Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

By Request: Future tech


A while ago Subscriber Dan wrote:

I wish Apple could provide just-in-time information and requested information from the iPhone audibly perhaps via a Bluetooth ear bud. An audible approach could be less distracting in a number of environments.

Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before, but at Macworld Expo several years ago I saw Bill Atkinson, the creator of HyperCard, give a presentation about the future of computer interfaces, and he mentioned something quite similar to what Dan is describing. It has stuck with me because it seems like a logical way to interact with an artificial assistant without the weirdness of wearing special glasses or contacts.

If you’ve seen the movie “Her”—it’s very good, by the way—you’ve seen the extreme of this concept play out. Without spoiling what happens in the movie, “Her” is set in a world where people wear earpieces that connect to a digital assistant. The entire interface is like being on the phone—you speak and it listens and responds by speaking back to you.

What I like about this idea in general is that it seems much less intrusive to our existing social conventions. These days you can wear a hearing aid that’s essentially invisible, nestled down in your ear canal. And we’re also used to earbuds and headphones and the like sticking out of our ears. Surely it can’t be too long until companies like Apple and Google and Amazon can make a device you could stick in your ear that would connect to the Internet, speak to you, hear what you’re saying, and maybe even see the world around you. This is the ultimate promise of Siri and Alexa and Cortana and Google Now, really.

(The real drawback I see to this concept is the radiation itself: Sticking an Internet-connected device in your ear canal puts it pretty close to your brain; maybe it’s a dumber device that uses something like Bluetooth to talk to a more powerful radio in your pocket or on your wrist.)

Yes, in this scenario we’re all going to be standing around talking out loud to nobody, but is that much different from what we’re doing today?

Okay, so it may be that what we’re using now is what we’re going to end up using for centuries, only thinner and thinner until it’s just a thin sheet of glass like on the TV series “The Expanse.” (Another thing you should watch, by the way. The entire first season just ended, and it’s been renewed for a second season.)

The Expanse
The Expanse

But whenever I hear someone theorize that where we are is the end of the line, and things will not change from this point on, I will always bet that they’re wrong. I’m only 45 but I’ve seen this end-of-history argument too many times, and I’ve read a whole lot of old science fiction that shows just how wrong our expectations are about how much things can change. As Dr. Manhattan says in “Watchmen” (one of my favorite comic books of all time), “Nothing ever ends.” It just goes on and on and on…

As hard as it can be to envision how the cool technology of today could be seen as old, outmoded, and laughable, it will undeniably be seen as that—and probably sooner than you think. So as much as I appreciate “The Expanse’s” futuristic take on our current technology, it seems unlikely that we won’t be speaking to incredibly intelligent digital assistants in the future, at least as part of how we interact with the nearly inconceivable amount of computing power that will be available to everyone in the future.

The future doesn’t come all at once, though. It comes in increments. Apple and other tech companies get us there one product at a time. And we do our part as consumers by rejecting some ideas and embracing others, and (perhaps most interestingly) subverting the expectations of the products’ creators and using their tech in surprising ways. This is how the future is made, one plodding step at a time.

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