Member Reviews

Has it always seemed like the future is right around the corner or are we, just now, on the precipice of something amazing? Long-time tech writer Nicole Kobie has seen a lot of “the next big thing” over the years. Her book The Long History of the Future looks at the promises of technology and the missteps, almost-theres, and and failures along the way.

Recently, I read/reviewed a similar book on AI and the metaverse (Our Next Reality); this covers similar ground but from a more journalistic and more skeptical perspective. Kobie takes us not just through AI and the metaverse but through driverless cars, robots, cyborgs and more. The bad news? You probably aren’t going to have a robot butler to serve your every whim any time soon. The good news? That AI-driven robot may not be coming for your job (or your life) as fast as some doomsayers may think. What’s most fascinating in this book is just how long some of these technologies have been around (driverless car systems were being experimented with in the 1930s). Sometimes, ideas were waiting for technology to catch up, sometimes even when the tech arrived, society simply wasn’t ready.

Kobie’s book is a good reminder of the drawbacks of always looking forward, imagining that either unlimited prosperity or a dystopian hellscape awaits us. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. There are real benefits to cars that have some but not full self-driving capabilities and AI that is capable but stops short of artificial general intelligence. We may not all get flying cars but more electric vehicles for short flights could be a real benefit for hospitals and other public services. We are not becoming cyborgs, but implants and prosthetics can do real good for people dealing with a disability. Fully automated “smart cities” are probably a pipe dream, but the more we address transportation and civic concerns, the better our cities get. The downside of all of this, as Kobie shows through story after story, is so much waste — failed transportation systems (maglev anyone?), devices produced and sent to landfills (farewell Nintendo’s Virtual Boy), whole city plans abandoned, and decades of research with little result.

But still we soldier on, and get, if not all the way there, at least toward that better-than-nothing middle. It turns out that coping with that middle, making the most of it, and regulating against its misuse is truly the work of all of us. Kobie offers a more realistic version of the future, not a utopia but simply a long progression toward a better tomorrow.

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