Do technophobes have a future? Will robots rule? And who will join the information underclass? n

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The Independent Culture
IT IS 2025 in suburban Middle England and the intelligent home of the future has arrived. Outside, a robot lawnmower gently grazes on the grass like a good-natured sheep, weeding, feeding and mending the bare patches as it goes. The central house computer is conducting a digital conversation with the nanoprocessors in the car and transmits an electronic update to the garage, ready for the next service.

Inside the house, all is well. Through the intelligent doors, which can recognise family members by their faces and fingerprints, and the weather- sensitive windows, which clean themselves without ever being asked, the domestic robots are going about their chores with a silent solemnity. An anti-static vacuum device dusts, the laundry system sorts, cleans and folds away clothes, and the kitchen's fat controller prepares the day's calorie-counted meals. Meanwhile, the all-sensing house computer checks the weather forecast and re-sets its energy-saving programmes.

Beyond the virtual realism of suburbia lies the nightmare of the information underclass. Here there is no home shopping, telenetworking and videoconferencing. The information revolution has left the underclass behind, fenced into their urban ghettos by squalor, ignorance and data deprivation. Their only contact with the digitised society of the future is when the facial- recognition cameras operated by the data police spot them in a crowd in the wrong part of town.

Nightmare or dream, we all face futures dominated by computers and information technology. And technology pundits are convinced that developments in these fields will be as rapid in the next three decades as they have in the past three. In the Sixties, computers occupied entire office floors and were little more than giant calculators. Now they are faster, more versatile and sit on desk-tops. By the end of this decade it will be possible to put 10 Bibles on a single computer chip. By 2005, a chip will be able to hold all 32 volumes of the Encyclo- paedia Britannica, pictures as well as text. In 25 years' time computers will be a million times faster than they are today, working in a way that mimics the human brain. Already scientists are talking of the possibility of fitting chips inside the brain to improve memory and so have a portable library literally inside our heads.

These are not wild guesses, but realistic predictions based on what is already known to be feasible, says Ian Pearson, a futurologist at BT Laboratories at Martlesham in Suffolk. The credibility of the company's own technology calendar up to 2025 relies heavily on the accelerating improvements in the speed and memory of the computer chip.

With the information superhighway running past the front door of every future home, the ability to transform a living-room into a virtual office, art gallery, library, museum or whatever else takes your fancy will be almost limitless. Flat video screens that hang on the wall are already being developed that offer high definition, three-dimensional images. This will mean that a whole wall can be turned into, for example, your mother's front parlour, with her as a life-sized image sharing the same virtual space. Forget talking. ``It's good to interact,'' may be the BT slogan of the early 21st century.

Is all this inevitable? Not necessarily. David Gann, a technology analyst at the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University, says that there have been ample examples in the past of inventions that nobody wanted to buy. ``Either we had no need for them, or they were too expensive, or too difficult or cumbersome to use.'' Room lights operated by a sophisticated programmable controller never took off, he points out. ``It was easier to turn a switch on.''

Dr Gann has recently returned from Japan, where technology is revered like a religion. One of the great goals there is to diagnose illness in the home using telemedicine. An ``intelligent toilet'' has been designed which analyses urine, while connected devices monitor pulse and blood pressure at the same time; the data obtained in this way can be sent direct to the local hospital computer. It is a technology directed as much towards saving money on needlessly sending out doctors and ambulances as it is towards helping the patient, Dr Gann says. The only drawback, with this as with all other technological advances, is the question of whether machines can ever really be trusted to work when they are needed most.

But the worst fear that most people have about the future is not that the technology won't work, but that people will not be able to work with it. Are we all in danger of being left behind? Will those who cannot programme a computer, or find their way around the information highways of the future, become unemployable - or find themselves at the mercy of an lite of techno- initiates? It depends who you are. For most people, technology will become more accessible, not less. Physically, computers and related products will become easier to use, responding to voices or simple movements of the hand or even eye, rather than cumbersome keyboards and "mice". Meanwhile, software will become more user-friendly through constant refinement. As long as you are in the right situation in the first place - that is, educated, working, in touch with technology-users and with access to a certain amount of equipment - you have no more to fear from not being a computer whizz that you currently have to fear from not being an electrician or plumber. You may be dependent on the effective functioning of technology that you don't understand - but then you probably are already.

The problems will come for those who are largely outside the system in the first place: not working, not educated, without access to a computer. As society increasingly goes about its business in "cyberspace", those who cannot find their way into and around that brave new virtual world will, inevitably, be in danger of exclusion.

The nightmare scenario, according to BT's Ian Pearson, is that society will become riven in two, with the employed information literate having as little as possible to do with the unemployable illiterates in the underclass. ``I sincerely hope this does not happen, but it's a distinct possibility,'' he says.

Ultimately, it will be other factors in society and the economy that will dictate which people can afford to live and work in the increasingly technological future. The dominance of technology will grow, but how fast remains to be seen. It is unlikely, for example, that the written word, or even the printed page, will ever be superseded. Ian Pearson says that the watershed will come when computers can design other computers. Then, he says, computers may actually begin to replace skilled people who were once thought to be immune from digital progress. "People don't really know what people will do in 30 years' time, when computers can do their jobs better,'' he says. But he does know one thing: ``We are moving towards an information economy."

TRENDS In 1993, 96 per cent of British households had a colour television.

n Around 3 million British households have personal computers. A further 650,000 are expected to acquire them in 1995.

n Two million people in Britain use telephone banking services.

n Just over 4 million homes, or 19.1 per cent of British households, have been "passed" by cable, and thus could theoretically be connected to cable television.

n There are approximately 200,000 people in Britain who use the Internet.

n 90 per cent of British households have a telephone; 73 per cent have a video-recorder; 62 per cent have a microwave.

n There are 3.25 million people in the UK with mobile telephones; by the end of the decade, one person in 10 will have one.

SURVIVAL STRATEGIES Don't fear technology, or become a slave to it. It's more important to learn what it can do for you than to understand how it is done.

n Develop your career in a direction where technology could be a valuable asset. Information services, for instance, are likely to continue to be a growth area of the economy. Be prepared to be an independent worker.

n Remember that knowledge - of all kinds - is power. Even in a world of computers, information of all sorts will be invaluable, and books will remain the primary reference and information source for some time to come.

n Machines will never replace people totally, so don't forget to be nice to others.

n Faced with more than one button to press at any given time, remember the oldest technology maxim of all: don't panic!