Eating Predictions Miss the Mark

We all think about the future and what it will bring for us, our children and our grandchildren. Some even make bold predictions about the future. If we were asked 10 or 20 years ago what we expected in the year 2020, we might have guessed that we’d all be eating synthetic food pills and being served by robot butlers.

Nikola Tesla, the electricity wizard, predicted in 1937 that “within a century, coffee, tea and tobacco will be no longer in vogue.” Alcohol, however, “will still be used,” he claimed. “It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life.” Tobacco use has plunged, but coffee and tea are going strong. Tesla also warned against chewing gum, claiming it could cause “exhaustion of the salivary glands, put[ting] many a foolish victim into an early grave.”

In 2005 futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil predicted that eating will no longer be necessary.
“Nanobots capable of entering the bloodstream to ‘feed’ cells and extract waste will exist (though not necessarily be in wide use). They will make the normal mode of human food consumption obsolete,” he wrote. Maybe that’s a good idea, but it’s likely none of us ever thought “this meal would be so much better if it had no flavor whatsoever and it was just a tiny robot that we injected into our veins.”

Waldemar Kaempffert, a New York Times science editor, had lots of opinions about how different the world would become by 2020, especially when it came to our diets. All food, “even soup and milk,” would be delivered to our homes in the form of frozen bricks. It would never take anyone “more than half an hour to prepare … an elaborate meal of several courses.” And thanks to advances in culinary technology, it would be possible to take ordinary objects like old paper and even “rayon underwear,” and bring them to “chemical factories to be converted into candy.”

Gustav Bischoff, president of the American Meat Packers Association, had only grim forecasts for the 21st century, which he warned would involve a diet of mostly vegetables. Because of a shortage of meat, even the wealthiest people in 2020 would be forced into a life of vegetarianism. Bischoff told a New York Times reporter in 1913 that “living as the low-caste [Asian man] does now, on rice and vegetables, and, like him, slothful creatures, anemic and without initiative.” Aside from his staggering racism, Bischoff felt that the only way to save humanity was to “educate the American farmer to the necessity of raising more cattle.”

We all should have robot butlers or maids by now, right? David Eagleman, the neuroscientist and writer, says “I predicted that 20 years ago, when I was a sanguine boy loving Star Wars, and the smartest robot we have now is the Roomba vacuum cleaner.” Even though he’s holding out for robot assistants, “I won’t be surprised if I’m wrong in another 25 years. Artificial intelligence has proved itself an unexpectedly difficult problem.” As for fears that robots will soon steal all our jobs, Wired magazine isn’t too concerned. As they reported last year, “the problem we’re facing isn’t that the robots are coming. It’s that they aren’t.”

Undaunted by failed predictions of the past, some have some ideas for 2030.

Amazon is already launching drone delivery, and some believe the kitchen of tomorrow won’t need you to notice that your milk is running low or you’re almost out of beer. Containers will send out alerts, on their own, when they’re in need of replenishing.

Sean Raspet, a former flavorist-in-residence at Soylent, recently launched a new company called Nonfood that makes food entirely out of algae. As in, the gross slime that floats on the top of swamps. Pretty soon we’ll all be eating food that isn’t really food, some of which one early review reports tastes like “vinyl, and latex, and the dust of my grandfather’s ashes.” Delicious, NOT!

Tech Trends That Will Define 2017

No one can predict how the future will shake out, but global design and strategy firm Frog is making some educated guesses for 2017.

Last year, the firm correctly predicted that virtual reality would explode in popularity and that sensors in things like appliances and thermometers would continue to shrink in size.

Buildings will harness the powers of nature.
Around the world, large companies are leading the way in building solar-powered offices that don’t rely on fossil fuels. Frog strategist Agnes Pyrchla expects the trend to continue in 2017. “Taking a nod from natural patterns,” she writes, “material scientists and architects have developed bricks with bacteria, made cement that captures carbon dioxide and created building cooling systems using nothing but the available wind and our vibrant sun.”

Business bots are going to be huge.
In the way the communication app Slack has merged bots into its chat service, frog strategist Toshi Mogi believes entrepreneurs will use artificial intelligence to handle the logistics of running a business. “The entrepreneur will commission an assortment of business bots to bring their vision to reality,” Mogi says.
He uses the example of selling high-tech skateboards.  A research and development bot might automatically solicit designs from freelancers, while a sales and marketing bot polishes the online e-commerce platform — all to help the business owner work faster and more precisely.

