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Futurific!

A new millennium will soon be blowing its digital noisemaker, so it’s time for a few high-tech predictions.

And why not? Besides, most media outlets are so blindsided by the Y2K question mark that they can’t see past the Christmas season anyway. (Buck up, kiddies; life will go on after New Year’s Day).

Here’s the deal: As I gaze into my high-definition liquid-crystal ball, I’m seeing some mighty unusual things. I’m talking years ahead, not just six weeks. Let’s take a look.

Watching the skies: Those wacky alien-hunting scientists at California’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have discovered a brilliant way to capitalize on our endless obsession with little green men. Their SETI@HOME screensaver uses your computer’s processing power to help analyze SETI’s enormous backlog of sky survey data for signs of intelligent life. Best of all, the screensaver only does its crunching when your machine is idle, and automatically sends the results back to SETI.

SETI@HOME is now officially more popular than David Duchovny. Since its debut last May, more than a million people have downloaded the program, making this the largest computation ever undertaken, and an ingenious way of getting around the numerous funding cuts SETI has experienced since its inception. Instead of having to purchase a huge supercomputer, they now rely on the distributed power of thousands of smaller machines – ours.

I predict this will become commonplace. Political groups and grassroots organizations will solicit the collective computers of their constituents. Corporations will offer product discounts and other incentives in order to use customers’ machines (and cut their own corporate computing budgets). Governments may even get into the act, mandating public use of a portion of each citizen’s computing power – along with tax write-offs, of course.

Megahertz as a renewable natural resource? Now we just have to decide what to do with it. …

Mental video: Ever wonder what Fluffy the cat is staring at? A recent BBC online news story reports that a team of West Coast scientists have recorded a cat’s brainwaves and translated them into images. Using something called "linear decoding technology" (sounds futuristic to me), these white coat types have tapped into the signal generated by a feline’s optic nerve. The pictures are not exactly high-resolution, but the reception is good enough to render real world objects such as scenery and even human faces.

The easy prediction here: In a decade or so, we’ll be able to "videotape" what we see. But here’s what’s really exciting: playback. Once brain recording technology is mastered, we’ll learn how to watch what’s been captured – using the eyeballs in our own heads.

It’s really a simple matter of electrical input and output. Like a personalized version of The Matrix, we would be able to record our experiences and share them with others. The question, "Hi, honey, how was your day?" would have a very different answer: "Wanna see?"

But how much life could we record? All of it, if we wanted. As digital storage becomes roomier and cheaper, we could archive every waking moment for later recall. Forget buying a camcorder to capture junior’s first wobbles. Just get him that corneal implant, and someday he’ll be able to review his entire childhood – without psychotherapy.

New Luddites: With all this glittering mechanical change, our society could shift so unrecognizably that even today’s heady times will seem somehow old-fashioned.

Will we remember the ’90s as life in the slow lane? Today’s information montage seems overwhelming, but it’s a tiny pixel compared to tomorrow’s wide-screen world. Right now, Sprint and other electronic firms are hawking cell phones with built-in Internet microbrowsers – so the Web is with you, everywhere you go. But imagine a world where the Net is connected, not to a portable phone, but right into your brain.

Scary, isn’t it? A backlash is sure to occur. I predict a movement of people who "unplug," shunning computers entirely. They’ll disconnect the Internet from their homes, cars and maybe even their heads. They might even move out to rural areas and return to an agrarian lifestyle.

So the next time you feel numbed by the din of modern technology, think about this: Someday, 1999, may seem positively… quiet.

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