Welcome to the Future, Episode 1

An octocopter similar to the one used by SHARK. Credit: Ville Hyvönen

Ah, “the Future”: an era of flying cars, jet packs, ray guns, and robotic maids…well, from that list, it looks like we’re doing pretty well for ourselves.

No, the future isn’t quite what we expected. The Internet has made us more connected than anyone dreamed possible, but a lot of us still want our Moon base and robots that do more than just vacuum. Household amenities are near an all time high in western countries, but poverty, lack of education, and even access to water remain very real problems throughout much of the world.

But every few months, I see a story that reminds me that we really are living in the Future. A lot of the classic futuristic developments we’ve been waiting for have come about in the last three years or so, or are about to soon, from commercial rocketry to the impending eradication of polio.

Here’s the latest one: the animal rights group SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) has been locked for months in a battle with pigeon hunters around the country. Their tactic is to send aerial drones similar to the one pictured above to video record the shoots in the hopes that the footage will convince those in power to ban the events. The hunters didn’t take kindly to this and responded by shooting down the drones four times.

The point here isn’t about hunters versus animal rights activists. It’s the fact that the animal rights activists are using drones in the first place. The robotic aircraft aren’t just for the military anymore. They’re poised to make a huge breakout in both the public and private markets in the coming years, with applications for police surveillance, emergency responders, and even paparazzi photographers. With prices starting at around $300, they could become common in the hands of ordinary people by the end of this decade. That may sound unsettling, but it is probably inevitable.

But what makes drones so much better than the remote-controlled aircraft that you can buy already? There are two main reasons. First, they don’t have to be human-controlled. They can fly on a predetermined path and navigate by GPS. Second, because of this, they don’t have to stay in range of a radio transmitter. They can save video and report back later, or connect by ordinary Wi-Fi or whatever else happens to be available.

If all this surveillance worries you, you’re in good company. Just as the amount of computing power in the world doubles every two years, so does the number of cameras. Think about it; in the days of film, most people only used cameras on vacation or at family gatherings. Today, two out of every three people on the planet carries a cell phone everywhere, and most of those cell phones have cameras. At this rate, it’s conceivable that every public space on Earth could be under constant watch within a few decades, often by drones.

But there’s another side to this equation; if cameras become that cheap and widespread, then huge numbers of them will be publicly accessible. So if someone’s watching you, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to watch them back, and that changes everything.

So welcome to the Future. No matter what happens, one thing’s for sure; it won’t be boring.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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