Friday, December 26, 2008

Visions of the Future

Walking over campus at UC Irvine I count about 50% of all students talking on their cell-phone. We routinely search the internet to figure out what or where to eat, chat with friends, watch a movie from netflix, look up trivia about the first world war and so on. We want to stay connected and we crave information from our collective memory "the world wide web". This is the information age. Developments are going so fast, that today's predictions are tomorrows reality. Where will this go? Let me try to sketch a picture of how the information age may look like a decade from now.

Right now, in the UK there is a surveillance camera for every 14 people. It's not hard to see that pretty soon we may cover every square inch of inhabitated space with one or more camera's. This creates a patchwork of life video footage that covers the "interesting" parts of the earth. Already, people shoot images with their digital camera's and upload them to websites such as Flickr, Twitter and YouTube. In fact there are so many images that from most interesting touristic landmarks one can synthesize a virtual environment by stitching together these images (see Microsoft's photosynth.) Imagine combining all video from surveillance cameras to create a life version of Google Earth where one can fly through the world and observe it realtime.

But, perhaps an even more fascinating development is the possibility to record everything you ever saw in your lifetime. By building a small camera and recording device in your glasses (or parhaps using an eye-implant) you can simply record everything your eyes see in their lifetime. You can then start asking things like: "show me the highlights of my 3'd birthday", or "show me every turtle I ever saw" etc. We can imagine projecting life feeds of our best friends "eye-cam" in a small corner of your visual field (using something akin to a "head-up display" used in modern fighter jets.)

In fact, one can easily imagine overlaying the real world with images from a virtual world. For instance, you could project the image of your best friend in front of you when you are talking to him/her. Or, you could make a virtual appointment in Rome. My point is that at some stage the distinction between the real and the virtual world may become blurred. When realistic enough, the experience of talking to a life virtual projection of a person might be as good as the real thing. Why paint my walls when I can virtually paint them and there is no visual difference? In the latter case I could even change the color every day. Why place traffic signs if you can place virtual traffic signs alongside a road (this can only work if a law is passed that obliges people to use their eye-implants and have updated the latest software)?

When we push this idea to its extreme we cannot help but think of the matrix. The real world may become an ugly concrete skeleton on which we project our fancy dressings -- a super projection screen of sorts. But what I find fascinating is the possibility that we may genuinely forget the distinctions between real and virtual. After all, isn't our brain doing the same thing? If we never get to see the "real world" (imagine we cannot switch off our eye transplant) how different is this really from our brain interpreting some light frequencies in terms of colors and adding a layer of interpretation over it?

Clearly, a system like this is the ultimate Orwellian nightmare if not controlled by strict privacy laws. However, I am not in the business of predicting what is desirable morally, rather of what seems possible or even inevitable.

I like to close this entry with the remark that all of these "science fiction fantasies" do not require much more new technology than we have today. Yes, we need faster computers, more storage capabilities, better computer vision and graphics algorithms, smaller cameras etc. but nothing really drastically different (for instance I don't think we need quantum computation.) Let's hope we live to see it!?

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