Another Empty Spot On The Desk

Our IT staff came and took away my old office land-line phone recently, as I have now fully transitioned to communication through my computer. It leaves the empty spot on my desk shown above. That gleaming empty spot now joins other empty spots that have been created over the years, as once-essential workplace items have been pitched into the dustbin, their functionality entirely absorbed into the mighty, all-purpose desktop computer.

Once my desk held a dictaphone, a telephone, a speakerphone attachment, a hole punch gizmo, and a stapler. All are now gone. The flip-top calendar that I have had for years won’t be far behind; I’ve stopped using it in lieu of total calendaring reliance on my computer. And the other essential purpose of a desk–to hold the piles of papers that I’m working on–also is falling by the wayside. I’m old school and still print out some documents to review in hard copy form, but the amount of paper in my office is a small fraction of what it once was, with most of the reviewing and editing work being done entirely on the computer. In short, there are a lot of empty spots on my desk these days.

Thanks to technology, I am finally within reach of “clean desk” status.

What’s the purpose of a desk, in an era when the computer reigns supreme? It’s a convenient place to stash the legal pads and pens that I still use, and I need its writing surface when I’m making a note. It’s a great platform for my collection of aging family photos, kid art, and things like little clocks or fancy penholders. And when people come into my office they can be pretty sure that it’s me sitting behind the desk, staring at the computer and tapping away at the keyboard.

But all of those empty spaces make you wonder how much longer people will be using large, impressive wooden desks. In the computer era, they’ve become almost an affectation, a power device, and a prop, and you wonder if they will be part of the office of the future–that is, if offices as we know them will even exist.

The Shape Of Things To Come?

Staying at a new hotel often can give you a glimpse into the future. If the hotel has recently been constructed or refurbished, the rooms are likely to involve new design configurations, furnishings, fixtures, and space-saving approaches that look to summon the future rather than reflect the past.

I’m staying in a new hotel in Washington, D.C., and the future here looks . . . well, square. Everything in my room is very angular and cornered, from the desk, chairs, and lamps, to the bed frame and, finally, to the bathroom sink and toilet. In my room, the hotel vision of the future involves a lot of right angles and sharp edges.

I was especially intrigued by the square commode, pictured above, that thoughtfully includes both right- and left-handed toilet paper dispensers. After decades of using standard toilets and training new generations of humans in their operation, can square toilets be in our future? Fortunately, this one works like the others. The only real difference is that the square design provides a lot more of a seating area.

Soylent Green And The Bleak Sci-Fi Of The ’60s and ’70s

2022 is not only our fresh new year, it’s also the year in which the 1973 sci-fi thriller Soylent Green was set. Soylent Green envisioned a truly awful 2022: the world was grossly overpopulated, mass starvation provoked regular food riots until the masses received their “soylent” food rations, the environment had been ruined by pollution, and people were at the mercy of a cold-blooded authoritarian police state. The movie allowed Charlton Heston to exercise some of his legendary scenery-chewing acting instincts, including the classic final scene where Heston shouts to the world: “Soylent green is people! It’s people!”

In short, Soylent Green sets a very low bar for our 2022. This year might not be great, but at least it’s unlikely that we’ll be eating each other.

We’re living through a lot of the years in which bleak sci-fi movies and stories were set–Blade Runner, for example, was set in 2019–and the future hasn’t turned out to be as grim as the writers envisioned. There’s always been a pretty strong tradition of horrific futures in science fiction, as writers took whatever seemed to be the problems of the day, multiplied them, and extrapolated them forward into terrible future worlds that were dark, overcrowded, starving, wrecked, merciless, and governed by fascists. (If that tradition holds true, current sci fi writers may well be envisioning distant futures where epidemics rage.)

