Employable Machines: The rise of a human-free workforce

Employable Machines

Picture yourself in the middle of a large open hall. The walls around you are vast and stretch high above, but your eye is drawn to the far end of the space where a giant machine hangs on the wall. Filling almost the entire wall the instrument dances with frantic motion across its surface.

As you approach, its vast size makes it hard to take in but reminds you of the inner workings of a clock. Millions of various sized gears connected to each other across a flat expanse adorn your view. As you get ever closer the clicking from each gear fills your ears as the sounds swirl around the room like a deafening industrial symphony. From this vantage point you can see how each gear contributes to the whole motion of the great machine with every turn contributing to a stream of gold liquid flowing out of the top of the structure.

What you are staring at is the engine room of civilisation, the machine of capitalism that fuels our society and places money as the driving force of progress. We as workers are the individual gears that each day turn and contribute to the overall movement of the colossal machine. With this daily routine we make money for ourselves, for the company we work at and ultimately the country we live in.

THE CLICKING OF EACH GEAR FILLS YOUR EARS AS THE SOUNDS SWIRL AROUND THE ROOM LIKE A DEAFENING INDUSTRIAL SYMPHONY 

However, it’s unusual to view capitalism at this level. In practice it is managed on a company by company level, with each respective business leader taking responsibility for only their workforce. This approach is akin to giving four people the responsibility of one wheel each on a car and expecting them to drive in a controlled manner. Each individual will ensure that their own wheel is performing well but nobody is there to see the overall picture and steer the vehicle. And it is this lack of overall control and direction that can prevent us from anticipating pitfalls such as recessions and the topic of this post.

By having this ‘island’ approach we see business leader’s striving to streamline their own company, to keep productivity high and costs low. And in recent years there has been a precursor of the future in the shape of offshoring jobs. Offshoring allows a business to move a group of lower skilled jobs to a country with competent workers but lower wage expectations. In doing this they achieve the goal of maintaining productivity and lowering costs. This is a win for the company and it is not their concern if there is a reduction in available jobs in the origin country as a result.

To the onshore workers who find themselves unemployed as a consequence it seems like a brutal process (UK call centre workers have experienced this in recent years as many of their jobs have moved overseas) but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The machine has one goal and that is to increase profit, everything else is a secondary concern.

It all means that displacing jobs abroad and paying lower wages for an equal quality of work is one of the easiest decisions business leaders have ever had to make, and it is a decision that will be replicated in the coming years as a new potential group of employees becomes available.

This a group very much approaching on the horizon with an eye on our jobs and a promise to perform it 24 hours a day with no rest or wage and an interconnectedness even the most prolific networker couldn’t rival. It’s a group that has been slowly becoming more skilled in the areas humans excel and in many spaces they have already surpassed us. The group is made up of the many shapes and sizes of modern and future technology.

EVERYWHERE WE LOOK TODAY WE ARE SEEING THE EARLY SIGNS OF A TRANSITION FROM HUMAN WORKERS TO A RELIANCE ON TECHNOLOGY

Everywhere we look today we are beginning to see the early signs of a transition from human workers to a reliance on technology. When walking into a bank no longer are we greeted by the sight of hurried bank clerks but instead the gentle hum of machines catering for the many common requests. At the end of a supermarket shop the long line of human cashiers has been broken by a block of self-service machines waiting to serve you with little need for human assistance.

When travelling the country we see former call centre buildings standing empty as a new breed of websites now take the brunt of basic customer questions. Want to ring a ticket line or place an order for something over the phone? In today’s world you are just as likely to be met by the sound of a recorded voice with voice recognition as you are to talk to an actual human.

And the changes won’t stop there. Soon logistic firms will face the very real question of whether they want to continue employing lorry drivers who demand a wage and time to sleep, or the decedents of today’s autonomous vehicles currently being tested by companies such as Google and Ford on the roads of California – a driverless lorry controlled by sophisticated technology that demands no wage and is willing to work 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Even the more skilled jobs won’t be safe as computer software with artificial intelligence learn to take on jobs traditionally covered by human specialists such as scientists, economists and analysts. These roles play a big part in society’s success or failure and even today are heavily reliant on technology – think of a human vs a calculator in a mental arithmetic test.

In modern times technology is like a screwdriver, a tool used by humans to answer a question or perform a task that is required. But in the centuries to come, computers will become increasingly more capable until they outperform the human brain in every aspect. No longer will they be a tool waiting for our use, instead they will be asking and solving problems more complicated than we can even perceive. Humanity will be shifted into second place as computers become the great thinkers on this planet.

