By 2014: According to Asimov and Clarke

asimov_clarkeAmongst the sci-fi greats of old, there were few authors, scientists and futurists more influential than Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. And as individuals who constantly had one eye to the world of their day, and one eye to the future, they had plenty to say about what the world would look like by the 21st century. And interestingly enough, 2014 just happens to be the year where much of what they predicted was meant to come true.

For example, 50 years ago, Asimov wrote an article for the New York Times that listed his predictions for what the world would be like in 2014. The article was titled “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014”, and contained many accurate, and some not-so-accurate, guesses as to how people would be living today and what kinds of technology would be available to us.

Here are some of the accurate predictions:

1. “By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use.”
In short, electroluminescent displays are thin, bright panels that are used in retail displays, signs, lighting and flat panel TVs. What’s more, personal devices are incorporating this technology, in the form of OLED and AMOLED displays, which are both paper-thin and flexible, giving rise to handheld devices you can bend and flex without fear of damaging them.

touch-taiwan_amoled2. “Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs.”
Oh yes indeed! In the last thirty years, we’ve seen voicemail replace personal assistants, secretaries and message boards. We’ve seen fax machines replace couriers. We’ve seen personal devices and PDAs that are able to handle more and more in the way of tasks, making it unnecessary for people to consult a written sources of perform their own shorthand calculations. It’s a hallmark of our age that personal technology is doing more and more of the legwork, supposedly freeing us to do more with our time.

3. “Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone.”
This was a popular prediction in Asimov’s time, usually taking the form of a videophone or conversations that happened through display panels. And the rise of the social media and telepresence has certainly delivered on that. Services like Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime and more have made video chatting very common, and a viable alternative to a phone line you need to pay for.

skypeskype4. “The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”
Multitasking is one of the hallmarks of modern computers, handheld devices, and tablets, and has been the norm for operating systems for some time. By simply calling up new windows, new tabs, or opening up multiple apps simultaneously and simply switching between them, users are able to start multiple projects, or conduct work and view video, take pictures, play games, and generally behave like a kid with ADHD on crack if they so choose.

5. “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”
If you define “robot” as a computer that looks and acts like a human, then this guess is definitely true. While we do not have robot servants or robot friends per se, we do have Roomba’s, robots capable of performing menial tasks, and even ones capable of imitating animal and even human movements and participating in hazardous duty exercises (Google the DARPA Robot Challenge to see what I mean).

Valkyrie_robotAlas, he was off on several other fronts. For example, kitchens do not yet prepare “automeals” – meaning they prepare entire meals for us at the click of a button. What’s more, the vast majority of our education systems is not geared towards the creation and maintenance of robotics. All surfaces have not yet been converted into display screens, though we could if we wanted to. And the world population is actually higher than he predicted (6,500,000,000 was his estimate).

As for what he got wrong, well… our appliances are not powered by radioactive isotopes, and thereby able to be entirely wireless (though wireless recharging is becoming a reality). Only a fraction of students are currently proficient in computer language, contrary to his expectation that all would be. And last, society is not a place of “enforced leisure”, where work is considered a privilege and not a burden. Too bad too!

Arthur-C-ClarkeAnd when it comes to the future, there are few authors whose predictions are more trusted than Arthur C. Clarke. In addition to being a prolific science fiction writer, he wrote nearly three dozen nonfiction books and countless articles about the future of space travel, undersea exploration and daily life in the 21st century.

And in a recently released clip from a 1974 ABC News program filmed in Australia, Clarke is shown talking to a reporter next to a massive bank of computers. With his son in tow, the reporter asks Clarke to talk about what computers will be like when his son is an adult. In response, Clarke offers some eerily prophetic, if not quite spot-on, predictions:

The big difference when he grows up, in fact it won’t even wait until the year 2001, is that he will have, in his own house, not a computer as big as this, but at least a console through which he can talk to his friendly local computer and get all the information he needs for his everyday life, like his bank statements, his theater reservations, all the information you need in the course of living in a complex modern society. This will be in a compact form in his own house.

internetIn short, Clarke predicted not only the rise of the personal computer, but also online banking, shopping and a slew of internet services. Clarke was then asked about the possible danger of becoming a “computer-dependent” society, and while he acknowledged that in the future humanity would rely on computers “in some ways,” computers would also open up the world:

It’ll make it possible for us to live really anywhere we like. Any businessman, any executive, could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through his device like this. And this is a wonderful thing.

