I’ve been a fan of science fiction ever since watching reruns of Lost in Space and the original Star Trek after school. That led me to Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Douglas Adams and many more. I’ve always been amazed how many gadgets and concepts from science fiction have become science fact, from radar to satellite communications to smart phones, and on and on. Apparently, I’m not alone. At the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) San Francisco 2012 last month, the company debuted Imagining the Future and Building It. The collection of science fiction stories (download them here) begins with a quote from Intel’s CTO, Justin Rattner: “Science and technology have progressed to the point where what we build is only constrained by the limits of our own imaginations.” That sets the tone for the introduction by Intel’s official futurist, Brian David Johnson, and the short stories written by modern science fiction writers. Johnson goes on to explain that Intel has a “futurecasting lab” where it predicts what living in the future will be like. This isn’t just highly paid geeks playing make believe, Johnson says the lab’s models are used to help determine what Intel’s technology needs to be capable of in the future. They’ve completed the model for 2019, and 2020 is looking pretty amazing. If the predictions are correct, in eight years “the size of meaningful computational power approaches zero,” according to Johnson. That means we will have gone from 1940s computers that took up as much square footage as my house to computers so small they can be incorporated into just about anything you can imagine.
Let’s Not Get Carried Away This isn’t the first time someone from a major corporation has tried to predict the future. Walt Disney shared his optimistic vision of the future, including monorails linking a planned community of tomorrow. The last time I road a monorail was at Disney World when it dropped me off at EPCOT the theme park, not the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, complete with 20,000 residents that Disney had envisioned. I have yet to strap on a jet pack and the only robot I ever owned took an awfully long time to sweep my floors before finally breaking down with a series of sad beeps that would have annoyed R2-D2. It’s tough to predict the future, but the task may be a bit easier when your company is a big part of creating that future. For example, both Microsoft and Google have predicted real-time translation that allows people speaking different languages to have a conversation in their native tongues. A slickly produced viral video showcasing Microsoft’s vision of the future last year highlighted desks that served as both displays and input devices, as well as 3D interactivity that would make any CAD user sit up and take notice. Google’s driverless cars are already being testing on the road, and Google Glass, the eyeglasses that incorporate smartphone functionality, is slated to be released next year.
A Big Difference The difference between today’s predictions from Intel, Google and Microsoft and the predictions of Walt Disney is that Disney was more akin to the science fiction writers Intel is tying its vision of the future to. He was the guy with the big imagination. Technology companies, however, are in a position to make the products that allow those dreams to come true. There are always hurdles to clear, of course. Disney’s vision for EPCOT was delayed beyond the point of no return largely by bureaucratic red tape. Cultural norms and the fear of change also need to be overcome. There are plenty of people imagining a darker future where technology destroys our privacy, turns us into screen-staring zombies, breaks down after we have become overly reliant on it, or simply destroys us. But the fact is that technology marches on, and the guys out in front are asking us where we want to go.
A Good Question Intel’s Johnson ends the introduction to Imagining the Future and Building It by asking “What kind of futures are you imagining?” As the people on the front lines of creating new products that make use of new technological innovations, design engineers are in a great position to answer that question. Does the mere possibility of tiny computers in 2020 bring visions of in-ear advertisements or cancer-killing nanobots? I’m hoping you imagine a vision more like Walt Disney’s and less like Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report or Blade Runner. The future could be incredibly bright.
Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.