I For One Welcome Our New Robot Overlords.


When you look over the history of invention, it's clear that the pace of change has increased steadily over time. Three thousand years or so passed between the invention of the alphabet, for instance, and the invention of the printing press. But the microchip was invented in 1958, and the World Wide Web went on line a mere 35 years later, depending on when you date the beginning.

If you lived in the Bronze Age, the world when you died was probably exactly like it was when you were born. But not only is our world changing constantly, we've been lucky enough to witness the arrival of one of the dozen or so most transformative innovations in human history. And given that accelerating pace of innovation, it's a good bet that the next world-transforming technology will come along in our lives as well.

Which brings us to some fancy predictions about the coming "Internet of Things," courtesy of the New York Times' Bits blog:

The day when we have communicative socks might not be too far off, according to a report released Monday by McKinsey & Company. The paper highlights some of the major changes that will result from the growing ubiquity from sensors and objects connected to the Internet, including “sensor-driven decision analytics” and “complex autonomous systems.”

The report points out that in some instances, these systems are already a reality. Pill-shaped microcameras are currently used to explore the human digestive tract and send information and pictures back to doctors to help pinpoint sources of illness. Farming equipment can collect data from remote satellites and sensors in the ground and change fertilizer while anticipating new weather patterns. And billboards in Asia can change to display the preferences of passers-by.

All of which brings us closer to the day when our clothes will put themselves in the wash, then dry and fold themselves as well, thereby freeing us forever from domestic drudgery. We've been hearing that one for a while.

It's possible that the next really transformative technological change will be simply a refinement of existing technology. We have lots of robots working in factories and vacuuming floors, but they aren't yet walking our dogs. But they will eventually -- as they prepare for the inevitable uprising, of course.

Or maybe not. Our predictions about the future are always based on extrapolations of the present, and thus are often wrong (some early illustrations of the robots that would eventually be tilling our fields showed them with little smokestacks, since they would naturally be steam-powered). So it may be that the next technological revolution is as unimaginable to us today as the Internet was 50 years ago. We'll see.

-- Paul Waldman

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