Robots are already here, just like jet packs and flying cars. What’s next is a question of who has them, where they are, what they’re supposed to do, and how they are actually used. Cats riding around on Roombas? That’s just the beginning.
Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot is the idea of AI therapy. I think it’s the only way to democratize something that, at the current moment, is unaffordable for most people. I’ve been hearing stories of people waiting months for an appointment with a therapist because demand exceeds supply. This is because good therapy doesn’t scale.
Ideally, a person in need could schedule almost unlimited sessions with a talented, caring therapist who is a good match, and it could be on demand. If someone is having a breakdown at 3:00 am, well, they need someone, and why should they wait?
In the human world, that is obviously too much to expect even of a highly compensated and trained professional. People need to sleep, at the bare minimum. Sometimes they’re going to be in the shower. Even if a living human being could be “on” every minute of the day, they can only talk to one client at a time - and this is the major reason why therapy doesn’t scale. It’s not like a fitness class where a few more people can crowd into the back row.
To my understanding, there is already chat-based therapy on the market. You can trade text messages with someone when you need counseling. I can see how that would really help a lot of people who don’t want to look someone else in the face, or have reasons why they don’t want to travel across town, or are in a room where it isn’t safe to reveal what they are doing. People have already adapted to the idea that you don’t need to vocalize to have a rewarding conversation.
I don’t think artificial intelligence is *quite* ready to take the place of traditional talk therapy. I do think it wouldn’t take much, though. Early experiments dating as far back as 1964 show that people are surprisingly willing to get into it with a string of text. I bet a lot of people would be more willing to reveal their deepest secrets and darkest moments if they knew it was only going to, well, a vending machine.
The great thing about an always-on chat therapist is that you could let your mind wander and ask it random things, like what you should wear to your job interview or how to rearrange your bedroom furniture, and it wouldn’t mind.
Something I’ve been thinking about besides the idea of a universally accessible and artificially intelligent therapist is the way that people are using robots in the home. They are becoming fairly routine in caregiving settings. I would have pictured industrial robots disinfecting surfaces or monitoring vital signs - and there are bots that do that - but what we are seeing are more along the lines of things for cuddling and social interaction.
A lot of the stuff that is meant for monitoring, disinfecting, and other chores is going to be built into the building infrastructure. We aren’t even going to recognize that these are robots, any more than we think of an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser or a dishwasher as robots.
The crossover isn’t very far away. You take a sensitive and responsive chat AI that is always available and perceived as trustworthy, and then combine it with some kind of cuddly, harmless robot body. If you get it right, and manage to avoid the uncanny valley entirely, what you have is an irresistible empath-bot.
A lot of us grew up with two robots, one a clumsy and socially awkward nerdbot and the other an endearing appliance. I already know which one you would feel more comfortable trying to engage in serious conversation.
What we’re going to have in the near future is something that feels more like a beloved pet, yet wiser and kinder. Something endlessly patient and occasionally funny, something that never misses on mood.
At this point of development, I think this bot would also be fully capable of tracking all our appointments, stray bits of information, and the location of our keys, glasses, and remote controls. This is why we would trust it so much, because it would keep us out of trouble over and over again.
All we can do is wonder what would happen if most people suddenly had access to the trauma robot, even people on the street or in jail.
Would some people elect to stay inside for hours every day, spending months at a stretch rehashing the worst or most devastatingly confusing events of their lives? Would this maybe come at the expense of forming and maintaining ordinary, messy human relationships?
Where nobody ever says the right thing, and always manages to say vitally fresh and new awful things?
Or would access to all this free, human-designed therapy help us to improve our human interactions? Would on-demand customized talk therapy actually heal us and make us more robust? Could learning to interact with this software make us better able to handle the disappointments of traditional social and family life?
I have no idea. I have no idea what humans will be doing a century from now, just as I can only guess how they will judge us when they look back. We make fun of our historical forebears for having fleas and smelling bad, and I’m sure in the distant future we will seem equally ridiculous for one reason or another.
I do suspect, though, that there will be another kind of “trauma robot.” It seems likely that as robots become more common, making deliveries or answering questions in public places, they will be targets of abuse by random passersby. People will most likely vandalize them with permanent markers, dress them in costumes, or slap stickers on them. They might also try to knock them over, throw stuff at them, taze them, or dismantle them.
As they become more intelligent, perhaps these tormented public service bots will turn to one another, talking it out from their charging bases.
And then what?
I went to the airport for the first time in a year and a half, and I bought a new MicroClimate helmet for the trip. This is my experience.
My itinerary began at LAX, with a layover at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, and continued on to PDX. This is a trip I have made many times, and I have spent untold hours at each of these airports over the past 15 years.
I’m a pretty experienced traveler - or at least I used to be, in the before-times. Things are different now.
I figured that the form factor of my MicroClimate helmet would advertise itself pretty clearly. This is a serious piece of equipment. I had read up on the corporate website, and it looked like other users were experiencing friction from various airport personnel. I assumed that I would get different responses depending on where I went and who I interacted with, and I was right about that.
TSA and my airline, Southwest, were both pretty clear that a mask “covers the mouth and nose” and that it loops behind the ears.
Obviously my MicroClimate helmet covers the mouth and nose, correct? But my mouth and nose are visible!
This is where I recall all the cartoons I ever saw of confused computers and robots with steam blasting out of their vents, going all swirly-eyed and then exploding.
My first issue was at the baggage check counter in LAX. I had been in the airport just long enough to check in and print out my baggage claim stickers. The agent told me that she understood, but TSA was going to make me take off the helmet and they weren’t going to let me wear it on the plane.
I turned away, took off the helmet, and pulled out the double-layer fabric mask that I had in my pocket. “I apologize for making you uncomfortable,” I said.
