What Life Will Look Like In The Future
From robo homes to accelerated reality, urban hubs are set to change beyond recognition – here is how to adapt now.
The year 2016 doesn’t bear much resemblance to the light-speed visions/android butler premonitions/extraterrestrial erotic dreams that you had back in the 20th century. (Don’t pretend you didn’t.) No one doubts that we’re living through a period of profound technological change – the Second Machine Age, as it has been dubbed by Messrs Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – and that it is going to change the way we live in some way. But it often seems to consist of people updating their Facebook Stories and searching for Pokémon. Seen from a certain angle, it’s a bit more like the “bad” 1985 than the then-future 2015 of Back To The Future Part II, and no flying cars.
All the same, in recent years even the cynics among us will have done a few double takes. Driverless taxis are coming into operation in Singapore. China has developed a bus that appears to eat cars. Geneticists claim that supercharged photosynthesis will soon solve world hunger. Nasa is preparing to send human beings to Mars (if Mr Elon Musk doesn’t get there first). Hologram calls are predicted to materialise with the next wave of smartphones. MR PORTER already does same-day deliveries. And hell, as I checked in for a London-LA flight the other day, the teleprompter informed me that hoverboards were not permitted in hand luggage. Yeah, so the hoverboards don’t actually hover. But still.
“The World Economic Forum predicts that five million jobs will be lost to Artificial Inteligence by 2020”
How will this affect our day-to-day lives and, more importantly the homes we live in over the next decade or so? All the phase-one technology giants – Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon – are investing heavily in artificial intelligence (AI). It won’t necessarily mean robot butlers in your lounge any time soon, but it may mean robot clerical workers as voice-recognition software, instant translation, customer service chatbots and legal software that can process millions of documents start to automate many informational tasks. This, in turn, will affect the sort of careers that are available to us. The World Economic Forum predicts that five million jobs will be lost to AI in the 15 major economies by 2020.
If the first phase of the digital era was all about information, the second phase will be more focused on the material world, as web 3.0 develops in and around your home. You might see the taxi firm Uber as the harbinger. Its founder, Mr Travis Kalanick, speaks of the dream of using your smartphone as a “remote control for life”. And making actual things actually happen is a common theme with Amazon’s investments in drone delivery services and Google’s investments in driverless cars.
Many entrepreneurs are applying the startup mindset to challenges that existed before the digital world. Housing. Disease control. Social inequality. City design. World hunger. Democracy. An ageing population.
From robo homes to neocities, the immediate future has never looked so unfamiliar. Here we look at the five things that are going to change the way we live.
Back in 2014, humankind passed an important landmark: more than half the world’s population were living in cities. By 2050, more than two-thirds are predicted to have made that transition. And the cities are going to get bigger. In 1990, there were 10 megacities (cities with more than 10 million inhabitants) in the world. Today, according to the UN, there are 28. By 2030, there are predicted to be 41.
City mayors will be required to keep pace with developments or risk overcrowding and infrastructure failures. Tech companies are investing in projects that aim to remodel cities around the demands of the new digital era (see Google’s Sidewalk Labs or Facebook’s Menlo Park projects). But increasingly, they are applying a startup mentality to cities. Rather than trying to repurpose medieval street plans and Victorian infrastructure, why not build brand new zones that are fine-tuned for a post-car, high-speed, digitally connected future?
The term neocity was coined by Mr Yury Liftshits of San Francisco-based education initiative Entangled Solutions. Key features include a fully automated underground transport system; a river-pool that enables residents to swim to work; the “Netflix of playgrounds”, which will allow 2,000 children to play in the same space; terraced roofing to allow an entirely walkable roof system; and startup-style funding to allow rapid growth into megacities. OK, so none of these is planned as yet, but it sounds pretty exciting. And isn’t it time we started dreaming a little?
Finding somewhere to live is fraught with practical and emotional challenges, particularly for twentysomethings stepping away from the family home for the first time. Co-living is emerging as a new model that disrupts the traditional flat rental market, much as co-working spaces such as Second Home have disrupted business rentals for freelancers and small companies.
The Collective Old Oak in Willesden, northwest London, claims to be the largest building of its kind, offering a “convenient and fulfilling” way of finding your place in the modern metropolis. Each resident lives in a hyper-modern apartment and pays one bill for everything: rent, council tax, Wi-Fi, water, electricity (prices start at £250 per week for a studio). It’s a bit like student accommodation for grown-ups. You have your own bedroom and bathroom, but there are communal kitchens, launderettes, gyms, games rooms, libraries, spare rooms and entertaining spaces, so you can still have friends round for dinner.
“Millennials are more willing to share – not only products, but living space”
“It’s the same spirit as the sharing economy and collaborative consumption,” says Mr Peter Firth, foresight editor of trend forecasters Future Laboratory, who has been watching the trend emerge. “We’re still living in a post-recession economy and millennials don’t have the money, so they have to be more creative about what they spend it on. They’re more willing to share – not only products, but living space.”
