Last Friday I watched the movie “Surrogates” with Bruce Willis. While I think it is a well made movie with a really interesting premise, there was one thing in particular that I could not suspend my disbelieve over: that in the year 2017 everybody seemed to be driving 10 year old cars, preferably Priuses. Really? Did all car manufacturers switch to building surrogates in 2010? And are those used cars or did they just continue to build the same cars an not change the body styles anymore?
So what does that have to do with design? I think it shows a pattern that I have also seen when designers or design firms design concept products, imagining products that will be created 5, 10, or 20 years in the future, what they will look like, how they will work, and what products and services there will be in the first place.
I recently talked to a designer who worked on future health care products at a large software company. In many ways it was a pretty straightforward extrapolation of current software technologies, using mouse, keyboard, and touchscreen input and a screen or projector as output. He made fairly conservative assumptions about the development of health care and the medical field in general. The anticipation of something new was very limited to the business this company was in. What was missing entirely from the concepts was an anticipation of developments in other areas of technology, science, or social developments.
Last week Elisabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak received the Nobel price in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. In plain English, it was a big step to understanding how cells (and organisms) age and there is at least the possibility that we might be able to influence our lifespan significantly based on discoveries in that field.
It doesn’t take much to realize that not only health care but our society as a whole would change dramatically if people live for say, 150 years on average. Population control would become an issue, retirement planning would change (imagine trying to save for 80 years of retirement), new social issues would arise (in all livelihood wealthy people will be able to live longer because they are most likely to afford it) to name just a few implications.
At the University of California, Berkley, a group around Yang Dan was able to record images of a cat’s brain in real time with electrodes implanted in the cat’s brain. William Dobelle came up with a brain interface that communicates directly with a person’s visual cortex and has restored (albeit limited) sense of vision to people who lost their eye sight. While the thought of doing something like connecting the feed from a cat’s brain the a human visual nerve certainly has a freaky element to it, it is technically possible even though there are still significant hurdles to be overcome. Not to mention the ethical discussion that this whole field will very likely spark once it’s application leaves the handful of scientific laboratories and treatment of medically urgent cases that it is currently confined to.
And all of a sudden the idea of connecting human brains directly does not seem so far fetched anymore.
I certainly don’t know that any of this will happen for sure or how it will happen, but as designers I would say these are scenario that are far enough in the realm of possible that we should consider them. If we imagine for example concept designs for the year 2025 and assume everything else outside the immediate underlying technology of the product stays the same, or only a small subset of technology advances happens, we also need to consider the other end of the spectrum and imagine concepts for a world where human brains can be directly connected to each other and people live for 200 years or more.
Some good sources to get a sense of future developments are scientific magazines like Popular Science or Scientific American, think tanks like the Club of Rome, and books of course; I’m currently reading Ray Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near” and find it to be a good starting point and overview over technological developments and how they might develop in the future (although in my opinion the author seems to fall in the same trap that many futurists with a science or technology background seem to fall into, that is, that technological innovation will change humans for the better).