A Passing Thought

I now have in my possession a pocket-sized computer which, when I speak a question to it (“Who is the author of Kraken?” “Who was the fourteenth president of the Unites States?” “What is the name of John Scalzi’s cat?”) provides me an answer in just a few seconds. If I take a picture of something, the same pocket computer will analyze the photo and tell me what I’m looking at. Oh, and it makes phone calls, too. Among other things.

None of that is the cool part. The cool part is, when I speak a question to my pocket computer and it gives me a bad answer, I get annoyed. Because here in the future, when I talk to my pocket computer, I expect it to get the answer right the first time.

I think I’ve said before that one of the neat things about getting older is that you really do become aware just how much things change. To be more specific about it, as you get older, at some point you cross an arbitrary line and are aware that you are now living in the future. I’m not precisely sure when it was I crossed my own arbitrary Future Line, but I’ll tell you what, I’m well past it now.

That is all. Carry on.

79 Comments on “A Passing Thought”

  1. Perhaps you should ask it how to make it answer spoken questions more accurately. You never know…

  2. With the use of the app Bump, you almost have the “ping” function of the Brain Pal.

  3. Imagine the changes that someone born around 1880 saw in there lives if they lived to be 100 years old.

    Abraham Lincolns son was in the cabinet.
    Horses everywhere

    world war 1
    world war 2
    many generations of cars
    going to the moon

    I think people born about 100 years before us saw greater change.

  4. I was 6 in July 1969, old enough to understand the promise that, when I’m a grown-up, I’ll be able to spend the holidays on Mars. The very definition of the Future, I guess. Still is, unfortunately…

  5. I had my “future moment” a few years ago. I was born in 1949, the year the transistor was invented. I happened to inventory my belt and realized that I had 1. a cell phone. 2. A PalmPilot with 16MB of memory, and a 60GB iPod. Then it hit me. I had on my person more transistors, more digital storage and more raw computing power than existed in all the world the day I was born.

    That wasn’t what made my mind do the “outside loop” you describe. What did it was realizing that I was essentially wearing all of those as part of my *clothes*.

    Thank you. Carry on.

  6. That is so cool, even though the tech is in its infancy. One itty bitty step closer to Asimov’s A.I. robots.

  7. Perhaps it holds the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything!

  8. My mom (93 years young!) still wonders how all those little people get into the TV set! And wonders how they know to show ‘South Pacific’ when she puts in the DVD for South Pacific!

    She still doesn’t really ‘get’ time-zones (she still finds it strange that I’m having lunch in the US while she is getting ready to sit down after dinner in the UK).

    I gave up trying many years ago.

    Otherwise, she is a very smart lady – just living too far in her own personal future!

  9. If we’re living in the Future, where’s my flying car and my vacation on Mars? I’m kind of disappointed in this part of the Future.

    The only time my car flies is when I go over a speed bump too fast. Even then it’s a really short flight.

  10. The most futuristic part of the “ask the pocket computer” thing is that the questions _aren’t_ answered by some super-smart entity, but rather that the questions are answered by aggregating over the weighted collective judgment of anyone who ever thought about the question, and anyone who ever thought about their answers(*). You’re not asking HAL, you’re asking humanity.

    (*)Since 1993, online, with points deducted if they try to enlarge your penis as part of the bargain.

  11. My personal equivalent is when I realized that I was “somehow” able to watch Doctor Who episodes in HD within 6 hours of their airing an ocean away, and I was unhappy about the smoothness of a horizontal pan after I had transcoded it.

  12. I found it interesting that in “Old Man’s war” you choose to have them carry PDAs instead of communicators/phones.

    Reminded me of the CRT TVs when I watch blade runner. (Flying cars and CRT tvs?!?)

    My WHOA future moment came when I walked into Wendy’s and the menu was 3 Plasma TV’s with an animated frosty video. Felt like the papers in harry potter.

  13. Your getting annoyed when the phone gets it wrong is almost as good as when you mis-spell a word so horribly that the spell check program refuses to try and fix it. On the one hand, your frustrated by the phones error, on the other, your proud that you stumped the spell checker. Either way, your tool failed and your forced to think about your own behavior in response.

