A common refrain I’ve seen over the last couple of months is gratitude for the widespread technology we have today that we didn’t have when SARS hit in 2003. While not ubiquitous, video conferencing, online grocery ordering, distance learning, etc. has kept many of us, at least, safer and better connected.
Though I was fully an adult in the early ‘00s, I don’t recall much from those days. Which is a privilege, really. But it got me thinking about what things would be like in another 20 years or so if there was another crisis requiring similar actions (or lack of them) by most of us.
I asked a few friends what they thought, too, which brought up ideas ranging from cute to concrete to pretty much impossible (even if they would make us better off…)
Unsurprisingly, how to get stuff we need was one of the first things to come up. We can already buy practically anything online, and most of it can get shipped right to our doors. The rest we can go pick up, with restrictions and protocols.
Presumably doing business this way will continue to mature and get more streamlined and frictionless. Recently, some items became as impossible to get online as in stores, and shipping times became substantially longer. Though still blisteringly fast compared to, say, even a decade or two ago.
Perhaps the necessity of international shipping will become less common, with 3D printing and assembly driving more local manufacturing, even of high-tech goods. Many industries and supply chains have seen their weaknesses highlighted in the last while, and there’s a lot of stuff we can’t make anywhere close to home.
Once robots build, pick and pack those items, perhaps they’ll be delivered to us by drones. Drones zipping through the skies? Along the sidewalks? Through subterranean passages? Who knows?
Or, going a step further, perhaps Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age will come to life and we’ll just have “matter compilers” in our own homes.
Of course, taking humans out of manufacturing and fulfillment would cost jobs, but this has been happening for some time already. And for those remaining, we’ve seen that many of these jobs have remained poorly paid and put those working at them at greater exposure risk. Surely we can do better for people.
Speaking of manufacturing, I expect some impressive advancements in materials engineering. We have had a desperate need for personal protective equipment (PPE) for many workers, particularly in healthcare. Basic fabric masks are recommended for the general public when they’re out in places where they can’t easily socially distance.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see better textiles that can be custom-fitted to each wearer, block microparticles, are easily and repeatedly sterilizable, and that are antibacterial, antiviral, etc. Perhaps such equipment wouldn’t even be “fabric” at all in the ways we think of it.
Not to mention making it easier/faster/cheaper to manufacture them, again, closer to home. It would be great for hospitals, clinics, medical offices, long-term care facilities, veterinary clinics and others to be able to crank out all the masks, gowns, gloves and booties they need, when they need them, right on site, or close to it.
Even better if that can be done without generating huge amounts of non-degradable single-use waste. And hey, who knows, maybe materials science can solve the toilet paper shortage problem, too, if bidets don’t corner the market before then...
Getting back to automation and robotics, a friend of mine mused about advancements in remote work, but not the kind where you’re on your laptop in your living room. More like Margaret Atwood’s LongPen, but with a vastly expanded scope.
Remote surgery is already possible, and could well be expanded. But less life-or-death healthcare could become more broadly available, too. If a surgeon can already rearrange one’s innards from hundreds of kilometres away, it’s not a stretch to think that we could manage less dire procedures – be it Botox or getting that sketchy mole removed – or get our regular dental cleanings.
Sure, we may not have the required equipment at home, but it could enable the patient to go to a clinic where they can get needed procedures done without physically interacting with a doctor, nurses, hygienists, receptionists, other patients, etc.
While we’re at it, why limit the possibilities to healthcare? No reason we couldn’t get remote haircuts, massages, even tattoos. LongPen meets Edward Scissorhands. Good luck to the early QA teams for those systems.
We’re not quite done with robotics, though. Another friend suggested “cuddle-bots.” Which at first seems cute and kind of silly… but is it? Plenty of people have not touched another human being in months now. For a social, herd-y species, this lack of social interaction is often not great for our well-being.
I was joking that when hugs are allowed again, we’re all likely to short circuit and pass out from the oxytocin overload. (I am not an endocrinologist.)
We already have pillows in the shape of human bodies, or parts of them. We already have robots to help with caring for the elderly. We already have sex dolls and their next generation, “AI-driven robotic doll systems.” (I’m not linking to the site I got that from.)
Why not use the same technologies for an additional kind of care? It could do wonders for mental health, sleep quality and other necessities that have widely suffered during the pandemic. And hey, if we’re building them, they could look like humans, or dogs, or luckdragons, or Sasquatches – customized cuddles for all!
Speaking of bodies, they were central to several other ideas and predictions that we discussed, so we’ll get into that further in the next column.
In the meantime, though, stay safe. Stay home. Wash your hands.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter @melle or by email at email@example.com.