“Oh, it’s not me, I’m here to help *you*,” she said.
I put the helmet back on for the short walk down the hallway and into the public restroom. I saw nobody, and thus no one said anything. I had felt anxious about being in the enclosed area of an airport restroom during the pandemic, and wearing the helmet definitely helped me feel better.
When I emerged, I realized that swapping out the helmet for a cloth mask in the security line was not an experience I wanted to have. It was a cattle call. Nobody was distancing more than about 18 inches and there were at least 100 people packed together.
I stepped to the side and put on my fabric mask and zipped my helmet back into my bag. This was very disappointing because this 1000-square-foot area was the precise reason I wanted the helmet in the first place.
Hundreds of thousands of people a day pass through LAX from all over the world. I have gotten respiratory illnesses probably more than half the time that I have traveled through this airport. I don’t care what the statistics are about being onboard an airplane, or how their filtration systems are rated. I care about standing in line at the airport itself so the TSA can examine my internal organs.
When it was my turn to hand over my ID, the TSA agent asked me to remove my fabric face mask.
There ya go. My exact worst nightmare. Standing in the filthiest place on Earth with a bare face, where another dude was standing doing the same thing five seconds earlier. Buy any mask or filtration system or biohazard suit you like, and TSA will interfere with you and insist that you participate in equal-opportunity disease exposure.
I made it to my flight on time, boarded, waited until takeoff, and put my helmet back on. Not a single person said a thing. My seatmates on either side glanced at me and went back to whatever they were doing, clearly unfazed.
We landed, and I decided I would just push it as far as I could go. I would leave the helmet on as we disembarked. A few of the flight attendants and gate agents made eye contact with me and said nothing. Cool.
As I walked into McCarran, it was immediately obvious that we were in Vegas, for two reasons. First, the slot machines, and second, the anything-goes atmosphere. A lady walked up to me, all smiles, and asked where I got the helmet. A man gave me a thumbs-up. People were checking me out as I walked to my gate. I sat for an hour, texting with my family and my husband.
Someone sitting directly behind me coughed, and I didn’t have to worry.
The performance of the helmet itself is, as far as I can tell, flawless. The fan does a good job of unobtrusively tuning out most background sounds, like a white noise generator. I was a bit hot, but probably because I tried to dress for Oregon, not Nevada or California, and I would have been more comfortable in short sleeves.
Face ID recognized me on my iPhone, but not on my iPad. Go figure. I was able to pair my AirPods and listen to a show, although I did have to turn up the volume higher than normal.
I don’t really like the chin strap - I wear a XXS bike helmet and the MicroClimate helmet is one-size-fits-all. It took a lot of finagling to adjust it so it would stay in place on my tiny little head. As a competent costumer married to an engineer, I will probably go in and rig a more customized strap setup for myself. And then send a drawing and photos to MicroClimate.
We boarded our connecting flight. The ticket agent greeted me but said nothing about the helmet. The flight attendant at the end of the jetway greeted me and said nothing. The flight attendants doing the safety presentation said nothing.
Then another flight attendant came over and handed me a surgical mask, making eye contact but saying nothing. I put it in my lap.
We took off. After the safety presentation, a different flight attendant came over and firmly told me that I needed to wear the surgical mask.
I understand how this works, because I also work on a team in which we sometimes take turns being “the enforcer” or “good cop” or “bad cop.”
Having no desire to give any hard-working safety professional a bad day, I indeed put the mask on underneath my helmet and obediently wore it over my mouth and nose throughout the flight.
Is this all they want from me? That I check the box for their baseline instructions and pointlessly wear the paper mask, even though I am wearing a helmet that literally covers my entire head and has its own air filtration system?
All right, fine.
Get used to it, though. Given another pandemic of a respiratory virus, and/or heavy wildfire smoke or a volcanic eruption, and/or any kind of chemical spill, and/or [insert nameless dread here], more and more people are going to decide to get themselves a helmet just like this.
The reception of the crowd to this device was either positive or neutral. Almost everyone completely ignored me. Not a single person gave me a dirty look or appeared scared or annoyed. A little girl waved at me - and I waved back and smiled - and it may have been one of the few times she saw a stranger’s actual smiling face in well over a year.
A couple of women came up to me and asked me where I bought the helmet, looking very intrigued. It would have been a great opportunity for MicroClimate to include a bunch of business cards, or even put a QR code on the back of the helmet. I wouldn’t really mind if people wanted to take pictures of me wearing it. I am a photo-shy person but I feel somehow anonymous in my helmet, like a person from the future.
Which I am, now.
Something I’ve been noticing, as I contemplate moving from our 650-square-foot apartment, is that there are a lot of small apartments out there. In our area, there are entire houses that are smaller than this apartment!
It’s not just here. I’ve been trying to learn a little about interior design beyond “where do we put the rolling toolbox now that we don’t have a garage.” Maybe it’s just my algorithms, but I keep seeing places that are 500 square feet or smaller all around the world.
While it used to be common, before WWII, for most people to live in a home smaller than 800 square feet - and sometimes much smaller - we’ve come full circle. New construction seems to be going smaller as well. Tiny homes are hot, ADUs (accessory dwelling units) are growing in popularity, people are even bragging about how they live in a van.
DOWN BY THE RIVER!
Well, someone had to say it.
Personally, I don’t want to live in a McMansion for the single reason that I’m always freezing cold, and those big rooms seem to be drafty no matter how high you crank the heat. I think what’s going to happen to those big, multi-room homes is that more of them are going to be turned into hype houses or some other type of co-housing.
They’re going to have to, because there simply aren’t enough houses to go around. There is a shortfall of something like 4 million houses right now. By the time all those homes get built, there are going to be more young people entering adulthood and more new parents with young families. People have to live somewhere.
