Tuesday, 29 December 2015

2040


Twenty-five years ago, the world was technologically quite simple as compared to the present day. It was a place without the widespread use of PCs, internet, mobile phones, satellite TV, social networking and all things related.  Politically, it was a very segmented, divided and fractured extent due to the existence of different blocks, curtains and walls. Now it seems quite hard to believe that at that time there was a rival superpower to the US; the mighty Soviet Union. For half a century after WWII, all global affairs were being governed through the interactions between these rival powers. Then within a span of a few years, Berlin wall came down, Soviet Union collapsed and iron curtain was lifted. Consequently, China opened up and decided to pursue a mixed economy. Coupled with the above mentioned technological changes in the 1990’s, the whole world became accessible to everyone. Smart nations and organizations took advantage of this changed scenario and forged ahead. In the words of Thomas L Friedman ‘the world became flat’. 

So can we predict the shape of things 25 years from now? It is difficult to tell for certain. Perhaps it was Niels Bohr who said that “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. Future slowly creeps over us in small increments and it is hard to discern its course. But it has not deterred anyone to prophesize about such matters. I am equally amazed by the human capability to assimilate new technologies and embrace new ideas. The things that are once the domain of science fiction; can easily become everyday stuff within a span of few years. Here is my take on the next 25 years.


In my view, the fields are Robotics and AI, Space Technology, Synthetic Biology, 3D Printing, Nanotechnology and Clean Energy are going to shape our future. I would like to speculate about few of these. By 2040, there should be permanent or semi permanent human settlements on Moon and Mars. Perhaps commercial asteroid mining would propel us deeper into the solar system. Bulk of this new age of exploration is expected to come from the private enterprises. If technologies like EmDrive hold some promise, then the whole solar system can virtually become a human playground.  However, going beyond our solar neighborhood is not possible by any reasonable timescale through today’s technologies. Interstellar travel will require something above and beyond our present knowledge. There are also a number of places within our solar system that have huge reservoirs of liquid water. There is a chance that we might find some kind of extraterrestrial life within our solar system. Places like Jovian and Saturn Moons of Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus and Titan hold a lot of potential.


Robotic revolution is upon us and with the passing of each year it is going to infiltrate more and more spheres of life. Driverless cars are going to be commercially available in the next 2 to 4 years. By 2040, it is possible that human driving might become prohibited in the parts of the developed world. Similarly, driving, cleaning, cooking, care-takers and companions robots might become as numerous as today’s personal computers and mobile phones. Virtual and Augmented realities are in their infancy at present. By 2040, a fully immersive Star Trek like Holodeck is within the realm of possibility. 

There is also a consensus around the world to adopt cleaner sources of energy. In the next 25 years, the era of fossil fuels should be coming to an end. This is not promising forecast for the oil export dependent monarchies and dictatorships around the world. The adaptation of these newer and cleaner sources would sound death knell for them.


The years to come are going to witness space tourism, space-based Solar Power, genomic medicine, 3D printed organs, anti-aging drugs, reading minds and photographing dreams, digital brain downloads, resurrection of extinct life-forms and creating new ones, implantable communication devices, universal translators, vertical Farms, robotic armies, quantum computers, fusion reactors, space elevators and much more. Seeds of all these technologies has already been planted. It seems that an era of explosive innovations is just ahead. It is going to lead us towards a new age of wonder where everything seems plausible.

But not all the future scenarios are rosy ones. There are a number of things that can go wrong. Things like global financial meltdown, severe ecological consequences, new cold and hot wars including cyber warfare can halt and may even reverse the march of technology and development. Still I am an optimist and I believe that human ingenuity can surpass these hurdles and built us a better future. 2040 would be a year worth living for.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Earthrise Encore

Earth as seen from the  Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter - Image Credit: NASA
Today NASA released a stunning image of Earth as seen from the Moon sky. The contrast of a living, dynamic Earth against the barren, static foreground of Moon is simply breathtaking. This is how the future explorers and inhabitants of the Moon will see from its near side. 

Moon is tidally locked due to the immense gravity of Earth. Thus we always see its same face in our night sky. However, on Moon, we will be able to see Earth spinning, going through phases with an ever changing cloud pattern, almost at the same spot each and every day. 

The original Earthrise photo was taken by the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. That shot is considered among the pictures that changed the human vision forever. Seeing our Earth in its entirety from the surface of another heavenly body gave us a truly global prospect. 

If we could all perceive and embrace this feeling, perhaps we can start building a better future through cooperation and unity. 

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Deep Forger

Me painted using the style of Vincent van Gogh at ca. 1890.
An internet bot is a software program that can perform repetitive tasks over the internet. Usually such tasks are quite simple in nature to be repeated at much higher rates. These bots can perform things like editing, data mining, automated trading, chatting and more.

Twitter’s Deep Forger is a very different kind of bot. It is a program that creates forgeries from the submitted snapshots. You submit a photograph and it will convert it in a style similar to that of great masters like Van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt, Degas, Monet, Renoir, or Goya. Well, actually these should not be called forgeries at all. AI (Artificial Intelligence) algorithms, embedded in the bot, take the salient features from famous paintings and apply them to create something spectacular.

There are also a number of other programs and efforts like this. Google’s Artificial Neural Networks (ANN) can do something similar besides other tricks. A painting robot 'bitpainter' is also busy in creating artwork. Pikazo App can remix your photos into art ... and the list goes on.

These are the early days of AI and Robotics, so just imagine what will happen in a few decades from now. With the each passing year, these programs and robots are going to do much better and then they might go on surpassing the works of great masters in originality and creativity.

This also raises a number of questions. Is art solely a purview of humans? When some artwork is produced by an AI algorithm or Robot, should it be called art or a product? Then there are questions about the state of AI in general. Who will be the owner of such art if machines and programs created by humans, start to achieve consciousness one day. Should those sentient being be treated like peers, pets, slaves or merely machines? Will these entities strive to be more human-like as portrayed in the The Bicentennial Man or the character of Lt. Commander Data in the realm of science fiction?

I don’t know answers to these questions and perhaps nobody does. These are the things that will evolve over time as we step into the future.

Casa Loma modeled in the style of Pierre Auguste Renoir at approx. 1884.
Swan inspired by Claude Monet at est. 1875.
Rainbow over Niagra with methods of Gustav Klimt from est. 1908-16.