The Victoria and Albert Museum's current exhibition, ‘The Future Starts Here’ highlights 100 of the most thoughtful and innovative projects hinting about the future of tomorrow. The exhibition spans a categories including Self, Public, Planet and Afterlife. These are all projects that exist in the world today - some are practical, some inspiring, some shocking.
Here, in no particular order, we pick a handful of the most interesting tech-related projects on show at the exhibition. To see these and many more, head down to the V&A to see the exhibition before it closes 4th November, 2018.
Paro is a fluffy, lovable robotic seal developed to provide championship for elderly and infirm people, particularly those with dementia. Drawing on research demonstrating the benefits of animal assisted therapy, Paro is designed to offer similar comfort to its owners. The toy incorporates tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors and moderate its reactions in response to the input it receives. For example, if a certain motion elicits strokes from the owner, it will repeat the action. This obviously offers some advantages over real animals in some therapeutic settings where it would be less feasible to introduce real pets.
It has been shown to produce calmness in owners, but as the exhibition questions, is the outsourcing of companionship to machines something we can expect to see more of, and what are the implications of gaining affection from a machine that doesn’t feel anything in response?
The Snoo crib for babies uses artificial intelligence to respond to a baby’s movements and noises to lull them back to sleep with a combination of rocking and white noise. Snoo is the creation of well-respected pediatrician, Dr. Harvey Karp, who is author of the bestselling 2002 book, Happiest Baby on the Block, and proponent of many soothing techniques for babies including swaddling. The crib responds to the level of volume of the baby’s cries, and adjusts the intensity of the rocking accordingly. If the infant doesn’t stop in response to the rocking motion, the parent is alerted through an app.
The crib will provide much desired night-time relief for parents, but again it calls into question the amount of emotional labour we’re willing to outsource to intelligent machinery. Although the infant will receive plenty of attention from parents during waking hours, does relying on a machine to provide comfort mid-night time possibly risk degrading the strength of the parent-child bond?
It also indirectly contradicts advice from parenting manuals that warn of ‘addicting’ your baby to elaborate night-time routines and rocking. The crib comes with a ‘weaning’ option where it gradually dials down the amount of input until it only responds to most intense movement of the baby. Of course, if there is a chance of the baby becoming addicted, then this would appear a dangerous mechanism, that could prompt the baby to struggle ever harder until the rocking is elicited. Parenting evokes a special class of anxiety, meaning Snoo is sure to win both hearty endorsements and condemnation on either side.
If you’re a Black Mirror fan, you will already be familiar with the idea behind Eternime. In the 2013 episode Be Right Back a wife grieving the death of her husband uploads all of his digital traces (created by scanning his social media, messages and emails, for example) onto a humanoid who looks like him. This idea has now formed the basis of a real company - Eternime - whose website greets you with the tagline, ‘Become virtually immortal’. The company similarly collects digital information to create a virtual avatar of you after you've died. The site appeals to both the urge to preserve your own memory, as well as those of your loved ones.
But while some may consider nothing more ignominious than coming back as a glorified chatbot, others have no such reservations. Although still in beta, the project has had 40,967 signed up already.
Others also interested in virtual preservation include Eugenia Kuyda, founder of AI startup, Replika, who poured her husbands digital remains (including text messages solicited from friends and family) into a chatbot that could live on after his death. But just as the protagonist of Black Mirror turns on the robot avatar for not being life-like enough, are we destined to be disappointed by digital impersonators?
The silk leaf project is striking both for the scale of the problem it hopes to tackle and for its beauty. It was created by the V&A’s first engineer in residence, Julian Melchiorri. Woven from silk protein, the ‘leaf’ is designed to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen through the photosynthetic qualities found in the chloroplasts of the silk protein. If produced on a mass scale, these could have the potential to somewhat mitigate the effects of CO2 driven global warming.
Eternal 5D data storage
In thousands of years, when humanity as we know it has evolved beyond recognition, what will they remember about us? Created by the University of Southampton, these nanostructured glass discs are capable of storing about 360 terabytes of data for more than 10 billion years. They contain information deemed integral to understanding of humanity at this point, such as the Universal Declaration of Human rights, and a host of other major cultural and political artefacts.
Jibo is advertised as a ‘companion robot’ that uses artificial intelligence to learn from interactions with its owners and develop its own light hearted personality. The robot is supposed to help out in a range of household duties including helping various family members to complete tasks - the ones highlight at the V&A include reading bedtime stories to kids or helping grandparents make a video call. However, Jibo’s abilities to connect to other smart home devices could create some security worries, given these have been shown to be vulnerable to hackers.
WT41N0 Wearable Terminal
This is a slightly older project (launched in 2012), but is one of the most distinctly dystopic. It’s a wearable micro-computer worn on the finger that delegates tasks to workers at retail giants such as Amazon and Tesco, and tracks the staff member's progress until completion. It means that staff receive immediate feedback if they make an error.
Although this may sound like something from a sci-fi film, workplace wearables are becoming more commonplace. Amazon currently uses technology that nudges workers who are not being productive enough, while Humanyze has trialled smart badges that incorporate radio-frequency identification (RFID) and near field communication (NFC) sensors, bluetooth for proximity sensing, infrared to detect face to face interaction, and microphones to track employee behaviour. These may seem a boon to companies, but there has been little research into the effects on the workforce and whether they could have a degrading effect on self-esteem or emotional welfare.