Lilfe in 2024 – Palm Beach Florida Weekly
LIFE IN THE FUTURE HAS LONG garnered speculation running from practical to fanciful. Speculating how daily life might change for average people in the near future, merely 20 years from now, seems as if it shouldn’t be much different
Reflecting upon what’s changed in the last two decades, Dr. Brian Huffman, owner of Align Spinal Health and Wellness in Fort Myers, said he didn’t even own a cellphone when he was in college in 2003. “Students came and went as they pleased, and everyone didn’t know where you were all the time,” he said. “Things have changed — now my sixth-grade daughter has a phone where I can reach her instantly. But it’s not like we have flying cars.”
But how do the experts, who are doing the research to create the technology we’ll be using in the near future, think we’ll be living in 2042? Will we actually have self-driving cars or flying cars, and what other technologies might be new — or at least improved?
NASA — A fountain of innovation
“We know that investing in space technology and solving hard problems will result in inventions and technology that didn’t exist before, and we’ve seen the practical benefits over the 60-plus year history of NASA, but we don’t always know what they’ll be,” said Dan Lockney, the technology transfer program executive for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The technology transfer program makes NASA’s innovations and patents available for public use. Mr. Lockney said his favorite story of an unexpected use for NASA tech is that of a miniaturized camera on a chip for satellites to take deep-space images. The only terrestrial application NASA could think of was for spy gadgets. He said they were surprised when Nokia contacted them wanting to add miniaturized cameras to cellphones.
“We thought that was ridiculous,” Mr. Lockney said. “To this day, we still hold the patents on the camera phone that every cellphone has. The concept came from space research, but we didn’t know what it was going to be used for.”
Current and future research that Mr. Lockney said could enter common use in the next 20 years might include NASA’s innovations in cleaning water and air and in growing food indoors.
“We’ve been studying how to grow plants in space for a long time, experimenting with hydroponics and aeroponics, and we’ve discovered a way to grow plants so just the roots are covered in a nutrient gel,” Mr. Lockney said. “We’ve discovered ways to grow pesticide-free organic crops indoors without a lot of space because you don’t need land, so two companies, one in New York and one in California, have taken NASA’s work and have interior vertical gardens in dense urban populated areas. Cities are getting bigger and denser, and they don’t have big fields to grow crops for all the people living in them, so the ability to take NASA’s gardening techniques to grow fresh, nutritious foods on a floor of a building — I think we’ll see that in the future.”
Future of work
While NASA technicians direct rovers exploring other planets, bomb-disposal experts maneuver robots from safe distances and surgeons now perform telesurgery, using robot-assisted surgery devices remotely. These examples of remote work that utilize a robot to translate a worker’s directions into real-life actions currently require highly trained, specialized experts because the skills for this remote work goes far beyond what information-based workers do using computers and Zoom. But how might remote-control robots change the workplace of the future?
“During COVID, educators were able to work from home, but that was not the case for factory workers,” said Mehrdad Nojoumian, Ph.D., the professor at Florida Atlantic University who serves as the director of the university’s Privacy, Security and Trust in Autonomy Lab. “Tesla had to close a factory in China because of COVID, but imagine if people could work in factories from long distance just by interacting with robotic-arm partners on the line.”
FAU has applied for a patent for an adaptive cyber manufacturing system that Mr. Norjoumian has invented. The system would involve workers putting their hands into gloves while sitting in front of computers that provide views of their workstations via teleconferencing such as Zoom. The workers would perform actions with their hands, causing their corresponding robotic arm partners at their workstations on the factory line to perform tasks.
“It’s pretty much work-from-home for factory workers,” Mr. Nojoumian said. “At the moment, we have very limited systems, and only highly expert people can do these tasks. But I see that in the future regular people can sit in chairs and work in factories from home. This is going to create job opportunities for people with disabilities, seniors, pregnant women. The whole idea is, in the future, we will have a lot of — this phrase — remote interactions with machines — and this is going to become popular, not just for surgeons or NASA scientists, but regular people will start interacting with machines remotely.”
