Near-Term Scenarios (Was: A Future Timeline from Interactive Week)
Mon, 26 Apr 1999 08:32:11 EDT

In a message dated 99-04-25 15:11:34 EDT, Hal ( wrote:

> I am considerably more pessimistic in the short run. Allow me to
> counter-predict. These are all "circa 2000", and I will predict whether
> they are likely to arrive by, say, the end of 2003, four and a half years
> from now. Mostly I am only including the ones I disagree with (which is
> about 90% of the predictions):

I was flat-out amazed, Hal, at your response to this timeline (but glad to have the foil). Your opinion is so utterly different from mine that I take this as a challenge:

> : Computer Technology (Processing, Interface, Software, Networks):
> : Interfaces:
> : flat screens become common;
> : first practical consumer VR interfaces;
> : retina painters become available in some industrial
> applications;
> : speech input becoming more common, especially with palmtops;
> : crude VR avatars/virtual spaces available
> None of these will happen by 2003. Flat screens will probably still
> be too expensive;

Just this morning I saw a $2,500 system advertised with a 15" flat screen monitor. I can walk down the block and buy a 17" flatscreen for $900. While this technology doesn't follow Moore's Law exactly, it seems to run at about twice that rate. That would mean that a 17" screen ought to cost about $400-500 by 2003. I know a lot of CRTs that size were sold for that price five years ago.

> there will be no head mounted displays in use for
> consumer VR (they make people sick);

Again, I think you need to check the CURRENT state of the art. I used a friend's Sony Glasstron as a computer monitor in February. I didn't get sick, and none of the other people I know who have used it have, either. There are improvements on the Glasstron coming to market this year.

> no retinal painters will be used in
> industry;

Tell that to Microvision (, who are moving their product steadily to market (a stock to watch VERY closely, BTW). Both the U.S. Navy and the Army have Microvision products in test trials and the results seem to be very favorable.

> speech input will be rare, except for simple voice recorders.

I know a couple of attorneys who already use speech input for most of their drafting.

> There won't be VR avatars, but there already are online interactions
> where you control an avatar.

Check out ActiveWorlds. This is admittedly crude, but there are quite a few users.

> : Software:
> : first consumer-level remembrance agents;
> : first consumer-level personalizable full-time network
> I don't know what remembrance agents are, but I don't think we'll see
> full time network spiders for end users. They would be too inefficient
> to be useful.

Remembrance agents are software agents that run a continuing commentary in some work environment, offering connections to items relating to whatever the subject of current work is. I saw Anders Sandberg demonstrate his own remembrance agent at EXTRO3 and expect SOMEONE will develop a commercial product like this before 2005.

As for spiders, personalizable web news services are already crude devices like this. I can't see why they won't evolve quickly.

> : Communication Technology:
> : cell phones the size of credit cards; a few disposable cell
> No disposable cell phones (in the sense of throwing them away; you may be
> able to rent them while travelling, etc., but you'll have to return them)

You can already rent cell phones in airports and at hotels. I've had serious doubts about the word "disposable" since I wrote this.

> : first practical consumer videophones; major consumer items (cars,
> houses) begin to have embedded cell
> : communications;
> No videophones; no cars or houses with embedded cell phones

Videophones are a function of bandwidth and compression tech. Just as soon as the cable companies get a large enough installed base of high-speed net connections, this is going to happen -- why shouldn't it, with high-res video cameras now in the sub-$200 range? Plenty of cars have installed cell devices now, including ones that interact with GPS for security and service calls, although the calls are user-initiated. With high schoolers and housewives now having cell phones, its only a matter of time before the cellular net becomes dense enough to begin to compete head-to-head with land lines.

> : Neuroscience/Neuromedicine/Bio-cognitive Science & Technology:
> : evolved software networks (e.g. Cambrain project) demonstrated as
> impressive software toys;
> Only lab curiosities, they can't do anything.

Well, it's still about 18 months too soon to be sure on this one: My optimism reflects my own views about the nature of mind. We'll see who's right in a couple of years.

> : neurochips implanted into small lab mammals with minimal effect;
> I don't think so, maybe just a few experiments

"A few experiments" is what I'm predicting, but the current rate of progress indicates they will happen -- and be successful.

> : breakthroughs in Alzheimer disease
> No reason to expect this.

The main reason to expect this can be summed up in two words: Baby Boom. For just a peek at recent progress that gives a taste for how much effort is being focused on this, check out:

> : Genetic Science and Technology:
> : human cloning bans enforced; first human clone announced in lab in
> Latin America or Asia; s
> No human clones.