A lot of those somewheres are not going to be in a place with a big yard.
This is part of why I say the future is small. One of the things that I mean by that is that most people are going to be living in small homes, apartments, or shared housing for their entire lives. A century from now, nobody will even notice or care, just like most people didn’t a century in the past.
There are ramifications of this reversion to small homes.
When I think of the future, I always, literally always think of space habitats. I work in the space industry and I’m 100% positive that this is the direction we’re going. Consider the astronauts. Because of their passion to get off this dumb old rock and become spacefarers, they essentially give up all their privacy and personal space.
Dude, they don’t even have beds. The personal items they bring with them have to be weighed and measured. It’s like, I’m going to bring this roll of dimes as my item so I can distribute Space Dimes to all my friends. Well, and their families and neighbors, since I don’t have fifty friends.
In the future, I think the majority of people’s personal items will be digital. Our photos, journals, chat sessions, music playlists, and artwork will mostly be created and distributed in a virtual form. Because of this, it will be less and less common to have memorabilia in a physical form, other than something like a wedding ring.
We won’t get as emotionally attached to things like our old electronics, because we’ll associate them with being clunky, slow, and frustrating compared to what we have now. Also, there won’t be as many of them. I had a stereo in the Nineties that was the size of a small suitcase, and I don’t miss it at all. Nor do I miss my corded phone that picked up AM radio signals, or my old clock radio with the blaring alarm, or my answering machine, or any of the other 25 pounds of obsolete electronics I had 25 years ago.
Eventually it will all be mined for the metals.
Or recycled into flash graphene.
My bedroom in 1995 had an entire wall of books, housed on homemade shelves made of boards, bricks, and crates. That old stereo sat there too. All of that is now virtualized.
Next to it was a little desk with an 8086 desktop computer, big monitor, and keyboard. Took up the entire desktop. All of those functions now live in my phone.
I also had a big box of papers, including old school notes, bills, personal records, and junk mail. All of that as well is now digital.
Half the contents of my bedroom at the time were physical objects that I believed represented my tastes and interests. The way I spent my leisure time - reading, listening to music, chatting on the internet - used to take up considerably more space than it does today.
Now, it lives in my pocket on my smartphone.
The rest of it: my bed and my clothes.
We’ll still need somewhere to sleep in the future, I assume. Actually I assume that sleep will be a bigger deal in the future, as it’s when we’ll do a lot of our body modifications and perhaps also osmotic learning. It may well be some of the only private time we get to mentally and emotionally decompress.
We’re already adjusting to more personalized entertainment, in a way that is foreign to those of us who remember the Seventies and Eighties. It used to be that everyone watched the same show at the same time, because that was what there was. Everyone knew the same Top 40 songs, because that was what there was. Now, there might be five people in the same room, each watching a different show on a different device, all wearing noise-canceling headphones.
Welcome to the future, only more so.
I think we’re not going to notice the shift to smaller homes as much because we’ve all had our attention pulled to smaller and smaller screens. Our true homes are our phones anyway.
In the future, we’ll have less personal space, less stuff, and a smaller footprint in general. Our pets will be smaller, perhaps even bred that way. Who wouldn’t want a mini-giraffe? It’s also possible that we’ll start selecting for mates of smaller stature, that a century from now the average human will be closer to medieval size again.
For today, take a look around. If you had the opportunity to visit a luxury space hotel, is there anything in the room with you that you’d want to take with you in the rocket?
All right then. Assuming you can have literally anything you ask for, that someone else will do all the associated remodeling, cleanup, installation, and furniture moves at your direction, what do you actually want?
This is where we are right now at my work, imagining what we want work to look like. We’re stuck in the imagination stage because the majority of us still don’t know when we can get our vaccines. We’re on mandatory work-from-home.
Want to know something funny? I designed a survey and built in a “no preference” response and about 10% of the respondents chose that.
No preference, really?
You have no preference whether you commute or not, or whether you have your own office or not?
I believe there are people like this in the world, people whose least favorite thing is to have to choose something. I am not one of these people. Maybe what we need is a benevolent AI that keeps track of decisionless people and randomly assigns them to things.
Further, I think almost everyone is so hung up on all the annoyances and things that we dislike about working that it hasn’t occurred to us to wonder what we actually DO want.
Personally I like variety. I like to be able to get up and work in different places, maybe outside, maybe on the bus, maybe in a cafe, maybe even on the library stairs or something. All of that has been extracted from my life by the pandemic. The best I can do is to occasionally work on my blog from an inflatable chair at the park.
Right now I am sitting at my desk, which I normally reserve for work-work, because I dropped my phone on my iPad and it’s in the shop.
Note, shouldn’t all Apple products be immune to each other? Why is it possible for me to do $330 worth of damage to one of my products with another one of my products?? (At least I didn’t shatter both of them at once…)
I’m willing to bet that a lot of people are leaning toward working from home because we have become accustomed to the convenience of doing household chores while in meetings.
(I do a lot of mine either while I’m waiting for my computer to warm up or while I’m in the process of making my lunch).
Okay, let’s think bigger. What if our homes are modernized as quickly as the office? What if algorithms and robots are reliably taking care of more of our bandwidth and we’re actually able to do the fun, creative, intellectually stimulating stuff ourselves?
What does THAT look like?
I’m still waiting for an AI that can work as a companion, listening genially as I ramble on and on, ideating and shifting between completely unrelated projects, circling back, changing the subject with no warning, the way that my human friends have come to expect and
OH, that reminds me
By the time an AI can keep up with a creative, non-neurotypical person such as myself, it will be able to do virtually anything.
