iPhone 5? Yawn. What Will the 'Phone' of 2022 Look Like?

One can imagine that a possible response of blanket digital- and physical-data collection by individuals, corporations, and governments would be to go lower tech and to change phones more often. While some people may run around with a fob that makes sure their data is with them all the time, others might elect to carry the dumbest, cheapest phone possible. Imagine if the 2022 equivalent of "clearing your cookies" is buying a new phone so that you'll no longer be followed around by targeted advertisements.

In China, having two or even three phones is not uncommon. One survey found that a good 35-45 percent of Chinese mobile users use two or more phones! IDEO's Stillion imagined a less dystopian version of the ubiquitous, low-cost phone model. He imagined we might just leave phones acting as video cameras so that we could visit places we missed. You could check in on the redwood forest from your desk. "You can visit these things when you like, especially when there is some mechanism for enhanced solar power," he said.

So, that's the low-tech scenario. But it's certainly possible that we have a disruptive high-tech scenario. My bet would be on some kind of brain-computer interface. As we wrote earlier this year, we are just now beginning to create devices that allow you to control machines with thought alone. A landmark paper was published in May showing quadriplegic patients controlling a robotic arm. "We now show that people with longstanding, profound paralysis can move complex real-world machines like robotic arms, and not just virtual devices, like a dot on a computer," said one of the lead researchers, Brown University neuroscientist John Donoghue. Despite the success, our David Ewing Duncan explained that the technology wasn't quite ready for prime time.

[Donoghue] and colleagues at Brown are working to eliminate the wires and to create a wireless system. They are conducting work on monkeys, he said, but still need FDA approval for human testing.

The work is still years away from being ready for routine use, said Leigh Hochberg, a neurologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and another principal of the Braingate project. "It has to make a difference in people's lives, and be affordable," he said. The scientists also need to replicate the data on more people over a longer period of time.

But hey, 10 years is a long time, DARPA has long been interested, and a brain-computer interface would provide a nice route around the difficult problems of computers communicating in our complex, ever-evolving languages. Plus, we wouldn't have to listen to everyone talk to his or her mobile concierge.



There are two big limits on our dreams for the future of phones: energy storage and bandwidth. Batteries have improved remarkably over the last decade and Steven Chu's ARPA-E agency wants to create radical breakthroughs in storing electrons. But it's not easy and if we want some of the wilder scenarios to become realities, we need much better batteries. 

One reason to be optimistic here is that materials science has hitched its wagon to Moore's Law. Experiments in the field are being carried out in computer simulations, not the physical world, which is much, much faster. MIT materials scientist Gerbrand Ceder told me long ago, "Automation allows you to scale." I wrote about his Materials Genome Project in my book, Powering the Dream. Ceder said "it wasn't the web, per se, that brought us the wonder of the web. Rather it was the automation of information collection by Web crawlers that has made the universe of data accessible to humans." And that's what his team (and others) are trying to do with the information embedded in the stuff of the physical world.

The other big hang up is network bandwidth. We all know that cellular-network data is slow. Many of us simply work around that by using our phones on wifi networks. But that's not how it is all over the world. Korea, famously, has very fast mobile broadband. 

"If you go on the subway in Seoul, there are people watching live streaming television underground," Shirky said. "You get on the New York subway and I can't send a text message to my wife. ... You want to know what the American phone in 2022, imagine what it's going to be like in Seoul in 2016."

Shirky then reconsidered. "Actually, I'm not sure I'll be able to watch streaming television on my phone under the East River a decade from now," he said. "I may not be able to do what they took for granted in Seoul in 2007."

Mark this down as one area where countries with certain geographical features and feelings about government infrastructure spending may have a harder time realizing the possibilities the technology allows.

The last limit is softer -- a privacy backlash -- even though, so far, we have no real evidence of the tide turning here in the United States. For all our computing devices allow us to do, what they ask in return is a radical loss of privacy. Every person recording a scene with Google Glass is changing the implicit social contract with everyone in his or her field of view. "Surprise! You're permanently on Candid Camera." When a guy who gets billed as the world's first cyborg because he wears a DIY version of Google Glass got beat up at a McDonald's in Paris, his eye camera got a look at the face of the guy who did it. He says that was a malfunction, but still -- an image was recorded on a device -- and now he can use that in a way that no one not wearing an eye cam could.

What if whole cities go "recording-free" like Berkeley is "nuclear-free"? If the pervasive datalogging endemic online comes to the physical world (and it will!), how will people react to create spaces for anonymity and impermanence? What kinds of communal norms will develop and how might those change the types of technology on offer? It might never happen, but don't say I didn't warn you.


The last thing I want to say is that all these technologies are most important for how they get us to change how we think about the world. That is to say, the big deal about social networks isn't *just* that we can communicate with the people we know from high school, but that people start to think about organizing in different ways, imagining less hierarchical leadership structures.

In the phone realm, I'll just use two examples from this story, the Leap Motion gesture controller and Google Glass, to explain what I mean.

I watched a demo of Leap Motion on The Verge featuring Buckwald's co-founder, David Holz. On his screen is a virtual 3D environment. Holtz then uses his hand to grab something on, or rather, in the screen. Here, you can watch this at about 3:50 in the video below.

"Imagine reaching into a virtual space and being able to move things around in a very natural, physical way," Holz says. "Here I'm able to grab space and move it."

It's that prepositional change -- in not on, into not on -- that signals a major shift in how we might actually come to feel about computing in general. Somehow, a 3D environment becomes much more real when you can manipulate it like a physical space. A tactile sense of depth is the last trick we need to feel as if "cyberspace" is an actual space.

Meanwhile, Google Glass, no matter how Google is couching it now, is exciting precisely because it's about mashing the physical and virtual realms together. In a sense, making one's experience of the world at large more like one's experience of a computer.

These projects are augmented reality from two directions, one making the digital more physical, the other making the physical more digital. Having opened up a chasm between the informational and material, we're rapidly trying to close it. And sitting right at the interface between the two is this object we call a phone, but that is actually the bridge between the offline and online. My guess is that however the phone looks, whoever makes it, and whatever robot army it controls, the role of the phone in 10 years will be to marry our flesh and data ever more tightly.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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