Copyright © 2000
Robert G. Ferrell
2050: An Echo from the FutureNote: 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
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 á 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?