  14. A friend of mine gave a talk at Wiscon about how A.I. in reality is less about going down the path of positronic brains, and more about intelligence augmentation. In other words, what you just described.

    (Or something to that effect. I didn’t hear his talk — wasn’t at Wiscon — just his thumbnail summary of it afterward.)

  15. I still think telnet is cool. And I started BBS’ing in ’81! Just the idea that I can remotely control another computer still kinda’ blows my mind.

    And when you factor in the elephant’s memory we now have, yeah, this future has some bright spots.

    I’m still working up the home av server/player set up. I want to have the ability to go to any ‘screen’ in the house and call up any media file (movie/music/book (have Old Man’s War as part of my Tor collection) just like they do on Star Trek (original).

  16. A singer friend of mine has a song about the fact that for the inhabitants of the magical kingdom it’s all everyday and regular, it’s just the visitors who find it all strange and wonderful. For those of you who know Hebrew you can find the song here.

    I think that living in the future is much the same- if you could transplant someone from as late a time as the seventies here without passing the intervening time they would have thought about almost 3/4 of our computer tech as pure magic(in the Clarckian sense), because they would have had no frame of reference that allowed for such small computers who talk back to you, for ex. On the other hand, for us it’s just those (nice)new bells and whistles someone stuck on a relatively normal cellphone.

  17. This sort of thing always reminds me of Louis CK’s commentary on taking technology for granted:

  18. So basically, you are Jonathan E making first contact with the liquid computer Zero?

    Good luck next week against New York.

  19. Ask it the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.

  20. My moment was in 2005 when I went back to school. ( First time since college in the late “70’s)

    I had to write a paper for a class, 5 pages with reference’s etc, etc, and had the basic research done in about 3-4 hours online instead of 4-5 days haunting the library stacks. The connection to knowledge is unprecedented these days.

    Oh, and I still love the fact I can have over 8,000 of my favorite songs, two of John’s podcasts and a couple of MST 3K movies that I can play whenever I want right in my pocket.

    Cool stuff yo

  21. I crossed one of my Future Lines when the Berlin wall fell.

    I suspect a lot of people crossed their Future Lines when a black man was elected POTUS. Think about it – more than one pre-Obama movie used a black POTUS as a cinematic short-cut to set the story in the future.

    On the other hand, I still haven’t made it into orbit, so this is definitely not the future.

  22. unfortunately for me, my “future” moment hinges on two things working, (1) cold fusion working and producing more power than it consumes and (2) a fully operational space elevator.

    There is some pretty cool tech out there, but I’m still waiting for 1 and 2.

    I think the political dynamics of this world will completely alter when anyone can go buy a Mr Fusion. And then we’ll be living in teh future.

  23. When I was in High School, a friend used to tell a funny story about when he first got his Apple ][, he had originally thought he could just type “what’s the theory of relativity” into it and it would answer. We all thought that was a funny joke.

    Now we are there.

    We used to say “they were born before the Wright brothers and lived to see the moon landings!” My descendants will probably say something like “He was born when computers took up a room and lived to see SkyNet!” or something similar.

    My own “the future now” moment was when I was 40,000 ft over the Atlantic while chatting with people from California, the East Coast and the UK on IRC.

  24. and if you are as old as I am, you love living the future, but miss some of the past. Replacing all the old with the new instead of bonding them together seems dumb now–but don’t take away my iPhone.

  25. I think it is some pretty prosaic stuff that sort of defines the “living in the future.”

    Pay at the pump gas stations.

    Electronic currency generally- I stopped carrying significant amounts of cash about five years ago.

    Video-chatting: my four and a half year old daughter has never gone more than a few weekas without seeing her grandparents, despite the fact that they all live in Florida while we’re in DC.

    USB thumbdrives- take that Johnny Mnemonic!

    And of course, the world existing in September, 1997, after Judgement Day.

  26. My future moment came when I realized that my pocket computer could play me music (not already stored on the device) and give me audible turn-by-turn directions, both through my car speakers, without wires.


  27. Have you tried asking it “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow?”

    Because I know that if *I* had been in charge of programming such an awesome app for a cell phone, I would’ve made sure to include that easter egg, first thing.