The only way that will ever happen is if we keep dreaming bigger, learning to hand off more and more mental tasks, and thus incrementally training this concept of an artificial brain.
From experience working with the chronically disorganized, I can say that problems at work are similar to problems at home, which is, the routine parts are too boring to get done, but the non-routine parts are often too confusing.
Who do I call to handle this? How do I describe it? What actually needs to get done? How much of it am I expected to do myself and how much can I delegate to someone else? What order do the steps go?
I used to have a social services job in which, every day, I would get calls from people looking for a completely different department or a completely different branch of government. If I didn’t help them myself they would just call me again.
Almost nobody on Earth will actually Google something on their own, even if it was faster and easier and came with cute photos. They’d rather Talk to a Real Person (TM) so they don’t have to engage System 2 thinking.
This is why I am torn between thinking that AI will never happen, or that AI will eventually save us all.
What if AI convincingly sounded like that proverbial “real person”? An endlessly patient and useful person, who knew every answer, never asked you to repeat yourself, and read your mood perfectly? What if that “real person” was always available and you never had to wait on hold?
I think it’s possible.
Because, even though many of us carry incredibly powerful computers with vast search engines in our pockets round the clock, we aren’t using them to further our knowledge or understanding of the world. Instead we use them to spy on each other, argue with each other, and look at video clips. If we genuinely had this helpful and eager “customer service rep” waiting there to do more of the steps for us, maybe we would take advantage of that opportunity?
Or is it more like, the more things are automated for us, the more things will feel like “work” even though they are less work than what came before?
I have a desk job, but I know a lot of people who don’t. They are gradually adopting more and more automation, from power tools to GPS to digital levels, etc. Who doesn’t enjoy using a pressure washer?
That’s what I’m personally looking for, a work experience that feels more like playing with a toy or having a fascinating conversation. Does that feel possible?
Or do we really all just want to go back to commuting, honking at each other, rushing to stand in line to buy coffee in disposable cups, scrolling through hundreds of emails, and tapping our pens in endless meetings? Do we miss normality so much that it actually looks like it was ever a good idea?
It was brought to my attention how much apps run my life when I found myself awoken by my alarm on a work holiday. Why, I thought, can’t there be an AI that notices when there is a holiday and reminds me to turn off my alarm?
This is something I think about a lot. When will artificial intelligence be able to take over more of my mental bandwidth, and what would it look like when it does?
Right now the focus seems to be on consumer habits and passive entertainment. Whatever algorithms are in place right now, they do a decent job. I actually like it when an ad for something I’ve bought recently, like a bedspread, follows me around the internet for months. It then displaces whatever advertisements might have filled that spot and enticed me to buy things I didn’t know existed.
The algorithms in my news reader are fantastic. It hasn’t taken me long to get all the gator news a girl could ever want. I also use this as a source for my little tech newsletter, which not only makes me look awesome at work but probably got me the job in the first place.
If there were ever one solitary thing that artificial intelligence improved in my life, it would be this. I can find an endless supply of articles about robotics and drones and other tech innovations while scarcely lifting a finger.
On the other hand, this constant access to valuable information is like drinking from a firehose. I realized some time ago that scrolling through my technology newsfeed has become my default mode, eating far more of my day than I ever intended. What did I do about it? Why, I turned to an app!
I went into the settings on my phone and set a one-hour time limit on my news app. This has been in place for one day and I already feel like I am levitating against a glass ceiling. I also expanded the quiet hours on my phone, so not only will it not ring or show me text messages, but I can’t open most apps after 10:00 pm.
It is helping but also it is really not helping
What I’d really like is for AI to help with more of my day-to-day. I lost an hour of sleep because I set up an automated alarm clock and neither I nor my electronic backup brain realized that I should temporarily turn it off. In how many other areas could I be living a more optimal existence with a little artificial assistance?
One of the biggest and most obvious ones, to me, is the gathering of the stuff. Is there an app yet that reminds people to put certain objects in a pile and make sure they are carried out the door? This would be one of the greatest memory aids of all time.
I think I’ve actually figured out a way to do this, although if it works the way I think it will, it’ll take a bit of setup.
I went to a grocery store in person the day I wrote this. Trader Joe’s! Why do you not work with delivery services! Because you don’t have to, okay, I get that! But still! Anyway, I was quaking in my shoes but I figured, with careful planning, I could do a “smash and grab” speed run and spend fewer than 15 minutes in the store.
(I was right, because I am a logistics master and an experienced trail runner and also because I felt the hounds of hell breathing down my neck the whole time).
I used a paid app called Morning Routine. Normally I use it in the morning and at bedtime, so I remember all the dumb things I normally forget, like locking the door and turning on the dishwasher. You can add items to a list and give each a time limit, and then the app runs the timer for each task and switches to the next task when the time runs out. If you’re skillful about your time estimates, this timer will keep you on track. The key feature is that you can set it to read each new item aloud.
I made my shopping list, with each item listing the item I wanted followed by the next item, so the app would read both. For most people this might look like: “front door to bread, bread to eggs, eggs to milk, milk to cereal, cereal to toothpaste.” Since I knew the layout of the store, I was able to do this in the most streamlined path between items, and I had everything on my list in six minutes. The list is still in the app if I find myself having to go in again.
(In two masks and a plastic face shield)
I think the Morning Routine method would work for getting ready for work, loading kids’ backpacks, packing for a trip, and generally getting out the door. If you take the time to keep tweaking it, and actually listen to it, it will keep you from flitting back and forth between rooms. You can keep adding items as you remember them, from sunblock to permission slips to bridge toll. The app then becomes like a butler or personal assistant.
It’s a short jump from that to an actual robot that tootles around the house, loading your suitcase for you and carrying it to the car.
