Technological breakthroughs are a lot like falling in love. The more you pine for a particular object of your desire, the more elusive it seems. Meanwhile, when you’re least expecting it, some stranger sneaks right up on you. Before you know it, you can’t live without them.
Over the past century, there have been a handful of major examples of technological progress occurring just like this. What we think will signify the arrival of the future doesn’t come to pass as predicted, while something else entirely changes our lives. In this pattern we can discover some deep truths about human nature. We might also be able to uncover the next unsuspecting stranger who will sweep us off our feet.
There are three major examples that I’d like to toss out there. Each example features a technology that came to symbolize progress. None of the technologies came to fruition, but something else that we didn’t foresee did. The things that did come to pass have changed our lives and our culture, and have turned small companies started by a handful of people into the largest and wealthiest corporations in the world. It will happen again. So what’s next?
Rather than play prognosticator, I’m going to play matchmaker. I’ll be that annoying aunt who tells her niece to stop chasing that boy who isn’t good for her anyway, and see about this nice young gentleman who has a lot of potential. But first, we’ll look at the ones that got away — and the sweethearts we fell in love with instead.
One of our earliest unrealistic crushes has been with robots. A staple of science fiction stories and popular science magazines, the idea of a robot goes back further than the name. Before it was robots, it was golems. Or elves that came out at night and did our work for us. Anything automated that would let us rest while our chores were done. For a species that is used to getting its work done by brute strength, the allure makes perfect sense. We have a long and ignoble history of subjugating animals and our fellow man for our labor, so naturally this is what we thought mankind needed from our machines.
It will certainly come to pass, but not nearly along the timeline we had hoped for. Many expected to be living with these conversant, mobile, and dexterous shiny helpers fifty years ago. It’s still a ways off, a hundred years later. So what was the unforeseen love that snuck up on us instead? The humble personal computer, or PC. The heavy lifting we assumed would increase our productivity and explode GDP ended up being of the more mental kind.
What about the flying car? Our second example has represented technological progress so thoroughly that it has come to be synonymous with it. It has also become synonymous with breakthroughs thought to be inevitable but that never come to pass. The dreaded “vaporware.”
For some, the measuring stick for humanity’s progress was for us to have flying cars by the turn of the 21st century. When it didn’t come, we were disappointed. Just as we dreamed of physical work from robots, we dreamed of physical freedom by means of swifter and less constrained modes of travel. What we got instead of the flying car was the smartphone, and physical travel gave way to telepresence, or the ability to be everywhere at once.
Our third example is also so classic that it has come to represent failed human progress. Decades before we landed on the Moon, men and women dreamed of living on Mars. We were supposed to have a colony on both heavenly orbs by now. This is our third unrequited love. We have yearned for it like teenagers, to no avail. Meanwhile, an even better match moved into the house next door, and it swept us off our feet without warning. It was the Internet, and living on another world was replaced with the ability to surf the entirety of this one.
In all three cases, a desire for physical movement or power was usurped by a digital analog. The dream of augmenting and replacing our muscles was replaced by the ability to augment and replace our memories and minds. The desire for physical travel was replaced by virtual connections. And the urge to travel to other worlds was softened by the flattening of this one.
With each development, there is a corresponding company that came to symbolize the breakthrough and profit greatly from it. Many other companies played a crucial role, and lots profited mightily, but the three I have in mind are: Microsoft with the PC, Apple with the smartphone, and Google with the Internet.
All three were founded by just a handful of individuals working out of a garage or the equivalent. All three changed our lives and have disrupted much larger and previously much more powerful companies. They were able to do so because of the digital nature of modern breakthroughs, which rely on ideas and human capital more than material and financial capital. So what’s next? What are we pining for today that will never have eyes for us, and what will sneak up on us instead?
I have a guess. And based on my deep and thorough study of history, years of meticulous research, and a keen understanding of the human mind, I can say with complete confidence that my guess will be dead wrong. Hilariously wrong. These prognostications always are. But it’s never stopped us before, and it’s not stopping me now.
What I hope will give me a sliver of a chance of getting some part of the following right is the pattern found in my three examples above. In each case, our lizard brains desired something that made sense from a primitive perspective (go fast, move stuff, explore), and what we got instead was something that met the needs of a modern lifestyle — one that our DNA is not coded to long for, predict, or understand.
Once you think about it this way, the next great failure of modern science and technology is easy to spot. It’s the singularity, which has lately taken the place of the flying car, the robot, and colonies on Mars as the clarion call for futurists and the measure of our technological progress. We even have a target date of 2050, set by the brilliant futurist Ray Kurzeil, singularity’s most outspoken advocate.
I’m not going to speculate on why the singularity will be much delayed, except to point out that the lust for immortality is even greater than the lust for free labor, the ability to fly, and our need to explore. These four primal urges match up with our lust for what science might bring, just as they have analogs in what we hope our religions might offer. For this reason alone — our overwhelming and primitive desire — we might be suspicious of anyone suggesting that salvation is right around the corner.
I’m less interested in what won’t come to pass and more curious about what less glamorous breakthrough will change our lives while we aren’t looking. I predict it will be something we might call Personal Intelligence rather than Artificial Intelligence. Personal, because it will be based on our unique behaviors and actions. Personal, because it will be as reliant on us as we are of it. Bringing together machine learning and the torrent of data we each generate, PI will mine our external breadcrumbs of intelligence: the things we write and the things we do, and become a rough substitute for us.
