Envisioning the Future of Vision

Keynote presentation given at Vision Monday in New York City in March 2014

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Good morning and thank you so much for being here.

My name is Michell, and I speculate about the future.
To be more specific, I speculate about the future of technology.

I find studying technology to be one of the most compelling ways
of making sense of humanity.
And of making sense of our rapidly accelerating world.

So a while ago, I started designing maps explaining how I see things.

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I've always been fascinated with maps.

A couple of years ago, I started designing these speculative outlines to explain what's on the horizon in terms of emerging technology.

To show how much is changing and how fast we're moving.
To connect dots and provoke debate.

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Here is a map on the future of health, for example.

It shows things like telemetrics, blood sensors and regenerating limbs.

All of these are freely available online if you Google my name.
Which is a lot easier than reading them on screen :-)

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Here's another one, on the future of education.

We talk about digital classrooms, algorithmic schools and tangible computing.

So that's my job: explaining what the future holds so we can better prepare ourselves for it.

Not as a preacher,
but to develop a common ground,
so we're at least disagreeing about the same thing.

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Here is an unpublished map we're designing for the Canadian Government.

We talk about advances in nanotech, energy and again: health.

And it's from doing all this research about the future of health that I've gotten your attention for the next twenty-five minutes.

Because I want to talk about the future of your business.

To explain how we ended up where we are.
And where we might be heading in the coming decades.

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But first, some context.

Have any of you been to Stockholm?

Beautiful city. Very isolated and runs like clockwork.

That's where I grew up.

I was a nerdy kid.
Total introvert.

A video-gaming,
four-year old.

If you haven’t been to Sweden, there are two things you should know:
The first thing is that it's dark most of the year.

The second is that everyone is online.

You see, Sweden was among the first countries in the world to roll out nation-wide high-speed broadband in the nineties.

Sweden did not invent the internet, but were among the first to understand how connectivity can help build future-proof societies.

So imagine me: a twelve-year old in 1994,
with a 486 DX and dial-up internet access beeping on to the primordial web.

and half the kids in my class,
all learning PHP and C++ and MySQL
instead of being out kissing girls.

So I started developing this theory about technology and development.

I think that if you give kids fast & cheap broadband,
and time to get bored instead of being out playing in the snow,
you start breeding a very unorthodox set of talents.

Kids who grow up on the internet have their brains shaped in a very peculiar manner.

They see the world differently from previous generations.

They see a flexible and interactive future.
Where everything is up for grabs.
And no rules need obeying.

That’s how everyone I know ended up in tech.

Not in banking.

Not in football.

I don’t have a single friend who’s either a lawyer or a doctor.

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My generation are kids with broadband.

Kids who breathe technology.

Kids who taught themselves everything on their Ataris and Commodores.

Taught themselves English playing Monkey Island,
And trained their reflexes playing Castle Wolfenstein.

We all did.

Kids with broadband teach ourselves.
We instruct each other.

We don’t do business school and career paths.

We don’t listen to hierarchy.

We don’t even aim inside the status quo.

We are the kids who stay up all night disassembling the world so that we can put it back together with new features.

We fix things that aren't even broken.

We're the kids who abandon the world around us because we're building a new one.

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We are the kids make industry-toppling and disintermediating startups.

The Angry Birds and the Instagrams.

Kids who become billionaires overnight.

I think we’re fundamentally different from previous generations,
and I think we’re just getting started.

There's barely a few million of us.
We're still in the minority.
And few organizations are realizing this.
Most companies I talk to still see technology as a peripheral skill, instead of a life-long learning opportunity.

I'm trying to change that.
I’m trying to show technology’s big picture.
Because everywhere I look, I see companies repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.
Unknowingly walking the footsteps that led so many others to perish.

So I study technology.
I pay attention to it as a function over time.
And give a head start to those who are willing to listen.

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First, let’s kill the misconception that technology is limited to physical artefacts
like Fuelbands, iPhones and Teslas.
It’s not just the things that track us, beep and lose their signal.

To understand technology, you need to take a few steps back.

Technology is everything we create.

Technology is how we solve problems as a species.

Vaccines solved smallpox,
Toothbrushes solved caries,
Television solved boredom.

The endeavour of creatively solving societal problems.

The accumulation of everything we've ever built.

Designing and utilising technology seems to be at the core of what it means to be human.

It seems to amplify our desires to control nature.

With technology, we quite literally change our reality.

We fix it,
we improve it,
we tweak it.

So from my perspective, technology is this upwards levelling force.

That makes your life
a little bit better,
all of the time.

I think we’re starting to notice that the speed of that change,
is ticking faster
and faster.

And the questions we keep asking ourselves,
are getting larger
and larger.

So we feel less
and less in control
as our world shape-shifts.

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Because of technology, billion-dollar companies are scared of teenagers with MacBooks.

Because Napster happened a decade ago, and nobody knows who’s next.

Suddenly Amazon is the new FedEx.

Suddenly you have companies called
and SpaceX
and MakerBot.

Literally building the future out of science fiction movies.

Putting robots in space and being driven around by electric cars.