Of course, most of those visions turned our to be wrong. We haven’t experienced a nuclear holocaust, been terrorized by killer artificial intelligence or intelligent apes, seen our oceans turned to sewage, or experienced planet-wide starvation and horrific plagues. Sci-fi writers of the ’60s and ’70s would no doubt be stunned to learn that one of the biggest health problems in our real world of 2022 isn’t starvation–it’s obesity!

A Song Selector’s Promise Of The Future

When I was a kid growing up in Akron, I really liked going to Bob’s Big Boy. Grandma and Grandpa Neal used to take UJ and me there for lunch. I was a roly-poly kid who enjoyed a good cheeseburger, so I identified with the statue of the jolly, tubby boy in checkered overalls with lacquered hair who obviously was overjoyed to be holding a cheeseburger.

The statue was great, and so were the cheeseburgers and french fries and Cokes, but what I liked most about the Big Boy was that it had those tabletop song selectors at every table. They were just about the coolest, most futuristic thing ever. The song selectors were highly polished, gleaming metal, like all futuristic objects such as rocket ships were supposed to be. You could use a dial to flip the pages of available songs back and forth–which was fun in and of itself–to find a song you liked, read the selection code, and punch in the number right at your table. Your song then played on the big jukebox in the corner, which meant everyone in the whole place was hearing your song. My favorite choice was Nat King Cole’s rendition of The Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.

In those days, the tabletop song selector seemed like extremely impressive technology, as mysterious in its inner workings as TV sets with their rabbit ear antennas and transistor radios that somehow pulled images and music out of the very air around us. But that was all to be expected, because we were on a relentless march into the future, and the future was going to be a wondrous place, just like the New York World’s Fair and the Disneyland World of Tomorrow ride promised.

Now, almost 60 years later, the future that has come to be is a pretty wondrous place in some respects, when you reflect on it. I’m listening to music that I’ve selected using an app on a phone that also serves as a camera, calendar, newspaper, library, mailbox, and message sender, among countless other functions, and fits easily in my pocket, to be carried anywhere and everywhere. I’m typing this entry into a laptop computer that will transmit my musings into the ether, where they will be published for anyone in the whole world to see. I’m pretty sure the little kid who marveled at the song selector at Bob’s Big Boy would marvel at those devices, too–but of course we tend to grow out of our sense of wonder, and eventually take these things for granted. That doesn’t make them any less amazing.

Thinking about this, I’m glad my laptop has a gleaming metal finish, because my youthful self would have expected that of such a futuristic item. And the next time I buy a cell phone I might check to see whether they’ve got an aluminum case, too.

Jetsons, Here We Come

Brace yourself:  we’re apparently on the verge of a world with flying cars.

Airbus Group, the world’s second largest aircraft manufacturer and largest manufacturer of commercial helicopters, has been working on flying cars for a while now, and the CEO of Airbus recently announced that the company hopes to test a prototype vehicle by the end of the year.  Airbus formed a division called Urban Air Mobility — which would be a pretty good name for a rock band — and it is working on both a vehicle that individuals could use and a multi-passenger transport that could be summoned by riders using a smartphone app, a la Uber.  The prototype that Airbus hopes to test this year is the single passenger vehicle, called the Vahana.  Airbus thinks that in 10 years fully vetted products may be on the market that make urban air transport a reality.

22a6bb3543a28cd162bceb3c6937b684The Airbus business rationale has a decidedly futuristic vibe to it.  The concept is that the vehicles would be used in cities, where roadways are jammed but the skies aren’t.  Airbus is forecasting that a growing percentage of the world’s population will congregate in cities, increasing the traffic congestion, and also envisions that cash-strapped governments might welcome air-based transportation because it doesn’t require investment in asphalt, concrete, steel supports, construction workers, and orange cones to shore up the crumbling ground-based traffic infrastructure.  And, because some cities are struggling with pollution — just ask China — Airbus is designing its vehicles to minimize emissions and to avoid adding to the pollution mix.

