The ten inventions nobody wants

Think back 30 years: no mobile phones, no internet, no cute kittens on Instagram. But also no spam, viruses or Windows Vista. Without a doubt, even greater innovations lie ahead in the next 30 years, but how do we avoid the mistakes? Here, Stuart Turton sends a warning to our future selves. It’s not too late… is it?

1. Generation Perfect

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“We’re on the cusp of having much more information, and the appearance of having much greater discretion, in choosing the traits of our children,” wrote bioethicist Thomas H Murray in a recent article on designer babies in the journal Science. “What use will we make of it, and should there be limits?”

It’s a conversation we’ll be having soon, because the genetically perfect genie’s already out of the test tube. In February 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration started discussing clinical trials of genetic-manipulation techniques aimed at preventing diseases in newborns. The problem is that all our genetic levers are kept behind the same locked door. Kick it down and everything from eye colour to height becomes a choice on a checklist.

But what happens when babies are customisable like cars? Rich and poor won’t only be a matter of who can afford the best lawyers, but who has the smartest, most beautiful children. It won’t even be a two-tier society; it will be them and everybody else, divided by an ever-widening genetic gap. Basically, do you want to live in a world where Kim Kardashian can bling her own baby?

2. AI up, lad

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It’s only a matter of time before Siri and Cortana swallow their respective OSes whole. Eventually, they won’t just be clever algorithms reminding us about birthdays and heavy traffic, but AIs that we can verbally interact with to get things done. When that happens, we’ll discover that Windows and OS X are know-it-all brickies who stop working every few hours for no reason.

Pleading with my PC not to crash is embarrassing enough without the computer telling me to “man up” in a Northern accent. In fact, we should probably agree to ban all AI research outright. At the end of the day, AI will either mirror the mind of its creator, or surpass it so completely we’ll have no idea how to control it. I call this the girlfriend protocol, and it’s terrifying.

3. Ad and subtract

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If Mad Men has taught us anything it’s that we were once brilliant at advertising. Ad executives would smoke 50 cigarettes straight and drink whisky by the tumbler-full, with inspiration materialising in the miasma of terrible living. Unfortunately, the moment they cleaned up their act, they lost their advertising mojo – allowing companies such as Google to swoop in.

Page’s prodigies aren’t interested in wooing us with products we haven’t seen before. They prefer to bludgeon us with ads for things we searched for two minutes ago. It’s the digital equivalent of having a used-car salesman follow you around all day because you glanced at a Volvo in his showroom.

As a result, it’s a bit difficult to be excited by the concept of video screens that know our names and pester us with products as we walk down the street. In Minority Report, Tom Cruise was catcalled by biometric billboards wanting him to buy an expensive car. In real life, most of us would find ourselves besieged by ads for flat-pack furniture and cheap holidays in the Med.

4. Voyeur of the damned

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Remember when we all thought The Truman Show was a comedy? Turns out Jim Carrey had a beady eye on the future all along, except the real version of The Truman Show isn’t remotely amusing.

Drones are already watching our streets 24/7. Cameras are being built into glasses and gizmos, while the internet’s learning how to link up every bit of data collected on us.

Forget voluntarily uploading stuff to Facebook and YouTube; it’s getting to the point where we can’t help but be caught on camera, our entire lives captured from every angle. Toss in some automatic facial-recognition tech, and it isn’t hard to conceive of a future in which every video of us is collated into an easily accessible folder, available to whichever authority decides it needs to see it.

5. Hollow words

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Dear J J Abrams,

Congratulations on landing the Star Wars director’s gig – it looks like you’ve done a great job. Quick favour, though, can you please ditch the holograms? I know George loved a bit of “help me Obi-Wan”, but have you noticed that holograms are rubbish? Have you, J J?

Imagine a world where pulling a sickie doesn’t involve only a few half-hearted coughs down the phone, but a full physical performance in your boss’ office. Imagine having some telesales worker appear in your living room while you’re eating dinner. That’s the reality of holograms, J J, and it’s a future in which all telephonic communication dies because it’s too much effort.

