I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Prediction 4: Our Cyborg Future

A loose definition of a cyborg is a blending of a biological entity with mechanical devices that enhance strength, toughness, intelligence, etc.

By this definition, I'm already a cyborg. I don't have hardware actually embedded in my body, but, via my smartphone, I have enhanced memory and data retrieval capabilities. I have Superman like powers to zoom overhead and get an aerial view of my surroundings. (Yesterday, while we were kayaking on the Haw, we wondered how much further we had to go to reach a resting point. A quick check of Google maps showed where we were and where the  next rocky island was a half mile ahead of us.) I have communication abilities just one notch shy of telepathy. (Again, in the middle of a river, when I had my phone out to look at the map, I was also seeing email and facebook messages from friends, plus a message from the bike shop telling me my bike was ready to be picked up.)

More importantly to my health, the tiny computer I carry around helps me regulate my body. It lets me know how many calories I've eaten each day, and how many calories I should be eating in order to maintain my weight. It keeps track of how many miles I've traveled in a day, an month, a year, which gives me a motivational boost to keep moving to turn my personal odometer. I know I'll be hitting 1000 miles traveled via my own power soon, which means that I'm always planning my next opportunity to log some mile biking, hiking, or kayaking to get me closer to that goal.

I don't own a FitBit, but if I did it could keep track of not only my mileage, but my heart rate and sleeping habits. Of course, I already have technological assistance for sleeping, since I've now been using a CPAP for two full years.

The data revolution for our bodies is only beginning. Already, the technology to monitor blood sugar levels in real time is being perfected. Soon, we won't need to go to our doctor once or twice a year to get blood work done. A few simple sensors under the skin will be able to keep track of all aspects of our metabolism. Blood pressure, blood sugar, temperature, pulse... these won't be something we have to go out of our way to learn. We'll be able to access that data just by glancing at our phone. Assuming we even bother with something so crude as a phone. More likely, the data will just be floating in front of us anytime we want it, at first via devices like Google Glass, which will almost certainly soon be miniaturized into a contact lens, and later into ocular implants.

For people squeamish about the idea of implanting devices in their bodies, I suspect that cellphones will soon be miniaturized into patches that adhere to our skin.

The question is: Will all this technology actually make us healthier? Or will it just be an expensive distraction that keeps us from doing the things that really make us healthier? As mentioned, yesterday, in the middle of a river, instead of looking at the nature around me, I spent ten minutes reading my phone. I know a lot of people who spend more hours in a day on Facebook than they spend in a week on exercise.

Staying healthy into your golden years isn't all that complicated. Don't eat crap and keep active. I'm aware that formula won't prevent genetic illnesses or injuries or random diseases from striking you down, but it can forestall heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and a whole host of other medical conditions.

I'm looking forward to increasing my use of high tech health related gadgetry. I would gladly agree to implant subdermal sensors to monitor my bodily functions. A chart of how many calories I actually burn on my bike rides would be fascinating. (I'm aware my phone can only do crude estimates.) A long term trendline showing how many hours of deep sleep I'm getting each night could definitely help me choose between reading one more article on the internet at night or turning off the light and going to bed. And life and intelligence could be preserved if monitors could alert emergency personal instantly if my real time vital signs showed I'd just been in a car wreck, or were in the early stages of a stroke.

But the technological investment that has had the greatest impact on my health? A good pair of boots.

For thousands of years, we've used clothing technology to regulate our temperatures, shield us from radiation, and to protect our feet from a wide range of hazardous terrains. Our cyborg future will merely be an extension of our cyborg past.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Prediction Three: Our jobless future

I've been with my current employer for almost 19 years. I won't specify who I work for; you can see my last post for various reasons why I think it's a bad idea to publicly discuss your current employer online. But, I'm going to mention my current job obliquely because I think there's an important data point. I was present when my workplace opened its doors. At the time, we had 21 full time employees. Today, we have 7 full time employees, and the threshold for being full time is 30 hours a week, not 40.

