The Next 25 Years: No Privacy But Hey… Flying Cars!

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Surveillance might be good for us, programming languages could die, and cars may fly, says Nathaniel Borenstein, inventor of email attachments

In 1992, Nathaniel Borenstein sent the first ever email attachment to his colleagues at Bell Labs using the newly invented Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension (MIME) protocol. In the years that followed, he worked for academic organisations, non-profits, start-ups and large corporations, while providing extensive commentary on technological and social issues.

Today, Borenstein continues to look after his creation as the chief scientist at the email management company Mimecast.

On the day the World Wide Web was celebrating its 25th birthday, TechWeek asked the computer scientist to try and predict the future of the global information network, and the resulting changes in society. Among other things we discussed the death of privacy, natural language programming and flying cars.

Privacy is dying

“The predictions that I’m making now are sort of analogous to what a lot of people were predicting in 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the atomic bomb,” tells us Borenstein. “If you go back and read things from that era, people were saying there were two futures for the human race: either total Armageddon caused by these new weapons, or a much better world with less war.”

atomic-bomb“I think we are in a similar situation with the Internet: if you believe that Moore’s Law is going to stay relevant for the next 25 years, it is very easy to predict where a lot of the technology is going to go. What’s harder is figuring out what our society is going to do with it, and we are getting to the point where technology has so much power that it’s almost like the atomic bomb situation: we can have a very positive future, or a very negative future.”

Borenstein says that this is especially evident in our attitudes to privacy: if Moore’s Law will indeed continue, in 25 years we are going to have microscopic computers embedded into almost everything we own. Today, the intelligence agencies of various governments are already using technology for intrusive surveillance – just imagine what they could do when even the clothes you wear are constantly connected to the Internet.

“That could lead to a relatively dystopian future in which the state monitors everything you say and do. Or, it could lead to a future in which these technologies are used reciprocally, transparently and with greater tolerance.”

To prove this point, Borenstein references David Brin’s seminal 1998 book The Transparent Society, in which the author suggests that a society without secrets is actually more privacy-friendly than a secretive, closed system. According to this idea, technology could be used to monitor performance of public services and elected officials. For example, while the police are sure to use the new surveillance capabilities to watch the public, the public could also use them to look inside police stations and prevent abuses of power.

“I think one of the greatest compensations for the loss of privacy will be the growth of tolerance. A lot of the things that people want to keep private are the things they know their neighbours would disapprove. Historically, the gay community has been in this situation, and I think it’s not a coincidence that we’ve been seeing a liberalisation of attitudes there, and towards certain drug users, as the idea of privacy is starting to fade out.

“The more tolerant people become of these relatively harmless differences, the less painful the lack of privacy is going to be.”

Robby the Robot 24 5-28-12Masters of the machines

Over the last few years, we have heard a lot about the importance of programming in education. In the UK, the government was so concerned with the lack of technological skills it completely scrapped the old ICT curriculum, and in September, computing will be introduced to primary schools as a subject for the very first time.

Borenstein predicts that in the future, understanding how technology works will affect not just your employment prospects, but also your position in society and success in life.

“The question is, how many people will be sophisticated enough to be masters of the machine, as opposed to mindlessly consuming whatever the companies that make the machines and the services send their way. Knowledge is power, and the more you know about what these machines can do, the more likely you are to put them to use that would actually benefit you.”

However, being a master of the machines might not necessarily involve programming. In the 80s, Borenstein spent some time studying speech recognition, and he says back then, the scientific community was teaching computers to actually understand human speech through things like syntactic patterns. In contrast, today speech recognition works almost entirely through ‘brute force’ – computers simply compare the recordings to huge sample dictionaries until they find the most likely match to what you said.

“What looked like a deep problem turned out to be a shallow problem in the face of massive computational resources. I suspect programming languages might fall into this category eventually,” says the computer scientist.

Understanding that the interaction with machines could become a lot less complex, Borenstein warns against placing too much of an emphasis on science, maths and engineering. “I don’t think most engineers would want to live in a world where nobody thought it was worth their time to make art. We have to be sensitive to the fact that our society puts this tremendous value, for economic reasons, on one set of skills. But humans are richer than that; humans are more diverse than that.”

flying-car-m400Finally, we start to talk about flying cars. Borenstein says using city skies for transport over the next 25 years is a possibility, but we would first need to find clean, renewable sources of energy.

“Flight is not a very efficient form of transportation. Having everybody zooming around in tiny little planes strikes me as a good way to speed up the warming of the planet. That could change, if we manage to build these vehicles all-electric, and link the power grid to something sustainable and non-carbon-generating.”

“I’m also really sceptical that most people are going to be able to pilot these vehicles without causing accidents. Pre-requisite for this is to have self-driving car technology applied to planes. Plenty of people can’t drive down the street without hitting another car, right? I suspect it is within the realm of the possible, but I fear that it’s the kind of thing that could divert a lot of resources that would be better applied somewhere else.”

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