THE DAWN OF A NEW AGE, AN AGE OF FREEDOM AND AN EXPLOSION OF CREATIVITY

So what are we concluding? That in the future all jobs will be taken by future technology and humans will starve on the streets with no work to pay their bills? Not exactly. Instead it could be a great moment in human history, a turning point that releases humans from the need to work and frees them to pursue more creative pursuits.

It could be the dawn of a new age, an age of freedom and an explosion of creativity, but it’s likely to be a rough transition. It’ll take time for the world to change and first there will be many people who find themselves sitting at home, out of work with a low bank balance, as a self-checkout machine or driverless car replaces their gear on the great machine of capitalism.

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Thought into Existence: An Invention of pure Creation

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Take a moment to look around you, to look out a window perhaps. Everything you see is made of the same material. From the computer monitor to the glass in your window, to cat in the garden and the tree it’s climbing, everything is made of matter that was created 13.8 billion years ago in a single moment in time. The big bang was the only moment in our universe’s history where matter was created and since science tells us that it is impossible to destroy matter then everything you see around you, including yourself, is made of matter that has existed for 13.8 billion years.

This ancient matter most typically takes form as atoms and it is atoms that are the building blocks of everything we see. But it is their age that gives us an insight into their adaptability, for if the atoms that make up your hand are 13.8 billion years old then they have spent the overwhelming majority of their existence being a part something other than your hand.

It’s an over simplification but it’s helpful to think of the universe as a giant Lego set. One thousand Lego pieces were created at the big bang and billions of years later we still have those exact same pieces. Throughout their existence they will sometimes make up part of a bridge, a house, or the tail of a dog perhaps. They will be a part of many different objects through the years but they will always be the same Lego block. The same is true of the atom.

PERHAPS ONE DAY THE MATERIAL THAT MAKES UP YOUR HEART WILL BURN BRIGHTLY IN THE CENTRE OF A DISTANT STAR

As you look around, you are staring at an unimaginable number of atoms, each one with a unique story to tell. Perhaps an atom inside your finger nail used to be part of the rock face at Niagara Falls or maybe it made up a small fraction of Abraham Lincoln’s hat. The simple fact is that matter is life’s true survivor, it has been here since the very beginning and it will be here till the end. For a very small fraction of an atom’s life they will come together to form you, but as your time ends they will go on to become anything imaginable. Perhaps one day the material that makes up your heart will burn brightly in the centre of a distant star.

It is this understanding of the very base of matter that allows us to dream of the ultimate invention. An invention of pure creation that would change the world in a way few other technologies could. It would be a creator on the atomic level, with the ability to move atoms into a precise arrangement to create any object imaginable.

For instance, the only difference between a hippo and a fridge are the precise arrangements of the atoms. Like the Lego analogy from before, if we want to change a fridge into a hippo then all we need to do is rearrange the blocks until we have a hippo instead. This imagined future invention would therefore be able to do just that with atoms.

Point it at an object and it will be able to dismantle the atomic structure until all you have left is a fine dust of singular atoms, the device could then use these as building blocks to form whatever object the user desires. Of course this means that such a device would need to have complete knowledge of the exact location of every single atom of the desired object, something that is far beyond the capacity of current technology due to the sheer number of atoms that make up even the tiniest of objects, but as ever, technology will relentlessly march on until one day it is possible.

IT IS A FUTURE OF OBJECTS POPPING INTO EXISTENCE OUT OF THIN AIR WHERE ANY IMAGINED OBJECT IS POSSIBLE, A FUTURE OF PURE CREATION

In this future, physical things will be sold as atomic maps to download to your device which will then arrange atoms into the form according to the map. It is a future of objects popping into existence out of thin air where any imagined object is possible, a future of pure creation.

However, it is also a future of great risk. As the integrity of all things, including life, is open to dismantlement at the flick of a switch. Imagine such a device being used for destruction to tear apart the atomic structure of public buildings reducing them to dust or to do the same on living people. In many ways it will be the most destructive invention ever made, capable of far greater damage than today’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

If used by a mad man or in war, the aggressor could turn all forms he sees into dust, an enemy base, army, town, could all be robbed of their atomic structures and turned into dust in the wind. It’s a terrifying prospect to imagine, but it is also an equally exciting prospect for creation. Truly it will be one of the greatest and feared inventions of all time.

