By the 2030s and mainstreamed by the late 2040s, humans will begin to communicate with each other and with animals, control computers and electronics, share memories and dreams, and navigate the web, all by using our minds.
Okay, so pretty much everything you just read sounds like it came out of a sci-fi novel. Well, it all probably did. But just as planes and smartphones were once written off as sci-fi pipedreams, so too will people say the same about the innovations described above… that is, until they hit the marketplace.
As our Future of Computers series, we explored a range of new user interface (UI) technologies destined to reshape how we interact with computers. Those ultra-powerful, speech-controlled, virtual assistants (the Siri 2.0s) that will wait on your beck and call inside your smartphone, smart car, and smart home will be a reality by 2020. Virtual reality and augmented reality will finally find their respective niches among consumers by 2025. Likewise, open-air gesture technology will gradually be integrated into most computers and electronics by 2025 onwards, with tactile holograms entering the mass marketplace by the mid-2030s. Finally, consumer brain-computer interface (BCI) devices will hit the shelves by the early 2040s.
These different forms of UI are meant to make engaging with computers and technology intuitive and effortless, allow for easier and richer communication with our peers, and bridge our real and digital lives so they inhabit the same space. When combined with unthinkably fast microchips and monstrously enormous cloud storage, these new forms of UI will change the way people in developed countries live their lives.
Where will our Brave New World take us?
What does this all mean? How will these UI technologies reshape our shared society? Here’s a short list of ideas to wrap your head around.
Invisible tech. As you might expect, future advances in processing power and storage capacity will lead to computers and other gadgets that are far smaller than what’s available today. When coupled with new forms of holographic and gesture interfaces, the computers, electronics, and appliances we interact with day to day will become so integrated into our environments that they will become profoundly unobtrusive, to the point where they become hidden from view entirely when not in use. This will lead to simplified interior design trends for domestic and commercial spaces.
Easing the poor and developing world into the digital age. Another aspect of this computer miniaturization is that it will facilitate even deeper cost reductions in consumer electronics. This will make a range of web-enabled computers even more affordable for the world’s poorest. Moreover, UI advancements (especially voice recognition) will make using computers feel more natural, allowing the poor—who generally have limited experience with computers or the Internet—to more easily engage with the digital world.
Transforming office and living spaces. Imagine you work in an advertising agency and your schedule for the day is broken down into a team brainstorming session, boardroom meeting, and a client demo. Normally, these activities would require separate rooms, but with tactile holographic projections and open-air gesture UI, you’ll be able to transform a single workspace on a whim based on the current purpose of your work.
Explained another way: your team starts the day in a room with digital whiteboards projected on all four walls that you can scribble on with your fingers; then you voice command the room to save your brainstorming session and transform the wall decor and ornamental furniture into a formal boardroom layout; then you voice command the room to transform again into a multimedia presentation showroom to present your latest advertising plans to your visiting clients. The only real objects in the room will be weight-bearing objects like chairs and a table.
Explained yet another way to all my fellow Star Trek nerds, this combination of UI technology is basically an early holodeck. And just imagine how this would apply to your home as well.
Improved cross-cultural understanding. The supercomputing made possible by future cloud computing and pervasive broadband and Wi-Fi will allow real-time translation of speech. Skype has already accomplished this today, but future earbuds will offer the same service in real world, outdoor environments.
Through future BCI technology, we’ll also be able to better communicate with people with severe disabilities, and even achieve basic dialogue with infants, pets, and wild animals. Taken one step further, a future version of the Internet may be formed through connecting minds instead of computers, thereby creating a future, global, human-borgish hive mind (eek!).
Real world Inception. In part one of the Future of Computers series, we covered how encrypting personal, commercial, and government computers may become impossible thanks to the raw processing power future microchips will unleash. But when BCI technology becomes widespread, we may have to start worrying about future criminals hacking into our minds, stealing memories, implanting memories, mind control, the works. Christopher Nolan, if you’re reading, call me.
Human super intelligence. In the future, we might all become Rain Man—but, you know, without the whole awkward autism situation. Through our mobile virtual assistants and improved search engines, the world’s data will be waiting behind a simple voice command. There will be no factual or data-based question you won’t be able to get answered.
But by the late 2040s, when we all start plugging into wearable or implantable BCI technology, we won’t need smartphones at all—our minds will simply connect directly to the web to answer any data based question we come up with. At that point, intelligence will no longer be measured by the amount of facts you know, but by the quality of questions you ask and the creativity with which you apply the knowledge you access off the web.
Severe disconnect between generations. An important consideration behind all of this talk about future UI is that not everyone will accept it. Just like your grandparents have a hard time conceptualizing the Internet, you will have a hard time conceptualizing future UI. That’s important because your ability to adapt to new UI technologies impacts the way you interpret and engage with the world.
Generation X (those born between the 1960s to early 1980s) will likely max out after adapting to voice recognition and mobile virtual assistant technology. They will also prefer tactile computer interfaces that mimic the traditional pen and paper; future technologies like e-paper will find a comfortable home with Gen X.
Meanwhile, generations Y and Z (1985 to 2005 and 2006 to 2025 respectively) will fare better, adapting to using gesture control, virtual and augmented reality, and tactile holograms in their everyday lives.
The Hybrid Generation—to be born between 2026-2045—will grow up learning how to sync their minds with the web, access information at will, control web-connected objects with their minds, and communicate with their peers telepathically (kind of).
These kids will basically be wizards, most likely trained at Hogwarts. And depending on your age, these will be your children (if you decide to have them, of course) or grandchildren. Their world will be so far beyond your experience that you’ll be to them what your great-grandparents are to you: cavemen.
Note: For an updated version of this article, be sure to read our updated Future of Computers series.