Each year about this time , I think about what developments in technology are moving the fastest, and try to imagine where the conclusion of this technology leads. Sometimes I also think about government trends, if they affect technology. I have no crystal ball, so this is just for fun.

1. Transportation.

Lots of interesting changes relating to automobiles. The government paid people to pitch out perfectly good cars and buy something new, which should theoretically be better. I might have supported the program more if they required the purchase of an LEV or some sort of hybrid. Don’t get me started on saving the planet and global warming. Solar output has more effect than we ever will. And the Kyoto protocols are just made to enrich a small class of people who know how to trade carbon credits, and will have no noticeable effect on actual emissions. [OK So now you know where I am on that topic].

Cars are getting better. I used to think I would drive my old Mustang forever, except that I bought a new Jeep and it was so much nicer to drive, and 3-4 Jeeps later I bought my wife A G35 … You never really become dissatisfied until you experience something dramatically better. Then you get hooked and life is never the same. I love the new tech toys in cars. If you recall, I predicted that car GPS systems would get internet tied, and indeed now your GPS can show you the closest gas station with the cheapest gas, because it can talk to the internet and find stuff.

Something I did not predict (and still am not sure why you would want it) is the wireless hotspot built into the car. I mean, good grief. If you really need the net, get a smart phone that pretty much will do what a laptop will (although painfully for now), or get a netbook with a modem in it that talks to the wireless network. A hotspot in the car???

In terms of car technology, I think we will see the government taking a larger role. In the name of protecting us, cars will eventually have “police override” systems where The Man can shut off your car, and know exactly where it is at all times (like LoJack but for tracking law abiding citizens). In the name of crime prevention, they will be able to track us and stop us anytime. They will also be able to limit our speed (though they will lose revenues when they can limit our max speed to the speed limit and so the photo cameras will become useless). It would be a simple thing, for the privilege of driving on taxpayer roads, all taxpayer cars must be licensed. A requirement of licensing is that the tracking and limiting devices be installed and working. Penalties for disabling the smoke detectors in the lavatories…

Gas mileage will improve further. Where we are today, we could have been 20 years ago. I saw prototypes of special carburetors on Cadillacs which enabled them to get 30 mpg. The technology was suppressed. If anyone wants details to see if I am full of beans, just ask.

Eventually we will have to move away from petroleum as a fuel. There is still lots of it, however the infrastructure costs are prohibitive. We had to move away from horses else we would spend all the tax revenues cleaning up manure. That technology just didn’t scale well, just as automotive technology does not scale well past a certain point.

The way cities grow is that there is a populated area of low density, and over time commerce centers appear and the cities become crowded. Then, over time, people move out of the city because they want more space and want to get away from all the crowds. They want to live in a quiet neighborhood. Then of course the trend reverses and people want to move back into the city. It is cyclical. During the Real Estate boom, we all drove away from the city until we could qualify for the loan. Now those areas are ghost towns, and people are downsizing and moving back in.

The transportation problem in the city can be solved with mass transit – I’m impressed with the systems in Portland, San Jose, and other cities. Maybe there should be some city limit where past that point you park and don’t drive except for commercial deliveries and such. Single persons in cars must park and use transit.

Outside the cities, cars are fine, even in the suburbs, and are sustainable. The biggest pollution and infrastructure problem is with people driving to work – this can be solved with telecommuting and mass transit, for the most part.

This brings us to the other transportation problem, air travel. I remember growing up that it was a privilege to ride on a plane. It was costly, and it was mostly very nice. Then the likes of People’s Express made it more like riding a bus – and mostly the bus model won. Today, for any airline trip, you must get to the airport (30 minutes) and be there 90 minutes ahead of the flight (because they want to see if there is a bomb in your shorts), so you have already donated a couple hours. Plus you have to get picked up or get a rental car at your destination (or use public transport), and you might have to wait for your luggage (another half hour and $20 for the first bag). Plus you have to spend time choosing the right flight, etc. etc. Let’s call it 2-3 hours for the convenience of that 45-minute flight. How far can you drive in 2-3 hours? 100-150 miles? So the trade off of whether to fly or drive is getting different. It isn’t just a cost thing, as there are cheap ways to fly; it is about having to take your shoes off, having a government employee with no legal accountability pick through your luggage, and then having to sit for a couple hours in a seat meant for a supermodel, next to someone who is supersized with a screaming kid.

