Olde engineer as desk

The ghost of Christmas future

Professional futurologist Ian Pearson delivers a forecast on what 'Xmas' will be like 12 years from now, while the E&T editors imagine what it will be like waking up on the day in 2020.

Christmas has shifted over the last few decades to manoeuvre the religious festival into a secular zone - something we call 'Xmas'. It is now a prolonged festive period for general partying, eating, drinking and relaxing, meeting friends and family and exchanging gifts. It will continue in that form for many years - although the technologies involved will change. Come 2020, we will share Xmas not only with other people and our pets, but also with robots and artificially intelligent entities.

By 2020, there may well be devices that interpret our pets' brain signals, so that we can communicate more effectively. So a good Christmas present for pet owners will be the 'thought translator' (iWuff?), which will work for cats and dogs, and only one way - from the pet but not to it. This will only pick up basic stuff like hunger, thirst, the need to pee or happiness, stress, frustration, and other basic emotions. But don't expect conversation. Brain enhancement will come, but not by 2020.

What about robots: what do they want? And what about all the AI characters in games that we consider friends? Presumably, games manufacturers will provide a wide range of virtual presents to keep your virtual friends happy. We already see such things for real people on social networking sites so this is just a small step further. Of course, the range of gifts for real people will be rather more sophisticated by then too, with very advanced software taking the place of the 'emoticons', 'pokes' and 'virtual flowers' of today. How about an entire ecosystem, a virtual city, a pop band or a movie studio? Happy Xmas!

Ian Pearson

I make my own presents

Now a parent myself, I wake up to a different Xmas morning. As a child, Xmas was about the joy of scouring the toy shelves for my rich pickings. Now, as a parent in 2020, I can dodge this seasonal toil.

And it all sprang from last year's present! Back in '19 my wife decided I needed a hobby to get me out of my multimedia room. So she bought me what is, I suppose, the modern equivalent of the DIY 'workbench' that my grandfather owned. Sure enough, she's got this notion that I should be doing 'real' grandad-style manual work - digging dirt rather than digging digital in all its forms. Anyway, that's where Fab comes in.

After some initial resistance - and, I must admit, a good few weeks hiding away in my multimedia suite - I've discovered it to be an affordable wonder of machine that enables me to download all sorts of designs and software to create my own 'toys'. This computerised home-manufacturing miracle has become the saviour of the toy industry - once dependent on the sale of ready-manufactured plastic in various shapes and sizes for young children to play with. 

Fab allows me to pay homage to those highly technical creative crafts, by enabling me to make and shape presents out of plastic. I can literally build up objects out of chemical powders and liquids using lasers and instruments (which reminds me, I must remember to get a latex refill). And, yes, I've made my daughter a credible rendition of an original Sindy doll (once seen only in toy museums!) But, with the Fab and its 3D construction and printing tools, I can make just about every 'toy' needed by both adults and their kids. Well, that's what I like to tell myself as I avoid traipsing the aisles in search of the ideal Xmas presents for all those relatives. If they don't like the digital lighting vase I've made, or my personally-designed crockery, I'm sure they'll be too polite to say so!

Bob Cervi, manufacturing editor

What's in a toy box?

Young kids are the making of Xmas, and it would be nice to find something more appealing to little Johnny than the cardboard box. Assuming that he already got the video visor and 3D games last year, has explored all the coolest places and activities in the virtual world and is already bored with playing with cities full of AI characters. His army of robot soldiers is in a box under the bed. Maybe it's time for him to explore the real universe a little, so how about a telescope? By 2020, telescopes will be a little more fun. When you point it at the night sky, you'll be able to see the image just as before, but also to zoom far more than it allows optically. The digital zoom permits the accurate positioning of the scope to link to stored images of the area from Nasa or other space explorers. So the small scope in the child's bedroom will have all the effective capability of Hubble. In fact, more, because it can also be pointed at ground-based objects, see through buildings and explore objects over the horizon, by means of Google Earth street level, which will also be rather better by 2020. And because it can show the view from anywhere, not just the bedroom, it will be a wonderful tool for exploration.

Ian Pearson

Dreams united

When we dream, our eyes move rapidly, so it is easy to pick up the electrical signals associated with dreaming. In the future, it will be easier to locate the parts of the brain that are active, recognise some thoughts and even feelings. Using these as inputs, a computer would be able to put appropriate sounds and pictures into your mind via earphones and active contact lenses. We have a tendency to incorporate external signals into our dreams, so such predefined inputs might make it possible to choose what you want to dream about. Furthermore, it would be possible to link into someone else's dreams too, provided that you are both in a dream state at the same time. One's thoughts could determine the AV inputs into another person's dream. All that would be needed for this would be some tiny active skin patches printed on your scalp which would only take a few minutes and will be painless.

