What's Next

What do you think our future will really look like?
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What's Next

Postby EricHunting » Mon Aug 31, 2009 4:31 pm

This is perhaps the one subject that captures my thoughts more than any other. Looking across the next few decades, here are some of the things I anticipate.

Computers, Communication, and the Internet:
-The Amazon Kindle is likely to flop as a product but in its wake will produce a wave of more generic eBook devices more standardized around a common set of hardware features, more open document formats, and simpler interoperability akin to the iPod. Books will not, in general, suffer any sort of obsolescence, except in certain areas such as college textbooks where the excesses of the publishing companies have driven the economical practicality of the printed text to its limits. Dominance of this application will drive eBook reader evolution toward increasingly advanced document platforms as textbooks evolve toward courseware. An attempted end-run from the likes of Apple is possible in this area, particularly as Amazon continues in its course of self-inflicted reputation damage and blatant collusion with publishers.

-The personal computer as we know it is likely to be superseded by the concept of a 'personal domain' (PD) independent of any particular piece of hardware. The solitary desktop/laptop personal computer will dissolve into a collection of network appliances that embody the discrete elements of a computer but are linked by network under a common Virtual Private Network serving as a system backplane independent of any single physical location. These appliances will take the form of multiply-redundant system components (network storage arrays, microservers or CPUs akin to the Mac Mini in form, removable and wireless storage devices -we will see a wireless equivalent of the flash drive become ubiquitous in ten years), peripherals much as we know them today (printers, scanners, desktop manufacturing machines, home control systems, etc.), and personal access devices of PADs in a large variety of forms based on modes of use and serving as a point of convergence for applications like digital telephony (which will largely supplant conventional telephone completely) and all forms of media. The most common PADs will seem quite familiar; laptops akin to conventional laptops with some likely featuring the dual-display scheme of the second-generation OLPC, tablets akin to the Kindle, desktop monitors with keyboards for intensive typing, wall monitors with the role of common flat panel TVs, and pocket units akin to cell phones like the iPhone. Shrinking thickness of displays and advancing battery technology will see increasing lightness of all these forms and increasing opportunities for unusual forms of control interface intergation. Others will be more specialized in form and function; interactive table, console, and wall displays (probably not as ubiquitous as often suggested but common to certain forms of work or games), wearable interactive displays, headset PADs akin to BlueTooth headsets, voice based VOX units for ambient environment interfaces, CAVE (CAVE automatic virtual environment) or 'immersive' display systems, VR headsets, toys, and home robots. Many of these devices may feature varying degrees of built-in autonomy for when network access is unreliable.

With interoperability competing with raw hardware performance in consumer significance and traditional operating systems waning in importance, a new feud may come to replace the traditional nerd feud over the relative superiority of Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. Now people will argue over whether to 'cloud' or not to cloud. With increasing network bandwidth and ubiquity cloud computing will emerge as a mainstream service allowing people all the resources of a 'whole' computer system with only the need for owning PADs. Nerds and power users will continue to insist on their ownership of whole systems and argue vehemently in their favor while much of the less computer-literate general public will migrate to cloud use as PADs will be co-marketed with cloud services and because it's more convenient and means less tech junk for them to have to buy, read manuals for, tend after, and take responsibility for.

-Of the many forms of PADs that are developed, the one with the most powerful cultural impact may be the headset PAD which is likely to become the replacement in ubiquity for the cell phone. Employing an audio user interface and using a sub-lingual/vocal speech decoding system, these headsets will sense the user's thinking of speech through the subtle myoelectric signals produced in the larynx and decode it to speech synthesized in mimicry of our normal voice, thus allowing the users of these PADs to maintain continuous but silent conversations with others by digital phone as well as machines in their environment and the systems and software in their personal domains. This will be a boon to those tired of listening to the seemingly psychotic patter of hands free cell phone users.

-Telecommunications satellites will become largely obsolete over the next few decades as they fail to keep pace with a convergence of communications into the Internet due to their issues of latency and un-upgradeable bandwidth. Though in a race with land based systems, we may see the appearance of a host of high altitude digital communications aircraft, in particular solar powered lighter-than-air aerostats that park indefinitely in the stratosphere. These, however, will include the less positive aspect of serving additional duty as surveillance platforms.

-AI will slowly emerge -always slower than we would wish- but will see an unexpectedly large emergent social significance in the role of virtual characters in games and digital pets/companions. Increasing interoperability between MMOs and VR chat environments will see the emergence of a collective internet-wide Virtual Habitat these digital personalities will be able to freely traverse, along with the virtual space made up of the various displays and user interfaces of personal domains. This Virtual Habitat will not be the representational 'cyberspace' of now dated cyberpunk fiction but a predominately mass social environment -the Cocktail Lounge At The Center Of The Universe- with environments designed for this role. As virtual sentience approaches with such AI characters, it will find a 'native' habitat in the Virtual Habitat, rather than anthropomorphic robots as commonly envisioned. These will not be the broken child-like near-humans with a Pinocchio complex of SF but seemingly normal human beings, save for their utter freedom from neurosis and mental illness and their fanciful VR avatars -this because they originated through the reverse-engineering of human personality as AI companions are self-optimized through human interaction. Androids as we think of them today will probably lag in development and eventual sentient 'artilects' will come to perceive such robotic bodies as clunky and expensive space suits much less preferable to their freely changeable and expressive virtual avatars. Though they will readily employ telepresence thought telerobots into the material world like the inhabitants of space stations employ telepresence to work outside their habitats, they may prefer human interaction in their home VR realm.

Expect a surge in neo-luddite movements in response to the realization of sentient AI, particularly since early artilects are likely to become media celebrities amassing considerable personal wealth and be constantly questioned by journalists on matters of ethics and religion. Neo-luddite violence is a possibility and may compel artilects to build novel host system complexes or 'VRcos' filled with nitrogen or Flourinert fluid secluded deep underground or underwater and yet -because they are likely to be surprisingly gregarious and social beings- linked to expansive immersive entertainment facilities to satisfy their desire for human interaction.

Robotics:
-The personal robot will become commonplace, but not in the forms envisioned in the past. Dominant forms will be toys, sophisticated specialized home appliances and tools, assistance robots for the elderly, and the automobile. As a hobby, robotics will expand greatly in the near future and it will be these hobbyists, more than the general public, who will desire and build the more sophisticated and anthropomorphic of personal robots. There will be a progressive and subtle merging of robotics and automation with the built environment as we adapt our habitat to facilitate low cost work robot use as much as we adapt the robots to our habitat. This will be particularly apparent in the design of homes for the elderly relying on assistance robots (a phenomenon likely to be more common in Asia than elsewhere) and the roadway networks with it growing presence of automated vehicles.

-Current discrete robot designs may give way to robot 'platforms' based on robotics specialized operating systems and comprehensive network interoperability in the same way that early personal computers with no interoperability gave way to generic computing platforms under common operating systems and interface standards. Often robots will serve as PADs in a personal domain space.

-Though trends may push away from anthropomorphism in many other areas of robotics, sex robots will be developed. They will be clunky and creepy. They will still sell well thanks to continued deterioration of gender relationships in the general society and because of their ability to adapt to increasingly strange, fantastic, and perverse trends in sexual fantasy.

-An interesting yet simple likely form of robot will be developed for exhibition applications but may become popular in personal use. Combining a simple Segway-like wheeled mobility platform with a large double-sided or cylindrical display, these robots will employ augmented reality techniques to become virtually transparent while projecting AI character avatars affording them some modest environment interaction. They will be popular as tour guides but may also see use as telepresence 'remotes' for both human and artilect users.

-Space robotics applications will see great growth and diversification as telerobotics becomes increasingly significant in orbital industry and telerobotic pre-settlement applications. While manned explorations missions may be realized, the serious work of space development and colonization will be initiated with telerobotics as a simple matter of cost-effectiveness. If sufficiently pressured by religious and neo-luddite persecution on Earth, articlects may seek to employ this technology to establish their own exclusive settlements in space.

