Future is at our fingertips

Touch-screen, app-enabled technology is revolutionising life, unifying phones, tablets laptops, TV and domestic appliances says Ed Power

Future is at our fingertips

IT’S a summer evening in 2030 and you are in your kitchen, talking with your fridge. You’re back from the office and hungry. But you haven’t planned dinner. Fortunately, your fridge, outfitted with a computer processor and LED screen, has suggestions, utilising leftovers in the freezer.

While the food is cooking — you pre-heated the oven by text message on the bullet train back from work — you want a cup of tea. But you forgot to buy milk. No need to fret, says the fridge. It had the local supermarket drop off a carton by delivery drone.

Then there’s a beep on the house’s intercom. It’s your sister, wondering if you want a quick game of squash. You walk into the living room, where your Playstation 7, having overheard the conversation, has used hologram technology to create a true-to-life replica of a squash court. At the other end of the court is your sister, virtual racquet in hand.

That sounds like a Star Trek scenario. But the tech required to make it reality is in existence, or soon will be. In a few decades, our world may resemble a science-fiction playground.

Today, you can purchase an Aga stove that can be commanded to switch on or off by text (though it will cost you €12,000). You can also buy (for €7,000) an ‘intelligent’ toilet that operates by motion censor, has a built-in bidet, an integrated hair-dryer, a deodoriser, radio and mp3 player.

Last year, Samsung unveiled its first ‘app-enabled’ fridge that can communicate with its owner via Twitter and has a library of suggested menus, accessible from a flatscreen on the door.

What will be different about the future is that the price of these technologies will drop when they are ubiquitous.

Their integration via wireless networks will gather pace so that, in the future, everything in your house — even your clothes — will be in constant communication. You will be able to set the temperature, stream your favourite TV shows, and have your robot mower trim the front lawn via ‘apps’ on your smartphone.

“Apps make everything more accessible,” says Steven Troughton-Smith, an Irish designer who has had success with games such as Lights Off and more serious applications designed for people with autism. “You no longer have to worry about how to find or install something, and it gives users greater confidence that they can install or delete anything they like and it won’t screw up their machine.”

The most immediate shift, he says, will be the way we use computers. With the iPad having changed profoundly the idea of what a computer is, and its function in our lives, he foresees greater upheavals ahead.

“With Windows 8 and Mac OS X adopting the App Store model, we’re going to see a seismic shift in how desktop computing works,” he says.

“There’s no question that this is the start of a revolution; in just five years, iOS [the iPad and iPhone software system] has influenced everything in the computing landscape and even made Microsoft start over from scratch to design Windows 8, throwing away the legacy desktop metaphor we’ve come to know over the past 30 years.

“In just two years, the iPad alone is already outselling all the PCs combined from Hewlett Packard. The wave of tablet computing will quickly make the traditional desktop PC look more and more like a niche, and we’ll start to see an awful lot more touch, voice, gesture and artificial intelligence in our computers.”

Soon, computers will be everywhere. In our clothes, in our hair-dryers, in our cars (in San Francisco, Google is successfully trialing a driver-free vehicle, which integrates with its Google Maps software).

“This bubbles up the entire technology stack, too; from phones to tablets to laptops to desktops to television to other consumer technology in the home.

“Microsoft is unifying everything from phones to PCs to Xbox under the ‘Metro’ design style, and Android is rapidly encroaching on every aspect of consumer electronics. I, for example, own a wristwatch that runs Android.

“There really is no limit as to what we can do now that the hardware is small enough, and powerful enough, to run complex software — and every single one of these consumer devices will need software (or apps) of their own,” says Mr Troughton-Smith.

In home entertainment, the major breakthrough will be holographic televisions capable of projecting life-like 3D images. The technology is at an advanced stage, with companies such as Cisco using holograms to enable video-conferencing clients speak ‘face to face’.

Within a decade, say experts, holograms will have improved to the point where they are poised to replace television.

Size will matter in the future, in so far as there will be a push towards making things smaller. Nanotech — the science of atom-scale devices — is, in particular, set to come into its own.

Advancements will mean it is possible to layer the polyester fibre in clothes with microscopic filaments which can stretch and sway, removing dust and similar particles (the same technology will be used to create self-cleaning carpets and sofas).

In your fridge, ‘nano-articulated’ shelves will push to the front food nearing its sell by date.

You won’t have to worry about washing up either. Utilising breakthroughs similar to that behind the hulking 3D printers currently on the market, a unit in your kitchen — for now, let’s call it the ‘dish maker’ — will produce plates, saucers and cups at the flick of a switch.

Afterwards, the used crockery is placed back in the machine, where it is broken down until you need it again.

Will we lose anything as intelligent technology permeates every facet of our lives?

Well, in just a few years, it is likely the compact disc will have gone the way of the wax cylinder. Already, the format, a mere 30 years old, is sloping towards extinction with new figures showing that, for the first time ever, sales of digital music have eclipsed those of physical formats. In the UK, 55% of the £155m spent on music in 2011 was via download. It is hard to imagine such a trend reversing.

More generally, there are grounds for worry — or at least mild concern — over how a digitally integrated world will impact on us as individuals.

Three quarters of children under the age of 10 use the internet at home; in the UK, a survey suggested that 61% of parents think their kids know more about the internet than they do.

The most wired generation in history is growing up before our eyes.

Is that necessarily a good thing? In his book The Shallows, technology writer and Encyclopedia Britannica board member Nicholas Carr cautions that, with every piece of knowledge at our fingertips, people are losing the ability to engage in deep thought and extended concentration.

This will be obvious to anyone who has struggled with a long magazine article, much less a novel, after hours of hopping from website to website.

Of course, if hopping between websites is all you know — and it is hard to see how that cannot be the case for kids who come of age in an app-enabled society — what sort of adults will they become? Talking fridges and self-cleaning clothes are all very well.

But does anybody want to live in a world where books and intelligent conversation are minority pursuits?

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