Gadget heaven: The future is now

Will the iPhone catch on? Will any of the other technologies being hailed today change the world tomorrow? We assess them here - and in a fact-inspired short story imagine their impact by 2017
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The Independent Online

The iPhone

Steve Jobs of Apple says the iPhone unveiled last week will "change everything", as the iPod music player did six years ago. This is a phone and an iPod with a wide screen on which you can play movies, a camera, a personal assistant for dates and addresses, and an internet surfer all in one. None of this is new, but the trick has been to put it all together in one sleek little package that weighs just 135g and is very easy to use. Being Apple, it is also very fashionable.

$100 laptops

New tech, cheap as chips, with real potential to change the world. Five million laptops will be shipped to countries, including Rwanda, this year by the charity One Laptop per Child. The final wind-up prototype from Massachusetts Institute of Technology was unveiled last Monday. The aim is to make wireless internet learning available where it is currently impossible. The potential ramifications of giving an online voice to a mistreated and angry continent are enormous.


No look at the future would be complete without them. The most sophisticated humanoid robot is the Asimo prototype built by Honda and shown off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. It can interact with humans, follow commands and run slowly. The Pentagon is believed to be working on warrior robots. Two million people own a Roomba, which glides around a room without bumping into things - but it is still, essentially, a vacuum cleaner.

Smart homes

South Korea plans to build 30,000 digital smart homes this year. Run by a central computer, they recognise you and open the door, turn lights on and off, and monitor power use, even paying bills online. The TV screen reveals which appliances are in use and who is at the front door. The fridge announces when food has gone off, using tags. The mirror tells you what the weather is like and suggests clothes to wear. The remote control foxes would-be burglars.

Green houses

The British government wants all new homes to be "zero carbon" by 2016, producing no planet-harming carbon dioxide at all. A new green rating system for all homes will be introduced next year. And in the Thames Gateway, properties are planned to act as a model for the future, including wind turbines and solar panels, green roofs, and terraces that have grass and plants growing on them, energy-saving lighting and appliances, and a biogas plant outside each home that will turn sewage into fuel.


The engineering of molecules and atoms at a scale of millionths of a millimetre. The potential is huge - from cosmetics already being produced that penetrate the skin to cameras the size of dust particles and microscopic computers with vast memories. Doctors are hugely excited at the possibilities, but Prince Charles is among those urging caution. The Israeli government says it is using nanotech to develop a tiny flying "bionic wasp" robot that could carry explosives into a terrorist cell.

Hybrid embryos

There is a shortage of human eggs from which stem cells can be grown into tissue for use in medicine and research. Scientists want to take the nucleus of a human cell and insert it into the structure of a cell from an animal. It will be grown in a lab for no more than 14 days before it is harvested for stem cells. The government position is unclear. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said three days ago that it will consult the public before making a ruling.

Animal cloning

Since Dolly the sheep a decade ago, it has become common for scientists to create genetically identical offspring by taking an empty egg and injecting it with the DNA of a mother animal. This could be used to rear herds of cattle and sheep producing optimum meat and milk, but this has not so far happened. The risks to health remain unclear. Last week, it emerged that a British calf had a mother that was a clone - making the Holstein calf Dundee Paradise from Wolverhampton the first of its kind born in the UK.

'Listen, have you seen my son? He's lost. I can't find him. Blond. Ten years old. It's nearly his birthday. He was born in January 2007, just after the launch of the iPhone. I'm not a geek, new tech is my business and it was big news back then, trust me: a phone, a camera, a movie and music player and a computer all in one. We all got so excited. Seems hysterical now. Not funny though. Nothing's funny. I've lost my son. Have you seen him?

His name is David. We called him that after that actor who used to be a footballer. Beckham. When David was born everyone still thought new technology was going to make the world a better place. The future was supposed to look and feel different. Shiny and happy. But it doesn't, does it? This bloody wind still comes howling off the river right into your face. Yes, it spins all the windmills on our houses in this marvellous model community that is the Thames Gateway ... the future now ... but my son won't have a future if I don't find him. Will you help me? Please?

Back in the house we've got one of those big screens glowing on the wall of the front room, the family imap. A Google satellite picture of the area that tells you where your children are. Three little icons blinking. Ruby and Kyle are with their mum at Rainham city police, and I'm out here in the dark. But David's icon is missing. It has stopped blinking. I don't know where he is. Are you sure you haven't seen him?

Maybe he switched off his signal when he sneaked out of the house (God knows how, they're not supposed to be able to do that) or maybe the battery has gone dead. Or ... what? Face down in the river. Dead in a ditch. Locked in some stranger's room. Oh God.

He was in bed. We thought he was in bed. We were downstairs, chatting to Ellie's parents in Spain all evening. That's one thing the internet has made easier: endless face-to-face chats with the mother-in-law. Some people just leave it running, while they go about their business, like a window into her world. And a window into yours. No thanks. We talked, then we turned it off.