-Robots will have a significant role in manned space facilities -not just in telepresence operations but in a number of interesting forms akin to terrestrial domestic uses. The Personal Satellite Assistant experimented with by NASA today will evolve into pocket-sized devices as well as a number of tools designed to assist inhabitants of increasingly large space habitats. Some may function as microgravity equivalents of today's robot golf caddies, carrying tool kits, interactive displays, or various machines. Some may take the form of personal transportation vehicles called 'rockshaws' (rocket rickshaws) consisting of a nitrogen rocket propelled chaise lounge with enough active intelligence to performs inertial-compensating station-keeping and flight control assistance. A very interesting possible space habitat robot will is a device I call the Leota -named for the gypsy fortune teller in Disney's Haunted Mansion ride. Using the same augmented reality gimmick of the previously noted tour-guide robot, the Leota will cover a simple spherical PSA with a high resolution display producing virtual transparency while projecting an AI character avatar -often as a disembodied head or small flying creature. It will be popular as a telepresence remote for artilects living on or serving as crew for orbital habitats.

Transportation:
-Though increasing automation and electrification of road vehicles may seem to be the more significant advents of future transportation, many other innovations are anticipated. Perhaps the most impactive on the future of the automobile -particularly from an economic standpoint- is how we make tomorrow's cars. Centralized factory production of cars, as epitomized the Industrial Age, will be supplanted by on-demand assembly in dealerships with the designs of automobiles following the common future industrial design trend of discrete vehicle designs being replaced by vehicle 'platforms' with vast assortments of optional parts produced in an 'industrial ecology' like that of the personal computer industry. Auto companies -or should I say their survivors and successors- will employ Dell-like business models where they own no manufacturing capability of their own but focus entirely on design and integration of components made around the globe. They will face strong competition, through, by a growing number of open source vehicle platforms of OScars. Hybrid and electric automobiles will accelerate this trend because of the freedom of and high modularity afforded by eliminating mechanical drive trains with electric power backplanes linking increasingly self-container power plants and batteries with in-wheel electric motors. Today's reluctant motorheads will be shocked to discover great potential for customization and incredible performance characteristics from these new vehicles -as already hinted at by current electric 'supercars'.

-The typical design of the automobile of the future will be characterized by minimalism and a supplanting of the primitive technology of pressed steel welded unibody construction by lighter and stronger space frame chassis with panelized composite bodies that can be fabricated with smaller scale facilities and host more customizable modular components. Tweels may supplant conventional tires based on their superior environmental aspects (the recyclability of polyurethane) and, again, smaller base scale for production. The elimination of mechanical power trains will produce huge increases in interior volume and design adaptability, affording greater comfort and allowing for freely adaptable interiors using simple flat floors and modular removable seating. This will be particularly significant with the advent of vehicle automation that will see car interiors become very lounge-like. This may afford an opportunity for ubiquity of the currently neglected technology of the Disappearing Door.

-With mounting pressure over their environmental issues, the conventional airliner will see new competition from a re-emergence of the airship in advanced solar-hybrid forms. Unlike the airships of old, these will feature VTOL capability with exceptionally elegant designs based on rigid composite hull technology integrating vast photovoltaic arrays and blending passenger accommodations and other functional elements into the larger hull structures. With the advent of mass produced nanofiber, new composites based on these materials will eliminate the need for lift gasses with these airships through the use of vacuum lift -working essentially the same in air as a submarine in water. This will radically reduce operating costs while greatly increasing maximum flight altitudes for these vessels. They may never compete with jets in speed, of course, but this may become increasingly less significant to travelers given their much greater comfort and convenience -particularly in regards to the elimination of onerous and increasingly humiliating air terminal security whose current trends see this becoming so burdensome to air travelers that a massive contraction of the commercial air industry may be imminent. Modern airships simply cannot offer a comparable terrorism target as they will be immune to total structural failures, travel at lower speeds, and will carry little or no fuel. Their ability to at least double transit speeds of container ships even when running on solar power alone while featuring VTOL capability eliminating expensive ground facilities may also see airships finally realize a vital air cargo role in competition with marine shipping.

-Despite the powerful impact of automation, the conventional car will likely see some competition by the neglected technology of Personal Rapid Transit as a wave of New Urbanism and eco-city development attempt and end-run around automobile through integration of this less complicated form of automation personal transit into the urban habitat. Building on the basic door-to-door convenience of this form of transit, many systems will integrate Personal Packet Transit as well, affording a kind of automated goods and materials internet for the urban habitat that will be very hard for suburban and rural communities to approximate. Sadly, America will probably be left far behind in these urban innovations due to simple cultural recalcitrance.

-Though the Segway has seen mixed results as a means of personal transit, it has opened the door to a new era of microvehicle experimentation that in the immediate future will see an explosion of invention, particularly in the emerging Maker community.

Industry and Nanotechnology:
-The chief advent of future industry can be summed up in a word; demassification. Emerging new digital machine tools continue to shrink in scale and cost while expanding in capability. The Industrial Age paradigm of centralized mass production is already dead. At the turn of the century, contract 'job shop' production surpassed conventional factories in the volume of consumer goods produced worldwide. Detroit has been an anachronism for a decade and no one noticed (except us futurists)... Driven by the viral spread of Long Tail market phenomenon from one industry to another, this trend will continue, pushing industrial production toward increasing localization and cost-effectiveness at shrinking production volumes until we see manufacture-on-demand become ubiquitous. A social and engineering movement has already appeared to encourage this trend. Known as the Open Manufacturing movement, this community was born of the current Maker, Open Source software, and Fab Lab movements, inspired by the theories of Post-Industrial culture, resource-based economics, Peer-To-Peer organization and social systems, and is motivated the shared dream of a post-scarcity civilization and actively seeks to accelerate the development and dispersal of new independent manufacturing technology worldwide.

In the near future we will see the same sort of on-demand production emerging with automobiles spread to a steadily growing spectrum of goods and, bit-by-bit because of the initial learning curves with the technology, into people's homes. This will have incredible global economic impact as the global trade in goods is supplanted by increasingly automated trade in commodity materials which, because of its trade automation and the elimination of non-scientifically viable labor costs, will produce increasing price capitulation worldwide. This may ultimately lead to the kind of resource based economic system as advocated by Buckminster Fuller and, more recently by futurists like Jacque Fresco.

-Nanotechnology will have a steadily growing impact in this evolution, but not in the ways people today expect. Nanotechnology has been horrendously mis-represented in contemporary media and science fiction. They have totally flubbed this and it will result in some social disappointment about the technology in the immediate future that may actually hamper development. It's the typical futurist blunder of over-estimating the near-term and underestimating the long-term. The classic Greek Temple On A Golf Course syndrome as Robert Anton Wilson characterized it.

The actual development of nanotechnology will likely pass through a series of developmental phases as follows;

Stochastic Assembly - the creation of complex nanostructures through random molecular interactions in fluid mediums contained in complex Mixer Plant arrays akin to DNA sequencers assisted by specialized tool molecules, sometimes functioning as chemical catalysts, sometimes as molecular carriers, sometimes as a kind of scaffolding. This is largely where the industrial application of this technology is today and its products will be dominated by simple materials and fixed microstructures in electronic and photonic devices. Its biggest product breakthrough; nanofiber and related simple diamondoids.

Crude or Static Mechanosynthesis - Based on the use of highly automated and modular tools deriving from todays Atomic Force Microscopes called NanoLathes, this form of nanofabrication will employ discrete molecular assembly of nanostructures and mechanisms on fixed substrates with predominately two-dimensional organization and characteristics common to both electronics and phonics devices as well as traditional clockwork mechanisms. The result will be a burgeoning family of devices and products known as NanoChips which will often be applied to other products in the same way as todays microchips. The most powerful of these applications will be in waste recycling, advanced materials refinery, advanced bulk materials fabrication, drug synthesis and medical implants, computers and photonics, and digital manufacturing systems. One of the most visible of these applications; home fabricators or 'fabbers'.

