Flying cars, no; embedded communications devices, yes
Several things have happened in my lifetime that I never thought would happen. Man landed on the moon. The White Sox won the World Series. My adult children no longer think that I’m a complete moron, as they did when they were teenagers. The Berlin Wall tumbled. Now, another unfathomable event seems to be on the cusp of happening, based on what I’ve been reading lately: the wristwatch is about to be tossed onto the scrap heap.
The reason is fairly simple: the vast majority of people carry their mobile devices with them 24/7, and those devices have very accurate clocks that automatically change time zones, thanks to their embedded GPS chips. So, who needs to bother with a wristwatch anymore? Increasingly, the answer seems to be, “no one.”
This troubles Marty Cooper more than a little bit. Not the apparently imminent demise of the wristwatch — we didn’t talk about that when we spoke a couple of weeks ago. Rather, Cooper, who led the Motorola team that invented the cellular phone in the 1970s, is concerned about the ubiquitous tethering of people to their devices. I see the manifestation of this every morning and evening during my walk to the train station — people gabbing, texting and browsing, while paying almost no attention to what is going on around them. I’m continuously amazed that I haven’t seen one of them plastered by a bus or taxi. Look both ways when crossing the street? They don’t even look up.
During our chat, Cooper raised a question that I often have considered: Are we going to be slaves to our devices? Or are the devices going to be our slaves? At the moment, Cooper believes we’re kind of in-between but leaning a little more toward the former.
“Good technology is when the devices are there when you need them, and you don’t have to learn anything to use them — they just make your life better, they expand the capability of your brain, they entertain you, educate you and make you more productive,” he said. “And they do all that without being intrusive. … That’s the ideal device. When I need it, it’s right there. When I don’t need it, it’s out of the way.”
Cooper thinks today’s devices are too intrusive and too difficult to use. He envisions the ultimate ideal device coming in three or four decades.
“Let’s go way into the future — your grandchildren will be using a phone that’s embedded under their skin, likely under their ear,” he said. “Why is it embedded there? The most important reason is that they won’t need a battery. The human body is an energy converter — we eat food and we create energy. It would be very easy to take a fraction of a watt and feed it into this phone.”
The device that Cooper dreams about would be much more than a phone — it would be your personal assistant. He said that 30 or 40 years from now, computers will have more processing power than the human brain. Consequently, the device that would be stuck behind our ears will be very, very smart. We’ll be able to talk to it and ask it questions — and it will be able to interpret what we’re saying. It will be able to do all kinds of things for you beyond making phone calls. And it would be smart enough to turn itself off when instructed — like when you want to watch a movie or take a nap.
This isn’t all that far-fetched when you think about it. Roughly four decades ago, my parents finally purchased their first UHF-capable television, which was a very big deal at the time. Now, consider what we have in our living rooms today.
“The purpose of technology is to make our lives easier, better and more convenient,” Cooper said. “You shouldn’t have to think about technology. It shouldn’t get into your way — it should enhance what you do.”
He admitted that the idea of implanting such a device behind the ear and somehow harvesting energy produced by the body would frighten most people today. But he predicted that a couple of generations from now, people won’t care very much at all.
I have to admit, the notion sort of creeps me out. Sort of like the way contact lenses creeped me out when I first started wearing them as a teenager. The thought of placing a piece of plastic onto my eyeball was freaky. Now, I think nothing of it. I suppose it would work the same way for an embedded wireless communications device.
Of course, the idea also has Orwellian “Big Brother” overtones. But Cooper had an answer for that, too.
“Yes, there’s a chance that you might lose some privacy, but when you think about it, in the world we live in today, privacy is a myth,” he said. “Whether you know it or not, you’re being recorded, watched, measured and observed in every way that you can imagine, all the time.”
Talk about a creepy notion.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.