  28. I’m just old enough to remember the first moon landing, but was young enough at the time to have grown up in a world that accepted space flight as a given (although I have to say that my dreams and expectations on that score have been less than fulfilled – too much Azimov, Heinlein and Clark at too young an age I suppose). I remember the first video game (although they just don’t impress, I’m afraid, even now; I’d rather have a book) and the first pocket calculator. Did anyone else have that little Owl-shaped computer to help quiz you with your math?

    I’m re-reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” right now, and it’s times like this that it truly dawns on me just how far we have come in so short a time, technology-wise. I’d say it was my “future now” moment, but it feels more like a sense of progress.

    Perhaps my complacency in accepting technology as it comes is my future moment. But it makes sense – I grew up in a world where it is commonly known that people could walk on the moon with the equivalent of a pocket calculator’s worth of computing power. How can we ever be surprised after that? Anything new, while possibly neat, seems a bit inevitable.

  29. There have been several outside loops in my life.

    The Moon landing; I watched this live, in a mess tent set up at USMC RD/SD. During Boot Camp!

    The second was the report that Dave Haynie had managed to put 16 megabytes of memory (on two cards) into an Amiga 3000, and boot and run UNIX from the ram drive.

    I think the phone that was “whoa!” was the Motorola Razor; my first mobile phone was the size of a briefcase and needed a car to power it.

    I still have a Post slide rule on my desk, and use it.

  30. I like it when there’s an amazing bit of the future – going online on a laptop computer in a 200-yr-old French barn to order a piece of image-editing software from the other side of the world and paying by credit card and having it delivered by jet air mail – mixed up with some bits of the past, in this case the package you order not quite making it to your front door but being left in a tin box at the corner of two tracks next to a field 50 yards away and you have to go out in the rain to fetch it the last bit yourself.

  31. “Because here in the future, when I talk to my pocket computer, I expect it to get the answer right the first time.”

    So what is the correct answer to the “What is the name of John Scalzi’s cat?” question? My understanding was that that question has multiple possible answers.

  32. I had that moment when I bought my first iPod and realized that this tiny computer was more powerful than all the computers NASA used to put a man on the moon. And that I was using it to play music.

  33. Even more annoying, have you yet figured out that your phone likes Krissy and Athena better than you, or at least is less likely to mistranscribe your spoken request?

  34. Actually, thinking about the first human landing on the moon being just over 41 years ago makes me feel like we’ve backslid away from the future some, or at least stalled.

    Sure, I’m posting this using a handheld device that dwarfs Apollo 11 in terms of computing power. Ok, it’s cool that I can get Google Earth in the palm of my hand. But it’s not even remotely the same as seeing the view myself, live.

    Are we living in the future … or just a computer-generated illusion of it?

  35. When I asked my phone “what is the name of John Scalzi’s cat”, it first tried to find “John Scalzi scat” (and succeeded, if you must know).

    So I shortened it to “the name of John Scalzi cat,” and the second link took me to this very post.

  36. I just did the voice search on my Evo 4G for “bacon cat.” It was the first time I had actually used it, and I was surprised it worked.

  37. There may be an individual line that is crossed (I remember my then 12-year-old daughter telling me we were living in the future ten years ago, but I haven’t felt it yet) but I think there may also be a societal line. I’m pretty sure that people in the UK in the 1850s – at the time of the Great Exhibition, say – were convinced the future had arrived. Maybe in the States the line was crossed sometime in the 1950’s when people started talking about The Atomic Age.

    Perhaps every great age of prosperity and growth makes people thing the future is finally starting to happen for them.

  38. This ‘the future is here’ phenomenon hasn’t hit me yet. I’ll give it another decade.

  39. My personal future moment came last week, when I drove a car with a GPS. I still can’t get over the fact that there is an object hanging in low earth orbit that has nothing better to do than track exactly where my car is and then use a synthesized voice to tell me when to turn left.

    This was very unimpressive to the people I had lunch with today, who got into a discussion of things they couldn’t believe we hadn’t invented yet.