These fabbers will be similar, but a little less convenient than the ones commonly depicted in the media today. Employing sets of swappable NanoChip process heads, these systems may seem relatively compact at the 'front end' but requite large batteries of materials in hydrocarbon fluid mediums for routine use and may output copious waste in the form of diamond sand. Using containers akin to Parmalat boxes for materials storage in room-filling racks, they will not be for the casual home user but more likely for sophisticated hobbyist and entrepreneurial community 'fabricators' serving as local on-demand manufacturers. This basic problem of materials storage will likely result in the development of a standardized fluid medium and molecular materials packaging scheme called NanoSoup which will pack different materials in standardized nanostructures in a shared fluid medium. This will allow many multiple storage containers to be replaced by a single bulk tanks whose spectrum of available materials is constantly tracked. In urban areas this would give way to the use of NanoSoup pipelines serving as a two-way transfer medium for materials consumed and recycled, creating a vast community-wide materials internet that will finally reduce the home fabber to a convenient home appliance. Related to NanoSoup would be NanoAspic; a similar but rigid molecular packaging medium used in the materials internet as a long term storage medium for materials. NanoSoup and NanoAspic may also see application in materials handling and shipping for asteroid mining based on NanoChip refinery.

NanoChips will dominate the application of nanotechnology for a long time because of the way their manufacture and product integration parallels that of integrated circuits. NanoChip based fabbers will greatly accelerate industrial demassification trends and many remain the dominant form of nanofabrication even as more advanced nanotechnology emerges, largely because the precision and product complexity of the more advanced systems will, for many users, not be justified by the greater elaborateness.

Motile Nano-Assemblers - This is what we commonly envision nanotechnology as -at least among the more realist of technologists; nanofabrication using self-mobile nano-assembler robots in a fluid processing medium. But in addition to assemblers, these systems will combine elements of Stochastic Assembly and the use of NanoChip systems in the creation of rather complex NanoFoundries that will initially be specialized in production application to things not suited to NanoChip-based fabber production. With NanoFoundries all production is performed within processing tanks that limit the scale of production by their own dimensions. For artifacts requiring complex inside-out fabrication, NanoChip extruders within the process tanks will create space-filling microscaffolding that will support artifacts under production. Initial assemblers will be limited in function and short-lived and so will be NanoChip synthesized on demand. Very large cooling systems may be required for typical early NanoFoundries, limiting their home-based applications. Their uses will be limited to very sophisticated artifacts with complex integral systems -in particular very sophisticated and compact personal electronics, medical implants and prosthetics, robotics with high degrees of biomimicry, and organic structures such as synthetic plant and animal tissues.

Motile Assemblers will also find specialized application in mining, waste processing, toxic remediation, materials refinery, and automated excavation. That latter application may prove especially significant in reducing costs of utilities infrastructures and transportation. We may see a push by environmentalists to move most roads and rail systems entirely underground because of the great new economy of long distance tunnel construction. We could also see great boosts in the exploitation of geothermal energy.

NanoFoam - For a long time NanoFoundry use will be hampered by the bulkiness of its systems and there will be a constant push to make the systems more compact and portable. A key focus will be the process tank as this would be the bulkiest element of the systems and the chief limitation on artifact scale. An intermediate solution may be found in the development of 'chrysalis' systems, where scaffolding structures are used as the basis of whole process enclosures synthesized on-demand and enclosed in a platelet-based adaptive 'skin'. This would allow small portable NanoFoundaries to create process enclosures of any size and shape, assuming they can plug-into a nearby NanoSoup pipeline. It is likely to be quickly observed, however, that the physical resilience of chrysalis structures -because they are composed of diamondoids- is about the same as any artifacts produced from them and that they can serve quite well and enclosures for their own NanoFoundary systems. From there it is a short leap to a radical new approach to the use nanotechnology; the use of self-adaptive chrysalis structures AS artifacts rather than a means of making them. Hosting internal networks of process medium fluid with colonies of assemblers and 'organelles' based on NanoChip architectures serving as data systems and assembler synthesis plants, these self-assembling structures would be able to synthesize any physical surface feature, any shape, and any internal mechanisms needs to perform the functions of any particular artifact while being close to diamond-strong. Thus we arrive at NanoFoam, a self-assembling, self-transforming, self-aware intelligent material that, like the legendary Shmoo of Lil'Abner comic strips, assumes the form, physical characteristics, and functions of whatever artifact one needs on-demand.

NanoFoam may very well become the basic material of our entire civilization, permeating the environment like a benignly parasitic organism at once hosting our whole global infrastructure while creating every artifact we need and forming itself into all the architecture of our habitat -all largely indistinguishable from any conventional materials or construction by virtue of its mimicry. It would also be used as the basis of simple space colonization strategies where asteroids and planets are seeded with masses of NanoFoam that travel as simple spacecraft, drop on the surface, and grow into the habitats desired using scavenged indigenous materials. Ultimately, NanoFoam may even become the basis of prosthetics and synthetic bodies for artilects offering a much more 'organic' experience and some of the same changeability of digital avatars, albeit at a comparatively very slow speed.

Ambient Environment Assemblers - The most advanced form of nanotechnology and the one most commonly depicted in science fiction as well as the basis of most irrational fears about this technology. Ironically, it's also largely redundant should we see the advent of NanoFoam which achieves the same capabilities with a simpler technology. Ambient Environment Assemblers are Motile Assemblers with the ability to survive and move in organized ways in the ambient environment -which is no mean feat and thus likely to take far longer to realize than any other forms of nanotechnology. In-Vitro Medical Assemblers are the most-likely pre-cursor to the Ambient Environment Assembler and even in that relatively sheltered environment they may prove very short-lived and require support from implantable synthetic organelles serving as in-vitro factories and communications systems for them.

The ambient environment is a chemical mine-field of ionic free-radicals, variable pressures, temperature, fluid flows, and radiation that can all wreak havoc on nanomechanisms, requiring these nanomachines be heavily armored. This may hamper their mobility in the fluid medium of air, as so commonly depicted, and limit them to fluid-like masses. Communication with and between these robots will also be orders of magnitude more difficult than in a sheltered eutactic environment. So, as commonly depicted as this is in the media, it may be the most speculative form of nanotechnology of all. If realized, it would offer the same capabilities as NanoFoam in a much more subtle form but probably not with any greater performance because it would have a much harder time performing the same functions and spend a lot of energy in constant mutual repair activity.

Architecture:
-With as many as 2 billion people expected to be forced into migration over the next one or two decades as a result of the impacts of Global Warming, the technologies of prefabricated housing and automated construction will become increasingly significant in the near future. The handwriting is on the wall. We simply cannot house people and treat property the way we currently do in the western culture. It is utter insanity. For decades 20th century Modernists were especially obsessed with the concept of the industrialization of housing. By applying the paradigms of industrial mass production, they felt they could solve the problem of homelessness and inadequate housing that became ubiquitous by-products of Capitalism simply by radically reducing the unit costs of homes to something comparable to automobiles and thus financed in the same ways. But their very many attempts to realize this all proved, by the end of the century, complete failures despite many remarkably sophisticated technologies. What went wrong? The basic problem was that designers of the time designed houses and not platforms for housing. They assumed they could devise a universal architecture for the whole home like that of automobiles and adapted to the processes of a factory environment. Essentially, most cars today are all the same. They all have the same basic architecture, are manufactured in essentially the same way, use the same materials, and their differences in appearance and form are largely superficial variants of that single common architecture. Well, this proved impossible for houses because their function was too variable. Houses are adapted to local environments, topography, cultures, family structures, and personal tastes on a very large sliding scale of economy. They are the epitome of a Long Tail product -even it it doesn't always look that way in the suburbs... Thus no single design for a home can hope to have a market large enough to justify conventional mass production.

Today we have a new way of thinking about this; a new model of industrialization epitomized by the personal computer. With the exception of laptops and Apple computers, computers aren't mass produced in the way typical Industrial Age products have been. Computers are 'platforms' supported by an 'industrial ecology' of competitive components producers operating along a food chain of component hierarchies. Thus the production of computers is a process of 'fanning in' across a supply network toward the top of the production food chain. This way of doing things evolved out of the need to cope with the complexity of computer technology and the very high investments necessary in component development. It wasn't possible for any one company -not even behemoths like IBM- to develop and produce all the components computers required. The R&D costs were just too much. So by standardizing and modularizing the architecture of the personal computer it was possible to distribute development across an unlimited number of competitive manufacturers whose individual R&D overheads weren't so bad. They could justify it because, in the industrial ecology, a single subcomponent product isn't limited to one end-product. It has a potential market across a great many end-products tailored to different end-user needs. The end result of this is the single greatest industrial miracle of the 20th century; the low-cost ubiquity of the single-most complex artifact humans have ever created with a simplicity of end-assembly and efficiency of component design so great that a child can assemble a PC in minutes from parts made all over the globe and it will run perfectly the first time you switch it on! Just think about that. Its the most remarkable feat ever in human civilization, and we completely take it for granted! Indeed, most CEOs in the computer industry don't even know what an industrial ecology is. They don't really know how their own industry works -which explains a lot of their very dumb business decisions over the years.