This is a throw-away item in the timeline I drafted, based more on the expectation that someone will do it just to do it or out of well-financed vanity.

> : General Medicine:
> : AIDS effectively reduced to level of non-lethal chronic disease;
> Not in Africa

Good point. The item ought to say "in the first world".

> : very effective chemical treatments for coronary artery disease
> developed;
> No, very unlikely.

I'm less sure about this than I was a year ago -- I don't see as much progress on this front as I had imagined would happen.

> : angiostatin-endostatin proves highly effective in first human
> as general anti-cancer agent;
> Probably not.

Well, the jury's still out on this, and the trials are just beginning. See: html

With the amount of research being carried out there, we should know pretty soon who's right. This is one I'd make a fairly large bet on.

> : continued progress in human cryopreservation techniques
> significantly reduces freezing damage
> Maybe, given the terrible state of the art, there will be some
> improvement. Cryonics will still be a minuscule, insignificant fringe
> practice.

Unfortunately, you're probably right about the social status of cryonics. But the work of 21st Century Medicine really does look promising on the vitrification front in terms of reducing freezing damage.

> : Other Biology:
> : pharmaceutical ranching becomes common;
> I doubt it.

This is from the February 6, 1999 New Scientist:

"The world's first cows genetically engineered to make a pharmaceutical product in their milk were born over Christmas, the Dutch company Pharming has announced. It has not disclosed which pharmaceutical is involved. Researchers will find out within six months whether the cows express the gene in their milk. "If they do, we can clone them and make more females," says a company spokesman."

It seems like there's just way too much money to be made in this kind of thing for it not to happen in the time frame we're looking at.

> : Power Technology:
> : U.S. power market continues process of deregulation;
> Maybe.

Well, this looks to be beyond doubt. Every region in the country has at least one state engaging in major deregulation. From where I sit (Houston), the evolution of independent power companies is a major economic development with lots of capital ($Billions) flowing into it.

> : natural gas "micro-turbines" become available at the consumer
> No chance.

Check out

for one company's list of products and prices. Or

for another. Also, check out the Distributed Power Coalition:

I think this will be a technology, like satellite dishes, that starts out commercial, begins to be used by consumers in "the country" and then makes its way into the city.

> : continued progress in fusion R&D
> Well, the scientists will claim so, but no significant movement towards
> practical fusion.

I'm just saying things will continue to move along here. I wouldn't be surprised by breakthroughs any time after 2005, though.

> : Manufacturing and Materials Science & Technology:
> : Arrays of STMs-on-a-chip for crude mechanosynthesis ("diamond
> weaving") demonstrated;
> No way.

I must be spending too much time with Eric Drexler, because this doesn't seem improbable at all. The way things are going, I'd say the burden is on the skeptic for this modest development.

> : MEMs become available in some major consumer devices
> Just airbags like now.

Whoa! Why? Price and capability come down. Enterprise moves them into the market. What stops this process?

> : General Transportation Technology:
> : competitive electro-hybrid autos begin to hit market
> Not really competitive, unless government subsidized.

I'm probably going to be the last conscious being on Earth to own and operate purely internal combustion powered automobiles, which makes me an electro-skeptic, but even my hot rod buddies are starting to take note of electro-hybrids. Audi's new vehicle looks really slick, as does the machine Chrysler showed at Detroit this year (an IC drives the front wheels, an electric drives the rear wheels with reverse-cycle generation). Especially in Europe, I think high gas prices alone will make these kinds of machines competitive before 2003.

> : Aeronautics:
> : Boeing announces plans to build a large HST;
> Doubtful.

Another throw-away. This could happen any time between 2000 and 2015, depending on economic conditions in Asia.

> : resurgence of small general aviation market through application of
> composite materials and
> : computer-mediated control systems (Rutan meets Gates)
> No way. GA is dead.

Another place we disagree at least a little. General aviation is definitely not dead -- it's making a very slow come-back, and folks like Rutan could revive it in an environment where composites, advanced avionics and a better legal regime make investment worthwhile. It's a question of price and I think the sort of engineering Scaled Composites has shown is possible will bring new entrants into the market.

> : Space Technology and Development:
> : NASA space station becomes operable;
> But useless.

Arrrgh. Useless for what? For pure research? I agree. As a nexus of engineering and systems development? By no means.

> : private lunar ice lander-prospector proposed;
> : workable proposal for privatization of NASA space station;
> Anyone can propose anything. Nothing will come of these.