  40. I had mine before I was 5. Living in Glasgow in the mid-50’s, the man who came round with groceries and milk traded his horse and cart for a van. Things have been confusing ever since.
    The fact that I’ve run out of space for apps on my iPod Touch doesn’t help one bit.

  41. I’m not even that old… but I realized I was living in the future when I let my kids watch “Inspector Gadget” cartoons on Hulu one day, and realized that a tablet PC or and Ipad can basically do ANYTHING that her computer book did… and most cell phones are equivelant to her wrist-phone.

    I mean, as a kid I used to dream about all those super-cool-futuristic-impossible spy tools. Now my kids look at the computer book and shrug.

    The hat copter thing is still cool though… :)

  42. My daughter is 4 years old.

    Her car seat has a cup holder molded into the arm.

    I came home in a milk carton and a prayer, my parents came home with a prayer, my grandparents were born in the house they grew up in.

    And my watch has more computing power than the Apollo program apparently…


  43. I think about it every time I hear someone complain about dropped calls on their iPhone. Excuse me? I had my first cellular phone only about 10 years ago and the damn thing was the size of a brick and where I worked in Detroit about 6 square blocks was a weird dead zone. Now I’ve got a device the size of a deck of cards that not only gets 99% of my phone calls, but email, surf the web, take pictures, take video, can do video telephone calls, play games… Arthur C. Clarke was right, if I got the source right–seems like magic to me.

  44. My best friend works for a startup that works in AI. They do things like writing the learning ‘computer assistants’ that have been popping up on airline sites. Those things are deeply complex from the back end, and the way they learn and associate things is super cool. It’s really neat.

    Anyway, I used to help test them and I’d heckle them a little for fun. “Why is the sky blue?” “Why is the Pope Catholic?” Usually, they were stumped. I crossed into the future when I asked the newest Hawaii resort AI “How many grains of sand are there on the beach?” and she gave me a discourse on the nature of sand – types, colors, and the consistencies of the various beaches. It was informative but the tone seemed a little supercilious. Like, “suck it, meatbag.” I have a feeling I won’t be spared when she becomes weaponized.

  45. I still can’t get over the fact that there is an object hanging in low earth orbit that has nothing better to do than track exactly where my car is and then use a synthesized voice to tell me when to turn left.

    The satellites are just clocks. It’s that thing on your dashboard that has all the smarts, which is even more amazing. What really astounds me about GPS is that to get a sufficiently precise location, it has to take into account such things as the time dilation of moving clocks and the gravitational distortion of space-time. (I’ve become jaded about the fact that it also contains a roughly complete street map of North America.)

    And just like John’s annoyance at wrong answers, I’m annoyed when the thing gives me stupid directions that involve going down twenty back roads.

  46. One moment was when I first saw a billboard advertising robotic surgery… for vasectomies.

    The sterilization program has begun.

  47. I have a netbook, which I love, and dearly wish I could justify having a smartphone. Wifi is pretty damn cool on the rare occasions I use it…I rarely leave my apartment anyway.

    While all the neato other stuff sounds great, I just can’t get past the fact that there are only two people in the world I care to call regularly and I live with them. A smartphone seems such a waste.

  48. Sometimes I’m amazed at what the future has wrought and sometimes I’m amazed at the promises the future has not kept.

    When I was a kid, Space:1999’s premise of putting a base on the moon seemed vaguely plausible. I mean, it was going to happen sooner or later, right? 2001 seemed so FAR AWAY.

    Now here we are in 2010 and I have a Star Trek Tricorder on my hip. Cars that don’t use gas are becoming a reality. Genetic engineering and cloning are limited realities. And it all seems so…COMMON. Our experience isn’t dramatically different from someone 40 years ago or 80 years ago or more…but it IS different.

    I grew up without color television until I was about 5. My children are annoyed if we don’t have broadband internet or a DVR on vacation. It’s a funny old world.

  49. My grandmother remembered the first time she saw a car, the first time she saw a phone, the first time she flew to a different country, the first time she saw someone walking on the moon, the first time she listened to a radio.

    I expect I won’t see a change quite as big as what radios and cars did to society. But pretty close.