Where did two thirds of our staff go? Part of our staff was lost due to a changing business climate. I work in an industry built around printing stuff, and print is dying. Fewer companies print catalogues or employee manuals, and marketing is done more online than via direct mail. But, we also lost a lot of need for warm bodies because our technology became more sophisticated. We used to need several cashiers on hand to manage transactions. Now, people can pay with a credit card without standing in line. Customers also don't need to come into the store to place orders. They can order stuff online, pay for it, and have it delivered without ever interacting with our store. Other jobs that were once done in house are outsourced to a larger production network that works because computer technology lets the work flow around to fill available capacity. Computers have made my workplace a lot leaner and more efficient.

You see it everywhere. When I go grocery shopping, I aim toward the self checkout lanes, since they often move faster. Here in Hillsborough, there's still one gas station that has full service attendants. I never go there, preferring to save a few cents by pumping my own gas, and save time by paying at the pump. One gas station I shop at, Sheetz, lets me order subs from a touch screen. $4 foot longs, toasted on pretzel buns, made to order, very tasty. That price point is probably possible because they don't have to pay cashiers. They've shifted some of the work load to the consumer. If the added work brings lower prices, I'm a fan.

Cheryl and I often go biking through a really nice neighborhood, and it's common to see landscaping crews working in the yard. A few weeks ago, we saw a solar powered robotic lawnmower working the front yard of one of the houses.

Robots will mow our lawns. They'll also soon be delivering our packages, or at least driving the trucks. Yes, robotic trucks will have accidents that will lead to expensive lawsuits. But, guess what? Human drivers also have accidents that lead to expensive lawsuits. Robotic truck drivers will be able to drive all night and won't ever be intoxicated distracted by phone calls. They won't have lead foots, and will get much better gas mileage than human drivers. They'll probably drive slower, obeying posted speed limits, but will make up by never needing to take lunches or pit stops to empty bladders. Once insurance companies start giving companies price breaks for using robotic drivers, humans will only be on trucks to help unload... though, of course, the technology for a truck loading and unloading robot is probably already being marketed.

Maybe you're thinking that your job is too highly skilled for you to ever be replaced by a machine. Maybe. But, I predict that within twenty years, human surgeons will be obsolete, replaced by machines far more nimble and precise, seeing what they're doing with senses far superior to human sight and touch. Sure, someone will have to build those databases and maintain them. But the educated labor forces will increasingly be drawn from countries with far lower wages.

Of course, there are some jobs that machines probably can't do as well as humans. I like to think that writing novels is one of these jobs. But, that doesn't mean I have job security in the face of ever evolving technology. E-books have already disrupted publishing, providing strong downward pressure on pricing. Now, there are services that allow you to read an unlimited number of books each month for one fixed price. Authors do get royalties if their books are read, just as musicians get some small payment if their song is streamed on Spotify. But, with all things digital, the price trends keep pushing toward free, and it's hard to make a profit when you're producing content that no one pays for. If you don't offer free books, there are tens of thousands of writers eager to be read who will gladly give away their work to build name recognition, trusting that they'll figure out how to make money at what they're doing later in the process.

I know all of this sounds a bit gloomy. However, a lot of the jobs we're losing are jobs that made more use of human bodies than human minds. The same technology that disrupts industries also opens up possibilities. Studio time for a musician used to be expensive, disturbing albums difficult and costly. Now, you can record, edit, and distribute from your home computer. The odds of making money have declined, but the cost of making yourself heard have also declined, giving more people a shot at making it big than ever before. I personally know a dozen authors who never passed the arbitrary threshold of finding a publisher willing to pay an advance on their novels who now manage catalogues of a dozen self published works, all of which are making at least some money. It's not just writers and musicians who have lower initial costs to launching a career. For almost any talent you care to develop, there are instructional videos on YouTube. While college costs sky \rocket, the amount of free and useful information increases online. And you no longer have to wait for a class to be taught every other semester in order to get the knowledge you're hungry for. The lectures and study material are probably a few keystrokes away. One day, it won't matter what degree you have, only what skills and know-how you have.

We may be on the cusp of a golden age of human creativity and productivity. Or, we may be about to spiral into an abyss where we're all so broke and depressed about a machine taking our job that we won't even leave our houses. The future will come down to a million individual decisions about how we're going to adapt and respond to our rapidly changing world. My own choice: Find some small way to improve myself each day, and keep moving forward.