Do we have the technology for flying cars?  Airbus says yes:  the batteries, motors, and avionics needed are well underway, and the company and others are working on the artificial intelligence and detect-and-avoid sensors and navigation that would be needed to make flying cars a practical reality.  And, of course, there would need to be lots of related developments before flying cars fill the skies.  Would municipalities designate particular flying zones — such as over existing roadways — or just allow fliers to take their cars anywhere?  How would drivers be trained?  And what kind of safety features would regulators require to make flying cars crash-worthy?

For decades, when people have thought about the future, they’ve thought about flying cars.  Now we may be on the cusp of that reality.

“Meet George Jetson . . . .”

A Whiff Of The Hyperloop World

The futurists among us got a charge yesterday when the first test of the hyperloop transportation system occurred in the desert north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

3_hyperloop_hyperloop_concept_nature_02_transparent_copyright_2014_omegabyte3d_cThe hyperloop system sounds like something from The Jetsons or a science fiction story.  Using magnetic levitation technology and special propulsion units, the hyperloop would send sleds of people and cargo rocketing through above-ground tubes at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour.  Proponents say the finished product would allow people to get from San Francisco to LA, or from Washington, D.C. to Manhattan, in just 30 minutes.  Hyperloop buffs also argue that the system would have lower energy costs and would create no carbon emissions.

The test yesterday wasn’t much — it lasted two seconds, and saw the propulsion unit push a ten-foot sled to speeds of more than 100 miles an hour before hitting a sand bank — but the founders of the start-up company Hyperloop One viewed it as their “Kitty Hawk” moment, when the concept of a new form of transportation get its first practical test, just as the Wright brothers’ plane did.  And the promise of the technology is sufficiently attractive that other companies are pursuing the hyperloop concept, too.

Hyperloop has a long way to go, and there will be huge issues involved in developing the technology, getting the land rights and funds to build the sleds and elevated tubes and, eventually, convincing people to use a system that would put people in the position of the bullet in a gun.  Still, we should all welcome the pioneers who try to develop new transportation approaches.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they prove uneconomical — anybody remember the SST? — but they always push the technology forward.

A fair question, though, is whether a sufficient number of people will be willing to sit in a tube and be propelled forward at hundreds of miles an hour.  Why not?  When you think about it, that’s basically what happens when you board an airplane.

100 Million Times Faster

Recently I tried to read an article about huge advances in computer technology that appear to be just over the horizon.

I say “tried,” because the article includes sentences like this one:  “Quantum annealing (QA) has been proposed as a quantum enhanced optimization heuristic exploiting tunneling.”  I recognize each of those words as being English, and capable of being understood on a word-by-word basis — but put them all together and my conscious mind explodes.  Rather than grasping the intended, core meaning, my brain diverts into cul-de-sacs like:  “Hey, shouldn’t there be a verb somewhere near the end of that sentence?”
black-screen-spinning-wheel-on-bootBut the key concept from the article is that a new form of computer design called a quantum annealer, that a joint project between Google and NASA is experimenting with, is proving to be as much as 100 million times faster at solving difficult, multi-variable problems than the “classical” computer design.  The article cautions that there are still lots of technological hurdles and challenges to be addressed before the quantum annealing approach can be turned into practical technology, but the test results are enormously promising.

It’s not hard to imagine what such a dramatically enhanced and powerful computer could accomplish for an entity like NASA, in calculating the trajectories needed to dodge asteroids, skirt gravitational fields, and safely land spacecraft on alien surfaces.  You could also see how new computers with such tremendously accelerated raw processing power could be used by governments — in decrypting encoded messages, for example — or by hackers looking to crack passwords.  And, of course, such advancements typically are followed by great leaps forward in miniaturization and new applications that weren’t even considered before the technology came on line.  Futurists and dreamers will have a field day considering how faster processing power could be used, for example, in diagnostic medical equipment or implants.

