"We want to confer life and intelligence on everything. We want to see fairies under trees."

(By Thor Swift For The Washington Post)
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Joel Garreau
Sunday, December 30, 2007

The gift gizmos that brightened the holidays this year -- the telephone that is mostly screen, the tiny music player -- were unimaginable not long ago.

So, as the New Year approaches, we wonder what our objects of desire will be in a year or five. For answers, we turn to Paul Saffo, a veteran Silicon Valley forecaster who explores long-term technological change and its practical impact on business and society.

Saffo and his interlocutor know each other as members of the scenario-planning organization Global Business Network. In scenarios, a 20-year horizon is common. Five years is almost painfully short-range thinking. So Saffo does not focus here on astonishments likely to emerge from the research pipeline, like prescription memory drugs. Instead, he concentrates on things that actually exist commercially today but have yet to explode into our consciousness. He looks for things that await the magic moment when mere technology is transformed into objects of raving desire.

What do we not know we want yet, that we're going to find out we do want in the next five years?

It's robots. Very simple, very clear. In the '80s we created our computers. In the '90s we connected them together. In this decade we've been hanging sensors on them -- eyes, ears. All they need are wheels and they become robots. It is increasingly affordable.

So "The Jetsons" was right?

You mean Rosie the Robot? Not quite. We have the technology. The thing missing is the big idea.

We want to confer life and intelligence on everything. We want to see fairies under trees. We want to believe that rocks can talk. And that's why we are just delighted when our electronics act in a lifelike form.

For teenage boys, I guarantee you within five years the it Christmas gift, the thing everybody is going to want, is going to be a telerobotic UAV [unmanned air vehicle]. Today's radio-controlled fliers are hard to use because you have to learn how to fly them. But when your helicopter is a robot, it flies itself and you just tell it where to go -- no learning curve, just instant gratification. Imagine a flying bot that costs $200 or less, is the size of a paperback book, and teenage boys can --

Terrorize their sisters?

Terrorize their sisters or look at the sunbathers in the pool next door.

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