I Dream of (a) Genie


by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

“Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous”
– futurist Jim Dator

Eighteen years ago, in 1996, I was writing a book called The Next 20 Years of Your Life (published by Stoddart Publishing in 1997), in which I projected how a variety of the major drivers of change would affect our world and our lives. Central to my thoughts of how the world would work was we would interact with our computers by the time we got to the mid-2010s. I’m going to reproduce the way I introduced this concept on page 1 of that book, and then discuss what has happened since before branching off into where I think we’re going.

Rather than merely describe in dry prose what I thought would happen, I made extensive use of vignettes, stories about the future, to explore and explain where I thought we might be going. Here is the opening vignette from that book:

Tama’s computer butler, Alfred, awakens her by gently calling her name, and gradually raising the lighting level in the room. She sits up, rubs her eyes, and calls to him that she’s awake. Once she’s finished with the washroom, she gets back into bed and puts on her “Looking Glasses,” which look like a pair of eyeglasses but have clear liquid crystal diode (LCD) panels instead of lenses. The Looking Glasses act as her computer monitor and let Alfred display information for her: graphs, pictures, videos, even images of people she’s talking to on the phone. They’re also ground to her prescription, so they act as eyeglasses when no data is on display.

In her younger days, Tama shied away from technology, especially from computers. Now age 58, she still remembers the computers of her school days as behemoths with flashing lights that spoke strange languages like FORTRAN and COBOL and worked in mysterious ways that always made her feel stupid. She also remembers when computers forced their way into her workplace at a big corporation, and the panic she felt when she finally had to confront the beast that had been placed on her desk. She remembers all the talk about the Internet, once it started to become popular in the ‘90s, and how it also gave her the feeling of being dumb about something that everyone else was so smart about. And she remembers the disdain she and so many others felt when trendy people started wearing computers after the turn of the century, as if they were flaunting their position among the cyber-elite, plugged in and turned on all the time.

Wearable computers started out as boxes the size of a double deck of playing cards worn on a belt, with displays like oversized, rectangular wristwatches. They quickly evolved into machines small enough to be effectively invisible, with the central processor disappearing into pieces of jewelry, or incorporated into a wristwatch, coupled with an ear piece the size of a hearing aid, a throat microphone, and Looking Glasses.

At first, the people who wore computers were called “tuppies”—“technologically upscale peasants”—and stand-up comics made jokes about brain-dead zombies being operated by their computers. But, gradually, as people became more familiar with the new technologies, and the costs came down to where they were affordable for anyone who was working, more and more people started to discover the advantages of having an electronic slave.

When she thinks about it at all any more, Tama has to admit that things are so much easier now that computers have become almost human, like a pet that can speak, understand, run errands and make phone calls for you. Although she found it intimidating at first having Alfred with her almost all the time—like having someone constantly looking over her shoulder—she would now find herself almost completely lost without her “computer genie” to take care of the routine details of her life.

Right now, Alfred is reviewing her day’s agenda with her. He informs her he’s made a hair appointment at 10:00 a.m., as she asked him to do five weeks ago following her last appointment; that she has to finish the next chapter of the book she is writing on the history of English drama if she is to stay on schedule; and that she has a committee report due on child labour before 9 p.m.

Since she has an hour free, Tama asks to speak to her 20-year old foster daughter. Helen is a street kid whose father left her family when she was three, and whose mother is an alcoholic, prompting Helen to run away from home at age 12. Now Helen is living at the city-sponsored Step Up residence—a converted hospital—while she finishes her high school equivalence.

Alfred makes the contact, and Tama finds that Helen has been up for two hours, delivering free samples of a new antibacterial hand soap for people with dry skin. They chat about their plans for Helen’s graduation from Step Up’s online tutoring centre. Tama asks Alfred to remind her to speak to an old chum who works in admissions at the Sorbonne in Paris. Although Helen couldn’t afford to move to Paris, she can still take a degree program through distance learning—if she can pass the International Baccalaureate-administered entrance exam. After chatting about Helen’s plans for a while, the two women bless each other and clear.

Parts of the genie are here now

I’m mostly pretty pleased with how things have turned out, especially as many people at the time, in the mid-1990s, said they flat out thought I was crazy in my descriptions about how we would interact with computers. Remember that at that time, everyone used desktop computers, and a laptop was thought to be cutting edge. Cellphones were around, but they almost all had antennas sticking up, making it impossible to put them in your pocket, and just about the only thing you could do with them was make a phone call. Mobile computing was not part of our daily lives, although Research In Motion released its first keyboard-based device, the Inter@ctive Pager, that year, which was about to change everything. SMS texting existed, having been invented in 1992, but was not widespread.

