines that can be programmed to produce different parts at the flip of a switch. This means that small series of goods can be made almost as inexpensive as large series. Not quite what we expected, but perhaps more what we wanted.

The cars still don't fly. But they are safer, more comfortable, easier to drive and use less fuel. It's just that this change is so gradual, we don't notice it. We take it for granted that a new car today is better than the old, because that's just the way things are. Computers are faster and have larger capacity than half a year ago; that's just the way things are. Change has become the norm.

We haven't traveled to other planets. Instead, we have tied our own planet closer and closer together through communications satelites, fiber optics and the Internet. And the new worlds that we explore, are those of the human imagination.


So how will technology change our lives in the near future, if any? Say, up to the year 2010? (Just to keep it realistic.) Here are some of my ideas.

The Internet will continue to expand, and start to replace the telephone. (Telenor, the dominant phone company in Norway, is already in the process of converting the entire phone network here to IP, Internet Protocol.) Telephones will still look the same, if you want them to; but they will just be a limited Internet device. They will carry sound over the network the same way that voice chat programs do today, only with better quality and as easy to use as an old telephone.

The Internet will not "merge with" (devour) the television in the near future. The reason is that they follow two different economic models. Broadcasting requires large initial investments, but adding new users is free. In contrast, netcasting is fairly cheap; but each new viewer makes the whole network slower. Netcasting will be the rule for "narrow" programs with only a few hundred viewers or less. Broadcasting will still be the rule for mass produced programs. (But the TV may gain the ability to automatically save large amounts of programming so you can view it at your convenience, rather than programming a VCR in advance.) Over time, special interests will slowly grow while "one size fits all" broadcasting will stagnate or even shrink, but it will be a very very slow process.

Communications will continue to improve. Pagers will be extinct, replaced completely by mobile phones. (This is actually scheduled for next year, here in Norway. The rest of the world may lag a bit behind.) Mobile phones will also merge with pocket computers, and text messaging will be absorbed into e-mail. Mobile phones will continue to outsell fixed line phones (in Scandinavia, there are now more mobile phones than fixed phones, and the difference is growing fast). Each person is likely to have a private phone number that is indepent on what physical phone he is using at the moment. Hopefully, work will have a different number ...

More people will work from home, but not most of the people most of the time. Humans are social creatures, and will want to get out and meet others. But many people will work from home part of the time. Others will work from neighborhood offices, which gather employees from a radius of a few miles. Renting office space in a suburban or small town "office hotel" will be much cheaper than gathering everyone downtown, where property prices are astronomical. This trend will be visible but not dominant within the next ten years.

With increased bandwidth, online diaries such as this one will to some extent give way to webcams. However, many people prefer anonymity. The technology required to anonymize video in real time will probably not be cheap and commonplace within 10 years, but it will be under development. Such a filter may be able to convert the image of the real person into an image of his or her "avatar", a cartoon figure or lifelike person going through the same motions. The first uses of this will likely be in web conferencing. The second use will be in online erotic encounters, which will be a pretty large market.


There will be no great breakthrough in medicine. There will be no "cure for cancer", but a few more variants of cancer will be more treatable than today. Just like we have seen testicular cancer and lymph cancer change from fatal to mostly harmless, others are likely to join them, but slowly and few at a time. Skin cancers are likely to be high on the list.

A large scale switch from cigarettes to nicotine chewing gum will start to lighten the load of smoke-related health damages, but many of these don't show up until after 10-20 years. Nicotine chewing gums, which today are used only by people who try to stop smoking, will be a preferred stimulant by 2010, and kids will start directly on these. As a result, also cannabis use will start to switch from smoking to chewing or eating. Cannabis use will continue to remain popular, as will other drugs. Caffeine drinks will continue to gain popularity among young adults. There will be more focus on the health benefits of caffeine.

AIDS will not be curable, but the range of treatments will be extended. A steadily larger part of the population will be infected but still able to function in society. Sadly, they will also continue to function sexually, spreading the virus further. The middle and upper classes will learn to live with it, but the poor will die horribly. The more things change ...

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