Schrodinger’s Future — it will never be here, yet it already is…

There are glimpses of the future all around us. Well, glimpses of *a* future anyway. Much writing treats the future as if it’s some magical state that will suddenly appear, as if we will one day go to sleep in the present and wake up in a different future — either idyllic or dystopian, depending on your perspective. William Gibson said that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. He was wiser than many of the people writing about the future today. There is of course no one single future. There are multiple possible futures, on an individual and collective basis, depending on the decisions and developments of today.

A Living Laboratory

Spending some time in Silicon Valley (as I’ve been lucky enough to in the last couple of years) offers a particular glimpse of a future. Although as it develops, much of today’s (and tomorrow’s) tech is still quite disjointed; but for those who can piece together an integrated outcome, it is quite instructive as to where things could go. The world’s two most valuable companies are headquartered within 10 miles of each other here, and it shows in the surrounding towns, even without access to what’s going on behind closed doors in their expansive labs, as conspicuous consumption vies with value signalling in a slightly uncomfortable living laboratory.

I’ve walked into a restaurant and paid without proffering any card or cash or touching any device (Google Handsfree), noticed that a large number of houses on each street have Ring Video Doorbells guarding them, met autonomous robots patrolling the mall (Knightscope) and on the sidewalks delivering take away (Starship Robots), while various self driving cars pass by on the roads (Waymo, Apple, Uber, Cruise) amidst the dull whine of far more electric and even hydrogen-powered cars than you’ll find anywhere else in the US. I could control my Pixel 2 phone by touching the cuff of my Google-powered Levi’s denim jacket (Jacquard) or buy an Amazon Echo in my local Wholefoods and then order items by voice for delivery within 2 hours as if the physical barriers of logistics no longer exist. There’s a noticeably high proportion of people wearing Airpods and Apple Watch compared to London or New York.

As you can see here, I took a photo of a flower and Google Lens was able to tell me (I’m usually quite botanically-challenged) that it was a Bird of Paradise. This is a practical example of incredibly complex artificial intelligence technology available seamlessly in the palm of your hand today. I visited the Amazon Books store in San Jose, which will surely soon be upgraded to an Amazon Go store, devoid of checkouts as sensors track your movement through the store. And while I was in the area, I put in my pre-orders for the ‘future’ technology I’ll be trying in the next month — a smart home security system (Nest Secure) and real time translation earphones (Google’s Pixel Buds).

The New Norm

Yet, as all of this futuristic tech was on display, it’s worth reflecting on the tech I completely took for granted — free video calls back to home (via Hangouts), Google Maps guiding me around an unfamiliar country, a Fitbit counting every step and monitoring my heart rate, Uber transporting me around at the press of an icon, no currency required and myriad other apps to order my coffee, check in to my flights and stay abreast of work, current affairs, and sports news. All less than 10 years old, but no longer considered “future” even though they would have seemed (and been) utterly impossible a few years ago — one generation’s future is the next’s norm.

Most of what will constitute change, at least in the short to mid-term, is simply the spread of these niche or minority things to become more pervasive. New technology filters down rapidly — what starts as expensive is guaranteed to become cheap. The immutable law of electronics is that it becomes smaller, faster & cheaper. The bezel-less screens that were the preserve of $800 Samsung flagships a year ago are available on $120 Chinese phones today.

Understanding how technologies permeate society is key to understanding and influencing the arrival of the future. Studies such as Everett’s seminal Diffusion of Innovations (1962) provide a useful framework but the pattern of dissemination is not always as smooth as the models suggest. As technologies mature and the market decides if and how they should work together, there will be less of a need for patient and forgiving early adopters to to stitch together the early building blocks as they emerge. But as technology embeds itself deeper into our lives, it is worth noting that technological developments are getting increasingly complex as the quick wins are largely gone. What we now talk of as the future requires growing levels of investment, access to larger data sets and bigger changes in consumer behaviour and acceptance, as boundaries such as privacy are tested, ostensibly in return for ever-greater convenience.

The future is about piecing together what we have to make what we want, while developing the things we lack. It is a never-ending process. Much of the focus of technology is largely on solutions to first world problems, as that’s what’s immediately lucrative. But the technological dividend for the developing world will likely be greater in the next decades than in previous centuries as access to innovation spreads. I’ve written here about the challenges and opportunities of integrating large scale technological change into our existing infrastructural constraints, and the Markovian nature of technology means that a fresh start (where it’s possible) will accelerate our learnings for broader use. But in most cases, technology must fit into the existing world in a largely incremental, combinatorial manner.

My Future, Your Future, Our Future

It’s important to remember that individuals and societies will embrace the future at very different rates, which will cause significant tensions; individual conveniences are not necessarily compatible with the cumulative greater good. It’s time to stop and take a look around at the direction technology is heading and don’t assume that the future is some distant concept, unrelated to today — the glimpses are there. If we do wake up in a future and don’t like it, we may be sorry we didn’t pay more attention to defining that future, starting today.