A Short History of the Near Future.

Unlike most stories about the future, this isn't science fiction. The focus here is on what life will actually be like in 2017. And nobody, at least nobody with any credibility or a research grant, is predicting flying cars or a robot-ruled world in 10 years.

A Short History of the Near Future.

Unlike most stories about the future, this isn't science fiction. The focus here is on what life will actually be like in 2017. And nobody, at least nobody with any credibility or a research grant, is predicting flying cars or a robot-ruled world in 10 years. Those are the things that futurists say when casting 50 or 100 years out - long after they're gone and can't be held accountable for their predictions. But when forward-thinkers narrow their gaze to the next decade or so, the Jetson-esque theories are replaced with a more reality-based vision of how technology will transform our lives.

Although 2017 may not seem far away, it's more than enough time to shake up the way we live. And the experts say we're overdue for a major breakthrough - one that ranks up there with the invention of the microwave or the Internet. So attention now turns to those bright ideas and prototypes springing from the research and development labs with the potential to reshape your home, your commute, your office, and your downtime. Consider this a preview of the not-too-distant future.

IN THE HOME

When a visitor rings the front doorbell of the Microsoft Home in Redmond, Wash., their photo is taken and beamed to the cellphone of the home's owner. The owner can chat with their guest and unlock the front door, all without getting up from the couch (or, for that matter, without leaving the grocery store across town, if he is so occupied at the time). If it's that annoying little neighbourhood kid at the door, push a button to "release the hounds" and a recording of dogs barking blasts from the intercom. This 2,400-sq.-foot home of the future is updated with the latest (mainly Microsoft) gadgetry every two years - most recently last September - and is meant to represent what the typical family house may look like in about five or 10 years. By then, Microsoft anticipates, all the technology in the house will be affordable for the average consumer.

Once inside the house, you meet "Grace." That's the name of the system that coordinates the lights, security, air conditioning, PCs, home entertainment and kitchen appliances. Think of Grace as the universal remote of the future. For instance, if you climb into bed without arming the alarm system, there's no need to trek back downstairs - just tell Grace and she'll take care of it for you.

With the use of LED technology, the colours on all walls of the house can be changed with the touch of a button. No need to re-paint when you get bored with a room's look, you can change the appearance to suit your mood. And digital displays are everywhere. In the teen's room, for instance, if the user holds up a piece of clothing to the two-way mirror, it informs her what matching clothes she has and whether they're in the closet or the wash. In the laundry room, a washer and dryer - a joint project with Whirlpool and Procter & Gamble - is wired to read radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags in the clothing, download the proper washing instructions, and clean the clothes accordingly. Shrinking your favourite sweater in the wash may soon be a distant memory.

In the kitchen, the fridge and the pantry have RFID readers and keep tabs on what's inside and can notify you when expiration dates are approaching. "In a way," says Flora Goldthwaite, a program manager with Microsoft, "we'll be using many of the devices we've always used, but in a smarter way." For instance, it will be possible for someone to be watching TV while preparing dinner and switch from Oprah for a second, to a channel that shows the camera view from inside the oven - your very own Food Network - to check that the roast is properly browning.

Ted Selker, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Counter Intelligence lab - "counter" as in kitchen counter, geddit? - predicts that the next decade will bring an increasing number of high-tech cooking aides. One that may be destined for the kitchen drawer is his lab's Intelligent Spoon. The spoon, which connects to a computer, measures temperature, acidity, salinity and viscosity and offers the user helpful cooking suggestions. Other Counter Intelligence creations include a sink made of silicone that won't break your dishes when you drop them and a faucet that runs warm water if it senses hands under it, hot for pots and cold for vegetables. Selker has also built a dish-making machine. "Why have a dishwasher when you can have a dish-maker?" he says. The machine molds a plastic puck into a mug, dish, bowl or plate in about two minutes. After dinner, simply pile the dirty dishes back into the machine to be washed (Selker still has to work on that part) and turned back into hunks of plastic. "Instead of cupboards filled with plates and mugs, you have a machine that makes them on demand," he says. (Note: this won't replace your good china.)

Some items, already on the market, have been perfected. Take, for instance, the Toto Washlet S400. The toilet's lid opens when a person walks into the washroom and lowers upon exit. This throne provides a "front and rear washing" and air-drying system. It also has a massage feature and a remote. About all it doesn't do is flip the page of the book you're reading.

Experts anticipate the home will also become a major centre of health care in the next decade - the result of an aging population. This crush of retirees will result in a whole host of new devices and technologies designed to alleviate the mounting health concerns of the boomer demographic. "There still isn't a good 'I've fallen and can't get up' sensor," says Kent Larson, who heads up the Changing Places research group at the MIT media lab. Humanoid robots, already used to care for the elderly in Japan, could play a role. Of course, the widespread acceptance of robot caregivers would require a major societal shift - even if they can mimic human expressions, like the one recently unveiled by researchers at Tokyo's Waseda University.