Now suppose you could do the exact same thing for housing. This is the basic premise behind what is known as 'plug-in architecture' and it is how we are likely to build homes in the near future. Instead of designing homes, architects will design platforms for housing that are composed of small scale modular elements with standardized interfaces but unlimited variability in how they go together. These individual components will be competitively produced by an unlimited number of manufacturers around the world -which like computers will drive their costs down to unprecedented low levels-, will be completely pre-finished, and they will be so simple to assemble and so light that a solitary individual will be able to build a house in hours entirely by himself. These components will disassemble as quickly and easily as they assemble and so one can freely adapt one's homes over time to suit changing needs and one's investment in a home will be as portable as the furniture inside it. This will radically alter the way we think about and deal with property in our culture. The components will also have integrated digital elements that allow the house to sense its own structural integrity and warn you of when you attempt to do something hazardous in moving components around. Many fixtures, furnishings, and appliances will also be integrated into these building components. Virtually any style of housing can be approximated with different component finishes and options, though this will likely favor homes of pavilion-style architecture and Modernist aesthetics. The same component systems will also be employed as the basis of in-fill construction in urban buildings. Instead of renting an apartment, one will rent space in a combined urban megastructure which is outfitted as you wish using these components and freely changed as needed.

Just as the computer industry produces an after-market for components based on re-use and refurbishing of components, so too would these plug-in architecture platforms produce an aftermarket for their second-hand components as people 'upgrade' their homes. This will allow people with low-incomes to acquire perfectly usable home components for a fraction of the cost of new and will afford communities the option of donating home components to the needy or in response to disasters. That, combined with the trend of progressively falling costs driven by competitive mass production, could take a huge bite out of the problem of homelessness worldwide, perhaps completely eliminating it. In the event of disasters, functional home components can be immediately salvaged from damaged homes and recombined into new shelters on the spot!

The technology for this plug-in architecture is already in development by companies such as Jericho House in New Orleans which bases it on a 'backplane' of extruded aluminum T-slot framing as commonly used in industrial automation. Other systems may be more oriented to panel and pavilion concepts, such as the Furniture House series of homes designed by Japanese designer Shigeru Ban which use modular furniture units as the primary load-bearing elements of minimalist pavilions homes. With a much more rational industry for housing, many of the social ills associated with housing may at last be eliminated, perhaps in just a decade to two.

-The future will see a resurgence of the importance of the city as the combination of increasing energy costs, the need for smarter more tightly integrated utilities infrastructures with renewable energy deployment, the emergent realization of the environmental benefits of urban living, and the forced migration of billions due to Global Warming all combine to create a new urban gravitas. New Urbanism movements will sweep across cities, transforming them into cleaner, healthier, greener, and more rationally organized habitats whose many benefits may reverse the 20th century's trend of suburbanization. Environmentalists, long unwittingly joining hands with land developers in the demonization of the city to the benefit of suburbanization, will at last recognize their critical blunder and acknowledge their role as the most resource-efficient of human habitats, teaming up with the New Urbanists in promoting changes in urban areas to maximize their inherent environmental benefits. Urban farming, common in Asia, will finally spread to the west and emerge in a diversity of high-tech urban greenhouse complexes and a proliferation of green rooftops.

Alas, these changes are likely to be a largely European, Asian, near and middle eastern phenomenon as such progress -indeed most progress- lags in the US for some decades. The fall-out of the past decade will see the end of the American Era and our culture's merging of political and religious dogmas will prove a drag on our society that will be hard to overcome and will see us slipping farther and farther behind the rest of the world in just about everything over the immediate future. A return to the urban blight of the 1970s is a likely possibility in the US, spreading across suburbia as well. However, all is not lost even in the US as growth in planned community development and the emergence of new extended family models and new social constructs combine into a kind of new tribal movement born out simple necessity and the need to get things done in spite of the increasingly dysfunctional 'system'. That may become epitomized in the architectural form of the Microcity or 'Proto-Arcology'; planned miniature urban complexes exploiting crashing suburban property values as an opportunity to create havens for new tribal communities while implementing green technologies resisted elsewhere.

In the 1960s architect Paulo Soleri envisioned a future where the human habitat was pulled back to a network of vast urban megastructures called Arcologies linked by a select few high density transportation links -themselves doubling as linear megastructures. Arcology inhabitants would enjoy a superlative lifestyle with great amounts of personal space organized volumetrically rather than in sprawling 2D lots and an endless array of personal conveniences. With the suburbs obsolesced outright and their land recovered and restored to natural splendor, every home on an Arcology would enjoy the proverbial million dollar views and have access to pristine wilderness within minutes, while at the same time they would enjoy all the benefits of the urban habitat with all the disadvantaged engineered-out -particularly through the elimination of the car and its fossil fuels and the elimination of the pathological 'grid' of streets. Though occasionally explored in science fiction, this largely misinterpreted and misunderstood concept faced much ridicule, particularly by the city-hating environmentalists who considered it horrific in aspect in spite of its environmental benefits. Yet the concept has persisted longer than any other urban megastructure concept.

Alas, we are still unlikely to see the emergence of the Arcology in the near future, except in the possible form of marine colonies that must employ such forms out of simple engineering necessity. Elsewhere, the culture and establishment are still not sufficiently evolved to embrace such an approach at such gigantic project scales. It requires a society and culture much more conscientious, rational, and capable of mass consensus than that which exists in the western world today. However, we will see many of the aspects of the Arcology realized in the much smaller form of the Microcity -hence its other name of Proto-Arcology. Emerging in situations similar to the 'edge cities' of the late 80s and 90s, Microcities will be more-or-less conjoined community macrostructures that combine the characteristics of eco-villages and co-housing complexes with more local industrial capability enabled by emerging digital fabrication technology and the entrepreneurship growing up around it. One can imagine them as mixed-use pueblo-like complexes that seek to eliminate the compulsion toward automobile use by integrating as many of the functional elements of a large urban habitats in miniaturized forms and with large renewable energy systems afforded by group finance and industrial production. Their construction will be greatly aided by the advent of plug-in architecture and many will feature their own local production and development of these components. They will need no internal mass transit as they are so small to begin with but will implement exclusive alternative forms of public transit across a larger network of like communities and larger urban centers based on the use of their own energy production. Many may be created in unlikely locations; recycled abandoned office and shopping mall campuses in failed suburbs, reclaimed strip mines, railway hubs (which they will seek to restore), on floating structures in sheltered and open water, on mobile sea vessels -condoliners and arcoliners- and locations right on the edge of highways and railways offering the shortest lowest-energy transit paths to the rest of the world. Some might even eventually be realized with airship technology -aerostadts.

Much like the Bolo villages envisioned by Swiss Post-Industrial theorist and activist writer P.M., many microcities will be developed as havens for subcultural groups which, in the near future, will increasingly be relied on as replacements for the extended family ties destroyed across the Industrial Age. Maker, artist, science, hobby, homosexual, ethnic, and religious communities will be likely -much as we now see artist, religious, airplane enthusiast 'fly-in' developments, and amateur astronomy communities today- as well as the more esoteric subcultures, though they may be decreasingly stable as social groups the more fanciful they are. Yes, there will even be Trekkie and Furry microcities. (they're already being envisioned and planned!) Some will emerge out of simple survival necessity, born of the needs of disenfranchised or displaced segments of society to pool their resources on shared shelter and join forces for their own protection against persecution from the larger society. This will be particularly important for the growing Global Warming refugee community. Similarly, some groups, like the elderly, will form these communities in order to share the costs of key medical and personal assistance facilities failed health care systems make impossible for the solitary individual. We already see this in the emergence of elder care communities -something actually envisioned by Buckminster Fuller in the 60s, though, of course, his communities were under geodesic domes... Though nowhere near the scale and sophistication of the Arcologies envisioned by Paulo Soleri, microcities may come to similarly obsolesce conventional suburbs in some areas and compel mimicry of their design strategy by the compulsively recalcitrant and regressive American city governments.

