The new future: Is it innovation, intrusion, or just plain eerie?

IBM's vision of the future gives me pause and reminds me that progress is a mixed bag

IBM will formally unveil its "Five in Five List" on Dec. 29, highlighting innovations to supposedly change the way we work and play during the next five years. But would these changes actually make our lives better? Or complicate them even further?

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The list, based on market and societal trends as well as emerging technologies from IBM labs, features these predictions:

  • You'll be able to talk to friends via a holographic image -- sort of like Princess Leia's appearance in the first "Stars Wars" movie, released way back in 1977. ("Please help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi.")
  • Computer sensors in everyday devices will funnel important environmental information, useful for dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake, for example.
  • Commutes will be personalized via "adaptive traffic systems" and information access.
  • Computers will help energize cities, with heat generated in data centers channeled to warm up other places.
  • Batteries will breathe air to power devices, storing energy and lasting much longer, as well as powering everything from the electric grid to consumer devices. Also, some devices may no longer need batteries, instead using static or kinetic electricity directly.

Hmm. I'm not sure about that future. Let me explain, one by one.

3D holographic appearances. The 3D holographic vision carries with it some interesting possibilities. A guy could find himself attracted to a girl he sees in a bar and would like to meet her. He approaches her, but -- like the old Zombies song -- she's not there. If somebody showed up at my house as a 3D image, my grammar-school-age kids probably wouldn't sleep for weeks, which means I wouldn't get to, either.

3D holograms might be good for watching pro football games -- until team owners discover their stadiums are empty, with fans bypassing $100 tickets, $40 parking, and $8 beers for the at-home 3D presentation from some satellite TV company.

Saving the planet with sensors. This stuff gives me the willies, sparking fear of overuse of technology. Supposedly, the information could be put to work for all kinds of purposes, such as saving endangered species, tracking invasive plants, and fighting global warming (or is it called "climate change" this week?). Somehow, I fear misappropriation of this massive amount of information, with governments using it to overregulate multiple aspects of our lives, kind of in the same vein of San Francisco banning McDonald's toy-laden Happy Meals because they have too much fat instead of letting parents decide this for themselves.

Personalized commutes. I guess that's OK. It doesn't affect me much because my commutes are conducted via public transit from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, which will make even more sense if San Francisco follows through on a plan to enact $6 tolls for motorists traveling into the city in the morning. When I'm not commuting to San Francisco or covering an event in Silicon Valley, my commute consists of walking about 20 feet to a corner room in my house, where I share an "office" with my dog all day.

Still, the idea of "adaptive transit systems" sounds a lot like robot-controlled cars, which means the software had better be really good. (If you want a glimpse of that future, my sci-fi-reading editor says to check out Kim Stanley Robinson's classic book "The Gold Coast.")

Maybe getting people off the roads altogether might be a better idea than personalized commutes. IBM's vision, to the company's credit, does factor in alternate transit such as rail lines. Given all the people I see glued to their smartphones and iPads on the train, I think the personalized commute has already happened for those who use transit.

Channeling data center heat. IBM's idea about channeling heat from data centers for use in other spaces is a good one, as long as this doesn't end up costing an arm and a leg for the infrastructure. I'm even less sure about a similar concept from Hewlett-Packard, in which cow poop powers data centers and data center heat keeps the dairy's facilities warm.

Batteries breathing air. Nor can I gripe about plans for battery advancements. After all, I'm tired of having to gather bags of old batteries for disposal at a local hardware store and of having to recharge cell phones all the time.

But can IBM and the tech industry at large follow through on its predictions? I remember hearing about video phones in the third grade -- about how we could carry on phone conversations and see the other party onscreen. Well, several decades later, it's safe to say that video phones never really caught on with the masses. (Not yet, anyway -- Steve Jobs may finally make it happen.)

Technologies have a way of creeping into our lives and becoming indispensible, even though we lived just fine without them for all history. For example, I didn't have high-speed Internet access in my house five or six years ago, but I can't imagine not having it now. My son uses it to look up the dates of when different "SpongeBob SquarePants" episodes debuted, so the Internet certainly can play a vital role in educating our children.

But these convenient technologies can bring inconveniences, too. I lose my BlackBerry around the house at least once a day. I always find it, though, even if it means taking the house phone, calling the BlackBerry number, and listening for the ring. The other day, I found it on the floor in my car, lodged between the front passenger seat and the door.

I am leery of overreliance on technology. Digital clutter can end up causing the kind of stress it is supposed to relieve. With each new advancement, we need to assess whether it will make our lives better.

It's easy to dream up the future, but living it can be a different experience.

This article, "The new future: Is it innovation, intrusion, or just plain eerie?," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in business technology news and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter.

This story, "The new future: Is it innovation, intrusion, or just plain eerie?" was originally published by InfoWorld.


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