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Ghosts of Persuasion: The rise of visual propaganda

propagandaIt is comforting to think that our values and beliefs come solely from our critical mind, meaning we believe them because they are true, while the things we don’t believe are false. It’s a comforting thought, but it’s an illusion. The truth is that a lot of our values and beliefs are made from a mixing pot of persuasive arguments which are as much to do with the skills of the person promoting the point as it is to do with truth. It’s a fact that politicians know well as they more than most are involved in persuading people to think a certain way.

Politicians will tell you that many different aspects of society are important to them but mostly there is one concern they have on their minds; what are the voters thinking. Knowing the minds of your citizens is essential to getting and staying elected as ultimately the most popular candidate will be the one who best aligns themselves with the collective beliefs and values of the voters – whether those beliefs are long standing or of the politicians own making.

It is therefore essential that would-be politicians get to grips with the mind of the nation and either promote thinking that already exists or attempt to shift the social discourse in the direction of their own values to reach power. It’s an issue that remains with the politician throughout their career as every decision is shadowed by the importance of keeping the people who elected you happy.

Politicians don’t just have the voters at home to worry about however, they must also consider their position and their countries position on the world stage. We therefore have a system that necessitates that politicians are seen to be doing a great job by voters at home as well as being seen to create a country that is respected by her allies and feared by her enemies.

PROPAGANDA IS A POWERFUL TOOL CREATING A DISTORTION OF REALITY TO SWAY PUBLIC OPINION

It’s no easy job and the right decision won’t always be the most popular one. Despite this though, we need our political leaders to be honest with us and not create mistruths, spin or propaganda. The temptation is there though as the media demand unpopular decisions to be justified.

Within this framework propaganda is a powerful tool creating a distortion of reality to sway public opinion. For example, many believe the events surrounding the UK and US’s decision to invade Iraq, justified by the claimed presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), was an example of political propaganda as the non-existent WMDs were used as leverage to convince voters at home to support the decision.

It’s a worrying practice for governments to be engaging in as democracy relies so heavily on honesty. But the truth is that propaganda is becoming an increasingly powerful tool as modern photo editing software has reached a level meaning the creation of fake convincing images is available to a mass market.

A recent example of this occurred in 2008 as an image from Iran was published in many reputable news sources such as the New York Times, The Financial Times, and the BBC. The photo showed an Iranian missile test occurring and was no doubt intended to show the rest of the world Iran’s military might via an image of four missiles launching. The only problem was it turned out to be fake, an extra missile had been added to the photo in an attempt to produce a more impressive image.

Another recent example involved the former staff photographer of the Los Angeles Times, Brian Walski, who lost his job over the publishing of a doctored image depicting a confrontation between an Iraqi citizen and British solider. The image was created from two separate photos that show the confrontation never actually happened. Walski had manipulated the scene in order to create a more dramatic photo. When this was discovered, he was sacked from his job.

It’s a worrying prospect that we may no longer be able to trust the images we see, even if they do feature in respected newspapers, but does the future hold even more uncertainty? Well it seems likely that the decades to come will not only have to worry about manipulated images but also videos too. If technology progresses to the point where video editing and computer generated images (CGI) no longer demand high finances and high skills then we may find ourselves unable to believe what videos depict.

AN UNCERTAIN WORLD WHERE TRUTH IS THE GREATEST CASUALTY

Imagine the last blockbuster action film you saw, along with its huge set piece scenes. Now imagine a future where that level of CGI and realism feature on much lower budget clips, even to the point where amateur footage can have that level of manipulation. In such a world it will become incredibly difficult for news sources to judge which clips are depicting real events and which are fabricated, creating an uncertain world where truth is the greatest casualty.

Perhaps in this time corrupt governments will use technology to create the kind of propaganda that convinces citizens to go to war. Want to rise an army against an enemy country? Then create a video depicting a solider from that country committing an atrocity that would outrage your own populace to the point where they’re eager to fight.

Today that level of video editing is reserved to Hollywood studios with huge budgets but as time flows by we will eventually reach a day where it’s in the reach of groups with much more modest means. On that day, get ready to go through the looking glass as nothing will be certain anymore.