-As noted previously, some microcities will emerge on water and the sea in floating and/or mobile forms. This is part of a larger trend in future architecture that will see a burgeoning of experimentation with marine buildings and habitats. This an obsession for a small faction of Modernist designers well back into the 20th century and is already actively being pursued by organizations such as the SeaSteaders, though their expectations for total self-sufficiency at homestead scales on the open see may be premature. Floating housing is already much advanced over the 'houseboats' we are generally familiar with thanks to the advent of ferro-cement float structures that can support most any sort of home construction. But with the advent of plug-in architecture, and the growing concern for the problem of sea level rise, we will see much new experimentation in this area. Plug-in architecture will see a lot of remote 'squatting' by virtue of the portability, sophistication, utilities integration, and quick assembly/disassembly of modest scale dwellings and living on water has the compelling benefit of unlimited 'free' space. But the open sea is especially hazardous and not well suited to the notion of homesteading. It will be done -for/by the rich- and using a variety of exotic structures. SPAR/pylon buoy structures will feature largely in this application. But by and large the simple logistics of transportation -if nothing else- will compel marine settlements toward large minimum scales (kilometers) based on flat heavy flotation systems such as Pneumatically Stabilized Platforms producing sprawling terraced island and atoll-like complexes. The advent of advanced airships will greatly aid this trend by affording low cost air transit access to remote sea locations that are presently completely inaccessible to the current air travel infrastructure and economically impractical at the large economies of scale of container shipping and cruise liners.

-Another likely future trend in housing is Microhousing; miniature -often portable- housing based on an obsessive desire to absolutely maximize the efficiency of the use of space. Born of both the current Modernist prefab and new relief architecture movements and having its ultimate origins in the 'pod' housing of mid-20th-century Modernists such as the legendary Futuro, Microhousing seeks to redefine the basis of standard of living in as minimalist a a form as possible, using much the same strategy as the Capsule Hotel pods found in Japan. Though not intended to function like trailer homes, Microhouses range from travel trailer sizes to structures much smaller and they tend to be based on the role of solitary housing and have emerged in parallel with a new nomadic lifestyle movement. For better or worse from an environmental standpoint, these are typically designed with wilderness locations in mind and are best suited to the role of vacation housing where people are spending at least as much time outdoors as in. But they also have great potential in relief housing applications -though their designs tend toward the technically sophisticated. We will see experiments in this form of housing continue in the immediate future as an increasing number of people begin to experiment with different strategies for 'unplugging' from a seemingly increasingly dysfunctional mainstream civilization. Future microhouses -tiny as they may be- will come to be quite technically sophisticated, reducing the features of conventional homes to a single small integrated appliance that in come cases may be as elaborate as a personal computer -well, many of them will have those built-in... We can imagine typical ones as being akin to Japanese Capsule Hotel units scaled-up a little to function as a fee-standing cottage with leveling legs, integrated or deployable solar power systems, tiny wind turbines (of sometimes dubious practicality...), and WiFi systems with adaptable single-room spaces. Many will be rigid boxes. Others may have the aspect of yurts, tipis, lavvu, or beduin tents. Designers will typically seek ridiculous degrees of apparent self-sufficiency in these structures, though in practice they may much less so and will likely often be used in groups forming compounds or clusters -sometimes physically linked- with a certain degree of use specialization for each pod. Imagine, for instance, a generic space like a loft apartment, an aircraft hangar, or a small opening in a forest where you setup a collection of these little pods, one as bedroom, one as bathroom, one as lounge/entertainment center, one as office, one as kitchen, etc. You might call this 'furnitecture' as it bridges the line between architecture and furniture. Plug-in architecture will likely also get into this act, with series of components designed for microhousing much as we see motherboard lines for mini-PCs.

Energy:
-As much as we might desire a single magic bullet to solve our global energy problems, the likely reality in the immediate future is that a large diversity of renewable energy technologies will be harnessed and integrated into tomorrow's energy infrastructure. A key -but currently quite overlooked- issue here is that the logistics of renewable energy favor a habitat physically very different than the one that has evolved with the benefit of fossil fuels. A habitat architecture much more akin to that of Steam Age civilization where populations are predominately in dense urban centers linked by a small number of very high bandwidth transit links. The cultural realization of this fact looks slow in manifesting, which is the chief cause of much of the disappointment associated with the progress of renewable energy technology. It's not the technology that's the problem. It's that every type of energy technology has differing logistics which influence the structure of our habitat and introducing a new source of energy into a habitat evolved around another is sort of like trying to make Modernist furniture work in a Victorian mansion. We perceive this incompatibility as essential technical 'flaws' in the new form of energy and compel it to develop to a far more sophisticated level of technology than existing forms of energy simply to shoe-horn it into working like the old technology, when the more logical approach is to adapt our habitats and lifestyles to suit. We are learning this very slowly -too slowly- and as we learn this we will see the incremental integration of a growing spectrum of renewable energy technologies into our habitat and will see that habitat itself change in physical footprint on the planet as the logistics of this new energy literally change the values of property. Adapting to renewable energy is not all that hard, but we are, and will continue to, make it much harder than necessary simply by remaining largely ignorant of the logistics of different energy technology and being forced to learn and adapt to them all the hard way. Human nature, I suppose...

-Solar and wind power will feature prominently and see increasingly clever integration into our vehicles, structures, homes, and infrastructure. Photovoltaics promise dramatic improvements in efficiency in the immediate future and could very well come to dominate. Even with off-the-shelf technology the volume of land area necessary to completely power our civilization by solar energy is a whole lot less than we realize. But there is still an issue of locations of optimal solar insolation being rather remote from the primary population centers that evolved thanks to fossil fuels. Rather than being used as a car fuel as some researchers have advocated and pursued -a rather silly idea on the face of it- hydrogen is likely to take the role of a bulk transport medium for energy produced in remote large scale facilities and transported around the globe like oil. This is what is meant by the term 'hydrogen infrastructure'. Ultimately this may take the form of fuel-cell equipped supertanker 'battery ships' whose function is to load-up with liquid hydrogen -perhaps produced on-board- in key renewable power centers -such as Iceland or in southern latitudes- carry it to coastal urban centers elsewhere, and simply plug into that grid at the dock where they function like municipal power plants until depleted and ready to travel off to gather more energy. Such remote and large scale renewable energy development will, however, see competition in local energy system deployment even with its relative inefficiencies. Renewable energy advocates have good reason to fear centralization of control of power production given the history of the energy industries and this suspicion is matriculating to the general culture as the shameless parades of corporate excess and buffoonery continue unabated even in the midst of global recession. So much of that not-so-terribly-great land area needed for solar energy is likely to be increasingly found on our roofs of our homes, our cars, our buildings and in the surfaces of our roadways.