  50. I’ve had several OMGThe Future! moments. My latest was when I was sitting on the beach on Ogunquit with my week-old Nook and I finished the book I was reading. I didn’t want to jump in the ocean yet, so I went to the online store, browsed around and bought Armageddon Rag by George R. R. Martin – and was reading it within a minute. It hit me afterwards that I had gone book shopping with my toes in the sand and the wind in my hair and thought nothing of it – in fact, if there hadn’t been 3G coverage at the beach, I would have been righteously annoyed.

    @18 Ken – I enjoyed that clip – thanks for posting it. “Ugh -this guy’s got two zeros – screw that guy!”

  51. Re: asking the phone the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.

    The answer is 42, but does the phone know what the question actually is?

  52. @17

    “I think that living in the future is much the same- if you could transplant someone from as late a time as the seventies here without passing the intervening time they would have thought about almost 3/4 of our computer tech as pure magic(in the Clarckian sense), because they would have had no frame of reference that allowed for such small computers who talk back to you”

    I’ve seen this sort of thing before (from Charlie Stross, I think) but it underestimates people’s flexibility and the effect of popular culture.

    Star Trek was a mainstream television show and had a talking computer and little communicators. 2001 was out in the sixties.

    If you jumped someone from 1970 to 2010, they wouldn’t look at what we have as magic. They’d just accept it – most people don’t even kind of understand how things work now, so it’s not a big knowledge gap.

    Most of our stuff is more complex versions of things that have existed for decades, rather than being so new that they’d be magical.

    There is a point where if you back far enough that the science and expectations are so different that a person moved forward might be bewildered, but it’s pretty far back. More than 200 years, probably.

  53. My line is still personal space travel, as some have said. Though I reckon we’ll hit that soon, at least within my lifetime.

    Apollo program cost $170 billion (adjusted for inflation) and put about 36 people into space.
    i.e $4.7 billion per person.

    Shuttle program cost about $174 billion to get 924 persons into space (132 flights with roughly 7 ppl each)
    $188 million per person.

    You could buy a seat on Soyuz for $20 million.

    Spaceship 1 was built for $25 million, went to the edge of space 4 times.

    Virgin galactic are selling seats for $200,000

    So in the space of 40 years, the cost has averaged dropping by an order of magnitude each decade, with noticeable acceleration towards the end (3 orders of magnitude in the last decade)

    So I reckon it should be in the everyman price range in about 10-15 years. Woot!

  54. Meeting my wife a couple of years ago was my future moment. We’re about the same age, graduated from college in ’78. She’s Polish, grew up under Russian occupation, and has a number of societal mores more like my grandparents than my contemporaries. Yet we’re now married. Wow.

  55. The other day my 9-year-old son complained about the “average graphics” in Lost Planet 2 on the PS3. I laughed, remembering how cool I thought the graphics were on the Atari 2600 when I was his age.

  56. Small voice heard coming from something in John Scalzi’s hand:

    “Here I am: brain the size of a planet and he is asking me the names of his own cats. Call that ‘job satisfaction?’ Cause I Don’t.

    God, I’m so depressed.

    Scalzi, have you figured out how to use me for a phone call yet?”

  57. Steve Burnap@24

    “Lived to see Skynet!”

    Short lifespan?

    Dave Hall@64

    In a recent episode of “Schlock Mercenary”, one of the characters is asked by tech support how he managed to get past their stall-the-customer AI. Answer: “I set up a conference call with your AI and a suicide prevention hotline. It was headed for a meltdown.”

    Yep. This is the future all right. :)

  58. Did you really get the your phone to recognize the word “Kraken”? When I tried it first guessed “crack” then “quicken”.

  59. My future moment was when a friend of mine was emailing a work colleague in China (we were in IL) and was bitching about how the buttons on his Blackberry were too small for his fingers. His 23 yr old son said “yeah dad, you can communicate with anyone anywhere in the world but the buttons are too small…. whine….”

  60. Jon Marcus@66: Probably the voice recognition was trained with the “standard midwestern accent”, which is spoken from Ohio to California. Given Scalzi’s history, I suspect he nails that perfectly.

