Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 20 September 2013

HS2 vs my vision of the future

I have a vision of one aspect of the future. It's perhaps not particularly outlandish, certainly from a sci-fi perspective and yet whenever I have mentioned it to anyone either in the real world or online I have had a lot of scepticism.

OK, here it is. I think that within the next 20 years (perhaps sooner) many people will have an entire wall in their house as a display. It will be 3D and the technology will be such as to allow correct parallax so whatever you are watching will simply look like an extension of the room in which you are sitting. The quality and resolution of the screen will be so good that it will be virtually indistinguishable from things actually in the room. And broadband connectivity will be so fast that it will allow videoconferencing with anyone in the world with similar capabilities which will effectively allow their living room to appear as an extension of yours and vice-versa.

The consequences of what this means will be huge. Many of my longest standing friends live a long way away from me. Most of us went to University and ended up all over the place. I live in Berkshire and have friends and/or family in Exeter, Runcorn in Cheshire, Chester, North Devon, Bristol, London, Crewe, Derby and Bedfordshire amongst other places. In order to get to see any of them usually takes weeks of planning and generally requires a full day to be set aside once you factor in travelling etc. But imagine if you could click a couple of buttons on a computer and have their living room suddenly appear alongside yours. This would revolutionise how we communicate with each other.

I'm not saying it would be a complete replacement for face to face contact. Of course human beings are always going to want to be able to share the same physical space on occasion for all sorts of reasons. But if I just wanted to catch up with some friends for an hour or two I really do feel that this way of doing it would be an excellent substitute for travelling half way across the country at expense of both money and dead travelling time. Perhaps this seems a little soulless. But on the contrary I think this could very much help people maintain friendships and stay close with friends even when geographical barriers are in the way. And that's even before you start to think about how much this could improve the situation of people who have family and friends who have emigrated.

All of which brings me in a roundabout way to HS2. When I first heard of the plans for this I was in favour of it. Our railway infrastructure in the UK is creaking at the seams and something like a high speed line from the south to the north seemed like a no-brainer. The fact it is going to cost tens of billions was by-the-by for me as the benefits were surely going to outweigh the costs. But after long reflection I am not so sure.

If living rooms are going to be revolutionised by technology then business meetings will also be. Perhaps even more so as sharing the same physical space is not as much of an imperative for many business meetings. Sharing the same documents and screens, sure but technology can already help with that and in 20 years time I would expect that would also be streets ahead of where it is now.

So if we assume that maybe 50% of meetings that are currently conducted face to face would be able to be done remotely using this sort of high res 3D technology (and if anything I expect that will be an understatement) then straight away you can see that the case for more and faster railway capacity starts to diminish. If the same applied to friends meeting up (i.e. half the time they save themselves the expense and travel time and simply living room share) we start to see how, far from railway capacity filling up with passengers in the coming decades it may well go in the other direction*.

The technology to achieve this sort of thing is no longer science fiction. We already have massive HD screens. We already have fast broadband. We already have 3D and soon there will be 3D without the need for glasses. All the pieces of this particular technological jigsaw puzzle are in place. We just need time for them to improve and mature to the point where bringing them all together will make what I have described above a reality. In fact if you think about it, this is pretty much inevitable. The tech is moving in this direction and it is simply a matter of waiting.

Coincidentally 20 years is how long it is going to take for HS2 to be completed. It would be ironic indeed if by the time the extra high speed capacity was available, it was largely not needed due to other advances that were available for almost zero public expenditure rather than the many billions slated for HS2.

*I am aware that a decent chunk of the extra capacity is expected to be taken up by freight. Of course if my other predictions are correct and there are fewer passengers then this will free up more room for freight anyway. But perhaps even more importantly another technology, 3D printing is already ramping up and it is predicted by increasing numbers of those working in this field that many items will be able to be manufactured in homes**. I strongly suspect that this has not been factored into any of the future freight predictions.

**Yes, yes I know that anyone manufacturing things in their home is going to need the raw materials used for the production and that these will need to be freighted. Smartarse. But I would suggest that a large block of raw material that can be used to make almost anything will be much more efficient to be moved around than billions of mass produced and pre-packaged items in terms of volume alone.

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