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Sleep No More: How technology could shorten our time between the sheets

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If you live to 80 years of age you will spend 27 years asleep. That’s a third of your life in the land of nod. It’s a staggering amount of time and what’s even more amazing is that we lack a complete understanding of why we do it at all. A common assumption is that sleep serves as rest. A chance for the body to recharge after a long day, ready to go again the next day. It’s a problematic explanation though as we know remaining still for 8 hours does not have the same refreshing qualities. Perhaps instead sleep is needed for the resting of the mind, but again this is questionable as scans show brain activity can be very high during periods of sleep.

There are however leading theories on this question, with scientists proposing sleep to be a mixture of memory consolidation, general maintenance and an evolutionary hangover from our ancestors. During an eight hour sleep our brains go through a four phase cycle, but only two of these phases serve any benefit to us. The first is the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase and it is here that memory consolidation is performed, with a by-product of dreams occurring as the various information from the day flows over our minds like cars sweeping across a city. It’s also a phase that can produce a strange phenomenon as dreams are treated as unnecessary information and therefore are ‘deleted’ from your memory, waking up during a dream though can mean we are conscious during this deletion process and we literally experience the memory disappearing as we struggle to recall it.

The second important phase is called slow-wave (due to observations of our brain activity during this time) and it’s believed this is significant for maintenance and repair work to be carried out in the brain, a chance for connections to be reinforced and general checks to be performed. How then do we explain the other two phases of sleep? Well they appear to be nothing other than ‘ramps’ feeding us down into the important phases and their length is very much linked to our evolutionary past.

WHEN IT COMES TO SLEEP WE’RE VERY MUCH STILL IN THE GRASP OF AN ANTIQUATED ROUTINE

The idea is that our brains use these ramp phases as a way to extend the sleep cycle in order to satisfy various external factors. Evolutionary biologists believe that this was essential for the survival of our ancestors as a longer sleep cycle enforced an extended period of rest, essential for preserving energy, and also hid the individual away at times of darkness where threats from predators could be greater. For that period of human evolution it made a lot of sense, use your energy to hunt for food during the day and preserve it at night when you need to seek safety from predators. Eight hours fits nicely into this and it took our ancestors through the night to the following morning when the sun returned to the sky.

Of course these concerns don’t apply to us today as we no longer have to worry about hunting for food during the day and the threat of predators at night but still we are left with this evolutionary hangover of an 8 hour sleep cycle. The instinct is still there and as soon as the sun sets our bodies start to produce chemicals that make us drowsy and inevitably lead to us seeking out our beds. When it comes to sleep we’re very much in the grasp of an antiquated routine so is there any hope for us to modernise our sleep behaviour?

Well this is where new technology is beginning to step in with techniques such as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) both offering a way to shorten the redundant ‘ramp’ phases of sleep by applying small currents to the brain via a headset. These currents manipulate the behaviour of the brain by forcing the next phase of sleep to occur, effectively skipping over the ramp phases and initiating the important part of the cycle much quicker than would normally occur. Early results have shown that it’s already possible to reduce a healthy night’s sleep from 8 hours to 6 hours, a significant achievement.

IT STANDS TO BECOME ONE OF THE MOST TRANSFORMING TECHNOLOGIES HUMANITY HAS EVER CREATED

Of course it’s early days for this technology but it’s not too difficult to imagine a near future where thin headbands allow us to sleep healthfully for 4 hours rather than 8 and by halving our sleep like this we stand to extend our waking lives by 13 years. There are many questions to ask though, like how will we spend this extra time? Will society see a big increase in leisure time and an explosion of creativity from people who finally have the time to finish that book they’ve been writing or will the never ending rat race step up to fill the gap with working hours increasing? Whatever happens it stands to become one of the most transforming technologies humanity has ever created and will be fascinating to experience. Looking even further forward, how would you feel if one day it was possible to negate sleep altogether? A huge stretch of wakefulness stretching beyond from the day of your birth. What implications could that have on how you see the world and your mental state on the whole? The future holds many interesting days to come.

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Here Comes the Sun: Birth of a Solar Empire

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Look around you. Everywhere you look there is energy. Weaved into our world like veins in a body, energy reaches into every last corner of our lives. Whether its electricity powering your television, gas on the stove or petrol in your car, we are a society totally dependent on it. Our reliance is so great that without it modern life would grind to a halt. Just try to imagine how tomorrow morning would pan out in its absence. No alarm, no shower or radiator, no cold milk and no fuel to get to work. Go beyond a day and things get very serious, very fast, as food preservation becomes an issue with both home and supermarket freezers failing to function. Power really is the lifeblood of modern life and without it we are incredibly vulnerable.