Suddenly we’re all revolutionaries and pirates.

And I’m thinking: this is the stuff that shapes epochs.

Because technology not only enables people to me more successful,
it enables new ways of being successful.

It empowers an entire generation of people with unorthodox talents
to grow and contribute.

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This transition is well underway
and shows no sign of slowing down.

Record labels,
tax accountants,
cab drivers
have all felt the irreversible effects of technology future-shocking their industry.

And you guys know this is happening.

You feel silicon valley breathing down your neck.

Suddenly the kids with broadband are starting to ask themselves how then can radically improve your industry,
in ways you said was impossible.

So for a while,
I've been inviting people to carefully step towards me here in the future,
and practice suspension of disbelief for a couple of minutes.

You see, science fiction is another great way to explain the future.

If you want to understand what tomorrow looks like,
watch things like Star Trek
and Blade Runner
and Battlestar Galactica
and Total Recall.

I've found that good sci-fi sets the mind rattling towards better foresight.

By engaging with sci-fi,
our brains take off into this wild thought experiment,
where everything that is scientifically possible becomes socially feasible.

Realistic, even.

So we get to explore entirely plausible future worlds,
and imagine colourful scenarios of where the future might take us,
while learning something profound about hot topics like big data or genetic sequencing.

I've done part of the work for you this morning.

I'm going to tell you two stories set somewhere in near future future.
Where a couple of key technologies that sit on your time horizon, have manifested exponentially.

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The first story is called PARIS OVERDRIVE and begins right here in New York City.

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A blue exclamation point flashes in the corner of your eye.

You look sharply to the right.

It’s Bob,
your A.I.,
saying your cab's here.

First vacations alone since forever.

And of course you miss her.

You feel uneasy -- as if you're not supposed to be doing this alone.

But she's gone now, and that's that.

You've decided to leave the house early, avoiding gridlock.

Looking out the window, you see the sun rising somewhere over Brooklyn.

Take the elevator downstairs with your luggage in tow.

On a clear overlay the size of your palm, a wintery cloud blows across a sun-shaped icon.
Cartoon snowflakes fall from the overlay as you shake away the Paris weather report.

Somewhere in the back of your mind you sigh of relief from having packed for cold.

On cue,
a black sedan drives up to the curb,
trunk pops open,
doors swing ajar.

The car knows where to stop for breakfast
and your drive-through scrambled eggs know you're arriving.


You're dropped at the airport.

The place looks crowded but feels empty.
It is eerily silent.
Aimless souls walking as if through invisible fabric
Talking quietly to others as if talking to themselves
Staring dead-eyed a foot ahead of them.

Behind, like trained puppies, suitcases of all colours are tracking their owners across the concourse.
Like little R2D2's full of laundry instead of state secrets.

Yours is called Susan.
Susan the self-driving red suitcase.

Susan and Bob, two species of different worlds, and your most loyal friends.

Bob knows Susan is trailing behind you and paints an invisible red arrow for you to follow.

But before your check-in, a quick check-up.

Airlines and border crossings started requiring health snapshots a while ago,
finally ridding us of pesky things like pandemics and biobombs.

The scanner blows something in your eye,
smells your breath,
and beams Bob your boarding pass.

Susan flashes a green sign of approval before rolling onto the conveyor belt.

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More invisible red arrows telling you where to go.

Fast-paced travellers move swiftly between counters,
almost, but not quite, bumping into you.

Everywhere you look,
people with soft eyes,
moving through each other with blind grace.

Your arrows point you through security, down endless hallways, and finally towards a couch.

And you sit.

You switch the lenses into full immersion and finish watching Akira.

With full immersion, your entire field of vision is consumed by whatever you’re watching.

The technology to pipe moving images into our eyeballs without the outside world noticing
had been a huge success.

With the right privacy settings and virtual reality overlay, the rest of the world is smoothly tuned out.

Interruptible only by Bob.

When you're watching a movie, your field of vision becomes a posh cinema with velvety seats.

Akira in a tube of cryogenic storage below neon-lit highrises.

Akira racing his red bike through the streets of Tokyo.

Suddenly the video halts,
and Bob says boarding is ready.

You feel invisible strings pulling you towards the plane.

One of the unexpected advantages of full immersion is how much more bearable it makes transatlantic flights.

If your mind forgets that you’re half-standing in a cramped seat, so does your body.

By packing us like sardines, flights became an affordable health hazard.

Take-off shakes you turbulently until reaching cruising altitude.

Bob orders you a carefully tuned
shake from the food dispenser.

A thick fruity concoction that reminds you of pearly beaches and seaweed.

After a long cycle of sleeping and zoning out,
Paris shows its snowy face along the full side of the fuselage.
Make-believe liquid-crystal windows looking even better than the real thing.

Out on the parisian concourse, Susan cheerfully wags her way towards you.

Immigration consists of waiting awkwardly in tunnels of flashing lights and following formal-looking invisible arrows on the floor.

You haven’t spoken to anyone for days,
and figure you should at least tell your mom,
so you tag her when checking in to CDG on Foursquare.

