I have no idea why I’ve written this.
Today I submitted to Microsoft Studios’ HoloLens: Share Your Idea the idea that I had as soon as I saw HoloLens revealed at their Windows 10 event, just 11 months ago. It’s an app for runners to draw out a route on Bing (or Google) Maps, so that HoloLens can place coins or whatever along the route for you to collect. With pingly noises when you pick them up, and everything. I called it "Run For Coins", because naming is hard.
It’s probably not a workable idea for the first-generation HoloLens, which looks pretty bulky and is definitely expensive, so probably not something you want to stick on your face when you nip out for a 10K run. But this is basically the public prototype, like the Oculus Rift Developer Kits, or the Gear VR Innovator’s Edition.
I’m going to get all futurologist now; please bear with me.
The first iPhone was released only eight years ago (July 29th, 2007). It didn’t have 3G; it had a 3.5" screen with 480×320 resolution; the CPU was a 32-bit single-core clocked at 412Mhz; the most storage you could get was 8GB; the camera was crap.
The iPhone 6S, which shipped in September this year: has 4G; a 4.7" screen with 1334×750 resolution; a 64-bit dual-core CPU clocked at 1.8Ghz, plus GPU and that motion co-processor thingy; comes with up to 128GB of storage; the camera is 12MP and can record 4K video at 240fps. All that, and it’s only 0.3oz heavier than its ancestor.
That’s how fast technology moves, and it’s still accelerating.
So just think what HoloLens’ descendant will be like in 2025. I’m picturing something that looks similar to sporty sunglasses, like the Nike X2 Run brand.
I don’t know if they’ll be able to fit all the HoloLens 8.0 hardware in that; they might, or it might be in something you carry in your pocket or handbag, talking to the glasses wirelessly.
What I am pretty sure about is that these things will project full-field (no clipped rectangle) augmented reality that adapts to wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, rendering absolutely anything you can imagine, on or in or around your environment.
And then there’s Magic Leap, and whatever it is that they’re doing, something about projecting images directly onto your retina with different light wavelengths based on distance. That’s what they’re doing right now. Where’s that going to be in 10 years? They’ve employed Neal Stephenson as their "Chief Futurist"; he wrote Snow Crash 23 years ago, and envisaged a VR/AR personal computing device that projected images onto your retinas (as well as a bunch of other cool stuff).
This future is coming, and it’s coming soon.
And I can’t stop thinking about what that’s going to mean for the world as we know it.
Right now, my house has about 20 screens in it that I can think of, including TVs, monitors, laptops, tablets, phones and my Pebble Time Steel. With advanced AR, all of those become redundant. Any flat surface, from a wall to a tabletop to a scrap of paper, can be turned into a touch-controlled display. If you don’t need to touch it, it can be rendered floating in space. Your 50" UHD OLED TV can just be simulated, wherever you want it to be. Your walls can be any colour, or design, or video stream that you want. Pictures in frames can be simulated, or maybe short video clips, like Harry Potter photos.
Anything that exists simply to be looked at will no longer need to physically exist.
And things that do need to physically exist, that are manufactured or produced to be used or played with or eaten, are on the verge of a revolution too. You can already buy a hobbyist 3D printer for £1000 that will make little plastic doodads for as long as you can feed it polymer filaments and digital models. That technology is progressing pretty fast, too; there are 3D printers that can produce functioning circuit boards, for example. You can print food, too: NASA can already print pizzas… in Outer Space. And in China, they’re even printing houses.
Of course, Neal Stephenson wrote a novel that predicted this, too: Diamond Age is near-future sci-fi where everything is just constructed from molecules by widely-available machines. Since carbon molecules are more common than silicon, diamond is cheaper to make than glass, hence the title. Recycling happens by putting used items into "the feed", which pulls apart the molecules for redistribution.
(Also, in that world, everything can be done at nano-scale, so each page in the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (the book the story is about) is a tiny mechanical computer that is thousands of times more powerful than your laptop.)
Add to everything above all the advances in robotics and AI that we can expect over the next 10 years — self-driving cars and trucks, autonomous drones and the like — and we’re looking at a world without manufacturing, distribution, agriculture… a world without jobs, in fact.
I’m interested to see how that’s going to pan out. In Star Trek, where replicators can produce everything using transporter technology, humans live in a "post-scarcity society". It’s not entirely clear from the TV shows or the movies how that actually works, and why people sign up to wear red uniforms and obey orders from stern people (and fly spaceships right into interesting looking nebulae that are emitting non-random radio signals), but they do. Perhaps out of curiosity, or competition, or compulsion.
Our current system of economics is based entirely on scarcity: there is a limited amount of everything, so we’ve invented ways of controlling who gets what share of those scarce resources. The prevailing system, Capitalism, is based on the human invention "money", a system by which we’ve all agreed that some arbitrary number of units of currency "exist" (in a purely theoretical, non-physical sense). Money is deliberately made scarce because the things for which it is exchanged are scarce. Capitalism dictates that the most scarce resources cost the most money, which is why diamonds are expensive and salt water is free. This applies to people and their skills, too: jobs that require skills that take a long time (and above-average intelligence) to acquire, pay far better than jobs that anybody can do with a minimal amount of training.
When the majority of goods have been reduced to pure information — code to simulate something, or models to be printed — that can be copied infinitely at no cost at all, what then for Capitalism?
The raw materials can be mined or obtained or whatever by machines; 3D-printed robots that effectively cost nothing to build.
Somebody coined the term agalmics to describe this: the production of non-scarce goods and the society that this enables.
Yes, there are still going to be jobs that must be done by humans. Some people are going to be writing the software and creating the designs that drive all these virtual and augmented realities and 3D printers, iterating on them and improving them. For a long time, we’re still going to need human doctors and teachers and so on. And we’re a long way from building artificial intelligences that can create original works of art, like music or movies or games. But in a world with 8 billion people and an ever-ageing population, those jobs, comparatively, are going to be few and far between. Most people will not have work to do, at least not in the current sense of the word.
This raises interesting questions about how to persuade the few people with the necessary attributes and skills to give up their time, when we are going to have to provide for the majority for free, and since almost nothing will be scarce anymore, there will be no need to ration it out (or hold it hostage in exchange for labour (which is what capitalism amounts to)).
On good days, I hope for a world where people do what they love and what they are good at, just because they want to, and they share the fruits of their labour freely, because they can, because they want for nothing.
On good days, I envisage a post-scarcity utopia of 3D-printed plenty, where nobody says we can’t feed the world or save lives or explore space "because we can’t afford it".
People think money has to come from somewhere like hydro electric power or lumber or iron, and it doesn’t. Money is something we invent, like inches.
Remember the Great Depression, when there was a slump? And what did we have a slump of? Money. There was no less wealth, no less energy, no less raw materials than there were before. It was like you came to build a house one day and they said “Sorry! You can’t build this house today, no inches.” “What do you mean, no Inches?” “Oh, just inches, we got inches of lumber, inches of metal, we even got tape measurers. But there’s a slump in inches as such.” And people are that crazy they can have a depression because there are no inches to go around or dollars. That’s all a lot of nonsense.
(That’s a quotation from Alan Watts, who was awesome. He gave lectures about philosophy and Zen and all sorts of stuff, like this one about what you’d do if money was no object. You can get an audiobook of a lot of them from Amazon/Audible.)
Yes, I am aware of the irony that, in a post about the whole concept of money being hopefully moribund, half the links have Amazon Affiliate codes. Shut up.
I think I’ve got a follow-up post about what all this means for those of us who write code for a living. Maybe I’ll write it at the weekend.