In the year 2015, babes barely able to talk will attend school, checkbooks could be a not-so-fond memory, doctors might have the ability to zap cells gone awry, and cars will drive themselves – or maybe even fly.
Most Americans have a hard time embracing the future beyond 2005 New Year’s resolutions, but for some, contemplating what lies ahead is a full-time job, if not an obsession.
These are the futurists, the trend-spotters, strategists, forecasters or visionaries. They will tell you about flying cars and miracle cures, but they also focus on the subtle aspects of life, or alert you to the possible use of DNA technology for nefarious purposes.
Denver’s Kim Long, for example, has given a lot of thought to what he sees as the next development in education: packed preschools.
“The echo boomers in the leading edge of Generation Y are getting out of college and going into their prime child-bearing years, and this coincides with the tail-end of the baby boomers still having babies,” says Long, the founder and editor of “The American Forecaster,” an annual publication that goes to reference libraries, schools and businesses.
Given the widespread support for early childhood education, Long foresees an era in which kindergarten could become mandatory and children might routinely be placed in preschool as early as the age of 2 “when kids are just learning to talk.”
Thomas Frey, a former IBM researcher who is perhaps the dean of local futurists, follows demographic trends, too. But his passion is anticipating the emergence of new products and services – and the corresponding disappearance of old ones.
“When you can predict that something will happen, you can extrapolate back and figure out what kind of breakthroughs are needed to make it come to pass. Out of this process, entrepreneurial opportunities arise,” says Frey, the founder of a Louisville-based think tank known as the DaVinci Institute.
Among his predictions for the next 10 years: The end of checkbooks, fax machines, AM-FM radios, cable TV, home phone lines, drill-and-fill dentistry and invasive surgery. And the beginning of – what?
“I always tell people that the next big thing is already out there. It was invented 25 years ago,” Frey says. But as was the case with the Internet (invented in 1969) and cellphones (1973), “It takes an entire generation for things to kick in.”
Louis Hornyak, a University of Denver physicist who is spearheading a fledgling effort to promote nanotechnology in Colorado, says engineering at the molecular level may enhance everyday life in numerous ways: tennis balls that don’t lose their bounce, car finishes that can’t be scratched, mattresses that can’t be stained.
But the most satisfying advances, he suggests, may come in medicine, through the use of microscopic sensors that help doctors spot diseased or errant cells, then zap them with heat or chemicals.
“The drawback of a regular drug is that it goes through your whole body. That’s why you have these terrible side effects, with huge headaches and nausea,” Hornyak says. “If you can deliver a nano-sized particle to an individual cell, you avoid all this, and it can be eliminated through regular bodily processes.”
It’s heady stuff, this vision of the techno-world of 2015. But there’s more.
Alex Pang, an expert on emerging technologies with the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., sees the whole notion of cyberspace vanishing like spam sent to the delete box.
“In the future we’ll constantly be interacting with computing, but almost never be aware of it,” Pang says.
“Today we tend to think of the World Wide Web in geographical language, as kind of a place you access through the window of your PC – a fascinating, information-rich alternate universe,” he says.
But in the next 10 years, he says, computing will become part of our everyday reality, and the Internet as a place will disappear.
Flexible displays, perhaps mounted on eyeglasses or projected on a car’s windshield, will make printed maps superfluous, Pang says. In the kitchen, recipes may appear in the corner of the cutting board: “You just move the carrots aside and see what the next ingredient is, and go and get it.”
But there’s a dark side to infotech, too. Internet security consultant Ori Eisen of Phoenix, founder of a firm called The 41st Parameter, has made a business out of worrying about it.
Specifically, Eisen believes that identity theft will continue to be a threat to commerce, but the bad guys won’t be stealing just passwords and account numbers. They may be pilfering DNA to place people at the scene of crimes they never committed.
As he envisions it, a criminal of the future could obtain a sample of DNA from someone (via a used Kleenex, perhaps), use recombinant technology to clone more of it, then deposit the genetic material in locations that would finger the unwitting victim.
Call it “CSI” in reverse.
“Technology really breeds crime,” says Eisen, quoting Frank Abagnale the onetime forger portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie “Catch Me If You Can.”
“Thirty years ago, Frank had to know how to set type, how to separate colors, how to work with a machine that cost $1 million to buy. Now, with a computer from Best Buy and a 1,200-DPI printer, you can make perfect checks in a hotel room. That’s the kind of paradigm shift I’m talking about.”
As for what real money may look like in the future, consider the “time dollar.” That’s an alternative medium of exchange being championed by Bernard Lietaer, co-architect of the euro, who has set up a foundation in Boulder to promote the use of such “complementary currencies.”
As his colleague Jacqui Dunne explains it, conventional money is in short supply in much of the world because governments can’t issue more of it without risking devaluation. But there’s no lack of people willing and able to work. Hence many communities, most notably in Japan, are turning to systems that function much like frequent flier programs, with credits earned being exchanged for other things of value.
“Say you come over to my house and teach my kids Spanish for two hours. You get two time dollars, which you can use to pay somebody else to help paint your house. It’s taking unmet needs and connecting them with unused resources,” says Dunne, who’s executive director of the ACCESS Foundation, an acronym for Alliance of Complementary Currencies Enabling Sustainable Societies.
Still, you may be wondering, what about flying cars? Tom Frey of the DaVinci Institute is convinced they’ll be on the market within 10 years. A company in California is testing a prototype, and “both Honda and Toyota have groups dedicated to this,” he says.
But given technical challenges and uncertainties about air traffic control for low-level flights, robotic vehicles may be a more likely prospect in the near term.
Steven Shladover, a researcher with Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH), a joint project of the California Department of Transportation and the University of California at Berkeley, says automated buses and tractor-trailers will be the trailblazers.
Traveling back-to-back on protected guideways, their routes delineated by magnets and speeds governed by remote control, such units could run much more efficiently than vehicles today.
“We’ve also been looking at automated snowplows for use on mountain roads in California,” says Shladover. The earliest stage would be a guidance system for the driver, showing him the shape of the road and where to go even if it were completely covered with snow. The second stage, now being tested, would automate the steering so the driver could concentrate on plowing and sanding and salting.
Eventually, if radar could be developed to detect cars in their paths, snowplows might go driverless – a godsend in avalanche-prone areas such as Colorado’s Red Mountain Pass.
“But that’ll be a while,” says Shladover. “It’s more likely that it will happen in airports first.”