The concept of Looking Glasses – being computer monitors that we wore – was therefore not part of our experience. Yet, they are here now, with Google Glass being the highest profile example. I foresaw that our computers would be worn or carried on our persons, and described the function of that future computer in such a way that someone today would identify it as a smartphone, even though smartphones didn’t exist back then.

I also foresaw the advent of a wristwatch acting as a computer monitor, or indeed, the computer itself – but then, I had Dick Tracey to thank for that example. And the computer genie or butler, like Alfred in this vignette, seemed probable as the computer interface – and Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson have been on the scene for more than a couple of years already. Again, let me give credit where due: Arthur C. Clarke’s character HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey was a prototype for this kind of seemingly intelligent computer, although not in a form you could carry on your person.

There are some false notes in this vignette as well, mostly as they relate to social structures, which are more resistant to change than I had projected. Hence, the ability of society to pair up an abandoned street kid with an upwardly mobile woman would be remarkable today rather than a natural thing. And the ability for such a street kid to continue her education though a program designed specifically for people like her is virtually non-existent today, to my great sorrow, although some programs, like Frontier College’s “Beat the Street”, are trying.

But what I want to focus on is how I see computers evolving from here, specifically those that I have variously described as “wearable computers” or “Very Personal Computers (VPCs)”. And I’d like to focus on how the genie interface is likely to evolve.

How genies will evolve

Let me start by describing why I believe the wearable computer, animated by genie software, is where we are headed. It’s clear that concerns that Moore’s Law (“Computers will double in speed, and halve in price, every 18 months”) is going to run into its ultimate limits are not well founded. Every time we run into one set of limits in processing power or storage capacity, another new technology emerges to drive Moore further forward. At the moment, it seems as if quantum computing is the next step, and could carry us well into the future.

So, if computer speeds continue to expand exponentially (or, as Ray Kurzweil contends, even faster), and computer size continues to shrink, then the logical development for the computers we use most often is that we will keep them with us all the time because of the amazing things they can do for us (and to us, but that’s another story). When you add the ubiquitous connectivity of wireless Internet access, then the wearable computer that goes with you everywhere is the obvious way forward.

That doesn’t mean all other computers will disappear. There will be times when having a big screen and a keyboard, mouse, or other physical input devices will be invaluable, and we will continue to use them. But our current smartphones will continue to morph into wearable computers.

Which brings us to the interface: How will we make use of all this compact, portable, amazing power? As simply as possible is the best possible answer. The problem is that we are finding that there are limitations to talking to our computers: it doesn’t work well enough – yet – that we’re willing to give up other means of operating them. Specifically, we continue to use keyboards because of their precision and, to date, relative speed and ease of communication.

Yet I see keyboards as a problem and a barrier, not an enabling technology. Yes, I use keyboards to communicate with people through emails, Twitter, facebook, and other media (including blogs like this), but I still find it clunky and awkward, even though I can touch-type. Part of the reason for this is that we still largely treat voice as a synchronous form of communications: We talk to each other in real time, but are increasingly reluctant to leave voice messages, principally because we find asynchronous communication via text more convenient and more comfortable. Why this is so doesn’t (immediately) matter. The fact is that this is the way we behave, so this is the way our machines are designed to support us.

Another part of the reason why the development of genies is not as fast as it could be is that we are happy-tappers when we’re in public and want to communicate, but even those with the sensitivity of a rhino are at least a little reluctant to carry on all of our interpersonal transactions verbally when we’re in a public place. There are some things we don’t want others to hear.

Drucker’s 10 Times Rule

Another reason we aren’t farther along in the use of genies can be explained by what I call Drucker’s 10 Times Rule. Even students of Peter Drucker, the greatest management theorist of the 20th Century – indeed, the person often credited with inventing management theory – have never heard of the 10 Times Rule. That’s because I named it, after it jumped off the page at me when I was reading one of Drucker’s books. For him, it was just a throwaway, an aside he made on the way to making a more important point. To me, it explained something I had struggled with for years: How do you know if a new technology will succeed or not?

Drucker’s insight, with my phrasing, is this: For a new technology to replace an existing technology, it has to be 10 times better to cause companies to abandon the money they’ve invested in the existing technology. I interpreted this as meaning that a new technology had to be remarkably, startlingly better, not just twice or three times as good. The 10 times metric is a rule of thumb, not a mathematically precise law.

To this, I added Worzel’s Corollary: For a new technology to overcome the inertia of consumer behavior, it has to offer a consumer an experience she finds to be 10 times better than what she’s using now, or else she won’t bother to change.

So, why haven’t Siri and Watson made more inroads in changing the way we use computers? Because, applying Drucker’s rule, they aren’t 10 times better than using a keyboard – yet. We need a major, quantum leap in how easy Siri, for instance, is to use by having her (it?) be massively smarter at anticipating what we want.

