THE FAR SIDE
DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS IS JUST ONE AREA WHERE TECHNOLOGY PROMISES PROFOUND — IF WEIRD — CHANGES.

Byline: Peter Braunstein

Computer chips keep getting smaller, their capabilities are expanding. Scientists are currently anticipating and developing a technology-enhanced future world that’s smarter, easier and stocked with machines of greater efficiency — but perhaps dubious necessity.
Here are some select glimpses of this Brave — or, from another perspective, Profoundly Alienating — New World.

Super shuttle. Imagine flying from New York to Paris in 45 minutes, or New York to Tokyo in under two hours. That may become possible with the advent of Hypersoar, a plane that travels at nearly 7,000 miles an hour — 10 times the speed of sound. Don’t look now (it’d be hard to see, anyhow), but it’s coming. This post-Concorde innovation, a prototype of which is currently in development, attains these record speeds by skipping the earth’s atmosphere and spending most flight time in space.

Look smart. Sick of that twice-a-year switch from light to heavy clothes? Smart fabrics will automatically adjust to changes in climate, so that the same piece of clothing will keep you warm in winter and cool in summer. Thanks to the development of fibers that expand and contract with temperature changes, smart fabrics will soon become deployable on the design end. Still, the question remains: Will anybody care? Short of having to pack light for a stint in the desert, most people don’t really want to wear the same clothing year-round, so it remains to be seen whether demand will amount to much.

Move over, Berlitz. Thanks to the translating telephone, you may be able to converse with associates in French, Japanese, or other languages. Already under development at MIT’s Computer Science Laboratory, this speech-understanding technology would emit computer-generated paraphrases of your conversation in the language of your choice.

If looks could kill… then the bodynet may someday be classified as a lethal weapon. A sort of wearable Web of digital communications devices, the bodynet is the logical, if extreme extension of the man/machine continuum that currently is manifested in all those people dashing around on the street gabbing while plugged into their mobile phones and headpieces. The bodynet is centered around a pair of “magic glasses” that monitors your eyes to detect motion and acts as an interface with other gadgets — cell phone, watch, TV, diary — sufficiently miniaturized to carry in your belt. These gadgets communicate with each other in a language called “bodytalk,” transmitted via low-power radio waves circulating in an invisible envelope around your body, the “bodynet” itself. A green light flashing in the upper corner of your glasses would indicate an incoming phone call, and through the direction of your glance you would either answer it or route it to voice mail.

Pass the remote. Future technological innovations also tend to fetishize remote control and access. Electronic noses, rather than real-life dogs, are already being used at some airports to sniff hard-to-detect substances such as drugs and explosives in luggage. There’s even research into the development of remote, or tele-surgery, wherein doctors — on the golf course, say — will be able to operate on a patient in another city by eyeing a high-res TV monitor while robotic scalpels perched above the patient carry out the surgeon’s computer-designated actions. This latter innovation may, understandably, encounter some degree of resistance from patients.