Inventor and M.I.T. Media Lab researcher David Rose has a bleak vision of what lies ahead:
“I have a recurring nightmare. It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass. Books, calculators, clocks, compasses, maps, musical instruments, pencils, and paintbrushes, all are gone. The artifacts, tools, toys, and appliances we love and rely on today have converged into this slice of shiny glass, its face filled with tiny, inscrutable icons that now define and control our lives. … In my nightmare, the cold, black slab has re-architected everything — our living and working spaces, our schools, airports, even bars and restaurants. We interact with screens 90 per cent of our waking hours. The result is a colder, more isolated, less humane world. Perhaps it is more efficient, but we are less happy.”
But this is just one possible future, according to Rose, and it will look a lot brighter if we simultaneously develop technology in different directions.
The inventor sees technology developing on four paths: Terminal World, his name for the aforementioned convergence of technology in computer screens; prosthetics, wearable and implantable technology that make us post-human; animism, the development of smart and social robots; and enchanted objects, his favourite, “where technology infuses ordinary things with a bit of magic to create a more satisfying interaction and evoke an emotional response.”
Rose discusses these possible futures in a new book, “Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things.”
“I wanted to describe to the broadest possible audience why they shouldn’t think that mobile phones are the only future that we have available,” Rose tells Business Insider. “I want people to understand some of the inherent benefits of embedding computation in everything.”
One complaint about the booming market for convergence devices like the iPhone is their lifelessness: “Even the Apple products, celebrated for their hipness, are cold and masculine compared to the materiality of wood, stone, cork, fabric, and the surfaces we choose for our homes and bodies,” Rose writes.
Another complaint is how they are used: “They’re not doing a lot for you unless you’re constantly interacting with them. These devices are like small children — they require constant attention, feedback, and interaction,” he tells us.
Prosthetics offer more seamless integration with technology, with major gains happening already for people with disabilities, but they also risk alienating people:
“Once we’re all wearing Google Glass, we’ll all have our own privatized, personal view of reality, which will limit our ability to talk about the world because we’ll all see different things,” Rose says.
As for animism, Rose sees significant opportunity to make robot that help and interact with humans, but he says this future remains unproven and that we will struggle to get past the uncanny valley, where imperfect imitations of humans make us anxious.
Finally, there are enchanted objects.
Rose’s vision for humanistic technology comes out of his appreciation for non-invasive technology and his desire to create objects as fantastic as the ones that appear in fiction, like the sword Sting in “The Hobbit” that glows when orcs are near. The inventor’s home, recently profiled in The New York Times, is full of enchanted objects, as is the M.I.T. Media Lab where he works alongside other top designers and design students.
Enchanted objects include an umbrella with a handle that glows when rain is in the forecast, a cup that analyses the liquid you put in it, and — two Rose creations — a medicine bottle cap that glows or chirps to remind users to take pills and an orb that glows to communicate data about the stock market, air quality, or whatever else you want.
There’s also the Livescribe pen, which digitizes notes and can also record audio. “It looks like a pen, works like a pen, but is much more than just a pen. Although you love it for its extra capabilities, its essential ‘pen-ness’ isn’t compromised,” Rose writes.
Another example is a Tesla car, which may look like a normal car but actually runs on electricity and has the ability to connect to the cloud to download updates and features seamlessly.
The epigraph to Rose’s book from writer Arthur C. Clarke says it best: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Enchanted objects are linked to the Internet of Things, the emerging market for everyday objects that are connected to the internet, which is seen as generating $US2.5 trillion in revenue by 2020.
“The big lesson here for companies is that they need to embrace and start designing for this world of enchanted objects,” Rose said in the interview. “It will mean a key change for how we interact with technology, and it’s a great opportunity for all of these traditional product companies.”
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