Saturday, September 30, 2017

Seat 14C

XPrize and ANA sponsored a science fiction writing contest and announced the winner on Facebook: 
"We asked you to envision a world changed by technology, 20 years in the future, and you did not disappoint. After receiving over 1,400 submissions from 74 different countries, we have a winner. Read the winning story of the passenger in #Seat14C here." Established writers had written stories for the promotion (each writer had a seat number on the plane). Read all the stories and imagine the future!

I was one of the 1,400 contest participants. Here is my (non-winning )  entry.

The Gift

Allegra settled into Seat 14C, mentally preparing herself for the 11-hour flight back to 
San Francisco. She smiled to herself as she went over the past week with her old high school friends who had decided to hold a reunion in Tokyo. They had done Mexico City, Bangkok, Toronto, New York, Vienna, Paris. Tokyo was a kind of last hurrah, as they were all in or nearing their 70s. She idly wondered if teleportation would ever become a viable means of travel.  She was teased by her classmates about her Facebook posts, which were mostly links to news about developments in science and technology. Truth be told, the best part of the trip for her was seeing all the robots in use in Japan.

It was fun, but Allegra was eager to get back home to her grandkids, Luke and Avril.  She decided to wait for the first meal to be served before taking her sleeping pills, figuring she’d wake up close to landing time.

A bump on the plane jolted her awake, and she noticed that the flight attendants seemed agitated. Some passengers were looking out the windows, so she did the same; she wondered where they were, because the skyline looked different. Then she saw what seemed to be military planes flying near them and she heard the announcement: “Please remain calm.  We are about to land but have encountered a problem; we are being assisted by the escort planes that you see outside your windows. All your questions will be answered after we land.”

Upon landing, the passengers were led into a holding room where airport officials gave a shocking announcement: they had gone through a space-time distortion and landed in 2037.  

Shocking as that was, it was weirdly reassuring; the strange appearance of the local population that they could see through the clear walls could have meant they were abducted by aliens and were in a different planet or universe, Allegra thought. It was difficult to tell people’s genders as they were dressed androgynously in some strange-looking material. There were no obese people; in fact, everyone looked as if they spent a lot of time at the gym! Nobody wore glasses or any obvious earpiece, and every once in a while someone would be gesticulating as if speaking to someone although their lips didn’t seem to be moving.  Then Allegra realized that there weren’t very many people at all!

They were asked for names of family or friends. The passengers were assured that if those people could not be located, they would be assigned an assistant who could help them transition to their new reality.

Allegra gave the names of her children and grandchildren. With trepidation, she hoped they were all okay.  In 2017, her children were 47 and 42 and her grandchildren were 5 and 3. That would make them 67, 62, 25, and 23. She supposed she was still 68, same as when she left 2017. She hoped they were all okay and wondered how her sons and their spouses would look; in 2017 aging and life extension research was already yielding good results. 

The passengers were told that they had to go through some processing before they would be cleared to go.  Everyone had to go through a medical exam, which was done quickly with what looked like the Star Trek tricorder. Allegra surmised that this must be a later generation version of the 2017 winner of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition. They were allowed to take their old medications with them but were told that they would have individual appointments with a Medical Officer sometime in the following day.

Meantime, they were given wrist devices that would monitor their health and could also be used as communication devices.  “And tracking devices,” thought Allegra, who conceded that it was a reasonable thing to do, given the circumstances. The devices were also loaded with their monthly Universal Basic Income credits (Ubics), which they were told would be replenished monthly. The wrist devices, though archaic, were still available because some people still resisted implants that most people had that gave them enhanced vision, hearing, memory, instant communication with language translation, augmented reality with instant information, and more. 

In the meantime, they were told, they would be checked in at a hotel where they would be given orientation lectures on the current state of society – government, laws, technology, and anything else that they would need to know to function. They would also be offered a counselor to help them process this big change in their lives.

They were escorted to their rooms and shown how to talk to the hotel AI (HArI) who, it turned out, would be their resource for orientation into this new society, as well as their means to operate the windows and lights, order various services, get news, make calls. In the meantime, they were encouraged to order dinner and later to rest.