Case in point: I love my parents, but the crux of that love is the whopping lie I tell them when I need to hang up at the end of a particularly taxing telephone conversation. “Sorry mum, can’t talk about grandchildren right now, the house is on fire.” That sort of thing. Popularise holograms and you’re effectively ending millions of loving relationships. Is that what you want, J J?

Yours sincerely,

Stuart Turton

6. Speccy all eyes

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Google Glass could be the end of civilisation as we know it – a shame, since it’s a great idea in theory. Don’t know this person who seems to know you? No problem, Google Glass can perform facial recognition and deliver that information as elegantly as a butler delivering a crisp morning paper. Faux pas averted.

Except, anybody who’s ever used Glass knows this isn’t how it works. Google Glass switches people off whenever they try to use it. Their face goes blank, their eyes empty out, and the person they were is momentarily shunted to one side at Google’s request. It’s terrifying.

Think about it. You bump into an old friend you haven’t seen for a while. They see you and their face shuts down. A second later it reboots, a vapid smile leaping onto their face because Google has informed them it’s your birthday. Except that it isn’t your birthday. Or worse still, it’s your birthday and they don’t bother mentioning it, even though you know they know because they’re wearing Google Glass. Really, how can any friendship survive this sort of honesty?

7. The forever war

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Forgive me for turning serious all of a sudden, but war is heartbreaking; a dreadful, extravagant waste of life. It takes special thinking to solve this tragedy not by eradicating war, but by sending machines to fight our battles instead. While we’re used to drones scouring distant battlefields, their pilots hundreds of miles away, the next stop is to promote those pilots to managers, leaving the robots to pick their own targets and fire on them with impunity. Organisations such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are lobbying for an international ban on autonomous war machines, but with half of the world on fire, and the US quietly recommitting itself to campaigns in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia, there’s a suggestion that automated warfare may arrive sooner rather than later.

8. Metal hearts

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Tech companies have a perverse fascination with my health. Smartwatches seem determined to monitor every aspect of my well-being, from the number of footsteps I take in a day to my heart rate and who knows what else. Google, Microsoft and Apple all want to stash this information, along with my medical records, on their servers, while EA’s digital gaming service, Origin, tells me to get a life when I’ve played FIFA for too long.

But here’s what they’re all missing. I know I’m lazy. I didn’t wake up one day to discover I’d become Benny Hill overnight, and the situation isn’t going to be resolved by a wrist-mounted guilt box telling me to take a run in the rain because my blood pressure is so high it could launch a rocket into orbit. This is data-mining disguised as corporate concern, and it isn’t going to end with gadgets. Soon we’ll have pacemakers and brain bits with web interfaces logging everything we do. It’s terrifying, incredibly open to abuse, and a far better idea on paper than in reality.

9. A little problem

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Nanotechnology is the science of small things, allowing us to build billions of robots capable of squeezing themselves onto a pinhead. They’d float in the air and in our bloodstream, repairing us, building things, being generally small and helpful – an army of nans, if you will.

This would be a corking idea if we, a civilisation that can’t find its own car keys ten seconds after we put them down, weren’t inventing them. A civilisation of lost pens and puzzles missing pieces. We’re rubbish at small. The first time we spotted the atom, we cracked it in half and blew a hole in the world. With this in mind, does anybody really think it’s a good idea to let billions of self-assembling, infinitely powerful, invisible robots loose in the world? Do we really want to spend the next thousand years searching down the back of the sofa for them?

10. Jobs for the droids

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A recent report suggested that around 35% of British jobs will be lost to computers in the next 20 years. Visit the bustling Alphr local on a Friday afternoon and you’d swear it has already happened. But while manufacturing has long been in the steely grip of machines, driverless cars look set to replace taxis and long-distance truck drivers in the not-too-distant future. It’s a nice idea, but teaching a scythe swinger to pull a lever is one thing, teaching a trucker to program a Google-developed automated vehicle is quite another.

The author: Stuart Turton is reachable by carrier pigeon, smoke signals or particularly loud shouting within the N5 6EJ postcode. 

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