Synthetic food will be in every grocery store.
Designer Andrea Markdalen sees two big changes in store for food. The first is that plant-based proteins will gain popularity as a replacement for slaughtering live animals. The second is that tissues drawn painlessly from live animals will be engineered to create synthetic, lab-grown food. “In 2017, we’ll see a broad range of new plant-based meat replacements at your local grocery store,” Markdalen writes. “They will extend well beyond the vegan aisle, where most are currently relegated, and they will taste better than ever.”

Virtual reality will take over sporting events and concerts.
Instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for a Kanye West concert in 2017, Piet Aukeman and Sonny King say virtual reality will finally make its mark in home entertainment. Venues will be able to livestream entire shows for people who want to watch without leaving their living room. NextVR is already partnering with Live Nation to make the setup a (non-virtual) reality. “For those consumers that lack the VR hardware,” they write, “the community can provide ‘VR Stations’ in malls, transportation terminals, and open spaces.”

Sensors in important spaces could save us lots of headaches.
All types of rooms — living rooms, retail floors, hospital bays — will come embedded with sensors, say Chad Lundberg and Jud Holliday. These sensors will pick up information on usage patterns at different times of day, in different noise environments and in different temperatures. Companies like Vivint already produce security systems that work in a similar way. Vivint’s Smart Home technology bundles security cameras with locks and thermostats, allowing it to both keep people safe and know when to save energy.
“Spaces will no longer simply house and support your activities,” Lundberg and Holliday write. “They will participate.”

Autonomous vehicles will get a whole lot smarter.
With Tesla and Uber both vying to break into (really, create) the driverless car industry, frog creative director Matt Conway thinks we’re not far from autonomous vehicles saving us from ourselves. With the right technology, multiple cars could “talk” to one another and reduce the chance for crashes. An emergency maneuver like running a red light to avoid getting rear-ended “might seem reckless if it was taken by a human,” Conway says, but because autonomous cars could work together, that measure could be  “as reasonable and life-preserving as any taken by a professional body guard.”

Virtual reality will be used as part of therapy.
VR as therapy is something of a repeat from frog’s 2016 list; only this year, the company expects it will become so immersive that it could rewire people’s brains. There is already research that shows VR can help people overcome their fears and PTSD. Designer Kyle Wolf suspects the technology move into rehab for physical brain injuries as well. “Mindmaze, a pioneer in this space, is already creating virtual environments for stroke patients,” Wolf says, “causing their brains to re-wire themselves and re-establish mobility in forgotten limbs.”

Doctors will have huge data sets to make medicine more precise.
Precision medicine — the practice of tailoring treatments to each patient’s unique case — is incredibly hard. It takes fine-toothed data that most hospitals simply don’t have. In the future, as medical records become entirely digitized and uniform between facilities, strategy director Allison Green-Schoop believes precision medicine will only improve. Doctors will be able to look up much more local data, such as water quality in your zip code, to gain insight into a disease’s source, not just its symptoms.

Sounds will hold our attention like never before.
For the last 30 years, humans have interacted with their technology through screens, which rely primarily on imagery and visual cues. But creative director Christine Todorovich sees a future in which sounds start playing a much larger role. Instead of controlling your cooking device by manually selection options in an iPad app, you might be able to articulate commands openly in your kitchen. Companies like Here One already try to help people personalize their sonic experiences. “The combination of screen fatigue and technology embedded in everything from cars to homes, is exposing a need for new types of interfaces that extend beyond the visual,” Todorovich says.

Drones will assist in humanitarian work.
Drones are great for much more than stylized movie shots. Designer Lilian Tse cites efforts in Rwanda, where a drone airport facilitates medical deliveries to people in need, as clear evidence that humanitarian aid is their best use. “The definition of a drone is ‘unmanned aircraft,'” she writes, “but behind the unmanned aircraft is a person driving the intention and potential of what the aircraft can do for people in need.”
This year, Tse says we’ll see more people move into that service.

Machine learning will teach us about ourselves.
When Google’s robot, AlphaGo, beat a human player in the ancient Chinese game Go, artificial intelligence experts cheered. It was a giant leap forward in the field of machine learning. But frog senior strategist Rebecca Blum says AlphaGo also taught expert Go players how to play the game better. They learned from the machine’s own learning. According to Blum, machines can help us understand ourselves in a variety of ways. Algorithms that automatically write prose might teach us about creating writing. Scientists could continue learning about the brain based on how complex neural networks store new information.