There’s a buzz in the January air, and it’s the feeling of the future.
I noticed something in 2013. For the first time in my experience, there were tangible moments when the future — in all its strange, heady, tech-infused, rapidly-accelerating unusualness — felt like it was really happening. It didn’t seem just around the corner, or the province of a distant tomorrow that you had to squint to perceive. The future was here, now, all around me.
For a moment. Then, quickly, it was back to business as usual in the mundane present. However, a heck of a lot of futuristic things happened in 2013. It occurred to me that this experience of the future will become more and more ubiquitous as technology, science, and society evolve rapidly. I have a hunch that, in 2014, many more people will begin to feel that they are living in the future.
So, without further ado, here is what’s coming in 2014 that will make you feel like science fiction isn’t so, well, fictitious anymore:
We become cyborgs
Seven years ago, Apple introduced the iPhone. Today, the de rigueur thing for technogeeks is wearable devices. Smartwatches got a lot of attention last year, and one forecast predicts that 5 million smartwatches will be shipped in 2014 [PDF]. If a smartwatch is too bulky for you, a smartring was wildly funded on Indiegogo a couple months ago, and deliveries will apparently start in April.
The much-anticipated king of wearables is Google Glass, which isn’t even for sale yet but has already made avid fans and enemies. Love it or hate it, rumors say that Glass will be released to the public as early as this April. (Thus far, it’s been available by invitation only to a select group of explorers and testers.) It’s debatable how popular Glass will be, but those who don it will be publicly advertising their own cyborg aspirations on their faces. We’ll probably see more hate crimes like this one, and the overall public reaction will be very revealing.
But Google Glass is small potatoes to the other smartglasses lined up to launch in the next twelve months. These range from the Moveiro BT-200 glasses from Epson, to CastAR (for gamers) and Recon Jet (for athletes). Wildest and most impressive of all is Meta, which this video describes far awesomely than I could:
So in 2014, expect to see a lot more people taking their technology out of their pockets and putting it on their bodies. Like everything we wear, that will be a fashion statement and will not pass unnoticed. Meanwhile, people who embrace wearable tech will start having a continuously immersed experience very different from normal human life. All of this is a recipe for accelerated social change.
Hail the Technium
It’s not just things to wear that are getting smart this year. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which happened last week in Las Vegas, featured dozens of connected, intelligent gadgets. There was a smart crock pot, the WeMo Smart Slow Cooker, which lets you adjust temperature and turn the appliance on and off via a mobile app. Lowe’s is upgrading its Iris Smart Home Solutions home automation systems to include voice interaction with automated systems (“Open the pod bay doors, HAL!”), while LG is improving its own line of smart appliances to let you chat with your refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, oven, and washing machine. There are smart thermostats, smart lighting systems, smart garage door openers (don’t those work fine already?), and even a smart toothbrush to help you track brushing habits … and share your excellent oral hygiene on social media, if that’s your style.
And robots. LOTS of robots. CES this year abounded in robots, from cute, cuddly ones for little kids to play with, to useful (and not-so-useful) ones for adults.
More serious robots are on the horizon, too. The Knightscope K5 is a security droid that was on display at CES and looks like a blend of R2-D2 and a Dalek It is intended to roam neighborhoods, airports, and shopping malls preventing crime. The K5 is currently in prototype mode, but some form of the robot will start to appear in public in 2015.
I also expect Google to make more techno-splashes in 2014. It’s hard to think Google Glass is the only thing they have up their sleeves this year, especially since they spent last year gobbling up eight major robotics companies, topping off their acquisitions with Boston Dynamics, the DARPA-funded makers of freaky and terrifying things like BigDog. I’d be surprised if Google did not announce something they will be doing with their new acquisitions this year. What’s more, in 2013 Google created the company Calico, which is dedicated to developing treatments and technologies to bring human life extension, a long-promised future ideal, to fruition. Calico could engender some interesting headlines this year as that project unfolds.