Even though energy holds this crucial role, being literally a life or death consideration, we find ourselves in a farcical situation. Today, in the 21st century we get the vast majority of our energy through fossil fuels. This is to say we dig deep into the ground to find fossilised remains of animals and plants that hold the energy of their previously flesh forms. It is this energy, in the guise of gas and coal that is then used in power plants to produce energy. It is a strategy so old and so tried that we have become numb to the lunacy of it.

WHY DO WE TURN DOWNWARDS, FAR INTO THE GROUND, WHILE OUR BACKS ARE HEATED BY THE VERY ENERGY WE SEEK DEEP BELOW?

Every single drop of energy that has ever been used on this planet comes from one place, one radiant sphere; the sun. By digging up the fossilized remains of plants and animals we are simply digging up solar energy contained within them. But how can this make sense when enough solar energy drenches the planet every day to meet our energy demands for a year. Why do we turn downwards, far into the ground, while our backs are heated by the very energy we seek deep below?

Our strategy for obtaining energy is akin to a mountain dweller living next to a natural spring, but still finding the need to walk several hours a day to buy bottled water. In the years to come our actions will be looked back on with a mixture of embarrassment and shame. How could a society who put a man on the Moon and invented the internet rely on such Victorian methods of energy extraction and not see what was staring them in the face?

Soon our fossil fuelled days will fade from memory as a new era of energy extraction is born. Earth will become a solar empire, incredibly efficient at utilising solar energy far beyond our capabilities today. Modern solar panels are only able to absorb a maximum of 17% of the energy that falls on them but next generation panels, by mimicking photosynthesis, will achieve drastically higher efficiency rates and a reduction in cost will open them up to mass appeal.

A TIME OF ELECTRICITY BEING AS CHEAP AND READILY AVAILABLE AS THE AIR WE BREATHE.

These improved panels will start to appear everywhere and with the ability to fully fuel what they are appended to rather than just provide supplementary energy. Roofs on cars and houses will become a natural home, gifting society that most utopian of dreams; free energy. Time will pass and technology will develop further until we will reach a point scarcely visible today, a time of electricity being as cheap and readily available as the air we breathe. Such a breakthrough will have vast implications for the poorest of our kind. A continent like Africa could be transformed overnight.

The real tragedy here is that this shouldn’t be discussed as future technology at all, cheap efficient solar panels should be sitting next to our computers and iPads today. But they aren’t. And why they aren’t is the oldest answer of all; money. In the UK alone the energy market is a multibillion pound industry and globally it is a goliath. With so much money riding on it and so many employees any disruption could easily trigger a global economic crisis. Unfortunately we have built a world that runs on what makes the most money, not the most sense. So even though we sit upon this pale blue dot, that is basked in free energy, it’ll be awhile yet before we put the spades down and look up into the light.

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The Internet’s free march that could swallow everything

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One of the most basic requirements that has faced human civilization through the ages is the need to communicate information. For centuries this was a major problem to solve, but cornerstone inventions like the printing press, radio, and television have played significant roles as cultures developed more and more sophisticated ways to get information out to the masses. It was this goal, this drive for ease of communication that led to the birth of the internet; the 21st century’s principal invention.

The internet represents a dream realised, instant communication to an entire planet with minimal effort and cost. It’s easy to take it for granted but it really wasn’t that long ago that our finest way of getting information to a million people was printing a million books – think encyclopaedias’ vs Wikipedia. The net wasn’t born as a blank slate though, instilled into its core was the value of free and open information. And it was through these key principles that websites such as Wikipedia, Google and Facebook were born. Gateways to mountains of data at no financial cost.

There is a dark side to this utopian dream though and in 1999 we stared it straight in the face in the form of Napster. It was the first widely popular music sharing service allowing it’s users to download music files for free. Suddenly you no longer needed to pay for music, the internet was giving it away and by wrapping the practice in the internet’s core values of ‘free and open’, it was easy to digest and ignore the moral/legal grey area. The internet was a land of free and why should music not fall into this, it was digital data after all?

