Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, the 31-year-old director of Google Ideas, make some pretty bold predictions in their new book, The New Digital Age, to be published by Knopf on April 23. The future they envision is full of technological wonders -- from holograms that attend meetings you can't make to thought-controlled motion technology -- but also of heightened vulnerability. Thanks to automated, machine-precise hairdressing you may never suffer another lousy haircut, but you may also find yourself in need of Internet identity insurance, lest your online presence be hijacked by criminals looking to make a buck on the virtual-identity black market. "Virtual honor killings" and commercial drone warfare may be just over the horizon, but so might a world with better healthcare, government accountability, and technological efficiency.
The authors speculate about what enhanced connectivity will mean for citizens and states, NGOs and corporations. But the most striking passages of the book are what you would expect from a couple of Google guys: a look through the silicon looking glass at the future of technological advancement. And the authors aren't bashful. As they explain up front in the introduction: "Some of the predictions you'll read in these pages will be things you've long suspected but couldn't admit ... while others will be wholly new." Here's a look at the five craziest predictions in The New Digital Age:
Holographs in your living room:
Future videography and photography will allow you to project any still or moving image you've captured as a three-dimensional holograph.... If you're feeling bored and want to take an hour-long holiday, why not turn on your holograph box and visit Carnival in Rio? Go spend some time on a beach in the Maldives.... Frustrated by the media's coverage of the Olympics in a different time zone? Purchase a holographic pass for a reasonable price and watch the women's gymnastics team compete right in front of you, live.
The diagnostic capability of your mobile phone will be old news. (Of course you will be able to scan body parts the way you do bar codes.) But soon you will be benefiting from a slew of physical augmentations designed to monitor your well-being, such as microscopic robots in your circulatory system that keep track of your blood pressure, detect nascent heart disease and identify early-stage cancer. Inside your grandfather's new titanium hip there will be a chip that can act as a pedometer, monitor his insulin levels to check for the early stages of diabetes, and even trigger an automated phone call to an emergency contact if he takes a particularly hard fall and might need assistance. A tiny nasal implant will be available to you that will alert you to air-borne toxins and early signs of a cold.
Your apartment is an electronic orchestra, and you are the conductor. With simple flicks of the wrist and spoken instructions, you can control temperature, humidity, ambient music and lighting. You are able to skim through the day's news on translucent screens while a freshly cleaned suit is retrieved from your automated closet because your calendar indicates an important meeting today. You head to the kitchen for breakfast and the translucent news display follows, as a projected hologram hovering just in front of you, using motion detection, as you walk down the hallway.... Your central computer system suggests a list of chores your housekeeping robots should tackle today, all of which you approve. It further suggests that, since your coffee supply is projected to run out next Wednesday, you consider purchasing a certain larger-size container that it noticed currently on sale online. Alternatively, it offers a few recent reviews of other coffee blends your friends enjoy.
Haptic technologies -- this refers to touch and feeling -- will produce uniforms that allow soldiers to communicate through pulses, sending out signals to one another that result in a light pinch or vibration in a particular part of the body.... Camouflage will allow soldiers to change their uniform's color, texture, pattern or scent. Uniforms might even be able to emit sounds to drown out noises soldiers might want to hide -- sounds of nature masking footsteps, for example.... Solders will have the additional ability to destroy all this technology remotely, so that capture or theft will not yield valuable intelligence secrets.
Gestural interfaces will soon move beyond gaming and entertainment into more functional areas; the futuristic information screens displayed so prominently in the film Minority Report -- in which Tom Cruise used gesture technology and holographic images to solve crimes on a computer -- are just the beginning. In fact, we've already moved beyond that -- the really interesting work today is building "social robots" that can recognize human gestures and respond to them in kind, such as a toy dog that sits when a child makes a command gesture.
And, looking further down the line, we might not need to move physically to manipulate those robots.... The possibilities for thought-controlled motion, not only for "surrogates" like separate robots but also for prosthetic limbs, are particularly exciting...
If some of this sounds a little far-fetched, it's worth noting that the authors all but predicted the 2011 Arab uprisings at a time when political scientists, their heads in the sand, were preaching about durable authoritarianism. "Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority," the duo wrote in a Foreign Affairs article published in Novermber 2010. So who knows, maybe these guys are on to something.
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