From smart appliances to satellites, this exhibition brings together more than 100 objects either newly released or in development that point towards where society might be headed. Although some may seem straight out of the mind of Philip. K. Dick, they are all real, produced by research labs, universities, designers’ studios, governments and corporations.
We were excited. But the start of the show left us wondering. Because as we stepped through the doors we were welcomed by a cumbersome looking robot called Brett, built by Berkeley University in California. Designed to be the future of laundry, Brett looks more like a combination of Metal Mickey and Jacob Rees Mogg than something designed for our future lives. And as a piece of technological design with only one job, it didn’t seem to be doing it very well or very quickly. In fact, it reminded me of when my 5-year-old tried to do all our washing in exchange for a trip to Pizza Hut.
But it turned out that Brett merely disarmed us for the more intriguing and at times disturbing things to follow. We left him behind folding his socks.
The next thing that caught our eye was suspended from the ceiling – Facebook’s Aquila drone. Facebook wants to bring the internet to remote regions with its solar-powered plane, which it hopes will be able to stay airborne for months at a time like a low orbiting satellite. It all looks very impressive but when I think back to the recent data scandals I can’t help but think ‘what else will it get up to up there?’ And how will it sit with those governments who want to restrict internet access. Would they try and shoot it down?
We walk on.
One of the most intriguing exhibits was a product that aims to bring Cryonics to the masses. Cryonics is when people sign up to have their body frozen quickly after their death, hoping to be resurrected when technology has advanced. On display is a Home Kit designed by the Cryonics Institute of Michigan with which family members can prepare their dying relative for the future. It’s creepy, but thankfully the company provides a helpful manual and matching gift pen.
In another exhibit, what looks like a 3D model of earths terrain is actually a big box full of sand. The terrain effect is created by various coloured lights projecting down from above. with sensors that interact with different levels of sand. As you move the sand around with your hands, the surface detail changes. You can build a mountain, carve a road or dig out a lake, all of them forming a couple of seconds later. This exhibit wants to tell you something about the effects of intervention on landscapes and it’s a lot of fun to play god for a while. And perhaps this is what a lot of the things on display are trying to do in their own way.
Everywhere you turn there’s beautifully designed technology. There’s a sleek looking Volkswagen driverless car which you can sit in and have a conversation with its AI driver by way of a big screen. Next door there’s the ‘Tree Antenna’, a coil which, when placed around a tree trunk, turns the tree into a wi-fi beacon, without harming it.
It feels like someone’s is preparing for Armageddon, when the world’s internet no longer works.
And then over the way there’s Foster + Partners’ gigantic architectural model of Masdar, the world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city. Which begs the question – who should be building our cities? The people, the government or private companies like Lord Fosters firm?
We catch ourselves looking into an emotion reading mirror. I wonder what it would say if it you arrived home at 3am after a big night out? Then there’s a furry robot seal otherwise known as PARO Therapeutic Robot – designed to comfort dementia patients.
Finally, there’s one for the criminal underworld to worry about. An exhibit of masks of the whistle-blower Chelsea Manning which have been created from Manning’s DNA. Eerily, it’s a perfect likeness.
As we leave the show we certainly feel wowed and entertained. But we also feel like we have a lot more questions than we do answers.
But it seems this is partly the point. In the curators’ own words: ‘new things contain unpredictable potentials and possibilities, often unanticipated even by their creators. It is up to us – as individuals, as citizens and even as a species – to determine what happens next.
While the objects on display suggest a certain future, it is not yet determined. The future we get is up to us. The future starts here.’
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