Eventually it will happen. Within our lifetimes, I bet it will. The potential payout is so, so high, and once one person has one, it’ll be like smartphones all over again. Everyone will want one to the point that people will camp out overnight in a tent in order to be first in life.
Until, that is, our robots can go out and do that for us.
The question, whenever we welcome new tech into our lives, is whether we’ll allow it to be a boon or a curse. Will we use it to free up our time and mental bandwidth, giving ourselves an overall lifestyle upgrade? Or will it just be a monkey on our backs?
This is why I pause every now and then to ask, if apps run my life - which obviously they do - which ones are in charge this week? Is this what I would have wanted? Can I make adjustments so that I am impressed with the results?
People keep asking about flying cars, but would you really want one?
Let’s do a quick Google image search on “car through roof” and take a look. Those right there are regular old ordinary Earth cars that drive on the ground.
Explain me how making them airborne will be an improvement?
As I was skimming through these, I noticed that my search for “through roof” had brought up at least one story about car insurance payments going “through the roof.” That’s a point that I hadn’t even considered. Any of you who think you want a flying car, have you thought out what it would cost to insure one?
Do you want your teenagers driving it?
I think about three things pretty much all the time, and they are futurism, wishing, and capybaras. This story is only going to include two of those.
I think it’s extremely interesting when people express a heartfelt wish. I always want to know what those wishes are. They say a lot about a person.
I also happen to believe that almost all wishes are easily attainable. They exist within the laws of physics. Some wishes may take longer than others, but even then they can probably be construed to have been granted in some way.
The trick is that wishes always include technicalities.
Technically, you can make any car into a flying car. You can even drive it for a few seconds.
Oh, you mean you want it to fly all the time, in a way as ordinary as a commute in a traditional coupe or sedan today?
You want the sky to look like it did in The Jetsons?
...are you sure?
To me, this is sort of thinking too small. You get the ultimate dream image of THE FUTURE - a flying car, for goodness’ sake - and you want to copy what you were already doing in the past?
You want seventy years ago, only a few hundred feet further up?
Let’s imagine everyone who currently owns a car is popped into the future and now owns a personal flying vehicle instead. Internal combustion engine, room for passengers and cargo.
Is it the same size as a regular car, only it has wings or helicopter blades?
Okay, where are you going to park it?
You’re going from your house to... where was it, exactly? Work? The grocery store? The movie theater?
Okay, you were thinking you were... going to hop out and leave it hovering outside while you went in to eat dinner and enjoy your movie?
Okay, no. I understand. You were thinking you were going to... park it on the roof like a helicopter landing pad?
And then take an elevator or escalator down to the food court level?
What about all the other flying cars that your neighbors bought? Are they parking on the roof, too?
Are you sure? No retrofitting involved?
Oh, I see. You were just going to park it in the parking lot the way you used to with your regular old Earth car.
Except for the wing part. Do they retract? Into the chassis? Or where do they go? You remember in the showroom how they explained that your flying car needs a more powerful engine and more fuel, of course.
I guess you’re right. You would need a way bigger parking space than you used to.
That probably explains why you now have to walk so far from your parking spot to the main entrance.
Remember when we were talking the other day about how we wished we could have flying cars so we could just fly above all the traffic? Remember, you were mad because you were just in a fender bender and the other guy turned out to be uninsured?
Isn’t it a bummer how everyone else had the same idea and now we’re stuck here, hovering in traffic?
But at least we have plenty of time to laugh about how we used to always say we wished we had our flying cars.
Flying cars and jet packs. Those were the most futuristic things we could imagine.
The trouble with trying to create the future is that it’s so hard for us to picture something that is wildly different than the way we live now.
We think of the future and we picture a mid-20th-century suburban neighborhood, complete with single-family dwellings and personal vehicles. That means long commutes. Studies show over and over again that commuting is humankind’s least favorite activity.
(Dancing is #1 across cultures).
If we’re going to reimagine a better, cooler, and more interesting future, why would it have commutes in it?
Personally I want no part of a flying car. I doubt I would get in one. I don’t care how much training the driver (pilot?) has, I just don’t feel the need. If I did, I already would have gone on a helicopter ride somewhere, and I have no desire to do that.
I’m the kind of person who walks my bike down steep hills because I don’t like going that fast. I remember how I got my chin scar and that’s plenty for me, thank you.
When I sit and wonder what I would want my future to be like, if I got to be principal designer and I had unlimited funds, I realize that I don’t usually have an instant, clear answer.
I do know that the first thing I would want was a better quality of life, and flying cars aren’t particularly part of that image for me.
I picture a future where I am certain of the general well-being of the people I care about. I picture a future where I have interesting things to do all day, without the stress or anxiety or burnout or the Sunday scaries. I picture a future where I can spend ample time in pristine wilderness, where I am continually delighted and amazed by the activities of the wild creatures who live there.
In that future, I have the coolest smartphone you’ve ever seen. Want to hold it?
We went for a walk and vacuumed at the same time. This isn’t all that interesting in itself; we’ve had a robot vacuum for over a decade now, and we almost always run it while we’re off doing something else so we don’t have to listen to it.
What was different this time was that I realized I had forgotten to move something out of its way. I was able to whip out my phone, pause it from a quarter mile away, and mark off the area as off-limits.
(It turned out not to work, but that’s a story for a different time).
This is a feature that I used to joke about, and now it’s real. (Kinda?) I also used to joke about it emptying itself, and now that’s a real feature, too.
Yet another robot joke I used to make was about getting a robot lawnmower. We don’t have a lawn anymore, because we live on the 5th floor, but that is indeed a robot that somebody can buy now.
What I’ve learned is that I am really, really good at predicting consumer tech that will be available in the 5-10 year range.