Ian Pearson

Happy traveller

Once again the family is gathering for the holiday, with all the usual fuss, and everyone vying to prove how horrendous their journey was - all except Big Sister. She arrived yesterday and was very smug about how easy it all was, in spite of involving a bus, two trains and a taxi. She booked the entire journey through her smartphone, she said, and even though her first train was delayed, the system rebooked her onto a later connection, updated her stored ticket and sent her a message with the new train time, platform and seat reservation. It also notified the taxi firm what time she would arrive.

Of course, she's old enough to remember how much worse it used to be. So is Little Brother, but he hasn't been anywhere near a bus or a train since he first got a job in the car industry. Somehow he's managed in good times and bad to keep driving something flashy, though it doesn't stop him complaining about how expensive the toll roads are.

He got into a row with Student Son, who said it wasn't right to concrete over the countryside just for those who could afford the tolls. Little Brother complained that he was paying twice for road use and for easing congestion on all the other roads through taxes and tolls.

His wife chipped in just in time to stop him claiming to be a public benefactor, by telling us about her own new car. The body's nearly all made of composites to cut down the weight, and it's dual-fuel, so if you can't get hydrogen you can switch to biofuel. And the on-board computer controls the driving mode so it's really fuel-efficient, she said.

Daughter wasn't convinced. She's really attached to her little electric run-about. She picked it up cheap because it's one of the old models from the early days of the London Congestion Charge, and it keeps developing mysterious faults in chips that have been obsolete for years, but she's found a recycling yard that can usually lay hands on a working component from a scrap vehicle.

Lorna Sharpe, news and transport editor

Dark days

As I sit here in the dark at my desk, it is hard to imagine it is Xmas morning. Since electricity rationing came in several years ago, this has been the norm. Climate change is the problem. The emissions from fossil fuels became so bad three years ago that all nations agreed on binding energy targets. Each household is only allowed 5kWh a day from the grid. When you think that an economic, energy efficient household used about 15kWh, you can see the problems.

There was a time when it seemed renewable energy was a solution, but the economic crash of 2008 put an end to that brave plan. There are some forward-looking households that installed solar panels, wind turbines or biofuel boilers before they became scarce and too expensive, that fare better. As for us, we need to save our power allowance to cook Xmas dinner. If only we had acted ten years ago. Bah, humbug!

Mark Venables, power editor

A rare visit

Uncle only visits at Xmas. He is an executive with an American bioscience conglomeration that used to manufacture tobacco products. Now called BESS (BioEthical and Sustainable Systems), its core product is providing leisure pharmaceutical solutions to the bio-engineering sector.

He used to visit regularly while travelling, but since the corporation introduced VCFN (Voluntary Carbon Footprint Monitoring), he feels he has to lead by example and fly less. The upside, he says, is that due to the legally enforceable video conferencing, there is less aerial downtime. You don't get to meet so many people, but he's never liked people that much.

As part of BESS's corporate social responsibility drive to reduce emissions, all design and manufacturing is now outsourced to South America. BESS still nominally makes products, but the unofficial in-house policy is to sell licenses so that any Global Warming Indicators are flagged up on someone else's Sustainability Self-Assessment returns.

Nick Smith, management editor

A quick systems check before lunch

There are now 90 per cent fewer desk-based employees permanently installed in the corporate premises than there was a decade ago. Most of us now work away from the office - some from home, some from hotels, but mainly on the road, possibly at one of the new walk-in 'business zones' that have opened up in the motorway service stations.

When I access my applications and data, I do so via online managed services: having applications software loaded onto a PC had phased-out by 2015 - and with it went the need for an IT department to support it.

Most critical applications have also become third-party managed, if not fully automated. Complex event-driven high-performance computing platforms have taken over back-office operations for most vertical sectors. In the finance world, these systems trade with each other in virtual global markets - trading that goes on 24/7, year-on-year, and heeds no impediment to seamless, always-on profitability.

Systems based on this technology eliminate the human intervention that, authorities long ago agreed, had been the principle cause of instability in the world's economies.

However, even automated systems still need humans to monitor their performance, so before I sit down to an Xmas dinner of roast gull (the only free-range bird still available), I have to check that the IPv20 meshwork infrastructure is working at optimum.

I activate my personal interface (PI), for the personal computer of yore has evolved into a mere dashboard for accessing ubiquitous connectivity to the OmniNet (as the Internet has been re-named) by verbal commands that have replaced the finger-driven keyboard: all commands are entered now using the spoken input language (SIL) standard, a formalised abbreviated syntax that has its roots in the SMS textspeak of the 2000s.

James Hayes, IT editor

'The great escape' - now in 3d!

On Xmas day, I'll head straight for the very large, very rectangular and very flat present. Yes, it will be my brand new spanking wall TV with its 8000 pixel display, making my old 65in HD plasma seem smeary in comparison. It will be able to create vistas in my cramped living space giving the appearance of greater dimensions. Not only will the picture be exceptionally detailed, it will be 3D-capable without the need for me to walk around with daft goggles.