I can see the outlines of what this super-Siri will have to be like: she has to be so familiar with what we do and the choices we make on a regular basis, that all we need to do is to start to articulate what we think we want, and she – correctly – jumps to where we’re going.

Are we there yet? Nope. But this is a chicken-and-egg problem. We have to use Siri and her sisters(?) enough that she has a reasonable background knowledge of us and our individual idiosyncrasies to be able to anticipate our needs and wants. But to develop that background, we have to be willing to use her – a lot – and so far, the technology isn’t good enough to inspire us to have patience and keep trying.

What we need, in short, is Steve Jobs, or someone very much like him, to tell us what we want before we know we want it, and create it for us. But while we wait, let me make some other observations about the genie of which I dream.

What else will tomorrow’s genie be able to do?

It will have peripherals to enable it to do things for us. Some will be in cyberspace, like encryption systems and virus and malware detection systems that constantly monitor what’s happening to us and our interests online. This won’t be absolutely criminal-proof; people are too smart, especially bad guys with money on their minds. Instead, online protection will be a constant battle of Spy-versus-Spy, with each side making advances and counting coup, then the other responding with advances of their own.

There will be peripherals that will enable our genies to better read us and anticipate what we want and need. They will watch our pupils to see if we’re bored or interested, and monitor our body temperature, heartbeat, and galvanic skin response to tell whether we’re excited, sad, upset, or in physical trouble or danger. This will help our genies help us learn, for instance, by changing education materials when we’re not responding to them. This, all on its own, will revolutionize education by helping us ensure that students are engaged in the material being taught, and when they’re not, searching for alternatives that are more engaging, or asking for help from a teacher.

Next, there will be physical world extensions to help us in various ways, only some of which I can anticipate. There are, for instance, what have been described as octopus-like hands and arms that already exist that you can wear strapped to your back to help you do things that require more than two hands. A tuned-in genie will be able to make such arms as easy to use, and require as little extra thought, as the arms you were born with.

I suspect that we will be able to have eye glasses (or contacts) that can be dynamically adjusted to what we’re looking at in order to optimize our eyesight, flexing the lenses to be more concave or convex, according to the focal point of the object you’re looking at, and gauged by how much eyestrain our eye muscles are exhibiting. In effect, you will be able to have perfect eyesight at all distances, from the very small and close to the very distant, according to the physical limitations of the (flexible) lenses themselves. Such lenses may eventually be fluids rather than solids to enhance the ability to change shape and focus, extending our range of vision far beyond our natural capabilities.

The wearable lie detector

What’s more, I believe our Looking Glasses will also be able to act as lie detectors for us by allowing our genies to gauge the body temperature, pulse rate, breathing pace, and to identify subliminal tics and transitory reactions the human body exhibits – involuntarily – when someone lies. This won’t be fool-proof, particularly among psychotics who believe their own lies, but will be mostly reliable.

And we may be able to have our genies watch over us as well, and in several different ways. The body-function sensors that I described above will enable our genies to monitor our health, heartbeat-by-heartbeat, calling our attention to an emerging illness or health threat, such as a heart attack or stroke. Or, if the threat is imminent and important enough, our genies may make a call for help to our family, our doctor, or an emergency medical service if appropriate.

And our genies may be able to literally watch over us, perhaps by flying hockey-puck-sized drones equipped with cameras above us and the area around us, watching for threats to our physical well-being, such as a car speeding towards us, or a mugger ahead of us, lurking around a corner. When such drones spot a problem emerging, our genie will issue the appropriate warning, and may call in outside help as well, such as the police, or a private security service.

But the greatest effects genies will produce are likely to be the things I can’t see or imagine. The primary effects of a new technology are reasonably simple to anticipate, but the downstream or domino effects are much more complicated and difficult to foresee, partly because they interact with other environmental factors. How will people react, for instance, to being scanned to see if they’re lying? And what are the social implications of a society where lying becomes substantially more difficult? I don’t know – but I suspect we’ll find out.

So for all of these possibilities, I dream of genie – or rather a genie – who will take over the annoying details of my life and make them easier.

© Copyright, IF Research, August 2014.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Linda Wiens Aug 19, 2014 Link

    I found the article very interesting and stimulating, and received some immediately useful ideas.

    I am glad you continue to explore the future!
    My own path has changed quite a bit since the 90s when I, too, examined, imagined and worked toward a vision for the future.

    Interesting: While I now associate with far more well-educated people in various professional fields (in suburban Chicago) than in the past, there is very little talk about what the future may, will or should bring. People are not excited about exploring what “vision” or “visionary” means, let alone form a vision for themselves or their organization.

    My younger co-workers are hugely more savvy in using digital technologies than I am, but not at all thoughtful about where those might lead us.

    As a result, I found this article especially refreshing.