It mirrors the campus model that’s favoured in creative companies, the idea that drawing together likeminded people from different disciplines will result in creativity. However, the Collective explicitly references the loneliness epidemic and invites you to join people on a “similar journey”. The large social trend across the West is for people to live alone. The proportion of Americans who live alone has grown steadily since the 1920s, increasing from roughly five per cent then to 27 per cent in 2013. Co-living is a way to step ahead, and it could be the answer for couples who can’t afford to divorce (there are rooms available for adults and a child) and, with our ageing population, a cheerier antidote to old people’s homes.
By now you should be familiar with the concept of the internet of things, the idea that soon, your oven, toilet and toaster will be connected into one enormous network. It always sounds a little alarming to me. I don’t want my fridge defriending me on Facebook because I let the milk go off. And I certainly don’t want to return home to find the coffee maker has eloped with the microwave.
Still, there’s little doubting that the next wave of domestic innovation is pretty exciting. The Moley robotic chef resembles something from the Jetsons. It features a pair of two fully articulated robotic arms that reproduce all the functions of human hands “with the same speed, sensitivity and movement”. It won the Best Of The Best award at the Asian Consumer Electronics Show in Shanghai in 2015, and its makers promise a consumer version next year. Perhaps more practical will be the next generation of smart cookers, such as the June Intelligent Oven, which uses high-definition cameras to recognise the dish you’ve placed inside it, weighs it, measures it, and cooks it to your precise specifications.
Then there are the innovations coming to your bathroom. Anyone who has had the pleasure of defecating in Japan will be familiar with Toto’s multifunctional bottom-warming toilets. Its latest is the Flowsky, which makes sure that your, erm, flow is all it should be and informs the nearest urology department if it’s not. The new generation of bathroom scales from Withings not only measures your weight but also your heartrate, BMI and body fat and then grasses you up to your phone and prescribes a new exercise regime. To compensate, there’s a new generation of smart mirrors – made possible by new TOLED (transparent organic light emitting diodes) screens – that function a bit like a sophisticated Snapchat filter, allowing you to experiment with different looks while browsing the headlines.
A few years ago, US technologist Ms Linda Stone coined the expression “continuous partial attention”. It’s a phrase that captures our desire “to connect and be connected continuously, enabling us to effectively scan for opportunity and optimise for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment”.
We will all become attuned to processing information at faster speeds. “History shows that any time humans have been faced with the option of doing things faster or doing things slower, they always take the faster option,” says Mr Robert Colvile, author of The Great Acceleration. “In other words, if you think life is moving at a breakneck speed right now, you better fasten your safety belt.”
“Ultimately, the thing about social networks is not the network aspect – it’s the social aspect”
Mr Colville asks us to consider how the pace of life has increased exponentially. Studies have shown that people walk faster in faster cities. A Fortune 500 CEO is so assailed by emails, they have only 28 uninterrupted productive minutes a day. “When Blackberries first became popular among the business class, people found it unbearably rude,” he says. “Now it’s completely normal. It’s only logical to suppose that trend will accelerate.”
The era of shared consensual reality will end as we all occupy our own domains. It’s already rare to give someone your undivided attention, what with our smartphones buzzing needily in our pockets every two minutes. In a few years’ time, a typical mealtime could involve a child playing a geospatial video game that makes Pokémon Go look like Space Invaders, a father scanning a business report in the corner of his contact lens and a mother silently coordinating an affair via a synaptic interface. But it’s not all bad, says Mr Colvile. “Ultimately, the thing about social networks is not the network aspect – it’s the social aspect. So the fact that you’re absent from your physical reality won’t mean that you’re absent from human society.”
The wonder of the worldwide web is that it gives you the information you want when you want it, if not before. Google now uses artificial intelligence to give you answers before you’ve even finished formulating your questions. However, while communication speeds are accelerating, you could argue that the quantum leap was made with the telegraph (which reduced the time it took for a message to cross the Atlantic from weeks to seconds) as opposed to superfast broadband (which reduced it from seconds to nanoseconds).
What is new is the prospect of moving actual stuff around. Uber is already moving into product delivery with UberRush, now on trial in North America, and Amazon recently unveiled its Prime Air service aims, which it promises will deliver lightweight items by drone within 30 minutes. Mr Paul Misener, the internet retail giant’s vice-president of global innovation policy and communications, says: “If a customer runs out of coffee or toothpaste, two-day shipping may not be the right choice. We’re developing shipping options so they can choose what works best for them.” The company says it could be the ideal option for someone who has forgotten to take a corkscrew to a picnic. As opposed to, say, screwcaps.
Then there are apps such as Markable, which offers gratification so instant as to transform. It enables you to snap a picture of any outfit you happen to see on the street and then use image-recognition software to work out where to buy it (one-click purchase), so it’s waiting for you when you get home. Neat. That’s if you can bear to step outside owing to the constant noise of delivery drones overhead.
Illustrations by Mr Andrea Mongia