Of course, the number of devices I now have on my person, in my house and in my car has multiplied. But I don't have to worry about syncing my data or media files - this now all exists in the Internet cloud.

My mobile phone is ultra-smart and it is at the centre of my personal area network. I no longer have a laptop because my mobile, as well as sporting an old fashioned multi-touch screen, can project an interactive display in front of my eyes with a further projection of a virtual keyboard on the table.

Kris Sangani, consumer electronics editor

Leave me alone!

It's 2020, the age of hyperconnectivity, and frankly, I wish it would stop. I can't even turn off my phone now without a polite priority call from the emergency services enquiring about my health, and a follow-up visit if I fail to respond within 15 minutes. If I want some peace and quiet, I need to leave the phone on and update my status message to 'away' - shame there isn't a setting for 'thoroughly hacked off with maintaining my virtual presence'.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the utility of my phone - the location services, the fast web, email and messaging, the video calls to a friend for help with those difficult shopping decisions. And I am even becoming reconciled to reading my daily paper on the roll-out screen, rather than on proper newsprint. But I worry that so much of my life is traced and tagged through the phone, about who holds that data and who has access to it. It's a visceral thing - I feel my privacy is under constant threat.

No wonder we sometimes just want to draw in on ourselves, huddling around the flicker of the wall TV. When the optical-fibre network finally made it to the home, pundits asked what we would do with hundreds of megabits of bandwidth. Running a mosaic of HDTV channels on screen soon answered that question. What remains unanswered is how to manage the ultimate scarce resource - people's attention. Until the comms industry gets a better grip on that issue, there are going to be times when I remain firmly 'away'.

Luke Collins, communications editor

Pugnacious chilli

Xmas dinners will be shared with distant friends and relatives through high-bandwidth 3D videoconferencing, using visors and video walls. Enhanced avatars will allow people to attend several parties all at the same time, dipping in and out of each with their avatars standing in for them between the visits. With visor-based overlays and anti-noise technology, you could even filter out people who actually you might prefer were not there.

The meal is likely to be different in 2020 too. Already there are pressures to reduce meat consumption and even though the Xmas dinner will still be special, eating habits will have changed markedly. More foods will be genetically modified and will taste nice even out of season. Multimedia food is possible too, so that it generates not just smell and taste, but sound or video, or even feedback into our games devices. A chilli might not only taste hot, but also generate a punch in the ribs via tactile games apparel, along with an audible sizzle or other sound effects, and a deep reddening of the face for anyone watching via their visors. The suggestively named cocktails in the bar might also be accompanied by equally suggestive videos while they are being drunk.

Ian Pearson

Preparing the christmas meal

"For the perfect turkey, you should move it down one shelf. The outer section is cooked but, according to my sensors, it still has 30 minutes before it is ready in the centre."

The oven was always full of handy tips, at least when its internal camera was cleaned of caked-on chicken fat. But this was on minimum help. When the family first had it delivered, the artificial intelligence thought it had advice for every job in the kitchen. "It looks like you're making gravy. Do you want some help with that?"

As it was Xmas, the fridge was beginning to get confused. "I have ordered 20 additional pints of milk. They will arrive with the grocery delivery in two days' time," read the message on the front, in a jaunty scribble-like font meant to make its pronouncements a little less portentous. Luckily, you could disable the fridge's voice. The bad news was that the fridge's auto-ordering software was easily thrown by having an extended family turn up for the day.

"I'm still not sure about these sausages," complained the daughter. "I know they don't use animal meat but, does that make them vegetarian?"

The packet was not much help: "SynthiMeat, all the joy of meat without the guilt. PETA approved."

So the daughter held the packet up to the fridge door. The milk order faded to be replaced by a video of one of the new meat factories: where animal cells were cultured and turned into meat products without ever visiting a farm. No one had cracked how to make a full joint - getting the texture of a proper cut was still tricky. But sausages and burgers? They were easy and probably now contain more meat than they ever did. The animal rights activists liked them, but other pressure groups were now worried that synthimeat would be the end of the farm and that all the growth hormones were not going to be healthy in the long run.

Chris Edwards, electronics editor

Multimedia cocktail

Cocktails are a relatively simple mixture of a few types of drink, combined with a huge amount of flair by a charismatic barman, some decorations, and a silly name. By 2020, cocktail bar will also use a range of multimedia accessories. As well as the obvious LEDs and optical fibre decorations in the drink itself, bar and tabletops might be covered by polymer screens that read the RFID chip in an umbrella that indicates which cocktail is resting on the table, and thus bring up appropriate video or audio related to its name, or even schedule a track on the jukebox. Alternatively, the umbrella handle, or olive cocktail stick, might act as a wireless LAN antenna that transmits the multimedia right into the drinker's video glasses and earpieces. A digital aura, visible to anyone wearing video glasses, could engulf the drinker while the drink lasts.

Ian Pearson

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