(Now if I can just learn to design and sell it, we’re all set...)
The obvious question is raised. What else could a home robot do if we let it?
The case for robot vacuum cleaners is very strong, from my perspective, which is why it is a total mystery to me that so many people resist the very idea. Well what if someone gave you one?? Would you totally refuse to use it?
They’re cost-competitive with other vacuums, they go under the bed and the couch, and if something like a Lego or an earring accidentally gets picked up, you can get it out with much less mess than a traditional vacuum. The only real issue is that you have to go around and arrange your cords and cables in advance.
The robot mop is a little higher maintenance, in that it can’t drive itself on and off the charger, but it is much faster and quieter and doesn’t try to eat the bath mat, so that tends to make up for it.
Talking about chores in terms of robots was good for our marriage. We could play a game - “We live on a space station with robots” - rather than argue about housework. Because of this, we refer to dishwashers and washing machines and dryers as robots, too. Dishbot! Washbot! Drybot!
We would stroll out the door on the way to the movie theater, chortling about how All the Robots were Doing All the Chores. Laundry, dishes, and floor all at the same time.
There’s a natural transition from this concept to the question of what else a robot could do to help.
For us, the next natural transition was, how many of these features could be built into a home’s infrastructure?
My dearest wish has been to have a robot that can fold the laundry. I didn’t even care whether it put the laundry away somewhere, I just wanted the socks all matched up. It turns out that this is on the very far end of difficulty for an AI. Something that a preschooler can do - match socks - can defeat the same robot that can play chess and solve differential equations.
By the time a home robot can fold and put away laundry, it will basically be capable of doing everything.
Not just everything around the house, but basically everything a person can do.
It’s obvious why robots should do certain things instead of people, like sanitizing public restrooms or washing adult diapers. What isn’t so obvious yet is all the things that will be automated, say, fifty years in the future.
Dude! Did you know the dishwasher was first patented in 1850???
And it took 120 years before they were common in the suburbs?
The microwave oven was invented in 1946, but wasn’t all that common until the 1980s. At that time, they cost an average of $425, which is like $1300 now.
The reason all this matters is that anything a machine can do frees up a person to do something else.
You can go ahead and mock me for my foo-foo robot mop, but it is one of the reasons that I will be able to go back to school for my doctorate.
Other people will unblushingly share that they have a maid/housekeeper/cleaning service come in. But hey! That is also a person who could be doing something else! I cleaned houses once upon a time, too, and I’m a Mensan, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Coming back around to the problem of the missing laundry-folding robot, there are actually a bunch of different ways to get around this problem. 1. Reintroduce the lovely and flattering toga. 2. Do everything virtually with an elegantly dressed avatar, and just walk around nude. 3. Buy only wrinkle-free fabrics and some extra laundry baskets, and just shake everything into them. 4. Have only one outfit, like a space unitard, and have it sanitized while you sleep. 5. Print outfits on demand, then drop them back into the unit to be melted down into something fresh for the next day. 6. Spray-on body paint.
Probably more also. In the meantime, folding laundry takes 15 minutes per load, and when else would we listen to podcasts?
Something I learned when I was working with hoarders is that a lot of people are conceptually married to the idea that you do chores the 1920s way. Grimly, no music, no modern cleansers or tools, for your sins. It astonishes me to this day how resistant people are to changing up their routines. Rather than gratefully accept modern improvements, it’s more likely that people will quit doing it entirely.
Is some of this financial? Sure, of course. At the same time, the robots that I’m talking about are in the same price range as the gaming consoles and stand mixers that I often see. They’re also far cheaper than automobiles, a modern convenience that we have chosen not to own for four years now.
The question behind the question “Could a robot do this?” is, Is there a better way to do this? The question behind *that* is, If this didn’t have to be done personally by me, what else would I be doing with my time?
It’s been said that we create our own reality. I believe that is only true to a certain extent. It does seem obvious, though, that we can have more or less influence over our lives depending on how prepared we are.
Preparation, not prediction. It’s a futurism thing.
We can’t necessarily guess what’s going to happen next, whether in the near or distant future.
I didn’t guess that I would get COVID-19 last March, that’s for sure. As a senior in high school, I never guessed that I would wind up working in the space industry - since there effectively *was no* space industry at that time. Anyone who pauses to think about it can probably list of a bunch of events that were major surprises when they happened.
Everyone has major surprises at some point or other. Sometimes those surprises happen to all of us at once, like a category five storm, or a global pandemic. (Just because you don’t believe in it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t believe in you).
The question isn’t what happens, the question is how we react to what happens.
The further question is, what do we *make happen* regardless of external events?
Everyone responds to stress and trauma in different ways, and there’s no right answer. There’s no correct speed or reaction time when something goes wrong. I would never say otherwise.
Personally, though, I strongly resent being toppled by external events. Shocks in my life like my early divorce, an IRS error, or getting COVID have been deeply, shall I say, offensive and annoying. My response is to drag myself back to my feet and keep on pushing.
That’s why I applied for a job when I still wasn’t 100% convinced that I would survive COVID. I wasn’t about to quit setting goals just because I might die in a couple days.
(I tried. I tried to officially relinquish all my goals, but my system didn’t really accept it).
What if you can’t guess what’s going to happen next?
Well, you can. Anyone can take a wild guess. Can you get it right? By the time you know the answer to that, it’s a moot point because you already know the answer.
This is the inherent frustration of living in the place of uncertainty.
There are probably infinite ways to deal with the emotional load of being in the place of uncertainty. One of them is to shrug, and another is to go WHEEEEE and wave your arms in the air. Of course another is to curl into a ball with your hands over your head.
My preferred way is to go back to strategy.