And 2014 will bring a lot of other scientific and technological breakthroughs beyond daily life. At the smallest level, computer chips with 14-nanometer-wide transistors (that’s 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair) are coming to market, as Moore’s Law continues squeezing computation into smaller and smaller containers. Even more intriguingly, there’s a small chance that memristors — a newly developed fourth fundamental electrical component (the others are transistors, resistors, and capacitors) that can remember previous voltages — will start appearing in commercial products this year. Memristors will offer a new, faster, more compact form of computer memory, which, combined with nanoscopic transistors, will lead to smaller and more powerful devices in the latter half of this decade. That means better wearable devices, better smart appliances, and information everywhere.
The new space race
Space exploration is experiencing a renaissance, and 2014 is shaping up to be a transcendent year. Construction of the International Space Station will be completed in April, which means that humanity’s largest off-world project to date concludes, and space agencies everywhere will start looking seriously at What’s Next. I expect announcements of new manned space initiatives, potentially targeted at exploration of asteroids, the Moon, or even Mars.
Space technology is scheduled to have a few red-letter days in 2014 as well. NASA plans the first flight test of its Orion capsule, ultimately intended for manned missions beyond Low Earth Orbit. SpaceX will also launch its Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time. The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in existence, capable of putting 53 metric tons of cargo into Low Earth Orbit, more than any launch system since the Saturn V of the 1960s. Even more exciting is the prospect of the (much delayed) first Virgin Galactic space tourism flight sometime this year, with founder Richard Branson and his family on board.
In addition, the United States and India both have orbital satellites arriving at Mars in 2014, the European Space Agency will attempt to land its Rosetta probe on a comet, and NASA will launch Sunjammer: the largest and lightest solar sail to date, which will be propelled by sunlight pressing against its 13,000 square foot membrane. There are also two very cool private missions to put CubeSat microsatellites in orbit to test new ion-drive propulsion systems, which — if successful — would allow missions to Mars or Europa to be launched for only $1,000,000, could help build a global Wi-Fi network, and could eventually lead to the construction of an interplanetary internet.
The 21st century begins — for real
Wearable tech, robots, smart fridges, and space capsules are all futuristic things, but what about people? Will humanity itself start acting like it’s the future in 2014?
I think it’s possible. A lot of the social, economical, and geopolitical issues we’ve been facing this century were carried over from the last, but things are starting to change curiously, so a greater shift may be in the works for this year. On New Years Eve, Bloomberg News published a fascinating article by science fiction author David Brin: “What If the 21st Century Begins in 2014?” Brin cites a strange pattern in the last two centuries: their defining events started to occur in their 14th year (think World War I in 1914, the Congress of Europe — which ended a couple centuries of bloody war on the European mainland — in 1814). He thinks a similar situation may be shaping up for 2014.
I’m inclined to agree. Several tipping points will be crossed this year. Firstly and most importantly, the United States is scheduled to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, concluding thirteen years of constant war. President Barack Obama also stated last year that the US is “a Pacific nation” and will be focusing on closer ties with other Pacific Ocean countries — especially in the Far East. Coupled with an increase in domestic fuel production in the US, might American interest in the Middle East wane (creating an interesting void to be filled), replaced by closer ties with the Pacific rim? Meanwhile, China is putting pressure on the South China Sea region, as the world’s most populous nation tries to strengthen its own Pacific hegemony. The geopolitical card decks may start to be reshuffled this year, creating a different world.
That is at the scale of societies and nations. How about the actions of individuals? People themselves could begin to change in 2014, in response to many factors — technological acceleration, the maturation of a super-connected world, societal evolution, and a variety of other weird and wonderful human changes, which are a subject for another time. I’d like to predict that people will respond to all this in 2014 by becoming nicer and more conscious of their lives and personal futures; we shall see, and we can hope!
Fasten your seatbelts
The future is here. Now, how will you react? Are you excited, or are you wary of the changes ahead? Will you ready yourself and your life for the world to shift, or will you wait for the rumbling wave to catch you and sweep you up?