Allegra wasn’t very hungry because they had food in the holding room, but she wanted to try the AI, so she asked HAri for a salad menu. A slot on the wall opened and delivered her choice.  Settling down to eat, she asked HArI to show her a newsfeed.  In response, a wall lit up. A newscaster was announcing that ANA Flight 008 that disappeared in 2017 just appeared and landed at San Francisco Airport. “Passengers are currently quarantined at the Airport Hotel. Family members are being notified. ”

“Why were there very few people at the airport?” Allegra asked HAri.

“ A lot of people use virtual reality instead of actually travelling, and there are also travel alternatives like HyperLoop, which you would remember was being developed in your time.”

“What happened to the airlines?”

“Many of them merged and focused on space transportation.”

“So, do we have a moon base? Did we make it to Mars? Are we mining asteroids?”

“Yes, and we have settlements in other places.”

“Wow!” said Allegra. “Show me!”

After her light dinner, she decided to learn more about this new environment. The windows could be dimmed or brightened on demand.  She looked out of the window and saw a lot of green.  In 2017, there were already prototypes of garden buildings, but she saw that they were prevalent in 2037.  Curious about the effects of climate change, she queried HAri. 

 “In 2018, a number of scientists successfully ran for office. Local governments became active in seeking climate change mitigation solutions. Grow local, buy local movements spread, partly because of concern for the environment and partly because the widespread unemployment at the time made backyard food production movements popular. Use of renewable energy sources became more widespread as costs plummeted. Climate change deniers could no longer deny the reality of sea level rise and severe weather patterns. 

In 2020, a scientist ran for President and won.  There was some trouble with the populist anti-science groups but it was quickly contained when the government decided to adopt universal basic income, health care, and education paid for by a Value Added Tax that replaced income tax.  It was obvious by that time that companies needed customers who could buy their products, so these moves were supported by business. 

The big tech companies got together with the government to come up with a multi-pronged approach – solar roofs, solar roads, thermoelectric paint, wave power generation, improved battery technology, geo-engineering, green walls, synthetic photosynthesis for improved carbon dioxide absorption of plants, lab-grown meat, protein from electricity – you name it! Meantime, sea walls were built to protect vulnerable coasts from storm surges, and some floating cities were built. In 2030, a carbon-breathing battery was commercialized, and the reversal of climate change finally became a viable goal.” HAri flashed pictures that looked surprisingly realistic.

“What about governance?”

“If you will recall, in 2017, blockchain technology was gaining ground. Financial institutions were quick to realize its potential to improve their efficiency and cut their costs, but community organizers were also starting to see its potential for achieving independence from the tight grip of the financial institutions. Communities organized in cooperatives to promote sustainability and self-sufficiency, and to care for the environment. These cooperatives adopted blockchain to establish trust in their communities and for clearing exchanges independent of the banks, in a more sophisticated version of the local investing and local currency movements that saw a resurgence after the 2008 recession. By 2021, food, housing, health, social services, small business and other types of cooperatives were flourishing.  

The electoral college was finally abolished and direct voting using blockchain was adopted in 2023. By then, people were more actively engaged as citizens, having learned from the troubles in your time brought by leaving everything to career politicians.  States started adopting California’s ballot proposition system as the main law-making mechanism.”

“Did these changes happen in other countries too?”

“In varying degrees and times, yes. The need for cooperation among countries to fight climate change also strengthened the United Nations.”

 “So much to absorb,” murmured Allegra to herself. 

Delayed shock and fatigue soon set in and she decided that rest was a good idea after all.  When she lay down on the most comfortable bed she had ever experienced, the window gradually dimmed. She was awakened by a gradually lightening window. When she got up, HArI said “Good morning Allegra! Breakfast will be served in the 2nd floor conference room and meetings start at 10 AM.”

Feeling very hungry, Allegra went down as soon as she got dressed.  She still got surprised when the door dematerialized like a fog dispersing to let her through; knowing about foglets in theory was very different from seeing it in action.

The morning passed like a blur. They each had a session with a virtual counselor. Allegra convinced the counselor that she would adjust easily to the new reality, as she had been an avid follower of futuristic organizations in 2017 like the Singularity Hub, the Institute for the Future, and the Long Now Foundation, and had subscribed to newsfeeds from various science and technology publications. Her source of anxiety was not knowing what had happened to her family, and she was reassured that she would be informed as soon as anyone was contacted, which would probably be by the end of the day.