I love air travel. Not. My impression is that the flying public is about to the breaking point, to where flying has become so inconvenient that people only fly the scheduled airlines because they have to. Like when I have to fly across the country to see my Mom, and driving is impractical. So what is the answer?

For shorter trips, one way around the rules is for a group of people headed the same place to charter a plane. The rules are different for charters of smaller planes. The TSA rules apply to larger planes. I expect small companies to appear which negotiate rates and schedules for charters, each plane holding at most 10-12 folks, no restrictions on what you can bring, no security inspections. You leave from the general aviation side of the airport, not the airline side. You can take a whole bottle of shampoo and keep your shoes on.

Of course, as soon as this starts, the TSA will decide that there are so many that they are missing out on another revenue opportunity and declare that charters of any size must also go through the screening. See, it isn’t about airline safety, never has been. It is about control. Nonetheless, I think we will see charter organizers grow dramatically in the coming months and years.

Ultimately, I think we will see personal aircraft. We haven’t already, because the technology hasn’t been there. Flying a plane is not like driving a car – there are problems if the engine quits. You better be on the stick and know what you are doing. Technology can change this. The days of the Jetsons are coming, where our cars will be able to make the 500 mile trips in a couple hours. To do this, a few things have to happen. One is the successor to ADS-B, a system letting air traffic control know exactly where you are all the time. But ATC will also want to have positive control of your vehicle during the enroute phase of your flight, so you are just along for the ride. This also means that if the engine quits, there needs to be a safe and reliable way to get you back on the ground without killing anyone. The ballistic parachutes are one possible solution (some planes have these now) but I think a breakthrough in propulsion or levitation or crash proofing will be needed.

The beginning and end of the journey would be simpler, you ask to be released from ATC and you tell them where you want to land, and they land you there and give you back the controls.

This won’t be happening this year, maybe in 10 or 15.

2. Computers

Interesting toys out this Christmas. I got a Star Wars Force Trainer. You wear this headset and think the right thoughts and you can raise or lower a ball in a tube (you control the speed of a fan). The device interprets your brain wave patterns and does what you think. I was amazed by it, I understand how it works but it is still amazing.

Look for this technology to solve the problem of typing on those agonizingly small keypads for texting. They should be able to replace most keyboards and mice, eventually. I’m waiting for the other direction: placing information into someone’s mind. I read that this was happening many years ago, but have not heard anything about it lately. Lots of SF books talk about it – and there is a device used on Stargate that has this capability (although it is not quite what I was expecting in terms of a computer interface).

There is an upsurge, lately, in research about the nature of consciousness. People are thinking pretty hard about it. I think it will be in the next 10-20 years that we see machines with emergent consciousness, or at least machines which pass the Turing test, machines that we won’t be able to tell that they are not conscious, whether they are or not.

There are already many “expert systems” which have all the knowledge of a specific problem area, and they regularly diagnose problems much more accurately and quickly than trained technicians. The best chess, checkers, and other non-deterministic games (where the problem space is so big that there is no way to solve it exactly from the first move – tic tac toe is deterministic; chess is not) are already being played by machines at levels at or exceeding the best human players. So in terms of being as good as people at specific tasks, computers are already there; where they lack is in spontaneity and creativity. There is some research in the quantum mechanics areas which may provide solutions. But it is coming. Our understanding of the nature of consciousness is far from complete, but we probably understand enough that we can build a machine that seems like it is conscious.

In the near term, we will continue to see a merger of machines in two areas. One, in the home television and computer where these devices will merge, and rather than having a cable connection and an internet connection, all content will be delivered over the net and the thing we call cable service and phone service will disappear. All Is data, and there is no reason to support two separate data services. Already, the cable boxes at our homes are live devices on the network; that is, they are networked on a data network similar to the internet and home networks. They have individual addresses and can send and receive data.

The other technology which is coming together is laptops and cellphones. Laptops are shrinking (see netbooks) and cellphones, which were once huge and have shrunk to almost nothing, are getting bigger again, bigger screens, more storage, longer battery life, keyboard, corkscrew, multitool, mp3 player, you get the idea. So the ultimate will be a netbook that fits in your pocket, you wear glasses to see the display, and it reads your brainwaves to get input. Well, not this year, but it is coming.

–PLH