We are living in the future


The last few years I have revisited the stories of some of my childhood favorite sci-fi authors, and in particular Robert A Heinlein. It is fascinating to read stories written in the 50’s and 60’s and compare them to what actually happened.

Last week I finished The Door into Summer (1956) which takes place in 1970 and in 2000. It is amusing to read about the household (and other) robots and how they are programmed using a kind of electronic tubes. My robotic vacuum at home is the size of a pizza box, not the human sized robots described in the book. Voice recognition is mentioned, but according to the book it is too complicated and bulky, except for a very limited vocabulary. Today we have voice recognition in every mobile phone, and programs like DragonDictate (later Dragon NaturallySpeaking) have been around since the late 90’s.

In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) one of the main “characters” is the computer Mike, who takes up a large building and control all of the Luna colony. This echos the quote attributed to IBM’s Thomas J. Watson: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”. The philosophy back then was that centralized computer power was the way to go, not the distributed systems we have today. And they were still using telephones with wires in the future. Today we use smart phones with more computing power than Heinlein could ever imagine, and probably more computing power than the computer in the book.

And in Starman Jones (1953) the crew calculate their position largely manually, with the help of a computer that requires all the input data entered with binary switches, and returns the data in binary code using lights. The positions of the stars (used for the calculations) are recorded using “plates” which have to be developed, in other words traditional photography. Digital photography have today pretty much killed off traditional “chemical” photography using film.

There are of course many examples of where authors been right and describe technical equipment which have actually been developed, like the water bed (Heinlein in aforementioned The Door into Summer) and tablet computers (Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game from 1985).

So in many ways we already live in the future, and in an even more amazing and technologically developed world than even the greatest sci-fi writers could imagine. I don’t think anyone envisioned Internet and it’s importance, even if Orson Scott Card does write about a world wide computer network used for information and discussion in Ender’s Game. But by that time Internet already existed (just not the world wide web) and the electronic bulletin board systems (BBS) were becoming popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Personally I started connecting to BBSes in 1986 (possibly 1987) and in 1990 I connected to my favorite BBS almost daily.

Sure, we don’t have the flying cars everyone expected, or even the hoverboards from Back to the Future II (1989). But I believe that the rise of Internet is perhaps the single most important event in recent history. It has revolutionized shopping, you can now connect to a site on the other side of town or the opposite side of the planet and talk to people or purchase products. We have sites like Wikipedia and Stack Exhange where we can learn things and ask questions, not to mention online learning.

We have home automation that rival what is described in sci-fi books and movies. At home we are renovating (or rather rebuilding from scratch) our bathroom. We are going to install a Moen digital shower system as well as a pretty high-tech toilet. We already have a number of Insteon lights all over the house, controlled though a hub and a smart phone app (some lights are even turned on and off on a schedule based on sunset and sunrise), as well as a robotic vacuum. The latter is cleaning the house twice a day by itself, which is keeping the pet hairs under control and improving the air quality substantially. There is so much more you can do to your home these days, including changing the temperature remotely and even monitoring and controlling your hot tub.

My car has a radar to automatically break if someone walks out in front of the car, and this feature has been improved even more in the latest models. When the car is not braking by itself, the radar assisted cruise control let you drive safely behind other cars while you stream live radio from the other side of the globe through the Internet to your phone and then over bluetooth to the car stereo.

I love living in the future.


World Wide Web turning 25 years this week

In some articles it is claimed that Internet turns 25 years old this week, which of course is not true. But the World Wide Web is. It was on March 12, 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for a hypertext system that would become what we call “the web”. In 1991 the first webpage was created and published at CERN.

Since then the web has exploded. I first got in touch with web pages and HTML in 1994, and in 1995 I had my own little server running on my work computer. I don’t think I could imagine what the web and other internet technologies would lead to back then.

Back then pages were static, and Javascript was not invented until later (in the end of 1995). Everything was done server-side, so the pages needed to be reloaded to display new or updated information.

Today we have dynamically loading pages, with client side scripts that perform Ajax calls and update elements on the page without reloading the page.  Sure, specialized software like Lotus Notes had similar functionality way back, but required special clients and servers. Now we also have Javascript libraries like jQuery to help in development. It’s like night and day compared with how it was back in the mid-1990’s.

But it is not only the technology that has changed. What the web (as well as the rest of the Internet) is used for has also changed. From being more of an encyclopedia, where you were looking up information, today the web is used for commerce in a way I don’t think many expected back in the mid-90’s.

Today you can use a computer or smart phone anywhere in the world, and buy anything from toilet paper to a new car. We have auction sites like Ebay, big commercial juggernauts like Amazon as well as classified sites like Craigslist. Almost any retailer offers online purchases today.

Here is just a sample of what I bought online in the last week or so: Swedish Björn Borg underwear, a Kensington Proximo tag to use with an iPad at a trade show and a charger and two spare batteries for my GoPro camera. Just a few years ago, I had to wait for my sister to come visit or me going over to Sweden to be able to buy those particular underwear, for example.

The other day I was at JC Penney to buy a couple of Levi’s jeans for my sister’s boyfriend. In Sweden, a pair of $40 jeans can cost over $150… I had the model and the size, but since they had several different shades of blue, I simply took a couple of pictures of the different ones and mailed then to my sister on the other side of the globe. Within a few minutes I had a response and knew which ones to get. I know this was technically not using World Wide Web being used, but this is still a huge development from 25 years ago, when Internet mail was just plain text.

We truly are living in the future, and it is a future that no sci-fi writers envisioned. There are some 1980’s writers that envisioned a world-wide network, with discussion forums and email (e.g. Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game from 1985). When I recently re-read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, as well as Robert A. Heinleins The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I noticed how they for example still used land-lines for telephony, and that most of the computer technology felt very antiquated. Nothing of what we take for granted today was mentioned, like email, instant messaging, Google search engines or Wikipedia-style reference sites with all it’s collected knowledge.

Some things from the sci-fi stories have come true, like communicating with a computer using your voice. Today that computer is (in most cases) our smart phones, having more computing power than even the most powerful computer back in the 90’s…

What will the next 25 years give us? Who knows. Faster, smaller and more powerful computers and higher connection speeds are obvious. The 5G wireless networks are already in the development stage. But what will the next big leap be? Artificial intelligence? I guess we will see. What do you think will be the next big step in technology?


Spot the ISS – Notification service from NASA

You can now sign up for email (or SMS) notification from NASA when the Internation Space Station (ISS) is visible in your area.

NASA’s Spot the Station service sends you an email or text message a few hours before the space station passes over your house. The space station looks like a fast-moving plane in the sky, though one with people living and working aboard it more than 200 miles above the ground. It is best viewed on clear nights.

Go here to read more and sign up.


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