AT THIS POINT THE INTERNET SAILS WITHOUT A CAPTAIN AND NO MEANS TO STEER HER IF THERE WAS

It always was a twist of the original vision though, the early creators of the net never intended it to become a means for piracy, but through creating an all-encompassing arena for data and stamping that arena with the ideal of ‘free and open’, a problem in-waiting emerged. The issue was, and is, that nobody controls what enters the arena. Sure you can say this is a place for free information, but if nobody is keeping an eye on the door you quickly find yourself creating a black market of stolen goods. It’s tempting to think the solution is easy, just add control, but who could possibly fill this role of deciding what is allowed inside and would we even want to indulge in such wide reaching censorship? These questions aside, it’s questionable if it is even possible to prevent undesirable data from being uploaded. The internet now exists onto itself, no one institution has control over it, and they haven’t for years. At this point the internet sails without a captain and no means to steer her if there was.

Looking at the state of illegal file sharing today things are only heading in one direction. No longer is the music industry the sole victim, now the film studios join the ranks as the fight against illegal file sharing continues. And as technologies develop, and internet speeds increase, ever increasing amounts of data will find its way into the arena of ‘free and open‘. What happens when one day there is so much inside that we risk the stability of the very financial ground we stand upon?

Although it may not seem like it, the relatively new 3D printer could play a key role in such a downfall. They are an impressive new technology, offering the ability to turn digital designs into three dimensional physical objects. Its early days so limitations such as what materials you can use exist, but like any new technology rapid development will soon follow and it won’t be long before every home plays host to a 3D printer capable of printing almost any object you see around you. Just smashed your iPhone 13’s screen? No problem, order a replacement from Apple and they’ll send over the digital design ready to be printed out. It really will be a remarkable breakthrough technology offering unparalleled access to goods.

Of course this represents a new challenge. In the world of the internet, no data is secure and inside the arena of ‘free and open’ it won’t be long before we’re able to illegally obtain digital designs without payment. For any company that relies on selling its customers physical goods it’s a terrifying prospect. Imaging having the ability to download the latest PlayStation for a fraction of the cost (just the cost of raw materials to pay). It’ll be a temptation many will submit to and on this day how does capitalism continue to make sense?

ENJOY THE INTERNET FREEDOM YOU EXPERIENCE TODAY, THEY ARE COMING FOR IT

Widespread adoption of such illegal activity could send shockwaves across the global economy and since the risks are so great, we should expect to see the internet’s principle goal of free and open information come under serious attack in the coming years. Enjoy the internet freedom you experience today, they are coming for it.

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Beyond the Play Station 4: the deep future of games consoles

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Last month finally saw Sony announce the successor to the PlayStation 3 – the PlayStation 4. Given that the lifecycle of current gen consoles is seven years and counting, Sony’s new offering (along with whatever Microsoft announces this month) is very much the imminent future of gaming. From what we’ve seen so far Sony is doing some interesting things with cloud computing but essentially the next generation consoles will offer the same gaming experience we’re familiar with today, albeit with a few extra polygons. There is a revolution coming in gaming though and when it arrives things will be very different.

Video games at their essence are a form of escapism. A chance for the mind to wander off to another space and be distracted from the normality of everyday life. In this way their appeal is similar to film, television and books. But games are unique among these as they offer a secondary level of immersion, the player is given the chance to play a role within the world, a chance to influence the story.

A feeling of immersion and therefore escapism is not easily achieved though. Great storytelling is a crucial part of the best escapist art, and without it the individual can be left bored and very aware that they are sat in a dark cinema or on their sofa holding a game controller. To truly succeed, these art forms must transport you away leaving you completely absorbed and enthralled in their story and their world.

Great storytelling can lead us far down the escapist path, but there is still distance left to walk and in 2006 Nintendo took us by the hand for a few extra steps. The launch of the Wii introduced the world to the first mass market motion controlled games console. By putting an emphasis on the player acting out the actions of his or her onscreen counterpart the first step was made to a full body immersive experience.

If the ultimate goal of escapist media is to instil a full sense of presence within the participant, to make the individual feel as though they have been transported to a secondary world that is just as real as the real world they occupied seconds earlier, then the Nintendo Wii represents a mass market genesis of this goal. This year however has taken us significantly closer as at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January we were introduced to the Oculus Rift.

“THE OCULUS RIFT CHANGED MY LIFE. NO SERIOUSLY… IT’S REALLY, REALLY AMAZING”

The Oculus Rift is your childhood dreams of virtual reality realised and at this early stage it looks like one of the most exciting products of our generation. Journalists rushed to their laptops to heap praise on the Rift with Joshua Topolsky of The Verge writing “The Oculus Rift changed my life. No, seriously… It’s really, really amazing. Truly and honestly a revelation, a trip, a rabbit hole. And I’m going in. Forever. Goodbye universe. Hello Universe”.