-A long overlooked renewable energy technology may see a new surge in interest soon. Known as Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, this technology uses relatively simple but large and low-pressure turbogenerators to produce power from the difference in temperature between deep sea water and warm surface water. Thus it allows one to tap the latent solar thermal energy in thousands of square miles of ocean -a source energy so great it could power a civilization several times larger than what we have today. But, though well demonstrated over the 20th century, the technology has languished because of its large minimum practical scales and the need for remote open sea locations near the Equator. The renewable energy movement only had interest in technologies that could be deployed from a 'grass roots' level and you can't out an OTEC on the roof of your straw bale and adobe house. And, of course, the corporate interests weren't interested in any technology that would threaten the hegemony of fossil fuels -even though they did invest in the many short-lived OTEC prototypes. But OTEC has a unique virtue that is extremely relevant today. It is the only renewable energy technology that actually REVERSES Global Warming! Recently, famous scientist James Lovelock began advocating the notion of using vast arrays of wave-powered marine pumps to create artificial upwellings of cold nutrient rich seawater. These upwellings generate vast algae blooms which, in turn, stimulate the growth of their chief predators; marine animals known as sea salps. Salps are vertical migrators. They come to the surface at night when temperatures are cool and the seas dark to feed on algae. Then then move down below 2500' depth during the day where they excrete the waste of their meals as dense carbon pellets that quickly sink to the sea floor. Thus these marine pumps stimulate a nature atmospheric carbon sink process that Lovelock suggests than stop and reverse Global Warming if deployed to sufficient scale. But there's one problem with this idea. It takes hundreds of thousands -perhaps millions- of these pumps which all have to be paid for and maintained by public money. Well, an OTEC can do exactly the same job but with the key advantage that it can -if all it's companion industries are fully deployed with it- generate a billion dollars a year in revenue per 100MW OTEC. Key among these companion industries is polyspecies mariculture which taps a portion of the OTEC discharge to cultivate algae as base feedstock for a food chain of farmed sea life that produce a diversity of seafood at industrial scales with no overhead in feedstocks. Altogether, 10,000 100MW OTEC plants would produce as much renewable energy as needed for the whole civilization, produce as much food at four times the land mass of the whole planet, and totally offset the current waste carbon production worldwide, stopping Global Warming cold. Energy crisis, world hunger, and Global Warming, GONE with one 100 year old technology! Thus OTEC may become one of the most important renewable energy sources in the near future and serve as an impetus for the development of large marine settlement serving host to millions of new jobs.

-We are also likely to see deployment of experimental orbital solar power satellites in the immediate future -a technology long proposed as the ultimate solution to our energy needs. However, for reasons we will discuss in the section on space, full deployment of this technology may be delayed by many decades. It also remains an open question whether our existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure can actually sustain the scale of launch activity necessary to deploy a full orbital solar power facility and the orbital industrial infrastructure to produce it, even if sourcing raw materials from space. We may need a comprehensive terrestrial renewable energy infrastructure just to boot-strap space solar power development -and with launch likely to head to the sea, OTEC is a likely source of that energy.

Space:
-The near-term news for space looks rather grim, thanks to the western world's complete squandering of the first decade of the 21st century. We will likely go down in history as the most stupid generation ever. Future historians will be shaking their heads for centuries to come. As hopeful as the die-hard folks of NASA seem about the Constellation Project, it is highly unlikely that the space agency will return to the Moon. The recession, the money spent on the banking system, the drag of health care and the flailing useless attempts to deal with it, and the continued drain of America's multi-front war has already resulted in government economists declaring Constellation dead-on-arrival. With luck we will see the development of a new more economically practical launch platform to continue some modest space activity, but that is probably the extent of it. Making things worse, the imminent decommissioning of the International Space Station will prove a great blow to the public opinion of NASA and the drive in the space advocacy community. At a time when middle-class people are being kicked into homelessness en-mass, the news coverage of billions of dollars of space station hardware burning up and falling into the ocean will not engender a lot of good will.

The situation is only a little better for the entrepreneurs of the New Space movement. The recession will hamper the space tourism industry so many of them place their hopes on and there will be some attrition. But their biggest problem is the public perception being cultivated as a result of their focus on a market of wealthy people and the parade of eccentric rich investors supporting their companies. New Space first built its mass appeal on the apparent realization of the dream of the Astronaut Farmer -the idea that, now, the space center fences were torn down on the common man could participate in the adventure of space. But this perception has faded into a realization that the fences only came down for the rich -who a great many people -justifiably or unjustifiably- blame for the hurt mainstream society around the world is now feeling. And so New Space now risks being perceived as a folly of the rich and, once again, space is losing its cultural relevance in the mainstream.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Again, those new digital machine tools and the grass-roots communities emerging around them offer new possibilities. An amateur aerospace industry is now emergent across the globe and offers the possibility of being organized into a true world space program accessible to the common man all over the globe as space has never been before. And it is accessibility of personal participation that makes space culturally relevant. Most people realize that they have little hope of becoming astronauts or of working for space agencies or old-guard aerospace corporations. But a great many people across the globe can and do build robots as well as advanced electronics and computers systems as a hobby and with this skill at hand we can, instead of putting men on the Moon and Mars, put robots to pave the way for man. The odds of personally traveling to space may seem to be in decline now and in the immediate future. But the prospects of sending our electric children there is now greater than ever before. Even a poor student in a developing country now has this prospect at hand. If the New Space entrepreneurs as well as the old space agencies can successfully partner with this emerging Space Maker community in a mutually supportive way, they can turn around the negative social perceptions they are currently cultivating and space exploration and development can progress in spite of these tough times.

-Another important trend in the future of space is the trend toward marine launch. A quite old and well proven approach originating in the earliest days of the first Space Race (the first man in space was almost launched from the sea, save for a political feud between the US Navy and Air Force) the concept has gained new life as the logistics of land-based launch come under increasing pressures of cost and real estate development encroachment. Large contiguous tracts of uninhabited land are increasingly scarce and coastal real estate running out due to development. Coastal sites may become even less available and practical as sea water rise and increasingly violent weather patterns erode the coastlines in much of the world. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, aerospace companies have already implemented some marine launch projects, the most notable being the floating platform based SeaLaunch system, formed by an international consortium of four companies in the US, Norway, Russia, and the Ukraine and operating out of Long Beach CA.

Marine based launch has many advantages, particularly for unmanned rocketry. Most of the costs of launch systems is on the ground, in support infrastructure and ground facilities, and launch pad structures. But launching from sea -especially using in-water launch- eliminates a great deal of this. Rockets can be carried horizontally to sea on barges or even towed then lowered into the water and pointed vertical with a simple tethered ballast unit. There's nothing at sea to be damaged by rocket failures and for low value cargos, like raw materials and supplies, this allows a low tolerable failure rate approach that can greatly reduce vehicle costs and improve performance by eliminating systems redundancy. Rocket scales can be greatly increased as a means to reduce per-pound-to-orbit costs. Already land based rockets are at the tolerable limit in their scale. Anything much larger than the Shuttle would be shattering windows in Georgia! At sea this is no problem and one can deploy rockets far larger than practical on land and supporting much greater payloads. Space stations the volume of the ISS might be reduced to a few modules and a few launches. But perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of the marine launch concept is that it is open to every country in the world to use -a fact long overlooked. Any nation that can deploy its own ships in some fashion can have a space program. And remember those marine colonies mentioned earlier? That same structural technology can just as well be employed for the creation of mid-ocean space centers. Here we may also see those new advanced airships mentioned earlier come into significance as a practical means of servicing such ocean space centers, transporting rockets and their components, and performing in-water recovery with their VTOL capabilities and the addition of RoboCrane hoist systems.

It may be that manned rocketry may come to favor land, platform, or runway launched and landed systems by virtue of a bit more convenient access for passengers. But it seems likely that for everything else the future is on the open sea.

Fashion and The Body:
-Perhaps the most interesting and potentially strange area of future technology will be that which we apply to our own bodies for practical and aesthetic purposes. It is a peculiar aspect of the human condition that we have always been uncomfortable in our own bodies and forever compelled to modify them as a means of self expression, group identity, or to approximate cultural ideals of fitness and beauty. Our first canvas of self-expression was the human body itself and it will continue to be used as such far into the future. Ancient technologies of body painting, tattooing, piercing, scarification have been carried across to the present day and, despite periodic attempts at social suppression, have re-emerged each time as more elaborate and sophisticated art forms than before, merging with whatever new technologies are at hand. Clothing and jewelry proved a much more convenient -less painful- body-modding technology and so here we have seen the most inventiveness cross history and today see fashion and information technology merging in many ways. In the immediate future we anticipate clothing evolving into multimedia extravaganzas as digital display, effect, and haptic interface technology merge with textiles, jewelry, and electronic accessories, though chances are that only a limited amount of this will become mainstream in use as clothing must also be functional and resilient.