Clarke certainly had a point about computers giving us the ability to communicate from almost anywhere on the globe, also known as telecommunication, telecommuting and telepresence. But as to whether or not our dependence on this level of technology is a good or bad thing, the jury is still out on that one. The point is, his predictions proved to be highly accurate, forty years in advance.

computer_chip1Granted, Clarke’s predictions were not summoned out of thin air. Ever since their use in World War II as a means of cracking Germany’s cyphers, miniaturization has been the trend in computing. By the 1970’s, they were still immense and clunky, but punch cards and vacuum tubes had already given way to transistors, ones which were getting smaller all the time.

And in 1969, the first operational packet network to implement a Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) was established. Known as a Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (or ARPANET), this U.S. Department of Defense network was set up to connect the DOD’s various research projects at universities and laboratories all across the US, and was the precursor to the modern internet.

In being a man who was so on top of things technologically, Clarke accurately predicted that these two trends would continue into the foreseeable future, giving rise to computers small enough to fit on our desks (rather than taking up an entire room) and networked with other computers all around the world via a TCP/IP network that enabled real-time data sharing and communications.

And in the meantime, be sure to check out the Clarke interview below:


The Future is Here: Holovision and PointGrab!

holovisionNothing spells future quite like a life-size hologram in your living room, does it? And much like flying cars and personal jetpacks (though these too are in development), holographics has been one promise that appears to be slow in materializing. However, thanks to the work of California-based company known as Provision, this promise is approaching reality.

Their invention is known as the  Holovision, a life-size holographic projector that uses what is called aerial or volumetric imaging – a way of producing 3D images without special glasses, lenses or slits. It uses a digital LCD screen and a concave mirror to produce the illusion of a 3D image floating outside the projector, and can produce clearer images without generating multiple views or causing dizziness or nausea.

holovision-0For some time now, Provision has been making 3D projectors as marketing tools, but is now running a Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising US$950,000 to fund the development of new technology for the projector, with hopes of unveiling it next year. Currently, the company’s largest projector can only produce an 18-in (45.7-cm) image, but the goal is to create one 6 feet (1.8 m) tall that projects 7 ft (2.1 m) from the screen and is visible within a 100-degree arc.

This will require developing new optics and a new light source. But once this is achieved, Provision plans to miniaturize the system to the size of a toaster for the game console market before expanding to applications in education, medicine, video conferencing and other fields. Just imagine, phone conversations or Skyping where you get to talk to a life-size representation of the person! I know one person who would be thrilled about this, though I imagine he’d want a bigger projector for himself…

ESB_emperorThe Kickstarter campaign runs through August 14 and the public debut of the system is scheduled for March, 2014. So far, the project has collected $13,112, a mere 1% of its total goal. However, they are just getting started, and have seven months to go. So if you’ve got money and want holographics to become a permanent part of gaming, teleconferencing and social media, invest now!

In a similar vein, gesture control, something that has also been explored heavily in science fiction, appears to be getting a boost as well. For those who do not own an Xbox Kinect or are unfamiliar with the technology (or just haven’t seen Minority Report), gesture control is essentially a motion capture technology that monitors a person’s movements and gestures as an interface.

minority-reportAnd it is companies like PointGrab that are looking to make this type of interface the norm for computing, relying on a technology known as Hybrid Action Recognition (HAR). Unlike previous gesture recognitions software, the company claims that the updated version that they recently launched is 98% accurate and takes advantage of numerous advances that will make the technology mainstream.

The biggest advance comes in the form of being able to tell the difference between intentional movement, such as putting your fingers to your lips to mute a TV or computer, and unintentional gestures, such as scratching your lip. In addition, PointGrab has updated its machine learning algorithms to accommodate more environmental factors, such as different lighting conditions and hand sizes, to improve accuracy.

gesture-controlAccording to Assaf Gad, vice president of marketing and product for PointGrab, its all about accommodation. And this is really just the beginning:

We don’t want to teach people how to interact with devices. The devices have to be smart enough to analyze the body language of user and act accordingly.

Based in Israel, PointGrab has been working on gesture recognition interfaces since 2008. Two other Israeli companies, Eyesight and Extreme Reality, are also developing gesture and body movement recognition software platforms that work with a variety of devices equipped with standard 2D cameras. In addition, Leap Motion just introduced a hardware controller for enabling gesture control, and Microsoft’s Xbox One will enable control of more than games with its updated Kinect technology.

eyeSight-3D-Gesture-ControlAnd according to Gad, this is really just the beginning. Soon gesture control will be integrated with other emerging technologies to create much more intelligent interfaces:

I see it as good sign that we are in the right place to change way people interact. In the near future, we’ll see more solutions that combine voice and gesture, as well as 3D.

An exciting prospect, and very futuristic! Now if only someone would get on those damn flying cars already. It’s the 21st century, we were promised flying cars! And be sure to enjoy this video of the PointGrab software in action:

Sources:, news.cnet,