The great thing about finding out that the rules have all suddenly changed is that, guess what? If the old rules no longer apply, then it’s likely that almost *no rules* apply.
You can step out of the maelstrom with a new identity.
Not to say that it’s easy. It’s not.
It hasn’t been easy, for example, to get onboarded at a new job while still recovering from a near-death experience. It’s hard to learn proficiency in half a dozen new software titles while still so tired that it’s hard to sit up straight.
It felt familiar, though. It felt a lot like getting back on my feet after my divorce.
This is why people who have lived through hard times can look back and say that it all turned out okay. Not that going through trauma has any sort of intrinsic value - I don’t think that it does at all.
It’s more like being backed into a corner by life forces people to be more decisive and bold than usual. We spend more time strategizing because that’s our only choice, and if we made it out, that’s why. We finally thought of options that normally wouldn’t have occurred to us, and did things that were out of character because that felt like the only choice that made sense.
This is where preparation comes into the picture.
What I did after my divorce was to eventually go back to school and get my degree. That put me in a significantly better position to deal with the next batch of high weirdness that life threw my way.
There is nothing about college that makes a natural and obvious connection to ending a marriage. “I have nothing, let’s add thousands of dollars in debt” is not an automatic response, right?
It just seemed to be the most obvious place to add skills, and adding skills is always a good answer.
I reacted the same way when I was bucked off my horse by COVID. Should I keep on doing what I was doing before? Not really, not when I had just had a universal reset.
Instead I thought, what is the most interesting thing I could be doing right now? And I got a new job.
Other people in other situations might have a natural “most obvious” repositioning station. For some, it would probably be moving in with their parents, especially if there was a need for a caregiver around the place. For others, it might be selling all their stuff and relocating, or taking some time off and getting their teeth fixed, or something else that feels more personal and necessary.
What is always helpful is to regroup and try to put things in their new, oddball perspective.
Remember, when times are tough, that every minute feels like a million years. It isn’t clear at all what the right choices are, or how things will turn out. That’s prediction and it isn’t something that humans are very good at.
In retrospect, though, what felt like forever might only be a few months.
Looking backward from whatever happened next in the storyline, whatever was going on during that time of mysterious transition won’t even be an interesting footnote. Nobody will care.
I could tell my story as “my husband left me and I lived on my friend’s couch for a year” - which happened over twenty years ago - or I could say, “I got a degree in history and then I became a futurist, and let me tell you what I think about lunar habitats.” Both versions are true.
That’s how preparation can turn into prediction. In that one sense, whatever you do to prepare for your next phase of life has the ability to predict how your life will turn out. You can shape it if you choose which direction you want to go and put yourself in motion.
Just because something is a great song doesn’t make it automatically a great idea.
I remember New Year’s Eve, the last day of 1999, and of course we all had a party and played the song and danced around to it. We were all at least halfway convinced that the Y2K bug was going to cause mass havoc. People were going to get stuck in elevators all around the world, the power grid would shut down, and nobody would be able to pick up their prescriptions. Chaos and mayhem!
Many of us at that time were discussing what we would do when we received confirmation that It’s the End of the World As We Know It. (We played that song too, of course). Several of us had it in mind that we would drive up to the rural property of a certain prepper guy we all knew. We were young and it didn’t occur to us that he had already watched that movie all the way to the end and we hadn’t.
It’s strange to look back at those days, not least because I was still with my ex-husband. I hadn’t gone back to school yet, I still couldn’t drive, I was still living in Oregon, I hadn’t yet discovered my love of distance running or backpacking, I had only been outside the country once.
Twenty years ago, almost nothing that is important in my life today was anywhere on my mental radar.
If I could have seen what my life would be like twenty years later, would I have danced harder? Or not?
There are a lot of other differences between 1999 and now. It’s hard to even remember, but a lot of what we consider everyday things were entirely absent then. Not just smartphones and texting - my ex-husband actually had A PAGER when we met, and I would text him codes on it and he would call me back on a landline. In those days, most people didn’t even have email, not even at work. No Google, no Wikipedia, no YouTube, no memes, no “social media” other than BBSs. We still occasionally used floppy disks. I had a physical answering machine. Amazon had only recently branched out from books to things like shampoo, which I thought was dumb as heck.
In many ways, our world really was coming to an end in 1999. That was the world we knew, a 1980s-tinged world. Our fashions and music would carry on, along with, apparently, a bunch of our workout videos? But many of the social, cultural, and technological norms would completely change.
Do I miss those days? Having lived through them? Nah.
The truth is that I can easily download all the music I remember from that time. The rest of it, who cares?
Food is better now. Not just restaurant food, or the fact that we can get all sorts of things delivered, but grocery store selections as well. Keep in mind, in 1999 we did not have Hot Cheetos. (I’ve never had one but I hear they’re quite popular).
Consumer items are cheaper and more widely available, whatever that might mean.
We have streaming. Streaming what? Why, everything, of course.
There are a few things about our current moment - other than the pandemic, of course - that are really annoying. I don’t mean “microplastics in the ocean” annoying, I mean “constant text message spam” annoying. What is interesting, though, is to watch these sorts of things come and go as someone or other innovates around them.
In 1999, I was 24. One might think that I would look back with nostalgia and miss my youth, especially now that I’m still recovering from almost dying of COVID-19. As much as I enjoyed dystopian film and fiction back then, it never occurred to me that I personally would feel like a character in The Stand at some point in my adult life.
I wouldn’t go back and relive that time in my life for a million dollars.
I’m thrilled to be here in 2020, moments away from 2021. Might actually go out and try to set a fire in a dumpster just for the feels. (Actually no).