David must have crept past us. Ellie went upstairs and he wasn't there. The scream had me flying up those stairs, I can tell you. I twisted an ankle on his bloody Action Man British Moon Lander. He was gone. We checked his "space" of course - the personal website he runs with the touch-screen tablet he takes to bed. You know the sort of thing, they're old hat now. Strange to think that when David was born in 2007 some kids still spent their evening slumped in front of the telly, just watching. Not changing the plot or writing themselves in as characters, or making up virtual lives or any of the stuff normal 10-year-olds do now. Blond. Please tell me you have seen him?

We're good parents. We do our best. We wouldn't let him have a webcam so every pervert in the world could watch him get his jim-jams on. We got one of those new ToonSafe packages that put up a real-time cartoon of everything he's doing, so we can see him but it's safe and anonymous. That was what was showing in the corner of the big screen downstairs. It said he was asleep in bed. But he wasn't there.

The rain still falls, doesn't it, in this bright future? Not so bright. The night is coming on. Help me. I'm running out of hope. The police are looking, the helicopter, the searchlight, the dogs. The neighbours. Is it one of them do you think? Could it be?

We've all been packing. The waters are rising in the Thames. Global warming. All these model homes with their grass roofs and biogas tanks are going under. So soon. So much for the last bloody Labour government and its flagship estates built on flood plains. We thought they knew what they were doing. But that doesn't matter now. Finding David matters. Before the morning. Before the floods come. I'm so scared for him. David!

The police were great. They sent out a message as soon as they heard, straight to the iPhones of anyone within 30 miles of here. They're still pretty much the same gadget, those things. That's my business, you see: new tech. Actually it wasn't new, as such, but Apple put everything together in one sleek package. America had been left behind until then, concentrating on computers while mobiles took over the world, but then Apple put the two together and became even huger. Lost all their cred with people like me. It's no fun when everyone's got one. Have you? Of course. They're not actually compulsory, but try living without it. How else would you check your statements, pay your bills, watch a movie, do your blog, insult your friends, get some music, Google a curry house, switch on your burglar alarm and find out what's left in the fridge for tea while you're still on the tram, with something the size of a playing card? And how would all these other people out here have known to come looking through their gardens and sheds and behind the dustbins in the dark? David? David!

Can I keep talking? It helps to keep talking about something else. Can you see anything? My head feels like it's about to explode. I remember, there was this bloke at Ofcom called William Webb, the head of research and development, who wrote a book in 2007. We had a quote pinned on the office wall: "Leaving home without your mobile, bad enough already, will become rather like leaving home without a wallet, keys, music player and mobile all at once - quite unthinkable."

We wanted a piece of that action, so we started making software for them. Then we got lucky. God bless David Cameron for letting people vote on their iPhones and giving them grants. They became cheap as anything. Some people hated the idea of everyone having to register their serial number and email on a government database, but you can't have everything. At least ID cards never got off the ground.

God, it's cold. He's out here somewhere, he must be. Sheltering. He's OK, I know he is. The police took the servant away, of course. That's one thing nobody could have predicted when David was born: the return of servants. Robots were supposed to be doing all the work by now, but why spend a small fortune on a jumped-up Hoover when you can get an African for next to nothing? I know, I know. It's apartheid. But listen, they need to come here. Africa is burning. Most of it will be desert by the end of the century and the ones who can leave have already started. The greatest migration in human history, they're calling it. People getting out of countries where water is scarce and crops are dust. And Aids, they're running from that too. There is a cure, you know that, but it's like the anti-retroviral drugs used to be: the big corporations won't let it be released cheaply. The rich don't die of Aids any more. The poor do, in their tens of millions.

No wonder Africa is angry. Back when David was born, my company was working on this UN project to get cheap, wind-up laptops to every child in the continent. Huge numbers went out, and suddenly these kids who had no electricity had the internet and email. And porn, obviously, unless it was blocked. And they grew up with a voice, together, that Africa had never had before. Kids. Like David. Are you absolutely sure you haven't seen him, a little blond boy?

They work for nothing, now that the minimum wage has been abolished. We try and pay ours a bit more, you know, but it isn't much, to be honest. What can you do? Even people like us have cleaners. And when a kid goes missing, the cleaner gets lifted. If it was her, I swear I'll kill her ... but it can't be, can it? Where's David then? David! He's out there in the dark. My little boy. Cold. Wet. On his own. Terrified out of his bloody wits. I'm coming, mate! Daddy's coming!

Hang on, this thing's buzzing. Text. Ellie, my wife.

"David safe!"

What? Oh God! They've found him. He's safe.

"Ran away to see Nada, girl he met online. They are IN LOVE!!! Got him here. Coming home."

Home? They're coming here, my boy's coming back. He's alive. Look, I've got to get home, gotta go, yeah? Thanks, you know, for helping. Thank you. Thank you! Love, eh? Bloody love! Old as the wind. That's one thing they will never replace with a chip."