A vast proliferation of personal health devices seems far more likely in the short term. In fact, IBM and the University of Florida announced in July new software for hand-helds that allows doctors to remotely monitor their patients' blood pressure, temperature or respiration rate. Duncan Stewart, a director with Deloitte Canada Research, imagines an even smarter health device: "Something that could detect if a diabetic went into insulin shock, call 911 and release a predetermined amount of sucrose in the bloodstream."

Though we're not there yet, Larson thinks that the tipping point may come when a host of deep-pocketed companies - including Motorola, Nokia, IBM and Intel - look to cash in on the retirement of the majority of baby boomers in the next five to 10 years. "It's not like there has to be any huge breakthroughs," he says, "like making fusion work."

ON THE ROAD

Way back when David Hasselhoff was cool, KITT was inspiring the next generation of drivers - even if we all knew that the talking car was just a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. Driverless cars - almost as much as teleporting - epitomized the future. Well, buckle up fans: experts think we're almost there. Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the school's racing-team leader, anticipates that a car will be able to drive a million miles without human intervention by 2020. Next month, he's taking Junior, a souped-up VW Passat, to Victorville, Calif., for a U.S. Defense Department-sponsored driverless race - 60 miles in six hours - worth US$2 million. Two on-board computers will crunch the data sent from a number of sensors on the Passat to help it deal with traffic circles, four-way stops and merging traffic.

There are still some technological bugs to work out. For example, most autonomous cars have trouble distinguishing "a blowing plastic bag from a running deer," says Thrun. But those are minor compared to the legal and attitudinal changes - the fact is, people like to drive - required to get these cars on the road for real. Thrun has faith that practicality will win out. Cruise control, he points out, was considered dangerous not all that long ago and he gushes over the potential safety benefits of having a "chauffeur" button. "Say after a nice dinner out you're a little bit tipsy and in danger of falling asleep," he says. "Wouldn't it be kind of cool to just get in the car and say 'take me home'? Then you fall asleep and when you wake up you're at home." And think of the independence this would give the elderly and the blind, he says. Thrun thinks driver-free systems will eventually cost about what people spend on car stereos.

Even for those who have no desire to give up driving, billions is being spent on building smarter and safer cars. For years, vehicles have been equipped with airbags and crumple zones. Now, accident avoidance is a major industry hot button, with a heavy focus on car-to-car communication. Thrun predicts that in 10 years, drivers will get a digital warning on the dash if a car three or four vehicles ahead is braking. Others are working on making the steering wheel rattle when people veer off the lane to curb drivers from sleeping. Software, developed by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., assesses the driving conditions based on tire speed, steering-wheel rotation, and gas- and brake-pedal pressure to offer assistance - such as blocking cellphone calls or lowering the stereo volume until the driver is out of trouble. Some experts anticipate an increase in on-board Breathalyzers requiring drivers to blow below the legal limit before allowing the car to start. Others foresee infrared night vision systems, currently available as an option with some models, to become increasingly common as boomers edge into their 70s. Thrun predicts a smart car that could take the reins and hit the brakes if it sensed an accident coming.

However, the most ambitious effort to cut down on collisions revolves around the creation of so-called "smart highways." TechCast, a think tank that surveys 100 leading experts to forecast the timing of new technologies, predicts roads with electronic sensors and systems that take over your car's braking, acceleration and steering by 2025. "Your car will be caravanned about five or 10 feet apart from other cars down the highway at 60 mph," says William Halal, the president of TechCast and a professor at George Washington University. "You're free to watch TV or read a book."

This isn't exactly a new idea. In 1997, eight Buick LeSabres drove in tight formation along a 7.6-mile stretch of a San Diego interstate as part of a public demonstration. Since then, billions in corporate and government cash has gone into developing an intelligent roadway. Though Thrun concedes that fully intelligent highways are still a couple of decades away, he thinks special lanes will be in place for robotic-assisted cars in 10 years - a futuristic version of the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. Once in these lanes, he speculates, a car would electronically link up with other cars and become "almost like a train" - making travel safer while alleviating gridlock. Currently, he estimates, only about eight per cent of highway space is used for cars and the remaining 92 per cent is the space in between. This technology, says Thrun, has the potential to double the density of traffic that a road could safely support. "Maybe in 10 years there won't be any more traffic jams," he says. "If you were in a car stuck in traffic and a convoy goes by at five times your speed and you can buy that capability for a couple of thousand bucks and access that special lane, wouldn't you?"

Maybe. But people are very protective of their right to be behind the wheel. Just ask anyone who has tried to take the keys away from grandpa. Then there's the issue of who is ultimately responsible in the event of a crash. That carries with it a whole bunch of legal and insurance headaches. And, says Stewart, "we are much more tolerant of humans killing us than evil robots."

