When I was a young nerd, I long promised myself that there were certain things I would have some day. Some day, I thought, some day I’ll have… that. Or that. Or that. Let’s face it, there were a lot of things I lusted after, reading magazines, watching movies, playing video games. Many of them were far out of reach. I still do not own a Porsche, or one of the models in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. And yet somehow I’m not as enthusiastic about having either in my life as I once was, either. Some others, of course, have long since come true, and did in fact prove to be quite a let-down.
One that sticks out in my mind is having a computer that I could talk to and issue voice commands. When I first discovered Star Trek, we had just moved to a new town, and I didn’t know many of the other kids. I was shy, and it was a small, very tight-knit community; the escape of a world of make-believe, set in the future, had a certain magical allure to it. On top of that, Star Trek was fantastically popular at the time, and I quickly discovered that it was an easy talking point for just about everyone in the class. Nerd or not, virtually everyone watched it, and it was an easy way to join in on conversations with kids I didn’t yet know. So even without being that enthusiastic about it, I made sure to watch every new episode when it aired, and gradually the world drew me in. One particular aspect was this near-magical computer that had almost limitless amounts of knowledge on board. Every tidbit of wisdom from the entire history of mankind was at their fingertips, and all they had to do was ask for it, by prefacing any query with, “Computer…?”
I thought this idea was brilliant, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how one might go about making that work. A centralized computer core, with a microphone in each room, that could noise-cancel ambient sounds, and a speaker network throughout to announce responses, all that seemed simple enough. But to have enough knowledge that it could actually know the answers? And understand the query? That seemed unattainable.
And then, years later, in my dorm room at university, I discovered that I actually had a computer that could do much of this. With some simple scripts, I could even teach it to do web searches and read out responses, even if they were all largely useless. Still, the idea of being able to speak commands was pretty awesome. I set up a microphone, hidden in the living room, and when I used my computer to play music as a juke-box when we’d have guests over for drinks, it was a neat party trick to be able to say, “Oh, I don’t like this song. Computer, next song!”, and have the computer skip to the next track. But that was really all it was. A party trick.
Now, of course, I have extensive voice-command abilities in my car. It can navigate, find radio stations, pick songs, and do a whole lot of things for me, with a simple voice command. And I never use it, because the buttons are more convenient. Similarly, Siri is on the iPhone, and similar apps are on Android phones, and I never bother with them either. As it turns out, barking commands at an inanimate object is just as strange and awkward as it seems to be on Star Trek.
What gadget or piece of technology did you, as a child, always promise yourself that you would someday have?