On The Horizon – Part Two

This is Part Two of a six part mini series on Predicting the Future. For Part One (the Introduction) click here.

My main goal for this mini series is to get people thinking about the future and what they’d like to see come about. After all, the future starts out as an idea in the present before coming to life sometime down the road. If any of our predictions seem off-kilter, let us know in a comment below or tell us your own! These predictions are so notoriously difficult to make due to the world being such a big, complicated place, made up of so many dynamic systems and subtly moving parts. As such, we’re going to keep track of all of the predictions by plotting them on {the hematite blog’s} Future Prediction Spectrum™:

Fairly straightforward.

Let’s start with a few ideas about the world of 2021. Note: it adds dramatic effect to read the bolded subtitles in a booming, biblical voice. Think Morgan Freeman.

morgan freeman
And now you can’t stop thinking about Morgan Freeman. You’re even reading this in his voice. Shabalaba-weewah. I’m sorry, moving on. Source


Mr. Hematite – I’d like to start off with something that launched in the last week or so: Virtual Reality.

The Oculus Rift is a high-end virtual reality headset that became available at the end of March. This man is almost surely watching something NSFW. Source

I’ve talked to a good few people about it, and general perception about both it and the new generation of VR tech are mixed at best. Some think it’ll be another fad like Xbox’s Kinect motion-sensing product. Some think it won’t be able to deliver a truly immersive experience. Some think it will turn users away due to motion sickness. Having played around with cheap VR in the Google Cardboard, however, I’m leaning more to the optimistic side (I’d buy a Rift, but can’t because reasons). Trust me, this isn’t your childhood Virtual Boy, so you could say I’m a believer.

Not pictured: fun times. Source

Yes, it may be regarded skeptically by the public at the outset (as most new products are), but I think that it will be adopted quickly during the first and second product cycles of the tech (~4-6 years). Early reviews from websites like Gamespot, IGN, PC Gamer, and The Verge are all positive and cautiously optimistic so far, which is a good sign. Starting out, the Oculus Rift is priced at $600 USD. Couple that with a high-spec PC requirement, and it’s a pretty steep price of entry. But, there appears to be a drive by these companies to enter the market early and capture as much market share as they can. After a couple of years I see prices dropping off, and a high-end PC is more of a one time investment than a recurring one, even if you’re upgrading to keep pace with the tech as it evolves. Beyond that, the price will most-likely be worth it. Never before has there been a product that will allow you to walk around the Great Pyramids, fly through the Grand Canyon, or pilot a dog fighter in space, all with a high degree of feedback and immersion and all from your living room.

The implications for this tech are what I’m really getting at here. To me at least they appear to be far-reaching; much further than the realm of video games. The fields of design, art, exploration, medicine, surgery, travel, real estate, and countless others are poised to change forever. Imagine custom-designing your dream home in a photo realistic environment, and then touring it with your friends, family, contractor, or real estate agent? Imagine having your medical test results perused through in great detail on every scale possible by your doctor, resulting in the most-accurate diagnosis and treatment? Imagine setting foot on Mars and exploring the surface in ways not done before, without having to spend billions of dollars to get there? And those are just the obvious examples.

This image makes me giddy beyond all reason – Mars as depicted with the Microsoft Hololens. Source

I should also note that the Oculus Rift is not the only player in the VR game. There is also the HTC Vive, Playstation VR, and the augmented reality (AR) Microsoft Hololens. All platforms offer compelling experiences, and could have major impacts on our society. Who knows? Perhaps these companies (or similar ones) could offer even more-powerful commercial versions of their products, pushing the technology further than would be possible in the consumer sector. Couple that with huge advances in haptic feedback technology and it’s entirely possible that one day when you put on a VR headset (or “suit”), you’ll be presented with a virtual environment so immersive and believable that you can’t tell the difference between it and the real world. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not (probably not), and it could be horribly abused, but it could also create entirely new categories of jobs, commerce, art, entertainment, and lifestyles. The future doesn’t always have to be a scary place, and any new technology brings with it positives and negatives. But, with that being said, things are never just black and white – they usually trend towards all the colours of the rainbow in between.

So, where does VR land on the Future Prediction Spectrum?

The foundation of tech is there, but will it capture the hearts of millions? This one’s definitely possible.

Mr. Magnetite – I’m following my bro’s lead here and also going with something that’s currently being developed: Reusable Rockets.

What goes up must come down. Source

In terms of things the human race has been able to do throughout its history, sending things into space is relatively new on the scene. Beyond that, the fact that humans were able to do it only 54 years after the invention of flight itself is nothing short of impossible to comprehend. Leaving the ground is one thing, but spaceflight involves strapping yourself to a 613,000 pound rocket filled with 1,585,000 pounds of highly volatile liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel, which then mixes and explodes to accelerate you to almost 29,000 kilometres per hour and escape the Earth’s gravity field *gasping inhale*¹. It’s like trying to compare a leisurely walk to driving a Ferrari. Two very different things. In my opinion, the only thing they have in common is that, at some point, both involve some contraption flying through the air.