After that, they had individual consultations with a Medical Officer. Allegra was elated that the diseases of her time were all easily cured.  Lifespan was effectively indefinite. This was already predicted in 2017, so was not a big surprise to Allegra. In 2017, she was just trying to make it through five years at a time, as Ray Kurzweil recommended, so she could experience the Singularity that he talked about, and to see her grandkids grow up. To have suddenly obtained her wish was a dream come true. She just hoped that the cost to her family grieving for her loss in 2017 would not have been too great. The Medical Officer offered to give her the nanobots for her conditions, but Allegra wanted to wait till she had a chance to discuss this with her family. 

Lunchtime came, and robot waiters came in to take their orders. 

After lunch, she was told that her family had been contacted and she could skip the rest of the orientation as her family had agreed to take care of it.  HAri, she was told, could help her get in touch.

Eager to hear from her family, Allegra returned to her room asked HArI to contact Carl, her older son. To her surprise, Carl and Bob were both home.  

Carl appeared to be holding in his emotions. “Oh, Mom!”

“Oh, Carl, is everyone OK? Can you come get me today?” 

“Everyone is fine. Luke is on his way. We are all gathering here at my place.”

“I can’t wait! Why are you both at home? Did you retire?”

“Yes and no. We’ll fill you in when you get here.”

There was a knock on the door and HAri showed Allegra who was there. Allegra exclaimed, “Luke!” and said to HAri, “Let him in!”

“Oh, Luke, you were five when I left for my trip in December of 2017 but I’d know that face anywhere, any time!” Allegra said, giving Luke a big hug. Even as a little boy, Luke was interested in fitness, so Allegra was not surprised that he looked very fit. She looked for any obvious signs of enhancements but could not see any. “You are so tall!”

Luke gave Allegra a big hug and said, “You always told me I’d be taller than you! Oh, Grandma, you’re here; we thought we lost you! The whole family is waiting at Uncle Carl’s.  You are cleared to go. “

“I just talked to your Uncle Carl. I can’t wait to catch up on everyone.  I’m still in shock that I’m here in 2037. I was hoping to see you and Avril grow up and go to college, but I never imagined I’d skip 20 years. It must have been especially hard on you and Avril when I didn’t return.”

“Yes, we were really sad, but Mommy and Daddy helped us a lot.”

“Here’s our ride,” said Luke as he led Allegra to a passenger drone parking structure where they took a two-seater. “Your luggage will be sent separately.”

“Self-driving?” queried Allegra. 

“Yes. Everything is self-driving now. We take mostly drone taxis. A lot of roads have been converted to parks.” 

“Luke, do you remember that I took you to the library before I left for Tokyo to use the 3D printer and we printed a toy?”

“Yes, Grandma. I still have that toy. You know, every home has a 3D printer now, and we can print almost anything.”

A few minutes later, they were home. 

The house looked reminiscent of the prefabricated home that Carl had shown her in 2017, when they talked of their fantasy homes. But she noticed that there were no wires from the street.  The roof looked almost like a normal roof from 2017; she asked Luke if the roof was made of solar tiles. Luke said it was a combination of solar tiles and water-collecting tiles.  

Then the door burst open and she saw Carl and Bob, Andy and Cathy, all of who looked almost exactly the same as when she left the in 2017, and a lanky, beautiful young woman that Avril had obviously become. Soon everyone was in a tangle of hugs and happy tears.

“Oh, look at you guys! You still look like the day I left you, except healthier! This is so weird! I should be 88 this year, but I feel the same as the day I left San Francisco 20 years ago!”

Later, as they were seated around the dining table laden with food, Allegra commented to Carl and Bob, “Still foodies, I see!”

“You don’t know the half of it. We finally quit our jobs and Bob runs a limited-seating pop-up restaurant in our backyard. Even if people can print food in their homes, many still like to experience eating a gourmet meal specially prepared for them by a chef!” replied Carl. “I help him out, but my thing now is photography. I finally published my travel photographs like I always planned, and now I also do food photography. I handle advertisements for Bob’s Backyard Bounty – that ‘s what we call his restaurant. We grow the vegetables and fruit ourselves, but we 3D print the meat.”

“What happened to being fire chief, Bob?”

“Robots do the fire-fighting now. Besides, sensors are everywhere and building materials have improved so much that there are hardly any fires.”

“What about you guys?” Allegra said, turning to Andy and Cathy.

