Copyright 2000 Robert G. Ferrell

2050: An Echo from the Future

Note: This essay was written for a contest held in the Summer of 2000 by Shell and The Economist. Judging from their total lack of enthusiasm, or in fact of response of any sort, I take it I didn't win. Tough noogies; it's still a good essay.


I probably won't live to see the world in 2050. If I do, I'll be 92 when January 1 rolls around, and I expect my priorities will be centered on simply waking up at all. The almost daily innovations in genome manipulation, microcrystalline research, biomachinery, nanotechnology, materials science, and information processing engineering will not only seem old hat to me, I probably won't even notice them unless they somehow stand out from amidst the crowd of routine marvels shouting and dancing for a hit from the steadily dwindling supply of my attention.

I'll flop about a bit when the alarm system integrated into my ergonomically customized sleeping environment nudges my ancient consciousness into one more day among the extant. I'll spend a few minutes trying to focus my noninvasive surgically corrected eyes on the room around me, wondering if my wife is still occupying the personal comfort station. Deciding that the time is right, I'll swing my wizened old frame over the edge of the synthetic extruded cellulose bed frame and push myself more or less into a standing position, waiting for the angina or vertigo or osteoporosis to cut me down. None of these dire events take place, however, because they've all been controlled by 5 year extended bioimplants that I can feel as small, hard lumps on my right thigh.

Vaguely irritated by how well I'm feeling, I'll shuffle off in the direction of my laser-guided dental maintenance appliance. If due to my advanced years and unreliable long-term memory I can't remember where the bathroom is, I have only to touch a wall panel, select "bathroom," and follow the softly glowing blue arrows that spring into existence on the walls to guide my way. Life is, if not good, at least well documented.

Once having accomplished the necessary morning ablutions, I trudge in an elderly way toward the kitchen unit. Each functional area of my house is modular and interchangeable, like those plastic interlocking blocks of my far-off youth. If for some reason I didn't like the kitchen where it was, it would be a fairly simple procedure to hire contractors to come in and switch it for some other room or rooms. Being the creature of greater than nine decades of habit that I am, though, this isn't likely to happen.

On the way, I pass the gleaming wall panel that serves as a human interface to the wireless network which controls everything in my home. Each piece of intercommunications-enabled equipment (and that includes just about everything in the house, right down to the bathroom scale) has a network address assigned to it by the domestic domain controller. I could, if I felt so inclined, stop and check the operational status, event history, functional health, and even physical location of almost every item in my immediate environment.

Infrared detectors embedded in the genetically cultured wood paneling tell me the cat is curled up on a blanket in the spare bedroom, 2.3 feet from the southwest wall. The toaster is functioning at only 23% of nominal operating efficiency (probably bread crumbs lodged in the ejection mechanism again), the clock above the secondary home entertainment control center in the den is 17 seconds fast and scheduled for recalibration with a Cesium-133 oscillation clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technology at 1400 hours UCT today, and there is a parcel with a mass of 1.24 kilograms in the postal receptacle accessible from the front atrium.

I don't care about any of that this morning. All I want is some coffee. The coffee processor knows this, and has my coffee, blended to my specifications and at my desired temperature, in my favorite mug ready to drink. Passive microradiators in the ceramic walls of the mug will keep the coffee at just the right temperature, no matter how long it takes me to drink it. I am grudgingly grateful for this.

As I sit and absorb the life-giving caffeine, a light touch to a panel on the table brings a previously ordinary-looking section of the wall to life with an extremely sharp digital television picture. The sound which accompanies this broadcast is almost perfectly ambient, and seems to emanate from all over the room. I stab my unsteady finger at a rectangular area of panel which reads "News Composite" and watch as the important events of the past 24 hours unfold in high definition before me. Six new cabinets were formed, two coups (one bloodless, one not so bloodless) took place, a typhoon slammed into a sparsely populated coastal region of Australia (select "more" to see real-time three dimensional satellite images), the genome map of the Spinner Dolphin was completed, the Martian Orbiting Relay Station crew got changed out, the 2 teraflop mitochondria-embedded microprocessor was announced, and the reintroduction of genetically regenerated Passenger Pigeons into a portion of their former range was begun.

Ho, hum. Not an exciting news day. Well, there's always the educational channels. Here's a program on the effort being spearheaded by the International Consortium of Energy Producers to produce bacterially-synthesized hydrocarbon oil on a commercial basis. Or I might want to hear about the latest handheld remote profiling systems that can monitor more than 20 discrete physiological parameters of a subject up to 50 meters away. Then there are some interesting new advances in biometrically- based nonrepudiation for digital commerce transactions, centered primarily on the unique amino acid signature in trace amounts of an individual's perspiration.

