September, 2017
Peeking into the future

by Selema Makgothi-Masekela

Over the past few years, the term ‘deep learning’ has become more prominent, particularly in conversations around artificial intelligence (AI), big data and analytics. It is an approach to AI that shows great potential in the context of advancing the autonomous, self-teaching systems revolutionising many industries.

Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa use deep learning in their voice- and image-recognition algorithms. Researchers at MIT use it to predict the future and some of the winners that we saw in the 2017 Cannes Lions showcase also made use of these technologies for example, the chatbot campaign by Tommy Hilfiger for TMY.GRL and the chatbot campaign rolled out by McDonald’s Japan.

Being a child born in the 80s, it is not difficult for me to think back when all these new technologies were just things of fiction, and the only time we experienced them was in movies and books. This got me thinking about the movies I grew up watching and the different technologies they had been able to foresee over 20 years before they became reality. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and see how popular culture from back in the day was able to accurately (or inaccurately) predict present-day reality.

Knight Rider (1982 to 1986)

This television show was a huge hit in the 80s, with David Hasselhoff as the main protagonist, Michael Knight, flanked by his trusty steed, or rather, motorcar. The car was named Kitt (Knight Industries Two Thousand) and had an inbuilt intelligent personal assistant that helped Michael catch bad guys. The car was fitted with voice recognition, so Michael could talk to it. In addition to autonomous driving capabilities, the car was also fitted with sensory devices enabling it to effectively ‘see’, ‘smell’ and ‘hear’.

It is safe to say that the AI named Kitt was an early prototype of what we see in Siri or Alexa. Kitt was effectively able to understand complex phrases and commands, and reply to Michael accordingly.

Another feature the car had was that it could be instructeed to commandeer itself (self-driving). At the time this was a mind-blowing thought. Fast-forward to the year 2015 and the autonomous car is no longer a figment of fiction. Car manufacturer, Tesla, was one of the first to experiment with an autopilot feature on their vehicles. The company hopes to enable full self-driving under certain conditions by the end of 2017.

The Terminator (1984)

In the 80s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was larger than life and you couldn’t watch a big-budget movie without him popping up in a major role.1984s Terminator was such a movie and was set in a dystopian future in the 2000s. The premise was that a groundbreaking technology called Skynet was developed by the defence sector for added military protection. Skynet was a fictional, neural net-based, conscious group mind and artificial general-intelligence system. At some point Skynet develops self-awareness and, out of a need for self-preservation, it becomes hostile to humans and wages a war to exterminate all humans.

The enormous extent to which Skynet is enmeshed in the society depicted in The Terminator movie can be compared to the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) in modern society. Iot is the inter-networking of physical devices, vehicles (also referred to as ‘connected devices’ and ‘smart devices’), buildings, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data (Wikipedia).

An example of this can be seen in Logitech’s Harmony Home Control product. It allows you to control your home from your iPhone or iPad. It is a universal remote that allows you to do everything from closing the blinds and dimming the lights to changing the temperature and switching TV channels.

Some similarities can be seen between Skynet and todays internet. They are both net-based and both leverage the conscious group mind of the world’s population as a whole. The big difference is that the internet was developed by visionary tech developers and not by the defense sector, as with a military component such as Skynet. This gives the internet a very different purpose than that of Skynet, hence a less dystopian outcome in terms of what it likely will be used for.

Contrary to the vision of humans at odds with machines, today’s future outlook focuses on how well we can partner with machines. The 2017 Cannes Lions brought our attention to applications such as Logojoy and Scriptbook, where creatives now partner with technology. The view is that people won’t lose jobs to machines; rather, people will lose jobs to other people who have learnt how to partner better with machines.

 Robocop (1987)

Speaking of partnering with machines, the movie Robocop was based on this premise. A stellar police officer is badly wounded on the job. To save his life he is chosen to become the first cyborg (half-man, half-machine) on the force. This concept is rooted in the school of transhumanism, which advocates that man and technology should be joined together so as to enhance or augment the performance of man’s biological components and to create a more complex system on the whole.

Many advancements have been made in this field and span industries that include medicine, military, sports, art and space travel. In 2016 the first cyborg Olympics were celebrated in Zurich, Switzerland. 16 teams of people with disabilities used technological developments to turn themselves into cyborg athletes. There were six different events and its competitors used and controlled advanced technologies such as powered prosthetic legs and arms, robotic exoskeletons, bikes and motorised wheelchairs.

The above is an example relating to the disabled, but there are many more where fully abled people have elected to become cyborgs. What we, as marketers, need to start thinking about is how we would communicate with these people. What kind of creative routes could be used to market and sell to cyborgs? What strategies do we need to start developing to be relevant to this new market?

Back to the Future 2 (1989)

This movie follows a crazy scientist by the name of Doc, who has developed a time-travel machine. He befriends a young man (Marty McFly) and together they go on time-travelling adventures. Part 2 of this movie follows the duo as they are transported to the year 2015.

In this future we see a key biometric feature appear – fingerprint verification. Fingerprints are used to unlock doors. There is even a group of thieves known as the ‘fingerprint bandits’ who amputate digits of highly-placed executives to gain high-security access to anything they can find. Fingerprints are also used to validate digital payments.

In today’s world, fingerprint verification is no longer a fictional concept that is only paraded in future-based movies. It is a reality. One only has to look as far as one’s smartphone device to find it.

Two of the first smartphone manufacturers to integrate fingerprint recognition into their phone software were Motorola, with the Atrix 4G in 2011, and Apple, with the iPhone 5S in September 2013. One month after Apple, HTC launched the One Max, which also included fingerprint recognition. In April 2014, Samsung released the Galaxy S5, which integrated a fingerprint sensor on the home button.

A new world

The accuracy with which many of these fictional pieces were able to predict the future is eye opening and slightly scary particularly given the dystopian nature of many of today’s future-facing movies.

Contrary to the recurring theme of dystopia, today’s world shows us a face that looks confidently to technology’s ability to shape our future for the positive.

In my opinion, these new technologies are good for society. They take human beings into a future where the possibilities for new discovery are infinite. They equip inventors, engineers and even medical experts with ideas, algorithms and ‘cures’ that essentially make life better for everybody.

Children born with certain ailments and others with certain disabilities can now rely on new tech to overcome their limitations. Progress in fuel technology will have a revolutionary impact on how humans care for the environment in the future. And the advancement of biotechnology will have a strong impact on industries where security, privacy and secure access are key.

These new developments create an ever-shifting landscape for marketers and force us to continually reassess the ways in which we communicate to markets, the media we use and the needs and wants we are satisfying. The speed at which these technologies are being actualised is increasing and this tells us that we are at the threshold of a time in history that will change our world forever. In short, if you want to predict the future, go watch a movie.