On the face of it, it doesn’t look like a particularly exciting product. At its core it’s a headset that you wear over your eyes with two small screens inside and a series of motion sensors to detect the movement of your head. The results however are astounding, as what you experience is an exact recreation of sensory signals the brain expects from the real world, meaning your brain is utterly convinced that what it is experiencing is real. Instead of looking through the eyes of a soldier on games like Call of Duty, we become the soldier. Even the most subtle of head movements are reflected in the game world, creating a perfect feeling of reality and presence. The principle is simple, when you move your head up, you see the sky, when you move it down, the ground. To see behind you physically turn around, but since this parallels our everyday experience of reality the Rift succeeds in tricking us into thinking we’re still experiencing reality. The Oculus Rift doesn’t just give you more natural controls for a video game, it puts you inside a video game.

There is a problem though, a flaw that could unceremoniously rip you out of the experience, break the immersion and dump your mind back onto your sofa; movement. As it’s not practical for game movement to be controlled by actual movement (take three steps and bump into your wall), you’re still required to use a control pad for walking and running. Of course this isn’t consistent with the brains expectations of reality so we face a problem to overcome.

DREAMS ARE YOUR MIND’S OWN FORM OF ESCAPISM

There could be a surprising solution though and one that comes from what your mind does every single night. Dreams are your mind’s own form of escapism and it has a neat trick to make sure the immersion is perfect. It’s called temporary paralysis and it involves your brain blocking motorory signals to prevent muscles acting on the brains instructions to move. Through this method the brain is able to give the conscious mind the feeling that the body is moving, without any movement actually occurring, and it is through this that a full virtual reality experience will be realised.

Exactly how we could mimic this behaviour of the brain is not currently fully understood but as science and technology improve in years to come we will surely discover the secret. In this predicted future virtual reality headsets (or more likely contact lenses) will be as commonplace as mobile phones are today and will have many applications outside of games, but it is games that will lead the charge and first introduce us to the idea of experiencing digital worlds with the same sense of reality as we experience the real world today.

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Cooking Made Easy: the future of your kitchen

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Technology can enrich our lives in many ways, but perhaps its most important role is to take over our more laborious day to day tasks. By offloading these essential but tedious errands over to machines we free ourselves to pursue activities that bring us joy and fulfilment, to live a more satisfying life. Our planet has existed for billions of years, but we will see just a tiny fraction of its life before fading out of existence. Our time here is precious and we need to spend it wisely. The decades to come will take today’s emerging technology and use it to create intelligent and interactive systems that give back our most valuable commodity; time.

One of the most important trends in electronics is how as time passes electrical components get cheaper, smaller but more powerful. This can be seen when comparing the phone in your pocket with the computers that first took men to the moon in 1969, your pocket holds computing power they could have only dreamed of. This trend has also led to the birth of disposable electronics. In late 2012 Entertainment Weekly issued a limited run of magazines featuring a page with an embedded LCD screen to display video. Aligning the perceived dispensability of electrical components with paper is shocking, but it is the inevitable future we face. Electrical components will become so cheap that companies will soon justify attaching them to low value, use-once products.

Now, imagine walking into a future kitchen where these trends have taken us to a time where all supermarket items carry small computer chips holding key information about the product. Interactive surfaces within the kitchen will be able to feed this data to a centralised computer giving a full view of every item, their remaining contents and their nutritional value.

Having a computer with access to such information will be an incredibly powerful tool enabling eating habits to be managed in a way not currently possible. For example, weight sensitive surfaces will pass on remaining contents information to your smartphone for the purpose of intelligent shopping lists that show items most in need of replenishing. No longer will you have to keep an eye on how much milk is left and be caught out in the morning when you’ve failed to do so.

This however is just the start of the kind of functionality we can expect. Since the computer will hold data on all the ingredients currently in your kitchen and will be connected to the internet it will also become an extremely comprehensive cookbook, drawing on an entire planet’s worth of recipes, but also being personalised to you. By monitoring your previous meals the system will learn what you like and keep track of your nutritional intake, allowing meals to be suggested that are weighted in favour of your tastes, what you need to consume to maintain a healthy balanced diet, and what is possible based on ingredients you currently have.