Again, the pattern has been for us to crave movement or assistance in the physical space, but the breakthrough technologies that enrich our lives have come in the digital and non-corporeal space. And so the lust for our physical beings to become one in the singularity, or for our meat to travel into the computer, will again be inverted. What will happen instead is that our digital traces will be extracted and turned into useful objects. All of us won’t become one; each of us will become many. The digital population will explode with the advent of our dozens and then thousands of personal digital assistants.
The very first and most rudimentary examples are already with us. On my smartphone, I use a third-party keyboard that provides me with predictive text. Upon installation, the software asks for permission to go through all of my email to learn my typing habits. A very basic type of machine learning takes place, and as I type, the keyboard suggests entire words that it thinks might come next. Typing in “new” leads to a suggestion of “York,” “release,” and “idea.” When typing brief texts to friends and family, the keyboard software often becomes spookily accurate. Entire texts and emails can be typed by selecting words rather than letters. No compromise is made on the selection, either. My responses have been so habitual and consistent in the past that they can be used to predict the future.
There will be a lot of philosophical hand-wringing over PI, just as there has been for other technologies that have changed our lives and revealed our deep-seated natures (our addictions to smartphones, the Internet, and PCs have resulted in articles, books, and official psychological diagnoses). Two of the issues that will arise will be questions of free will and identity. If we are predictable, what does that say about our autonomy? And if our communications can be simulated, what does that say about our uniqueness of self?
Despite these difficult (and possibly damning) questions, the technology will be seized because it will be useful. Immensely useful. It will start with predictive word choices, which will turn into predictive sentences, which will turn into predictive paragraphs, until our emails will answer each other, only needing our quick scan for accuracy and then acceptance.
This will happen, because the need is too great. Too much of our productivity is lost handling emails that we respond to the same way, every time. Businesses wrestle with this. Individuals have taken to declaring “inbox bankruptcy,” deleting everything in their accounts and starting over with zero debt.
But it won’t just be text. The real breakthrough will be the operating system and the browser that learns our every move. When our cursors and clicks become part of our data trail, tracked and learned from, the small actions we perform every day, countless times, will become automated. The OS will perhaps simulate the action and ask if we want to proceed. We will say “yes,” or press a button, or nod, or wave our hands, and the operating system will do the rest.
When we get home from a vacation, the OS will know that we like to upload our photos from both our phones and our cameras, share them with our spouse so they have a copy on their laptop, upload a backup to DropBox, resize the ones we spent the most time looking at on the backs of our cameras and on our smartphones, and upload these preferred images to Facebook and Instagram. When we sit down at our computers, the images will be open in Picassa, waiting for us to crop and toy with them. Two suggestions will be in our Amazon shopping carts, based on book reviews that appeared in the online newspapers that we read daily. These two books will match previously highly rated books we finished, where our non-reading gaps were short, that we read over breakfast (which we only do when truly hooked), and that we stayed up two standard deviations beyond our normal sleep time to read in bed (ditto). It won’t even matter if we missed the reviews in our online reading: the OS will know that we might have seen the articles, and what our reaction would have been, and make the suggestion anyway. Eventually, we’ll get to trust these action so much that we might even automate the “okay.”
These things won’t happen all at once, but they’ll accrue. And once they start happening, it’ll seem like the changes came fast. The same way cell phones and PDAs crept up on us until the iPhone pounced. Or how BBSs proliferated and intranets formed, and then Google attacked. A single company will come to define the age and the technology. And while it seems logical to assume that an existing giant, like Apple, Amazon, or Google, with their copious amounts of data, will be the ones to unlock PI, if history is our guide, it’ll be a startup that pulls it off. If they do, these seemingly insurmountable corporations with multibillion dollar valuations will go the way of AT&T, IBM, and the Yellow Pages. And yeah, these things are still around and profitable, but not like the upstarts that pushed them aside. They no longer signify our age. Not like the garage enterprises of Microsoft, Apple, and Google.
As a matter of fact, add a fourth example to our list of breakthroughs pined for that never came. There’s the primal, lizard-brain urge for “more stuff.” For the longest time, this was represented by mighty Sears and Roebuck and their hefty catalogs, and then later the large discount store. We dreamed of a store that would provide it all. Or better, a box that could replicate whatever we needed at the press of a button (see the Jetsons). What snuck up on us instead? The cardboard box on your doorstep with a smile on it, and the fourth multi-billion dollar company that changing the way we live today: Amazon. The catalog went digital.
Following the clues seems to lead us somewhere. Our primal urges have us lusting for mobility, strength, stuff, knowledge, territory. These same powers are the ones we imbue in our gods when we dream them up: Omniscience, Omnipotence, Immortality, Omnipresence. They are the things we long for. We keep thinking we’ll get them physically in the form of moving faster and higher, having minions to do our work, having dominion over every scrap of land we can spy, and living in our physical bodies or machines forever.
But if history is our guide, we’ll only approximate these powers, and we’ll do it digitally. At least at first. Robots and flying cars and moon bases will surely come if we are around long enough. But the difference in cost of moving atoms over electrons is enormous, and so the first result of our primitive cravings will be not the objects of our lust, but much lighter substitutes. Whoever delivers that will change our world yet again, and we will reward them by the billions.