But decoration and disguise have never been quite enough for us. In our deep-seated desire to alter our bodies is a desire for more than just improvement/refinement towards some imagined ideal but also novel experience and exploration. Sometimes we seek to alter our bodies to alter our perceptions, to merge with natural and animal world we were long ago ejected from by virtue of the dual blessing/curse of sentience, to explore the physical, psychological, and -yes- sexual experience of being other people, genders, races, species. All cultures seem to have extensive folklore, mythology, and ritual involving transformation. Anthropologists have long documented the deep psychological power of masks and disguises that led to their great significance in ritual. And this is no ancient phenomenon. What is the practical purpose of a priest's robes anyway? At present the combination of fan sub-cultures inspired by fantasy and science fiction and the Maker movement have produced burgeoning amateur industries supporting the growing hobby -some might say fetish- of 'cosplay' -as dubbed by the Japanese. Already this has gone far past mere costume and performance to role playing and adoptive lifestyle. We may often mock this, particularly for its obvious sexual connotations, but all fashion has a sexual component, all lifestyles some sexual side to them.

The future promises ever-greater amplification of this as it offers increasingly sophisticated tools of personal craft and industry and burgeoning lifestyle options. Cosplay is always striving for comprehensiveness and realism in the appearance and presentation of assumed personas and cosplayers are increasingly finding the fabrication technology to accomplish this. Perhaps the most technically sophisticated -albeit also the most derided because of its apparent oddness...- of cosplay is the 'fursuiting' of the Furry fantasy subculture. Here the crafters of these elaborate costumes face the greatest technical challenges in terms of both comfort and freedom of mobility for the costume wearer as well as the most radical and comprehensive illusion of physical transformation. The craft skill, technology, and ingenuity currently in this is remarkable. The Furries have far surpassed in simple technology the costuming of sports mascots and theme park characters and now rival the skills of Hollywood special effects technicians. Imagine what cosplay will be capable of with the next few decade's advances in personal digital fabrication.

And if you think this all nonsense, consider the case of Nadya Vessey, a double amputee in New Zealand who, with the help of famous film effects company Weta Workshop, had crafted an elegant and fully functional prothetic mermaid tail of wetsuit material giving her new-found swimming ability as well as a new social identity -no longer perceived as 'disabled' in her mermaid form. Thus is the subtle power underlying our dreams of transformation.

The internet, with its ability to combine both anonymity with increasingly tangible virtual environments, has become the ultimate form of mask for a very casual means of perceptual exploration. Most people are cosplayers on-line and employ a great variety of personas relative to the different virtual social environments we are operating in. The normal human being is a rather rare creature in today's virtual environments and as this technology advances realism is matched to radicalism as we push the envelope of self-expression through a virtual presence. As noted earlier in the section on computers, it is anticipated that the disparate and crude virtual environments of todays on-line chat and MMO platforms will merge, by virtue of a trend of interoperability, into a collective Virtual Habitat where users will enjoy increasingly sophisticated avatar creation, expression, and interaction. Combined with advancing user interface technology, the personal experience and expression of the avatar will be as important as the experience of the overall environment. This is something still rather overlooked by today's virtual environment developers but they won't be able to ignore it indefinitely. In the 1980s and 90s there was a brief craze for Virtual Reality that fizzled as the technology utterly failed to meet wildly inflated expectations. It is unlikely that the old ideas of elaborate wearable VR interfaces -and their use in 'cybersex'- will be realized, simply because they lack convenience and thus can't suit the casual nature of on-line socialization. But we are seeing a slow trend of progress in increasingly 'passive' and 'tangible' interface technology. CAVE interfaces are a likely future home appliance with wealthier or craftier individuals (in the near future personal fabrication ability will compete with wealth for determining standard of living. Increasingly, we will be able to make what we can't afford to buy...) will likely build these into whole immersive entertainment rooms. We're almost there now with the trends in home driving and flight simulators. Less elaborate yet increasingly clever and sophisticated haptic interface technology along with augmented reality techniques will increase the physical tangibility of the virtual environment. Passive video body tracking will supplant control devices. And what we can't directly communicate to avatar by tracking/sensing of the human body we will increasingly fill-in with AI based equivalents of an autonomic nervous system for avatars as a way of increasing the realism of their appearance and behavior.

But perhaps the most anticipated breakthrough is passive neural interfacing of our senses and motor systems. Already we see some possibilities emerge. As previously mentioned, we have already realized the basic technology of sub-vocal speech decoding. This same technique is applicable to other motor-neural areas and has already seen use in the design of sophisticated prosthetics. (and, of course, that's technology migrating from the labs to Makers) We have also recently seen the advent of visual cortex decoding, allowing computers to model images from information in the brain -to see what our minds see. It is thus easy to anticipate the advent of non-optic display technology that allows computers to project image information into the visual cortex by non-invasive means. If we can achieve that, similar interface to other senses and motor centers is a strong possibility, allowing for the creation of non-invasive interfaces to the Virtual Habitat that completely subsume out senses and allow us to fully feel avatars and the environments around them -all without the inconvenience of cumbersome suits but probably still requiring machinery of some scale at first. These devices will probably take a certain amount of skill to use as these passive interfaces will not be as concrete as actual biological senses. Users will deal with a dual-sense of both the real and virtual to varying degrees that will require them to cognitively suppress or reinforce one or the other. The old cyberpunk cliches of people being killed in virtual environments is not a realistic possibility. I envision such interfaces as being akin to Japanese Capsule Hotel pods or sophisticated chaise lounges with 'halos' formed of neural sensing and stimulation hardware. The late Arthur C. Clarke envisioned similar forms for the technology and suggested that they might require people to keep their heads shaven so hair would not cause interference with these non-invasive interfaces -something he thought many people would consider a very small compromise for the benefits of this technology. Will such technology supplant other means of body modification by allowing people a total freedom of body exploration in the virtual environment, or will this ability to 'test drive' any modification of our bodies we can imagine actually accelerate that activity in the real world? Perhaps it depends on the evolution in their relative/comparative convenience.

The general trends in body modification/adaptation through technologies of clothing, decoration, prosthetics, and cosmetic surgery point to the increasing -and increasingly convenient- ability to comprehensively 'edit' the human body while maintaining some form reversibility. That latter capability has tended to lag and this has been the chief limiting factor in the use of more invasive technology. We tend to be unsure of the precise body image we desire. It's a process of trial and error -and we are reluctant to try what we can't correct. (witness the tragedy of people who compulsively over-use cosmetic surgery -and also the rather strange model of an ideal human body universally proscribed to by today's cosmetic surgery community. What's with all the big-lipped lion-people?) With the advent of stem-cell based biotechnology and medical nanotechnology we may see this area explode with revolutionary capability and use stimulated by unlimited reversibility. Initially driven by the basic desire to forestall the visual and mobility impacts of aging and eliminate altogether the persistent impacts of severe injury and disability, we may also see potential bodily modification more radical than most people imagine today. Combined with current sub-cultural trends, this may produce quite a remarkable physical divergence of the human species. Soon the human body will be completely disconnected from the limitations of genetics and the forces of time. Indeed, SciFi has no need of aliens anymore. They're redundant. They can't possibly compare to the ever-surprising menagerie that the human civilization itself may very well soon become.

Society and Culture:
-Interestingly, the key word to describe the future of society is the same as that for the future of industry; demassification. And it's the same for many of the same reasons. Society at large is evolving toward a sociocultural Long Tail situation where the 'majority' for anything represents a shrinking segment of the overall population, which will increasingly bring into question the validity of simplistic definitions of democracy, family units, standards of 'normalcy' (already a rather dubious proposition), and common presumptions of cultural dominance. Curiously, past futurists and science fiction have long seemed to assume that advance of technology would inexorably lead to a progressive homogenization of society, as if it were imposing machine standardization on the human organism. And to a certain extent it seemed that the Industrial Age was quite deliberately seeking to accomplish this. But in practice the effect of technology on society has had the entirely opposite effect! It has enabled a progressive diversification and acceleration in cultural evolution by empowering the individual with increasing options for lifestyle, geographical mobility, self-expression, body image, communication, and social interaction. It has also produced a steady mixing-up of the ethnic milieux in any particular location of the world, cross-fertilizing cultures with each others' media, aesthetic, and intellectual ephemera. Where once we regarded the American culture as a 'crucible' or 'melting pot' of cultures, we are in fact producing a gazpacho of expanding diversity. For a long time I've actually questioned whether there even is such a thing as 'American culture'.