What would having a computer that processes 100 million times faster mean for the rest of us?  We’ll still be moving at standard human mental and physical speeds, of course, unless the new technology results in a trend toward creation of speeded-up cyborgs.  Nevertheless, there is one great promise for all PC users arising from development of inconceivably faster quantum annealing computers:  no more frustrated staring at the computer screen, watching the annoying spinning circle of death!

Invasion Of The Robot Lawyers

While the rest of us are working, the “futurists” and consultants among us are out there making predictions about what the world will look like one day.  Most of these predictions are dead wrong — I haven’t seen any flying cars around, have you? — but they are entertaining nonetheless.

20150102futurama-robot-lawyerOne consultant firm has issued a dire prediction about the future of lawyers.  It says that by the year 2030, robots and artificial intelligence will dominate the legal market, likely causing a “structural collapse” of law firms.  For young lawyers looking to break into the profession, the consultants forecast, the outlook will be especially bleak, because the robots will be untiring, uncomplaining, bill-4,000-hours-a-year competitors:  “Eventually each bot would be able to do the work of a dozen low-level associates. They would not get tired. They would not seek advancement. They would not ask for pay rises. Process legal work would rapidly descend in cost.”  Yikes!

For the lucky senior partners of 2030, however, the future is rosier, because the report envisions that while legal clients in the AI world will want the cheap labor the robots will bring, they will also crave the knowledgeable advice of experienced lawyers:  “Clients would instead greatly value the human input of the firm’s top partners, especially those that could empathise with the client’s needs and show real understanding and human insight into their problems.”

Of course, some might question the notion that senior partners at large law firms can properly be associated with characteristics such as “human input,” “human insight,” understanding, and empathy, but let’s not focus on that objection for now.

I’m skeptical that law firms and lawyers will be replaced by AI and robots, because I think a huge element of lawyering involves the exercise of judgment, shrewd assessment of the motivations and goals of the people and entities involved in a transaction or dispute, and other qualities that just aren’t well suited to robotic applications.  Of course, you never know.  In the time I’ve been practicing there has been a significant change in how lawyers work due to the development of legal search engines, law databases, email communications, and other technological developments.  Perhaps lawyers only kid themselves in thinking that they are different from assembly line workers and can’t be replaced by our metal friends.

So we’ll just have to wait until 2030 to see if robots invade law firms.  If it happens, at least we’ve got one thing to look forward to:  robot lawyer jokes.

Forcing Adherence To The Law

We may be on the verge of a new era in personal choice and personal responsibility:  Ford is getting ready to roll out a new car that simply will not allow you to exceed the speed limit.

From a technology standpoint, the Ford S-Max is an interesting step forward.  The car will come equipped with a camera that will read speed limits posted on roadside signs.  The S-Max will then automatically adjust the amount of fuel to the engine to prevent the car from reaching speeds above that posted limit.  So, rather than using braking action to control speed, the S-Max will use the operation of the engine itself to prevent any lawlessness by the lead-footed driver.

The Ford S-Max is in line with a recent trend to use technology to force adherence to the law, whether it is through electronic ankle bracelets that control where people can and cannot go or proposals for cars that require you to pass a breathalyzer test or to fasten your seat belt before the ignition will engage.  Leave aside the issue of whether requiring complete compliance with the law at all times is always safe and smart — there are circumstances, for example, when exceeding the speed limit to get out of the way of other vehicles in a merging situation is the only prudent course — and consider, instead, what such technological controls do to affect concepts of personal morals and to encourage governmental intrusion into personal choice.

If you have no ability to break certain laws, do you even need to develop a personal code of ethical behavior that will apply to your daily life and help to guide your actions?  If you can’t make the wrong choice, what does the concept of personal choice really mean?  And if we start to accept routine technological controls on our behavior, will government entities be tempted to increase the range of controls, by enacting new laws that regulate behavior and by requiring further technological limitations on our ability to act freely?

The Ford S-Max is a long way from futuristic, sci-fi worlds where computer chips are implanted into human brains to rigorously control behavior, but every journey begins with a single step.  I’m not going to be in the market for an S-Max — if the choice is left up to me.