Mr. Nojoumian said the technology could create some tension between politicians who wish to keep manufactur- ing jobs local versus business owners who desire a lower-cost workforce who might be anywhere in the world.
Virtualized work would have employees using gloves rather than keyboards as their tools to perform remote tasks. But what about the much-hyped Facebook Metaverse, where people would have to wear cumbersome virtual-reality goggles to enter a virtual world to perform their work?
“The metaverse already exists in the video game realm because you have multiplayer games in virtual worlds taking place between people anywhere in the world,” said Gerald Sim, Ph.D., a professor of media studies at Florida Atlantic University who has taught about the ethics and politics of artificial intelligence. “Now, whether that is going to translate to people conducting all their business in a virtual world — that’s still up in the air. There have been a lot of starts and stops with regards to the willingness of people to wear headsets for work or for meetings.”
Self-driving cars — answer to the wrong question?
Another much-hyped innovation of the future is the self-driving car. Properly called fully autonomous vehicles, their development has made headlines for some years, and many people wonder when they might be able to purchase these new cars. But Rahul Razdan, Ph.D., senior director of special projects for Florida Polytechnic University, including the university’s Advanced Mobility Institute, believes people are asking the wrong question when they think in terms of simply replacing their existing automobiles with self-driving ones. Based on his research, here’s the real question: How will various forms of autonomous mobility reduce the need to own cars in the future?
“Your car is a really funny asset because it’s this really expensive thing that is parked 97% of the time,” Mr. Razdan said, “And it’s the biggest legal jeopardy you have.”
Mr. Razdan said the need to own a car (self-driving or not) will be reduced in the future. This trend has already begun, given the need to venture out in cars has been reduced by remote work, e-learning, e-commerce, streaming entertainment and telehealth. Car trips could be further reduced by the introduction of a different type of fully autonomous vehicle — delivery robots. This could relegate automobile usage to an as-needed timeshare or rental model and could increase use of public transit, taxis and ridesharing apps.
Mr. Razdan did say that mailboxes would need improvements to accommodate robotic deliveries, such as having warm and cold storage, and infrastructure would need improvements since he envisions delivery robots running on sidewalks — the same pedestrian sidewalks that bicyclists and golf cart drivers have been forced to use because of dangerous road traffic. To be cost-effective, robot deliveries would need to be optimized along a route within a time window versus being made on-demand.
“So, instead of you getting into your multi-ton (self-driving) car and telling it you want to go to the grocery to bring back a few pounds of food, which if you think about it that doesn’t make a lot of sense for energy and other reasons,” Mr. Razdan said, “don’t be surprised if what really happens is you tell the grocery what you want, and they send a small, autonomous robot to deliver it to you.”
AI could read your mood and learn to mimic you
FAU has secured two U.S. patents based upon research Mr. Norjoumian has done to invent systems that will improve human- machine interactions. The first allows machines to identify and appropriately respond to human moods, and the second allows machines to learn specific people’s habits and preferences. The patents specifically state that the systems are for autonomous vehicles, but Mr. Norjoumian said they could be used in caregiving robots, manufacturing equipment or any other situations where it would improve interactions and reduce human stress if machines could respond to people’s moods and preferences.
“With adaptive mood control, the system is going to predict and understand your emotional state — whether you’re happy or anxious or stressed out — and based on that, it’s going to change its behavior,” Mr. Norjoumian said.
If this system were in a self-driving car, the car would take a more cautious driving style by avoiding freeways and playing relaxing music if it detected the passenger was nervous. It could play energetic music and choose the highway if it detected a happy passenger.
The second patent, for adaptive driving mode, would allow a self-driving car to learn the owner’s driving habits when the car isn’t in self-driving mode. The AI could learn habits, such as a driver’s route and speed preferences and whether they pass or stay behind slower cars (but risky habits would be filtered out). When in self-driving mode with a person’s profile called up, a car would then mimic a safer version of that driver. This could reduce a person’s frustrations and quell the urge to take the wheel because they don’t like how the car is self-driving. The same technology could be used to teach a caregiving robot to mimic a family member’s behaviors.