Building on this, the computer will also suggest additional ingredients that you could purchase, showing the additional meals they will allow you to create. Comparing the difference between the kind of diet you could expect to commonly see today with one made possible by this future technology will reveal huge differences. For minimal effort the owner of such a kitchen will not just find themselves spending less time manually maintaining food stocks, they will also effortlessly widen the variety of their diet and improve their personal health.

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Fire fighting in the future

fire

In 1666 the Great Fire of London ripped through the city destroying 70,000 homes and killing many. And still today fire stands as one of the greatest threats to human life, so much so that a whole profession has grown around protecting us from it. Fire fighters do an essential job and they do it with impressive efficiency, but there is and always has been a fatal weakness in the way they operate. They are totally reliant on citizens reporting fires, meaning they can only get to work after a report comes in.

This reliance on the city’s residents to be the eyes and ears on the ground creates a window of risk where the fire can cause significant destruction and loss of life before fire fighters have even been made aware of it.

Future technology therefore has a problem to solve, stop fire in its track as quickly as possible before any damage is caused. This challenge will be met through the development of city-wide sensory networks designed to monitor minute temperature changes across the urban landscape. A whole labyrinth of sensors will be installed along streets to cover the city like an invisible web. Each one providing vital early warning signals to produce the quickest possible response time from the emergency services.

Of course this technology will continue to evolve as the sensors move into new builds and are retrofitted into the city’s current buildings to provide another layer of depth and accuracy. With such a system in place, a fire breaking out in any location of the city will be detected within seconds allowing fire fighters to immediately dispatch, greatly reducing the risk to human life.

Finally the further stage of the process has the potential to make the idea of someone dying in a fire as antiquated as the idea of someone dying of smallpox. Alongside this city-wide sensory network will come the construction of drone pipelines running under every street. In this world, human fire fighters will no longer be relied upon as fire fighting drones take their place. Upon detection of a fire, the central city computer will analyse the situation and dispatch the appropriate number of drones. These will then arrive with unimaginable speed as they make use of the purpose built underground pipes. Upon their emergence onto the surface they will establish a connection with the nearest street-level water pipe and scuttle their way to the area of concern to extinguish the flames.

With such a system it is hard to imagine how fire could ever be allowed to wreak the kind of destruction it does today. Through technology we will succeed in creating an urban environment far safer than anything possible today.

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War

warThe sound of gunfire is deafening as you rush forward to take cover behind a half demolished wall. The rest of your squad quickly join you as they duck and weave to avoid the bullets that are bombarding your position. You’re part of a squad consisting of just 6 soldiers and the enemy force ahead looks to have at least 30 firing on your advance. The numbers don’t look good but war has changed. In the future, military technology now dominates the battlefield and the advantage very much lies in your favour.

Looking back towards your line you see the tech squad releasing a swarm of bee-sized robots into the air. These represent a significant advancement of the drones we see today. Each one carrying a sophisticated 3d camera to map the environment below. The result is an incredibly detailed real-time map of the battlefield and because they’re sent over in great numbers and only need seconds to establish the live model, it makes them almost impossible to defend against.

This 3d map is then passed back to artillery just behind the front line which calculates the most effective targets based on enemy solider density and environment factors. Within seconds of the swarm passing over you hear the loud thud of artillery shells firing and the cracking sound of them ripping through the air on their way to their targets. Seconds after they hit your augmented reality goggles flicker into life as the 3d map now becomes an overlay over your vision. You now have a full view of the battlefield via subtle coloured hues to mark the outline of enemy positions, effectively you can now see through walls. With this new information you now begin to calculate a route of attack. As you do this, your squad leader along the line shouts “stand back!” as he takes out a high pressure sound gun and fires it at the wall you’re positioned along. This weapon uses a high concentration of sound waves to create a powerful forward force capable of knocking down obstacles.

As the wall crumbles in front of you your squad piles through the opening to attack the enemy forces. Thanks to the augmented overlay you can see their progress and also select your targets, readying your weapon. Getting to your feet, you burst through the gap gunning down your first target just two steps from penetrating the wall. You now see a second and advance on his position but before you can attack a secondary wave of drones pass overhead. This time they are bigger, more the size of birds. Carrying weaponry, this second wave is designed to attack and kill.

You hold your position and wait for the all clear as the drones clear up the remaining enemy presence.

Today we are seeing the birth of robotics presence in the military but in the years to come their role with grow and grow as the information they provide transform conventional tactics, putting tools into the hands of tomorrows soldiers that we can only dream of today.

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