Ruth Brandon: The future's digital - but is that good?

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We're travel junkies. As the advert puts it, "How can you have a favourite place when you haven't seen them all?"

First, railways joined up our cities, then the automobile brought door-to-door freedom. Now, Ryanair, easyJet and the rest mean that even the remotest spots are no longer far off.

The Government has commissioned a report from the Office of Science and Technology (OST) to consider how, and if, we shall cope. The result is the recently published Intelligent Infrastructure Futures: Technology Forward Look - Towards a Cyber-Urban Ecology. The conclusion is that politics' default scenario - what the report's authors term the "life as usual" scenario - can't go on.

"Predict and provide" was the 20th-century response to the problem by the Department for Transport, and if its commissioning of a new Heathrow runway is anything to go by, it is still stuck there. But this will have to change. If the Chinese began using cars as much as the Americans, China would need 99 million barrels of oil a day to run them - and world daily production is currently about 80 million barrels.

Some controls on how and where we travel have already begun. One is supply and demand: if the oil price rises high enough, people will think twice about jumping in the car (though they haven't yet noticeably begun to do so). Another is the imposition of measures such as road-pricing. But these are merely a crude beginning.

The OST sees intelligent infrastructures as the key to avoiding this impasse. Almost all the world's computing power, it points out, is already embedded in the objects around us. A typical car today contains at least 20 microprocessors. The next step will be to link all these to the internet, with all the possibilities this raises for prediction and control.

It won't be long before your car not only tells you the best route to your destination, but the traffic congestion situation and how to avoid it.

Intelligent infrastructures, however, won't do the job by themselves; nor will technological advances, though they will help. The larger, and far more difficult task, will be persuading people to modify their behaviour. For instance, the report envisages private cars being replaced by an "automatically controlled personal taxi system, running on its own guideway network", in which each passenger is identified by a smart card. This may appeal to the kind of person who now joins a car club. But those who view their car as an integral part of their personality - currently by far the majority - won't be so enthusiastic.

The report's authors assume that life 50 years hence will be fundamentally different in ways that we can't yet imagine - just as, 10 years ago, nobody could have imagined the web-dominated world we all now live in. They also remind us that behaviour, too, may be counter-intuitive. For example, it was assumed that advances in electronic communication would cut down people's need to meet face-to-face, thus cutting down on travelling and the need for office space. In fact, the result has been quite the opposite: meeting people electronically makes us want to meet them face-to-face, increasing, not decreasing, the number of journeys people make.

However, of one thing the report's authors are certain: the future is electronic. And this leads to some unsettling thoughts.

One is that this future society will be a surveillance society. If energy efficiency and sustainability are to rely on sensors predicting our every move and want, then privacy as we know it will surely become a thing of the past.

The other is that future computers had better be more reliable than they are now. If the authors of this report are correct, then in 50 years' time a system crash will be an awesome thing indeed.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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