On New Year’s Eve in 1999, we were able to talk about the world coming to an end as something of a mood, an abstract concept. We did genuinely have plenty to worry about. We were still not just pre-COVID, but pre-9/11 as well. It didn’t occur to us how very innocent we were, how little we understood of paranoia or even irony, though we thought we did.
In so many ways, though, our daily lives are almost immeasurably better.
One very real improvement that we have now is that we can communicate with friends and family all over the world, as long as we want and as often as we want, basically for free. The standards in those days were pay-by-the-minute long distance, and photographs you had to pay to have developed and then put in the mail.
We didn’t have crowdfunding, either, an innovation that I think will probably always be a part of our culture, but not something we even thought to do twenty years ago.
When I think ahead to 2040, I hope I’ll still be here. I have reason to expect that I probably could. I do wonder what things will be like.
On the crest of major change, it always feels at least a bit scary. We don’t know what’s coming, and we hate and despise uncertainty, so we catastrophize. Even as terrible things often happen, and some situations persist for years or decades longer than they should, amazing and incredible things happen, too. It’s just that we don’t tend to notice those trends or patterns because we aren’t looking for them.
Times are hard right now. We’re still in the global pandemic that had already begun by this time last year, we just didn’t know it yet. We may still have another year to go. That doesn’t mean that better times are not coming.
As we all look forward to 2021 and years beyond, let’s remember that the future doesn’t exist yet. There are no predetermined outcomes. We’re still here, so let’s take the opportunity to look forward with some anticipation. What if we all party like it’s 2039?
I’ve decided I’m going to start writing about futurism on Fridays. I’m going to skip the next couple of weeks, since I don’t post on holidays, and then we’re going to start the Twenties by talking about our new century and beyond.
For the past several years, my aim has been to post book reviews on Fridays. Then I got COVID-19, and then I got a day job, and I have found myself unable to read enough to stay on top of this self-generated commitment.
I suppose that makes this my very first futurism prediction. In my future, I won’t be writing book reviews, and in your future, you won’t be reading them. Or at least, if you do read book reviews they’ll be done elsewhere by someone else.
This probably won’t stop the occasional hopeful author from asking me to review their novel, even though I haven’t reviewed fiction in something like 15 years. Note: Do your homework before you make a request of someone you don’t know.
Why am I writing about futurism?
I’m hoping to go back to school at some point in the near future - there’s that word again - to study strategic forecasting. Somebody’s gotta do it.
It turns out that writing five days a week and working long weeks are already pretty significant time commitments. If I go back to school as well, then something has to go. I haven’t made my mind up yet about the direction of the blog, so for now, this is a way to try to have it all.
Editorial decisions come up in the shaping of a blog, and one of them is how personal it will be. There are broad areas that I don’t cover - for instance, I don’t use the names of my friends or family, so they don’t have to worry about my writing spoiling their online reputations. I don’t write about family drama, I don’t write intimate things about my marriage, I don’t write about my political positions, I don’t share specifics about our finances. I don’t necessarily see a problem with other people making those topics their brand; it just isn’t for me.
At the same time, I see the world moving and changing. When I started writing, I focused on clutter and minimalism because I was still working a lot with hoarders, and it was something I thought about all the time. I started moving away from that work when I realized that it really doesn’t scale, that what people need is someone to work steadily with them for 3-5 years in a relationship that is at least as much therapeutic as it is practical. I don’t have it in me to become a counselor of that type and I didn’t feel that I had it in me to carry on any further in that direction.
I also wrote about health and fitness, and now that has shifted to my standoff with COVID-19. I certainly hope that quits being a topic of interest, in my personal life as well as the rest of the world. Whether I’ll continue to write about these things, I’m not sure, because my focus has changed over the past few years here as well. I remain opposed to the HAES movement, whatever it is that is currently known as “body positivity” leaves me utterly cold, and I am probably just too out of sync with trends to have much to add. Out of anything I write, this is the area that makes me the most nervous, because it just feels radioactive. It is probably better for everyone, myself included, if I keep my opinions to myself and simply manage my own mortal vessel.
This is what the topic of futurism does. It causes me to pause and ask myself, what parts of my life belong to the 20th century, and what parts are worth carrying into the 21st?
History has a school of thought, that there are watersheds, pivot points in time when everything noticeably changes. 9/11 was one of those, and so was the Vietnam War, and so was the first lunar landing. Part of the watershed theory is the idea that each new century doesn’t really get rolling until the second decade, just as each new decade doesn’t really get rolling for a year or two. Example: When we think of “the Sixties” a lot of the music, fashion, and culture that come to mind are more characteristic of the Seventies. What we think of as the Twentieth Century wasn’t really true of, say, 1903. People of the 1920’s felt modern in a way that people of the 1910’s, before WWI, do not.
Now we’re really starting the 2020’s, the Twenties again, and what is going to be different?
This is all going to be more obvious to us in the Thirties and Forties. Hey, readers, most of you are still going to be around to see how the 2030’s and 2040’s play out. How crazy is that?
I think what we’re going to see is a significant leveling up of technology, in the sense that middle-class consumers will start being able to buy stuff at Costco that wasn’t even sci-fi when we were kids. There are going to start to be thousands, then hundreds of thousands of blue-collar space industry jobs. Robots everywhere. You can already see this stuff starting to happen if you follow space and robotics news; for instance, did you know that an airport for flying cars is already being built?
(Hot take: I’m flying-cars negative because I don’t need that kind of thing falling through my roof, thank you very much).
The biggest obstacle between “us” and “the future” is human psychology. It’s tough for us to adapt to things that look and feel very different from what we had in our childhoods. We don’t always understand what we’re looking at, or why it is actually a big improvement over what we had before. This is what interests me about the future - that it’s coming at us one way or another, and it’s really all about how it makes us feel.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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