Since the first successful orbital launch of the Sputnik satellite in October of 1957, humans have been launching all sorts of things into space. This includes dogs, apes, telescopes, telecommunications platforms, GPS systems, people, and in the last decade, a continuously manned space station. Oh, and early on in this whole pursuit, people walked on the Moon². But, why do it? Well, from my reading I can think of three main reasons:

  1. Humans are curious; we want to explore the unknown.
  2. Developing technologies and studying things in space can result in products or knowledge that benefit us living here on the ground.
  3. Figuring out how to live and survive in space will teach future generations what they need to do when they set off for the moon (again), Mars, the asteroid belt, and beyond.
Boldly going where only a few have gone before. Wait, I didn’t say that right. Source

All these reasons are super worth it. However, there’s one small caveat. If you haven’t heard, getting things into space is horribly, insanely, unimaginably expensive. How expensive? About $10,000 USD per pound of payload³. That puts the cost for the average man’s ticket at ~$1,195,0004. I should have started saving much, much, much sooner. The thing here is that this price hasn’t changed much since the dawn of spaceflight. Why? First it wasn’t immediately obvious to me, but the more I thought about this fact, the more it bothered me. The reason the price didn’t go down much through the years was because there was no competition in the industry (contracts were awarded mostly to the military, government, or gigantic organizations), and therefore there was no incentive to lower costs. This started a vicious cycle of contracting and sub-contracting that repeated with each space mission, resulting in pound-per-payload costs that didn’t budge much. To my mind, the only reason no one else joined the space game is because there was such a massive cost of entry that there wasn’t anyone brave (or rich) enough to give it a try.

Enter three very cutting edge, very important private companies: Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and most importantly, SpaceX. The first two are more into the space tourism industry, while SpaceX is more oriented towards space payload delivery applications (for now). Both are very interesting and important for various reasons. Space tourism serves to engage the masses with the prospect of actually going to goddamn outer space. Even though you’d only be in space for a couple of minutes, you’ll still get your “wings” and I can’t believe that’s something that I could maybe do one day. For now it’s still on the expensive side, around $200,000 USD for a trip up, but over time prices should go down. This makes space matter to people again, instead of seeming like some fancy, inaccessible side-interest. Then you have the space payload delivery side of things, which SpaceX is focusing on now. Since they’re a privately owned company, and they’ll be awarded more contracts to send things into space by offering the most efficient, cost-friendly, and effective options, it’s in their best interest to find ways to minimize cost while maximizing quality and innovation. That brings us to the following video:

That’s a short clip from the December 22nd, 2015 launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. What you watched is the first ever time a rocket launched, reached Low Earth Orbit, successfully delivered a payload (11 satellites), and then landed the first stage of the rocket in one piece. If you can’t quite gauge just how important the implications of this feat are, take a moment to watch the clip once again. There are hundreds of people there watching and cheering excitedly, as if they’ve all just watched their favourite sports club score a championship-clinching goal. If that isn’t compelling enough, then consider for a moment that this was like throwing a pencil over the Empire State Building, through a hurricane, and having it land standing up on the other side. That might come close to how hard this was.

No monumental challenge is conquered without facing adversity and making mistakes however, and SpaceX is no exception to the rule. This wasn’t the first time they’ve tried to land one of their rocket stages. Earlier attempts at making history didn’t quite go so well…

A little to the le — BOOM! Source
I think we got it — WABANG! Source

Landing rockets is hard. Bear in mind that both those attempts were made on a floating barge in the middle of the ocean, which is likely much harder. But, now that Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX have managed to prove the concept, they’re well on their way to making rockets truly reusable in the same way the planes of today are, which could dramatically decrease the associated costs as a result. Spaceflight cost reductions by a factor of 100 may be on the horizon if they’re successful5. That cuts the average man’s ~$2,000,000 trip to space down to $20,000. That’s still not exactly a trip across the pond, but it’s a profound reduction. I’m cheering them all on from the sidelines, and I’m sure if you follow them whatsoever, you are too. With an ultimate goal of getting people to Mars in an affordable way, it’s companies like this that may give humanity a real chance to become a multi-planetary species.

With all that said, let’s return to the Future Prediction Spectrum and plot Reusable Rockets.

Reusable Rockets have already been confirmed in theory, but there’s still a lot of work to do. There does seem to be a lot of drive to succeed at this, so I think it’s plausible.

Mr. Wüstite – Since the dawn of time, people have made choices based on what they know; the culmination of their experiences. In the modern world this process has evolved quite a bit from simpler hunter-gatherer times. Now, everyone from individuals like you reading this article on your computer, to global corporations making massive, multi-million dollar transactions, will make use of the seemingly endless pool of information available both on the internet and from localized sources for decision-making. And what do you could call the use of this available information to make decisions? Data Analytics.

A man stands in front of several computer screens
This person has a big, expensive room and clearly has no idea what’s going on. Source

Data Analytics can be broken down into three parts:

  1. Descriptive Analytics.
  2. Predictive Analytics.
  3. Prescriptive Analytics.

And, while I’ll expand on each one below, it all starts with Big Data.