    I know that Google Voice transcribes my voice perfectly, but goes to hell when trying to transcribe a UK Native.

  61. How did I miss this? I was just wanting a computer I could talk to the other day… ‘Computer, what’s the fall time in seconds from a four hundred foot cliff?’

    Found the answer on Google, of course, but how much cooler will it be when I can ask the house computer? Even better if, like on Wall E, my house computer speaks with Sigourney Weaver’s beautiful voice…

    So this is the Droid X, right? I wonder if you can get them in Australia/ What is the app called? Is there an iPhone/iPad version?

    (Oh and I LOL Eridani. Funniest comment I’ve read for ages.)

  62. I’m pondering this.

    At the time, I thought it was July 16, 1969. I was about to start college and I expected some day I’d have frequent flyer status on trips to the Luna Hilton.

    OTOH, when I left the house this morning I had in one pocket a 64 GB iPod Touch with the following:

    The internet!
    5 favorite movies.
    9 favorite TV episodes.
    900+ books.
    3,000+ songs.

    Also in that pocket, a 32 GB flash drive with a backup of My Documents and bookmarks that I use to keep my desktop and laptop synced.

    In the other pocket, a camera the size of a deck of cards with an 8 GB card, and a flip cellphone roughly the size and shape of my business card case.

    I’m not entirely sure when I crossed the future line (first moon landing? first VCR? first time I bought a movie I could watch any time I wanted? first computer?) but there’s no way I’d trade my pockets for that moon vacation I thought I’d be taking by now.

  63. I was born in1937. When I was growing up we had a crank telephone on a party line, an old fashioned outhouse and no electricity. When I was a teen ager we had one electronic computer, Eniac, in the world and vacuum tube radios and TV. I remember the start and end of WW2, the space race and the advent of cell phones. Yep, I am living in what was Science Fiction when I was a kid.

  64. @67 & 69: I’m fairly midwestern myself, though my voice is fairly deep. I dunno if that confuses it.

    I wasn’t really too surprised that it didn’t get “Kraken.” Especially without the context of the question (which I don’t think they do…yet) I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a human listener confused “crack” with “kraken”.

    Though…how do you pronounce kraken? Do you say something like “crack in” or “crake in”?

    (Personally I’ve always chosen to pronounce it as “Hen3ry”, with a silent 3. That might be confusing things slightly…)

  65. I think helicopters are my Future Moment. I guess this places my future moment before I was even born. Despite being young enough that computers seem ordinary, I’m still completely impressed that Flying Machines are a part of our everyday life. Everything since then is just gravy.

  66. You poor souls. If you define the future by the electronic gadgets you possess.

    I do not live in the future.
    I was born 1956, and what has really changed in those 50 some years?
    We, still drive the same cars. Sure they look different, but so do your shirts. Where are the cars running on water, electricity or whatever. Can they fly? No.
    The houses we live in, look the same, are essentially built the same way, with the same materials. They are heated, cooled the same way.
    Where is that unlimited energy resource, that does not produce waste? I am talking about a fusion reactor. It was promised to us, when I was a teenager, in a 50 year time frame. These days the scientists tell us what? About another 50 years.
    Do we live in peace on earth? Dis we abolish poverty, hunger, social inequality? Not even near any of those.
    Now don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the technological advancements that we made. I do like my digital camera, my laptop and all that stuff, and I certainly like the advancements in medicine. But, do I live in the future, that I dreamed of as a child, a teenager or a young adult? I don’t think so.

  67. “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

    Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

    Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

    -Douglas Adams

  68. Of course if there was any justice, and particularly given the preceding comment, the answer would be 42.

  69. I can think of two ‘living in the future’ moments, offhand.

    The first was when I realized that the dream of establishing a habitat on the moon or Mars wasn’t being prevented by technical issues. It wasn’t even being prevented by financial issues. It was because we’re just too **** lazy to bother *doing* it.

    The other was looking at the state of media and electronics today–and between various monitoring systems, and tools like Photoshop, seeing a world that would have George Orwell pointing and screaming ‘I told you so! I told you so!’…despite it being a couple of decades after his predicted date.

    Never said it was a particularly *bright* future…