So she knows you’re all right.

Floating banner ads in your field of vision announce french fluency plugins for immediate download.

4 euro 99 cents seems like a steal compared to years memorising indirect objects and auxiliary verbs.

Follow arrows to the staircase, metro, hotel, elevator and finally your bedroom.


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After a few minutes, Bob asks what you think of the room.
For a moment you consider negging the damp smell on Tripadvisor,
but you're in a good mood and would rather go for a walk outside.

Shimmers of you and her walking hand in hand,
before everything started breaking down.

Mom likes your airport checkin.
You consider telling Mom about the divorce,
but decide against it,
hoping that’ll cure the wounds.

A guideless walk takes you down the Seine purely from memory.

Memories of her, of course.
Snapshots of smiles and selfies and the sublime.
Pictures of you chatting passionately.

They say anything is possible in the future.

They say you just have to find a direction and walk.

So you walk.
And you walk.

And as you walk,
you wonder,
of how you drifted apart,
if you were always so connected.

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So let's talk about disconnecting.

This scenario might sound far-fetched and perhaps even ridiculous.
But I hope it shows how careless use of interfaces, devices and automation can end up alienating and even wounding us.
Which is why I think it matters to carefully consider the consequences of our long-term decisions.

The photo on screen shows an emotion-tracking Google Glass app.
So your future Ray-Ban facecomputer can tell you how you people feel.

And if you find yourself emotionally confused, just wear it in the mirror ;-)

The second story is called Stranger in a Strange Cloud

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I’ve been eating for hours.

Chewing away on a mountain of blue ice cream floating in a pink cloud.

A green sun warms my skin as I float from cloud to cloud.
Icecream with flavours beyond language.
Strange-tasting blends designed to deep-stim the brain.
To unlock my imagination using simulated, stimulated tastebuds.

But something’s off.

I’m hungry.

I’m not hungry here, I’m hungry outside.

I excuse myself from my feasting buddies and float down home,
upset I have to disconnect.

If I pay robots to check my food intake.
Then why the hell am I hungry?

I take a last look at the polka-dot ocean below.

People running naked on the beach and floating away with each other as I fade out.

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I wake up in a room the size of an office cubicle.

My eyes adjust to the general sense of gray.
My mouth feels forgotten.

But the IV hanging next to me is full.


I remove the needles,
and the waste collectors,
and the plugs from my head.

Stand up feeling a tiny, faded-out version of myself.

The hunger remains.

Feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, I step outside.

A faint glow outlines a door at the far end of my room.

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Outside, our yellow sun shines.
Silent greenery abounds.
Gravity tugs my body uncomfortably downwards.

The real world remains ever present.

Something buzzes on my left thigh.
I pick it up, asking myself what a flashing red screen could mean.

Then I get it.

The hunger was artificially induced.
A deep simulated notification to bring me back to reality.
A friendly reminder, if you will.

My bio-body needs a checkup says the screen.
A nano-epidemic is hitting my particular patch of suburb this afternoon.

Stay inside, says the warning.
Avoid physical contact with others.

What a silly thing to ask,
I think to myself as I walk back inside.

Back to my friends.

Back to my life.

If this scenario seems unlikely,
let me remind you that Facebook bought Oculus VR last night,

The previously independent Virtual Reality headgear manufacturer is now part of your Wall.

So if you have any doubts that VR is going mainstream — think again.

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Technology is part of everything around us.
It's in the fundamental weave of our reality.

So if these scenarios seem daunting, try remaining optimistic through this perpetual transition.

If you resist technology, you lose.
If you ignore technology, you lose.
If you deny technology, you lose.

There's no point in resisting that is improving everyone's life.

Understand it,
respect it,
and remain optimistic that the changes that are happening to our economies and your business are for our best,
in the long run.

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Technology evolves because of us.
We have complete agency over this process.

But we need to reconsider our relationship with technology.

Because this is just the beginning.

Everything is accelerating.

Everything will keep speeding up regardless of how uncomfortable that makes you.

Today is the slowest day you will ever live through.
Tomorrow will be faster.
This problem isn’t going away.

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So what about the kids with broadband?

What about the hackers and makers,
and the builders and the breakers?

The pirates and the revolutionaries?

They’re sitting in a garage somewhere with very low overhead,
asking themselves the difficult questions.

How to build an organization without staff.
Or to build a business without revenue.
Or to build a thriving institution without a leader.

Kids with broadband fix every problem they encounter.
Without requesting permission.

My final tip to you this morning is
Listen to them.
Learn from them.

My wired winters in Stockholm might be rare.

But I think the Goldilock conditions for creating Zuckerbergs are replicable anywhere.

At country level,
at city level,
even at company level.

I think you can harness that creative power.

I think you can build the environments,
the tools,
the platforms,
and the challenges
to assist these creative minds in fixing the world.

To do that, you need to survive the coming storm.

You need to undo chains of hierarchy,
and replace the comfortable stress of
remunerated workplace satisfaction,
with the uncomfortable thrill of a fast future.

Learn from how we see the world,
and lose your fear of falling forward.

Thank you.

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