By Risto Linturi:

When 20 years ago my ideas first appeared on these pages, I was not a professional futurist. I was an executive catalyst trying to push broadband communication services forward. 

I created visions of the future, giving talks around the world on the glorious digital future of shared virtual reality, mobile computing, and pervasive networks. I also led numerous experiments and had access to a high number of researchers and experts to advise me on technology details. Now all those visions have become part of our daily lives or are just entering the market in some form or other.

It has become difficult to remember how we actually used technology 20 years ago. All new gadgets, smart phone apps – they work like the dreams of late 1990’s. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have contributed greatly in creating convenient integrating platforms for the huge variety of things which now can be controlled with smart phones. This is however only the beginning of the transforming impact of both long- and short-range wireless technologies. I share few glimpses of the wireless future in later paragraphs. 

The speed of evolution

I will first briefly describe the results of my past seven years of work, which has been participated actively by hundreds of specialists in all fields and published by the Parliament of Finland. The results show clearly the extremely fast technological revolution we are facing. This will challenge our whole society. The way we lead our daily lives will change, professions will change and societal structures too.

When we try to assess technological impact during the past 20 years, the core is not in simple things like our capability to read news from our mobile phone, navigate the streets of virtual Helsinki or look at the insides of our smart fridges with our smartphones while shopping. My early visionary work operated mainly on the superficial level. The major changes concern i.e. disruption of media, banking, trading, and retreat of democracy in the form of disregard of facts, but also industries forming clusters around certain compatibility standards like Bluetooth, Android or the Internet protocols. These major changes are enabled by the foreseen technological developments, but their impact to the way we organize our societies and industries goes well beyond technology itself. As we see how different the approaches are in USA, Europe, China, and Russia, we must realize technology by itself does not determine our future.

As a systematic effort to assess potential technological impacts in the future, my project divided the society into 20 value producing networks. Each of them has a prime goal. Passenger transport, Logistics, Sustenance, Energy supply and Health care are easy examples. Some value producing networks are more abstract like Power structures, Remote impact, Human work or Existential meaning. Altogether the 20 cover almost all organized functions within our societies and each of them has a clear prime goal and several moderating values. The prime goal as an example for passenger transport is clearly to move people from one place to another and main moderating values are safety, cost, convenience, and reliability. Each of the 20 follow their set patterns now and our major finding is that they are all challenged in fundamental ways.

Let us continue with passenger transport. Privately owned cars define the dominant logic presently. Major infrastructure, knowledge and vehicle investment is concentrated on cars. When driverless cars become common, an electric robot taxi can be cheaper and more reliable than private car. If we get fleets of robot taxi’s, the need for car dealers, gasoline stations, and parking places diminishes. The use of mass transit in major routes becomes simpler. This affects urban planning greatly. Stores, event centers, service bureaus or residential areas need no parking places, but the entry and exit must be fluent. Robotized logistics has as great implications to commerce but also to living in rural areas. These cars naturally interact wirelessly with their environment and their passengers or packages.

Possibly the most astonishing potential change we recognized concerned sustenance. Using LED-lights and fermentation, one can produce the necessary foodstuff daily and locally even in urban neighborhood. We already converse with our smart gardens wirelessly, but smart gardens are in their infancy yet. The production process can be handled with robots and food prepared individually for each person by a robot chef, transported with mobile robots. It contains no preservatives, it is truly fresh, all allergies and taste preferences are accounted for. We would not need farms, food industry, food distributors, or groceries. In case you wish to ensure the food is healthy, you scan it with multispectral imaging appliance wirelessly connected to your smart phone or some wearable.

Technology is now advancing more rapidly than ever before. We can read pictures and words from brains including dreams; chemical substances can be recognized remotely, or DNA analyzed by mobile phone accessories. My current laptop is 100 billion times faster than my first computer. Computing speeds have increased to enable realistic virtual worlds and already contemporary neural networks enable robots performing versatile expert tasks. On the other hand, Elon Musk has applied permission to send 42.000 communications satellites to low Earth orbit providing broadband capability all over the world. All technology will be available to every nation across the globe. Energy technology is in transit to create cheap renewable energy for us all, cheap and light batteries and solar fuels will serve for the nights and long dark winters for people living up north. Materials technology provides us strange new materials like transparent aluminum, transparent insulators, tougher than steel biomaterials and other wonders.

Short-range wireless already uses spectrum from GHz all the way to THz waves and beyond to LiFi. We get solid antennas, which can be directed. The antennas can harvest enough energy for small devices, route signals they receive, and they can be embedded in medicines we eat. We can finally have digital tattoos, which measure our vitals and transmit them to our smart phones. We can also send and receive bounced signals from our environment like radar, giving us information on the materials or whereabouts of things. Circuit-level lasers, spintronics, rectennas, time-of-flight technologies and many others are on their way to bring us new wonders. Wireless technologies enable so much more besides communication between electric appliances.

Think about how we learn in the future if we have AR-glasses with the above-mentioned hyperspectral camera connected to artificial intelligence. Just looking at the person sitting opposite me I can see if she is in love. My digital guardian angel advises me, who is happy, who is anxious, who is on drugs or has cancer.  I can see if my food contains substances ill-suited to me. When shopping, I see which strawberries are sweet, or which avocados ripe. If I wish to learn to play the piano or repair an engine, shadow hands appear in front of me and show me how to do it. And walking along the streets I see only happy people and sunny skies. Reality is replaced by a dream if we enjoy it more.

What shall we do with all these technologies? We can for example solve the worlds vicious problems. With 50% efficient cheap, flexible solar panels and solar fuels, energy prize drops through the floor and nobody wishes any longer to burn fossil fuels. Light batteries make even electric airplanes practical. Switching to nanocarbons and biomaterials in production makes raw materials cheap and abundant. There is no need to be poor. Farms can be returned to their natural state, there is no need for pesticides when robots can handle weeds and pests with lasers. New instruments using photonics and plasmonics allows laymen to run medical tests and use artificial intelligence for continuous medical assistance. It may even become possible to print our own medicine. Even secrets of long life seem to reveal themselves and young people today might still be alive in the year 2200. 

We can also select the dark side. We may fail the climate crisis. Virtual worlds may become addictive and drag us away from real life. Toys can be turned into robot soldiers, flying from afar, recognizing our faces and blinding us with pulsed laser or some disease. Our network feeds can be manipulated so that we no longer trust anyone. Kids can download CRISPR-GMO –tools and create genetically modified bacteria or insects. Some new materials may turn out to be extremely dangerous to crucial life forms. It is up to us, but to be realistic, this will be a wild roller coaster ride. Our societies are entering an unprecedented age of turmoil. We have a race between utopia and dystopia ahead of us and it has already begun.

Risto Linturi, futurist, keynote speaker


* Risto Linturi first appeared in the March 1999 issue of Incisor magazine in an article entitled ‘Man who controlled house while walking dog’.

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