The internet looks nothing like this. Source

Big Data is a term that describes massive sets of complex data that is difficult to process through traditional means. Think of it as an MS Excel sheet containing endless rows and columns of numbers or data points. If you were to attempt to wade through the data manually it could take you months, years, or decades to organize it in any meaningful way for it to then be used. In a world which is getting increasingly complex year over year, Big Data (and how it’s used) is becoming an area of intense focus by individuals, corporations, and government agencies.

The main challenge then becomes how do we analyze and make sense of Big Data so it can provide unique insights for us, our companies, or our governments? This is where Descriptive Analytics comes in. Without going into technical terms or using business jargon, Descriptive Analytics essentially takes all those numbers or data points on your huge MS Excel sheet, and organizes them into neat, colour-coded, ordered columns and rows, in which you can start to make out patterns. This can all be summed up as follows: Using Descriptive Analytics we can figure out what has happened and why it happened from the data we have.

Picture Descriptive Analytics as a means to organize your data into recognizable patterns. Source

Then, once you have all of your Big Data neatly organized through Descriptive Analytics, the challenge then becomes how can we use the patterns we found to help us predict behaviours or potential future outcomes? Say hello to Predictive Analytics. This next phase in the evolution of analytics serves to boil down the patterns in historical data into a set of probabilities and trends that may evolve in the future. “Predictive” does not mean that it can tell you what will happen, only what could happen, while formulating multiple possibilities. This can all be summed up as follows: Based on what has happened, we can make educated guesses at what could happen in the future – with no guarantees.

TL;DR: Computers are better than you at business. Source

As we are now equipped with multiple probabilities featuring future conditions, we find ourselves faced with another challenge: Based on the options we’ve come up with, what’s the best course of action to take, and how do we get there? This is the important bit, because this is what I believe will become widely available and adopted by the 2020’s. I’m talking about Prescriptive Analytics. Again I’ll spare you the thick business jargon here, and simply say that this is the mystical superpower you’d use to help your business arrive at the best-possible solution. The reason Prescriptive Analytics isn’t quite here yet is because the raw computing power needed to wade through the overgrowth of data has yet to be fully developed. Optimization algorithms, machine learning techniques, and ultimately advanced artificial intelligence (AI) will soon evolve to the point where this form of analytics can truly be explored. We’re already seeing precursors of this technology in websites like Kayak or Trivago. In the end, this can all be summed up as follows: This is what we should do based on everything we think could happen.

This basically means that all those annoying pop-up ads are about to get much more annoying. Source

So how does this affect you? Imagine, for a moment, that you’re walking to your departure gate at the airport sometime in December, 2021. As you walk past the Duty-Free shop, the store’s video ads adapt and change to reflect items that are suited for you, all because you’ve checked in for your flight, you shopped at the Duty-Free in that airport before (or another airport), and because you bought a cheap bottle of 80-proof rum that one time. As you sit down at your gate, you check your watch. Besides the time, it also chimes in with a notification that a local restaurant has e-mailed you a coupon for your favourite dish, as well as one letting you know that your AI e-Broker decided to sell those high-risk shares at the best time to net you a 5% profit. When you board the plane a pillow and blanket awaits you on your seat, the in-flight entertainment is preset to the movie you’d want to watch the most based on what’s currently available, and shortly after take off a Heineken is offered to you – all because of behaviours and buying patterns from your past. However, Heineken isn’t your drink of choice. You kindly ask for something else knowing full-well that there a bugs in every system and this fledgling technology will improve over time.

This is the world we’re soon entering. A world where the digital information that we volunteer is used to better-tune our experiences and guide our choices in the real world. And one thing to keep in mind here is that, without these forms of data analytics, neither Mr. Hematite’s nor Mr. Magnetite’s predictions would be possible in the near term. When Prescriptive Analytics begins to subtly change our world we’ll all look back in wonder at how anything got done back in the day.

Finally, where does the evolution of Data Analytics plot on the Future Prediction Spectrum?

“Mom, Dad broke my Future Prediction Spectrum!” Yeah, with many businesses trending towards big data use, this one seems poised to happen soon.

With that third and final prediction we wrap up Part Two of On The Horizon. Have anything to share or want to make a prediction of your own? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below! See you next Monday for Part Three – the world of 2026!


Featured image: SpaceX makes history last December. – Source

1 – The weight of each component of the Space Shuttle, including tanks (both empty and full). Does not include payload weight. Source.

2 – Wikipedia list of things and animals sent into space. Source.

3 – Cost to get things into space, in pounds per payload. Also a super interesting read on alternative future methods of lifting things to orbit. Source.

4 – Average adult man’s weight based on this source.

5 – Article on SpaceX’s website: Reusability: The Key to Making Human Life Multi-Planetary. Source.

{the hematite blog} is a very new blog by a very regular guy that wants to learn and write about all sorts of stuff. I’m a little rusty, and this blog is about my journey to shake some of that rust off, get better at stuff, learn, and try new things. Maybe we can all learn something along the way. Thanks for stopping by!

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