“After your plane disappeared, Cathy decided to start her own business that she could run from home so that she could focus on the children. You were supposed to be our after school care for the kids while we were at work, remember? Your travel insurance, plus some money from the airline, and your 401K helped until the business took off.” said Andy.  “I kept on working until Cathy needed help with her business.  She started a 3D design firm specializing in things for growing families. In the beginning, people would go to the library to print stuff, but now they could print the designs at home. ”

“But now that the kids are on their own, we are exploring other options,” piped in Cathy. “We were thinking of doing volunteer work abroad.”

“So, Luke, remember you told me when you were five that you wanted to be a rescue bot when you grew up? You two must be done with college now. What are you doing now?”

“Oh, Grandma, after you disappeared, I really wanted to be a rescue bot so I could rescue you! I studied robotics because of that. Now I work for Ray Kurzweil’s AI company. “

“How about you, Avril? You were always singing little songs that you made up when you were little. But when asked what you wanted to learn, you always answered ‘Karate.’ What are you doing now?”

“Oh, Mom, she is a famous performing artist now! Her shows are beamed all the way to the Mars and Moon bases!” proud Daddy Andy answered. “But she can also defend herself because she had a black belt in taekwondo.”

“So what else is new? What have I missed these last 20 years? The hotel AI explained  some things  to me - climate change, politics – and the airport authorities told me I could take some nanobot pills to cure my health problems, but I wanted to ask you guys about that first.”

“Mom, you should get the treatment right away! It really works!” Carl excitedly said.

Andy went into his lecture mode, “So many things have changed; we can’t tell you everything in one sitting. Just ask questions as you go along. What is important is that after you get your treatment, you have to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

“The rest of my life – with my loved ones – what a great gift!”

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Unfinished Business of Science

The book I've been searching for, "The Next Hundred Years: The Unfinished Business of Science" by C. C. Furnas, has finally arrived. Furnas, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Yale University, published the book in 1936 as an expression of his disappointment with the Chicago World's Fair billed as "A Century of Progress."  As I've mentioned in previous posts, I read the book when I was a kid (my Dad had a copy ) and have been thinking how interesting it would be to review the book now that over three quarters of a century have passed since it was written.

The book has 31 chapters divided into five parts.  I propose to review what has (and has not) been achieved of his proposals and what developments have occurred that he had not anticipated. This will take some time and research. I plan to review the book by part, but if that proves to be too big an undertaking, I will tackle it by chapter.

The book is divided as follows:

Part One:  Biology
I. The Battle of Eugenics
II. What is Life?
III. Our Chemical Masters
IV. Infectious Diseases
V. Food
VI. The Whole Man
VII. What of Death
VIII. The Six-Legged Pests
IX. The Poor Plants and Ailing Animals
X. The Price of Progress

Part Two:  Chemistry
XI. Synthetics
XII. Solvents
XIII. Outdoing Nature

Part Three: Physics
XIV: What's New in the Nucleus?
XV. Energy for the Taking
XVI. The Newer Elements
XVII. The Scholar's Haven

Part Four: Engineering
XVIII. The Road Ahead
XIX: Labor-Saving
XX. Power
XXI. Light
XXIII. Communication
XXIV. Our Mineral Resources
XXV. The Perfect Farm
XXVI. Agriculture as Industry
XXVII. Food Manufacture
XVIII. Making the Best of Weather

Part Five: Social Consequences
XXIX: The Risen Tide of Invention
XXX: Leisure Without Lethargy
XXXI. The Life of Assurance

To get a feel for the historical context in which the exposition occurred and the book was written, note that this was in the middle of the Great Depression. The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco started in 1933.  Adolf Hitler came to power in the same year, and Albert Einstein, who was visiting the US, could not return to Germany.  The book was published a few years before the start of World War II.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Book Hunt

Recent articles about "Back to the Future" assessing how much of its predictions came true got me thinking about The Next Hundred years: The Unfinished Business of Sciencby C. C. Furnas. My Dad had this book but somehow it got lost. The San Jose Public Library has a copy, but I wanted my own. This was as much about happy memories of my Dad as curiosity about how much has changed since it was written.   I stopped by +Bell's Books in Palo Alto today on an impulse to inquire if they had it. I had a wonderful conversation about books with Faith Bell. She didn't have the book, but gave suggestions where to look. On impulse again, I checked Amazon and surprisingly (I had checked before and didn't find it) they had it!  So of course I ordered it, and after I've reread it, I will write about it.