The average person may be more inclined to accept Stuart Wolf's prediction. The engineering professor at the University of Virginia and former program manager at the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) thinks that it will be possible in a decade - although not commercially viable - to exert mind control over cars. "You will basically think of where you want your car to go and it would go there," he says. "There has been quite a bit of work with controlling prosthetics by thought. It's not much of a leap to go from controlling a prosthetic to transportation." Not even Knight Rider could do that.

AT THE OFFICE

Though the workplace of the future may require a little less face time in the office, chances are good that in 10 years, many of us will still be sitting in cubicles like the ones we're in now. Fax machines will likely become a corporate relic. And phones and computers will be more interconnected. In fact, thanks to a deal signed last year by Nortel and Microsoft, unified communication systems are in the offing. This joint venture will integrate a company's telephone, instant messaging and email into a single platform. Users would be able to choose how they want to be contacted by clients.

Others think our desktop hardware is about to get a major facelift. By 2017, experts predict, computers will respond well to voice command, as well as body movements and facial gestures (this, of course, has the potential of a whole host of new inter-office misunderstandings). "In 10 years or less, you won't need a keyboard, a mouse, or keypads to dial a phone," says Wolf. "The screen will be the next thing to go. You'll be able to see without using your eyes. And finally [in about 30 years], you'll be able to do full communication over the Internet - both input and output - just by thinking."

That would certainly boost productivity. Until then, however, expect some companies to introduce intelligent software, like a disruption monitor developed at MIT, which acts as an instant-message gatekeeper. "It looks at what the information is on the IM coming in and how it's related to what you're doing," says Selker. It effectively senses what you're doing and prioritizes messages based on importance. In testing, the system improved the performance of one group by 30 per cent. Another group made 25 per cent fewer errors.

And, thanks to some major improvements by companies like Cisco Systems, high definition video teleconferencing finally has the potential of reaching a point where executives may actually want to use it. In fact, there's a good chance that in the next decade, high-paid talking heads on plasma screens will meet regularly around a board table - and, thanks to the technology, be able to get instant visual feedback and look at people when addressing them. The only problem is, since you won't be able to phone it in anymore, everyone will be able to see you roll your eyes at the boss in HD.

AT PLAY

Your cellphone will store so much of your personal information that many will come with built-in biometric thumb scanners for security. A team of researchers in Finland recently developed a theft-thwarting sensor that recognizes the owner's stride. If someone walks off with your cell or laptop, it will sense that it's not you walking and lock down until a password is entered.

Expect cellphones - will we even call them that? - to become an all-in-one device (and no matter how pretty you think Apple's iPhone is, it will look like a clunky cousin in comparison to its successors). Voice command is still in its infancy, but in 10 years it should be perfected - researchers are currently working on developing sensors that pick up the changes in a user's mouth and larynx when forming words. And these devices could be the size of Post-it notes, or even just ear buds. Whatever the case, they'll likely have more power than your current desktop computer. And with digital storage becoming so cheap, some think it may be possible to carry around every written word, film and song on a single tiny hand-held. "Every person will be able to have at his fingertips everything ever created," says Wolf.

This would open up a whole new realm of possibilities for home entertainment. DVDs and Blu-Ray discs will likely seem cumbersome compared to the tiny microchip alternatives in a decade from now. And, as TV screens continue to get sharper - and a whole lot bigger - fewer people will bother going out to the movies.

Fully aware of the threat, movie theatre companies are taking action. In 10 years' time, the switch from 35 mm to digital will likely be complete - this will allow for a whole new range of offerings, including the broadcast of live Broadway plays. Also expect an increase in the number of 3D films and a more interactive environment. Imagine, for instance, a theatre filled with people competing in an 80-person game of Halo 12.

"We're getting to the point where computers can essentially fool the human eye," says Stewart, who adds that the future of gaming is going to be more about how one plays the games than blow-your-mind graphics. The success of Nintendo's Wii (more than 10 million have sold worldwide since its release) proves that pushing buttons and fiddling with a joystick doesn't cut it anymore. Gamers want to be involved in the action. The future of gaming may also include brain-to-game interfaces. Similar technology has helped quadriplegics in recent years move a cursor on a computer screen and operate a wheelchair. Now, gaming companies are developing commercial applications that allow users to control a virtual joystick with nothing more than brain power.

For those who want to play real sports, improvements in technology will continue to make weekend warriors feel like semi-pros. As competition among the manufacturers gets more fierce, golf clubs, for instance, will be packed with so much technology that distance may no longer prove part of the game's challenge. And the top player on your neighbourhood tennis courts, thanks to the power of new and improved strings, could be serving like Andy Roddick in about 10 years' time.

But without question, the creepiest short-term projection comes courtesy of Henrik Christensen, the founding chairman of the European Robotics Research Network. Christensen warns that humans will be having sex with robots by 2011. Others think people will fill that void by going digital. TechCast is forecasting high-quality virtual reality on your PC by 2016. "That includes virtual sex," says Halal. "You'll be able to have an encounter with Madonna." For those counting, she'll be 59 in 10 years. Of course, in a virtual world, she'll be 29 forever.

Maclean's October 8, 2007