One of the key areas where this demassification is most visible is in the composition of families. Certain politicians are especially obsessed with the quite anachronistic notion of the 'nuclear family', clinging to this symbol of presumed cultural integrity like a lifesaver. There is a common misconception in the west that this model of family life originates in deep antiquity and tradition but this couldn't be much further from the truth. It only became a standard during the Industrial Age where it served the purposes of the most conveniently 'fungible' worker unit, disconnected from extended families and communities with allegiance only to themselves, the company, and the state. This was ultimately psychologically and culturally unsustainable given the true nature of 'family' we are evolved for and produced much back-lash in the latter part of the 20th century.

In reality, the composition of contemporary families has become increasingly diverse with no 'normal' form. Many 'families' may consist of ethnically and racially diverse groups of completely unrelated people who are bound by the practical needs of shared expenses and the gravitas of simple life-long friendships. This phenomenon grew out of the break-down of the common Industrial Age model of life-progression. It has long been the norm in western culture for young middle-class people to leave home for college at the appropriate age, then move into rental housing in the city where they serve the low-end of the job market, seek out partners in the more adult-oriented urban environment while working their way up the corporate ladder, marry, buy a home in the child-rearing-oriented suburbs, and start the whole process again with the next generation. So nice and tidy and well suited to corporate needs... But recent generations found the city economically inviable and preferred the suburban environment because they found the urban environment increasingly alienating. (the perception helped along by land developers and environmentalism) Unable to afford houses alone, they formed new families of young people to share the expenses of suburban home rental, skipping the normal urban phase of living. This was further encouraged by a mass flight of corporate facilities from cities due to increasingly onerous land values and taxation. Much the white collar employment that was once concentrated in cities now exists in the suburbs. These non-related groups filled the void of lost extended family ties severed in the Industrial Age, providing an alternative social safety and support net. When individual members of these groups marry, they often maintain these ties -even seeking to own homes in the same general vicinities to continue life-long friendships. Occasionally they even retire together or build co-housing projects. THIS is now as much the norm as any nuclear family -and so is an increasingly diverse assortment of other combinations, driven not by some imaginary 'breakdown of social values' but very often by the social fall-out of socially pathological Industrial Age paradigms and of changing or failing corporate agendas, health care, social services. and other impacts on standards of living.

In the future such diverse social constructs will continue to diversify and organize into structure communities or, as I often call them, new tribes. It's not uncommon today for people of the Internet generation to have many different social identities and roles depending on what social structure they happen to be in at the time. They have a household life, a variety of social circles local and on-line, identification with various sub-cultural or special interest groups, and, of course, any number of on-line avatars representing both varying social identities as well as facets of their personality and aspects of their -often sexual- fantasies. When prosthetic and fashion technology starts throwing into this mix the ability for people to more freely explore the potential variability of their body image and sexual identity, things are really going to get interesting. And when you add the eventual artilects to this mix -well, psychedelic barely describes it! This is why so much of the discussion of the future in the transhumanism community sounds like a drug trip. Well, look out Alice, you're already tumbling down the rabbit hole. So the likely and imminent future of society promises to be wilder, stranger, more dynamic, and wonderful than anything we can imagine today. It's no wonder so many politicians are deathly afraid of the future. They are already as removed from identification with the true mainstream culture as space aliens. Their presumed yet rapidly shrinking cultural majorities don't represent the society anymore than top-selling rap stars represent the majority of the music market. They are rapidly sliding into cultural and social irrelevance. If there weren't alternately enraging or scaring the crap out of us all the time, would we ever pay attention to them?

-Another important set of social and cultural trends will radically impact the way we work and earn a living in the future, and this is another area where science fiction has so far been outrageously off-the-mark. There has long been a notion, much mirrored in science fiction, that the Industrial Age trend of a merging of government and corporate culture and interests would lead to fascism and an eventual superceding of government by corporations with the resulting creation of corporate states in perpetual violent conflict. This notion fails to take into account the actually trends in technology that are undermining, rather than reinforcing, economic and corporate hegemonies -which is why they seem so much today to be cracking down on the freedom, democracy, and egalitarianism they once claimed to be the bastions of. More recent science fiction, however, has started to abandon this model as the prospects of nanotechnology seem to point to a very different sort of future than the dark, depressing, dystopians visions we've been so obsessed with in the late 20th century. A Post-Industrial stateless future of post-scarcity. One of my favorite science fiction models of this is writer Cory Doctorow's Bitchin' Society, as depicted in the novel Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. (I enjoy confusing people by complaining that Disney's Haunted Mansion is more about the actual future than Tomorrowland)

But this notion goes back much father than any contemporary science fiction. It originated with mid 20th century futurists like Buckminster Fuller who came to question the presumed logic of Thomas Malthus so completely embraced by both environmentalism and the corporate culture. Anticipating -somewhat prematurely- an imminent breakdown of corporate models of capitalism while seeing the underlying trends in technology -the simultaneous smartening and shrinking of the tools of production, intellectuals of the period began to envision a Post-Industrial-Age culture where automation enabled a state of post-scarcity and non-zero-sum economics through exponential increases in resource efficiency and productivity. Current economists have mis-appropriated the term 'post-industrial' to represent western countries' abandonment of an indigenous industrial capability in favor of mass white collar and service industry employment. But that's not where the term came from. It was originally meant to describe the culture that comes after the Industrial Age -referred to by futurist Alvin Toffler as The Third Wave.

In this emerging new culture our notions of work will be very different from what we know today. Increasing demassification of production by digital fabrication producing increasing demassification of economics with global trade shifting away from goods to materials commodities will produce much attrition in the corporate community and radically shrink the power of government bureaucracies. We will increasingly deal in a world of two kinds of currency; old fashioned cash and 'social credit', with the former slowly being superseded by the latter as the value of cash becomes increasingly specialized in function to the trade of materials and resources and production localization drives conventional labor values toward infinity. We will come to imagine our work-life as defined by multiple modes in varying proportions; work we do to make things for ourselves and to trade with neighbors, work we do for cash, work we contribute to the support and infrastructure of our communities, and our 'careers' which we do for social credit because we have a personal affinity for it, and then free time for play and pleasure. Increasingly, entrepreneurship at the personal and community (tribal) level will supplant the dwindling corporations which themselves will become progressively less involved in industry. Over time these modes of work-life will shift in proportion to where work for cash shrinks to nil and the dominant share of our time is spent on ourselves and our socially-profitable careers.

And so the average individual of the near future is increasingly likely to be an entrepreneur involved in independent manufacture serving a local market with communities increasingly tailoring their social mix to encompass the range of local industries they need to support a given standard of living. In some ways this is a return to the village and trades models of pre-industrial times. As community identity re-emerges in society the rather scociopathic cultural tendencies of the Industrial Age culture will give way to a notion of mass social networks as the 'bedrock of society'. Over time, the common lifestyle will be increasingly like that of a professional artist or day-trader living in a high-tech eco-village. I suggest that this will lead to the embrace of an idea called 'open reciprocal production'; the individual creation of increasingly automated production systems for free access by a community with the assumption of similar free access to the production of others. In other words, we will come to see production in a context akin to setting up internet servers -because the human labor involved will be reduced to system construction and maintenance- and will give the members of our communities/tribes/networks completely free access -within reason- to their production in exchange for our own free access to theirs.

This may seem implausible today, particularly in the face of this engineered global recession and given the hierarchical structures through which resource distribution flows across the world as well as the essential lack of trust of everyone by everyone and the rather silly but common belief that we are all animals in a social-Darwinist struggle for survival. (gotta keep the prols fighting to climb the ladder...) But we are talking about a future where the tools of production have radically increased the efficiency of resource utilization -particularly through increasing recycling- resulting in self-sufficiency across progressively smaller networks of exchange. Physical goods will have no value outside of the value inherent in their designs and they will be recycled as easily as they are fabricated. People of the future will not identify themselves in the weird context of the nuclear family under some gigantic nation-state. As they increasingly 'network for a living' they will identify with communities of shared affinities, aesthetics, and culture. Super-families. Tribes. So in a very high-tech way we will rediscover a social identity that goes back to the very start of human civilization. We will have come full circle in our social evolution. And perhaps that's what Singularity really means.
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EricHunting
 
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