Privatizing ISS is a fairly constant discussion. I fully expect some more-or-less privatized modules for ISS by 2010.

> : work commences on second generation of private launchers and first
> private LEO spacecraft (tugs, shuttles)
> No.

Notice I said "commences". This because I expect at least one of the private launchers to be successful within the next 2 years and become economically viable within the next 5.

> : Business & Finance Technology and Practice:
> : increasing trends toward telecommuting;
> Yes, but still not at a significant level.

We'll see -- and of course this depends on what we mean by "significant".

> : continuing development of expertise consultancy in areas other
> traditional professions (software, other
> : engineering, personnel management, finance);
> Doubtful.

I see this happening everywhere -- employee leasing companies, in-house people going out-house, etc.

> : increasing privatization of investment for retirement; electronic
> commerce becomes ubiquitous;
> The first idea will die as soon as the stock market crashes. The second
> is certainly happening.

I agree a big crash could set this idea back a long way. But I'm not as sure there will be a big crash as I was 6 months ago. I think there will be a big correction during the six months either side of 1/1/2000, though.

> : first practical private e-cash
> Very doubtful.

I dunno -- ask Nick Szabo . . .

> : Personal Lifestyles:
> : development of second career ideal among healthy "Boomers" in
> 50s;
> No, too much trouble.

No way -- I see it happening all around me.

> : Law and Government:
> : first "virtual courtrooms" demonstrated;
> Unlikely.

Already happening in the sense of "distributed courtrooms" -- some arbitrations are happening in teleconference settings now.

> : first commercial applications of smart contracts;
> No.

Again, ask Nick. I do think we'll see it, but it might not be until the 2010 time frame.

> : continuing privatization of traditional government functions;
> Maybe, depending on who gets elected. Could easily go the other way.

I'm betting on George W. And a slight acceleration of privatization.

> : complete overhaul and simplification of the U.S. tax code
> Absolutely not.

I'm an optimist -- what can I say?

> : continuing political battles over rights issues such as abortion,
> drugs, genetic self-control
> Of course. Plus ca change...

As you point out, it's important to know what WON'T change.

> : Art and Entertainment:
> : first widely-distributed virtual environments;
> Not in terms of VR. Possibly as an enhanced chatroom.

Again --- see Active Worlds. Hooked up to a cable modem, this could work.

> : first consumer-level virtual environmental tools;
> No.

Again, perhaps we differ about what we mean by "VR". I don't mean "total immersion", but I do mean WYSIWYG 3D environment-generators, the output from which can be shared in MUDs.

> : first real interactive fiction;
> No.

Why? Lack of AIs to run the characters? I think the relatively simple-minded AIs available today would do the job for many simple kinds of fiction and could be employed in "comic-book-level" work with just 2 or 3 times as much processor power as is available with a c. 2000 PC.

> : continuing human/machine artistic collaborations
> Not a significant artistic force.

Tell that to the people in Hollywood who made "Antz" and "A Bug's Life", to say nothing of the SFX in the new Star Wars movie. Take a look at the archives for Wired's "RGB Gallery". I don't see this trend slowing down.

> So, what's my secret? Why is my crystal ball better than anyone else's?
> Well, I'm writing a year later than Greg was, which is pretty significant
> for events "circa 2000". But I seem to view major short-term enhancements
> as being both less likely and less predictable than other people here.
> It may seem curmudgeonly to say "no" when other people go out on a limb
> and look for breakthroughs, but that is the safer bet. There probably
> will be surprises in the next four years, but they will surprise both
> Greg and me. And they are unlikely to significantly change society in
> that time frame; there is just too much inertia.

The ultimate question here is whether we are seeing a reduction in "social friction", in the first world, i.e. a greater rate and acceptance of technologically-driven social change. The scenario we're talking about is premised on this phenomenon. I think such a premise is reasonable as an extrapolation from history: The rate of social change, driven by technologies like the automobile, commercial aviation, the telephone and television seems to have accelerated in the last 100 years, compared to the preceding century. Considering the undoubted increase in the speed of scientific and technological innovation we're experiencing now, I can't see why we wouldn't reasonably expect at least some increase in the speed of social change up to some fundamental limiting factor. I wonder if some such ultimate limit is what you're perceiving, Hal, and, if so, what it might be.

     Greg Burch     <>----<>
     Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
                         "Civilization is protest against nature; 
                  progress requires us to take control of evolution."
                                      -- Thomas Huxley