Monday, August 25, 2008

The Future In Your Pocket

Ok, let me try a different take on the future.

In the future, no one will buy a computer. The computer, per se, will be a relic. Instead, almost everything you buy, with the possible exception of food and toilet paper, will contain a computer. Every durable good will contain some amount of intelligence. Pens will remember what they've written, and maybe improve your handwriting. Shoes will keep track of mileage and wear, and self-adjust to terrain. Coffee cups will know if your beverage is mixed correctly, too sweet or too creamy, or about to run out. Oh, and they'll maintain whatever temperature you prefer. GPS-guided cars will take you wherever you want to go automatically, avoiding collisions and maintaining optimal traffic flow, and will respond to voice commands when you need a rest stop. Your refrigerator will thaw the roast just in time to hand it off to the waiting microwave/convection oven, which has timed your whole meal to the second. Even your clothes will know when they've got ring around the collar.

One of the reasons general-purpose computers will go away, of course, is that using a keyboard, mouse and screen is a really stupid way to do most things. Sure, they have their uses, and some appliances (e.g., TV entertainment systems) will still resemble the computer, but for most activities, voice and/or gesture are much more expressive and flexible. These are the ways we've communicated with each other for thousands of years. As the computer evolves into a set of intelligent tools and companions, we would want them to be just as receptive and intuitive as another human being.

There are two products on the market today which are bold steps in this direction, and both have been resounding successes. Both have had long lines of anxious would-be purchasers, and both have spurred great volumes of discussion, demonstration and debate.

I'm referring, of course, to the Apple iPhone and the Nintendo Wii.

Welcome to the future.

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