The World: Before and After

That's a picture of a busy Detroit street in 1900. It's quite an image. There are hundreds of people on the street, all engaging in very familiar activities: shopping, cajoling, living modern turn-of-the-century lives.

What's striking to me is the absence of machines. The only technology is the invisible camera that's taking the picture. From the look of the people facing it, that camera has caught their attention.

Imagine the same scene 10 years later. The Ford Model T was about to transform that street into a very different place. Telephone wires would be strung from building to building, connecting families with one another and far-flung loved ones. Electricity would light up the night, indoors and out.

Nothing would ever be the same.

When I see that photo, I think of how a picture of our streets taken today will look 20 years from now. Will cars, trucks, busses, and wires still crowd the roads? Will people be staring at the "black mirrors" in their hands for updates from loved ones and marketers alike? Will today's image evoke the same quaint nostalgia as the 1900 Detroit shot?

I think one thing that is almost certain to be different will be the noticeable absence of robots.

There would be plenty of "robots" in a 2015 street snapshot. But, they're mostly invisible. Google, Siri, GPS, banking systems and scores of other software robots do our bidding today in easily beckoned efficiency. They make modern life possible. 

But, what about 20 years from now? What will that street scene look like then? Well, first of all, 2035's robots will definitely be more visibly physically present and deeply integrated into the daily lives of tomorrow's citizens. Physical robot assistants will be walking the streets performing all manner of previously human-only labor.

People and robots walking, talking, agreeing and disagreeing...having all manner of animated human-robot interaction...are likely to be evident in this scene. Our descendants will be as comfortable carrying on conversations with robots as we are talking with one another. Those robots will not only be able to follow the content of the conversation but also understand how the meaning of the topics being discussed will be uniquely experienced by each of the humans involved; capable of appreciating (more than any of us will be) the complexity and subtlety of each individual's unique emotional/cognitive reactions to the situation at hand. They'll read those reactions from our (micro) facial expressions, body language, and voice inflection as well as deducing them from algorithmically formed profiles using our individual histories, habits, mindsets, propensities, and behavioral patterns.  

Our interdependence with robots will be broad and deep, just as it is today with other generally capable technology platforms: electricity, automobiles, and computers. 

What will that be like? What will it be like to peer back into the mist and see today's streets in the same way as we see this 1900 scene? What will it be like to have robots become as commonplace as cell phones and pets? What will it be like for us to recognize that we are longer the planet's superior intellectual species? What will it be like when human beings recognize that we have been eclipsed by an artificial superintelligence that may very well have very different goals than assuring our own safe future?

What will it be like to look on 2015 as an example of the world in the days before everything changed?