We do not live in a matrix where all of our experiences are fabrications of ones and zeroes. And yet, we can think of the cascade of data that is the enduring image of the “Matrix” films a good metaphor for the blend of digital and analog our lives are becoming. Computers have progressed from their beachhead work of balancing budgets to parking our cars. Our wealth exists more as entries in files than as currency in banks. We possess online personalities and profiles that, despite being funhouse mirrors of the real people we are, have an impact on our friendships and professional opportunities.
Our blended reality makes relationships, jobs, beliefs, power, amusements, and expectations dramatically different from what they were even 20 years ago, in a pre-Internet era of pay phones and record shops. Twenty years from today, how much more will pixels and bits change our lives?
Advisor plus – I love my GPS system, but I treat it with caution ever since one directed a driver onto a train track not far from my house. Actually, that happened twice, with two rental cars being crushed, but, thankfully, no loss of life. Apple’s Siri takes electronic advice beyond cars and maps into daily life. At this point, it makes enough nonsensical answers to keep its human mentees skeptical.
IBM’s Watson brings more power to the concept of electronic advisor, and it has targets for applications in law, finance, and medicine. I fully expect that someday one of its progeny will guide a surgeon as he or she works to repair my aging body. (I already regularly drive past a billboard that boasts “robot-assisted surgery,” so maybe I’m being optimistic by putting a human surgeon in the scenario.)
If you are a professional, you can expect that within twenty years your most important colleague will be digital. Your kids will have best friends who consist of complex arrays of circuits. If you live near a major city, you will not be getting directions from a GPS system, you’ll be chauffeured by a robot car.
Invisible fences – I can remember teachers throwing out threats about bad behavior ending up on permanent records from grade school on. While at IBM, training in everything from conflicts of interest to gender sensitivity included the warning that violations would add letters to our files. While once this kind of intimidation seemed hollow, now it is likely to stick. Marketers connect dots on data in ways that allow them to know things about family we don’t know ourselves. Governments store what we write, read, and say against the chance that they may need to prosecute us someday. Prospective employers google us, and we can only hope that people who have he same name behave themselves.
The possibility that we can escape our pasts is going down. Beware of that snide forum entry you made when you were twenty years old. It will be harder remove than a tattoo that says, “Winona forever.” We learn by making mistakes, but the digital record neither forgives nor forgets. In the future, our profiles will be more comprehensive and, ultimately, subjected to predictive algorithms that will hem us in. I am reminded of the how dogs are now trained by invisible fences. Signals from transmitters buried at property barriers broadcast signals that trigger electric shocks in dog collars. Before long, the dogs learn to stop exploring and stay in their yards.
Smart cells – We will become blended physically as well. This will go beyond what we see today with prosthetic hands and implantable cardiac defibrillators. Electronics will have an intimate relationship on the level of the cell, sometimes by insertion of tiny controllers and sometime by transplant of organs that are grown as hybrids of electronics and biological tissues. These will sort messages, trigger hormones, battle disease, and, perhaps, provide new capabilities for memory storage, sensing, and performance.
In my next blog, I’ll look at a few more possibilities enabled by our blended world.