Considering The Self-Driving Car

Google has announced that it will be building and producing its own self-driving vehicles, rather than retrofitting cars produced by other manufacturers.  The announcement means that we’re one step closer to the future envisioned in sci-fi books of days gone by — but I’m not sure it’s a future that I like.

According to the BBC story linked above, the Google car will look like a cute little cartoon bug, with two lights like eyes.  (That’s a specific design feature to make a self-driving car seem more harmless and fun and to encourage people to give it a try.)  It will seat two, be electrically powered, have a top speed of 25 mph, and have only a stop-go button — no steering wheel or pedals.  The car will follow Google maps built for the vehicle and operate using radar and laser sensors.  Google says its self-driving cars have already covered 700,000 miles of roadway, and it will produce a fleet of 200 cars and test them in Detroit within a year to make further advances in self-driving technology.

Advocates of self-driving cars say they will be safer for the car’s drivers, for other drivers, and for pedestrians.  If the cars are limited to 25 mph, of course, there is bound to be a safety enhancement, because there is a direct correlation between vehicle speed at the time of a crash and severity of injury.  Pedestrians also will benefit by a design that features a foam front end rather than a bumper.  But the safety arguments go deeper than that.  They assert that computer programs, lasers, and machines are bound to be more precise and careful on the road than humans, with no risk of distracted, texting drivers, drunken, impaired drivers, or macho, road raging drivers.

I’m somewhat skeptical about relying wholly on a machine guidance system — anyone who has GPS knows that it isn’t infallible — but more than that I’m leery of a future where machines do more and more for human beings.  We’ve already got problems with people becoming less active, less creative, and less self-reliant; self-driving cars is just another step toward a future of flabby, passive people waiting for a machine to move them around in slow-moving cars designed to maximize safety and security.  Sorry, but I don’t like it.

Daily No More

By the year after next, don’t expect to see a daily newspaper hitting your doorstep each morning — according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, that is.

The Nieman Journalism Lab looks to future trends in journalism.  Last month, it predicted that the seven-day print newspaper is doomed.  It forecasts that newspapers increasingly will focus on digital publication and that by 2015 less than half of current newspapers will follow the seven-day, home delivery model.  Instead, print newspapers will be reduced to a two or three times a week vestigial option, offered as part of a much broader set of services and benefits available to “members.”

And rather than those irritating paywalls, the digital membership model would be like membership in your local public TV station,  giving you complete access and providing discounts and other benefits (presumably not just the tote bags and coffee mugs you see on every PBS fundraiser, either).  The membership model would allow the newspaper to act as a kind of mini-Google, collecting information about the news stories you access and then delivering targeted advertising based upon your reading pattern — advertising that retailers presumably would pay a premium for, because it is more likely to find a receptive audience than the tire ad on page C-7 of the sports section of your daily newspaper.

The most interesting prediction is that newspapers will focus less on news and more on “jobs to be done.”  The jobs would include reporting news, but also assisting members in making connections to services and groups in their communities, giving recommendations and answering questions, and helping members meet the right people in the right settings.  It sounds something like a combination of Emily’s List and Dear Abby.

I agree that the daily printed newspaper model cannot survive forever; it’s simply too slow, and expensive, to compete with digital delivery of the news.  Readership and ad revenues are ever-declining, too.  I’m a bit skeptical, however, that daily newspapers can successfully morph into quasi-social networking sites and then hold their own in that area, where there also is a lot of competition.  What newspapers do, better than anyone else, is find and report hard news — not opinion, nor advice, but actual facts about events and issues that should be of concern to members of their communities.  If newspapers move away from that area of strength to some more amorphous, soft-side model, they may be losing their identities and digging their own graves.

Is there still a market for hard news — without tote bags, membership benefits, and social networking gloss?  We’ll find out over the next few years.