Wandering onto the back porch, I look out over a genetically perfect lawn, where all plants are cloned from a single ideal specimen, highly resistant to drought, disease, insect pests, and overgrowth. I see, passing quietly overhead, the imposing bulk of a turbojet-propelled cargo dirigible, capable of holding several football fields' worth of goods. The air is clear, but has a sharper quality to it than I remember from my impetuous youth; is it perhaps the greatly reduced particulate emission levels that cause this? I don't know. I'm not even sure what I'm seeing is really there.

Back in the house, I rummage around in a drawer for the electronic key to the refrigerator and chance across my old organ donor card, dated 2022. Haven't needed one since then, since cultured human organs became available. Custom grown to your blood type, and impregnated with cell surface antigens that match those of your body's other organs. I've been through four kidneys, myself. They don't seem to have the stamina of the originals, but they're still an improvement over the old mix 'n match method.

I retired from the U. S. government back about 25 years ago. Things haven't changed much since then. We still vote for candidates via the Internet (called 'the grid' these days) and there're two or three initiatives a year where the whole country is polled that way. Most of the legislation still gets hammered out mano mano up on Capitol Hill, however, although the digital "Legislation Stations" at each member's desk allow them instant access to much more information, and to get constituent feedback much more quickly. We can even watch them at work, when they have their monitors turned on.

Income tax is more or less a straight percentage of our incomes now, although the tax folks couldn't keep from adding in a little razzle dazzle just to increase their job satisfaction. We keep track of all expenditures and income on computer these days, so all you have to do to file your return is touch a "Calculate and Transmit" box on the screen. Audits are conducted in the presence of your systems administrator, rather than your lawyer. Lawyers, by the way, are now all government employees who receive a set salary. Cuts way down on the spurious lawsuits, and made tort reform a minimally controversial issue when it finally came to pass a few years back.

Tobacco is illegal in all forms now, although a thriving black market for the nicotinoid injectable aerosols still exists. Seems like no matter how smart we get as a species, there are still quite a few folks eager and willing to embrace whatever dumb idea someone plops down in front of 'em. It's a wonder there's any of us left at all, is what I always say.

Most folks looking for a thrill just rent another total sensory simulation cartridge and drop it into their home sensor bubble. Those things scare the wits out of me sometimes, with their smells and sights and three dimensional motion simulation. I wouldn't do half of that stuff for real if you paid me; why would I spend perfectly good money to do it in a simulator?

We haven't licked world hunger yet, but we've taken a pretty good bite out of it, if you'll excuse the pun. The poobahs finally realized that it wasn't our capacity for producing food that was the problem, but our inadequate methods for distributing it to those who were truly hungry. Couldn't find their leg naked and sitting in a bathtub, I used to say. Anyway, we've got agricultural genetic engineering stations in every country on the planet now, and a worldwide distribution network controlled by TransEarth, the international social equality society. They're a little radical sometimes for my tastes, but they do a good job feeding people and addressing human rights issues.

It's January in the Northern hemisphere, but there's a soft summer rain pelting against my windows. This global warming thing turned out to be for real, although we still aren't sure if it was a result of our pollution or just a natural cycle of the Earth's. Doesn't make much difference to me what caused it; I'm a little tired of forty successive days of 110+ degree temperatures in July and August. If I weren't so old, I'd move up to Alaska, where it only tops 100 for maybe a week, week and a half, at most. Haven't seen it snow since '06.

Once the rain stops, I try puttering around in my garden. They've got these home cultivation labs now that make cross-pollination, grafting, and all those other tricks just another entry in the history books. You can dial in the color, petal shape, hardiness, pest/disease resistance, and a dozen other qualities and engineer your own custom flowers, fruits, nuts, grasses, herbs, and trees now. Makes gardening less of a skill and more of an idle curiosity. I still dabble in the old ways every now and then, myself, but there aren't many of us left.

There are now so many satellites and pieces of satellites in orbit that most space launches are preceded by a sweep through the orbital injection path with a remotely piloted vacuum cleaner that chases and picks up space debris before it can become a hazard to recently launched spacecraft. Hundreds of thousands of fragments circle the planet like the outermost layer of an onion, making navigation treacherous at best. More and more launches are being conducted from the Near Earth Embarkation Platform, or NEEP, to avoid this very problem. Of course, the parts still have to be shipped up to NEEP in the first place.

Turns out that the fundamental nature of space and time are both more complex and simpler than we imagined. The current thinking is that gravity is not so much a discrete force as result of the interaction between space, time and the extradimensional universe. Objects with mass give the illusion of being attracted to one another because the pockets they create in the continuum seek to cancel each other out by merging. It isn't the objects themselves that are affected, it's their distortion of the uniformity of space. Space, in effect, wants to stay smooth.

We've also discovered that the speed of light is not a barrier, but an inflection point. Matter reaching that magic velocity shifts to an adjacent universe, in much the same way that ships of the past were raised to new levels by passing through canal locks.

My cat is rubbing against my leg for attention now. I am immensely comforted by her presence; she and her ilk haven't made an appreciable change in the way they look or act for at least 3,000 years. I wonder, in the final analysis, which of us is truly the superior species?

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