“This is something that will happen eventually for all human-machine interaction, whether you’re interacting with your home robot or your self-driving car, where there will be some emotional connections between humans and machines,” Mr. Norjoumian said. “Then you feel like this is not just my self-driving car or my robot, but this is like my pet. And they’ll understand your current emotional state, and based on that state, that’s how they’ll interact with you. I truly believe this is going to happen because that’s the only way we can sustain this engagement between human and machine.”
But what about all that data?
Mr. Norjoumian said that while this machine learning will increase performance, a potential downside is that tech companies will collect far more data about people than they do now. Given current issues with smartphones tracking our locations and our internet searches being used for marketing, not to mention data breaches, security will be an even larger concern when companies know our habits and emotions better than we know them ourselves. And what happens as more connected Internet of Things devices proliferate our lives?
“As we charge into this new era, we have to accept the fact that computing is going to become ubiquitous and our lives are hopefully going to be made easier by these additional devices,” said T.J. O’Connor, Ph.D., the chair of the cybersecurity program at Florida Institute of Technology.
Mr. O’Connor pointed to the great promise of connected devices, particu- larly for the medical field, but expressed concerns about security implications for the gathered data because medical device security has been lax.
“Imagine that data in the hands of a malicious attacker,” Mr. O’Connor said. “What if they learned the CEO of a company was battling a terminal disease? How does that affect the stock market and company valuation? Or what if they could spoof the results and send a healthy person into a panic that they’re suffering a terminal disease when they’re fine? I’m less concerned about an attacker taking over my home doorbell camera than I am about someone attacking a person by releasing the contents of their insulin pump into their body over the internet.”
But when do we get flying cars?
Despite everyone having more computing power in their pockets than NASA used to send men to the moon, the symbol of life in the future everyone asks about is George Jetson’s flying car. But how far are flying cars from being reality, and given how badly people drive on roads with curbs to keep them in the lanes, would we really want these drivers to have the ability to buzz the treetops over our homes?
“Henry Ford predicted that we would one day be in flying cars, so for someone to be that visionary in 1940 and 80 years later we’re close to that,” said Chris Fernando, an aviation industry consultant who also teaches the urban air mobility ecosystem class at Florida Institute of Technology. “I tend to jolt realism into these conversations when I’m at work because there’s a lot of hype because people are trying to raise money to promote the technology, which is there, but there are a lot of barriers and hurdles that we need to overcome.”
Urban air mobility involves eVTOL crafts (electric vertical take-off and landing) that look like helicopter bodies lifted by multiple drone-type rotors that take off and land at vertiports, not home driveways. Rather than being the Jetson’s family flying car, these crafts will start as VIP air taxis to cut commutes, by hopping over traffic and geographic features such as lakes, and for health care and emergency response services.
So, why are these different than existing helicopters, other than being electric? Mr. Fernando said helicopter adoption has been limited because they are noisy and only fly at 500-800 feet. eVTOLs are quieter and can fly at 1,000-3,000 feet. They’ll be safer because they’ll have six to eight rotors versus one. They’ll also be largely autonomous, which is easier to achieve than in self-driving cars because there’s far less in the air to confuse radar, and autonomous operation will eliminate human pilot error and allow for denser traffic in the designated skyway routes. Mr. Fernando described the pilots serving more as CEOs of the flight, as well as helping passengers feel safer about flying aboard these new crafts. eVTOL companies have already opened in Florida. Eve Air Mobility is headquartered in Melbourne. German aviation company Lilium plans to open the United States’ first vertiport in 2025 at Lake Nona, near the Orlando International Airport, that could provide eVTOL hops to Tampa in 30 minutes and Miami or Naples in one hour.
“I’m very optimistic that this technology will come online,” Mr. Fernando said. “The question is when will it be able to scale? When will the price come down for the average person to access the technology, rather than it being focused on the rich and famous VIPs or the business community? A 20-year timeframe to see movement is a good proxy to use as a guiding post.” ¦ The interior of the Biomass Production Chamber at Kennedy Space Center in Florida replicates the closed growing environment astronauts will use in space or on other planets to grow fresh crops. The chamber helps NASA provide critical data for the indoor farming industry.