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We're All Futurists Now

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Being on the tech beat, I have long been an amateur futurist. I'm a journalist, not a scientist, and so I peer around corners looking for what's ahead, usually leaving a field once the market gets there in force. Like a western hero in that I never make much money.

What I have found is that the future is never what you think it will be. The future unfolds along the path of least resistance in the market. It's not about what you think is cool, but about what someone can convince everyone they want and need.

Our view of the future is always colored by what we have today. When I was a little kid, this was a mechanical future, because it was a mechanical age. The Brookings Institution still sees a mechanical future for us, now that mechanics are catching up to what computers can do. Apollo created space future, but our real future began after PCs combined the TV, typewriter and tape recorder into a mass market.

In the 1990s that futurism reached an end point. Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Bill Gates' The Road Ahead barely mentioned the Internet in its early editions, but Tim Berners-Lee's hypertext markup language, or HTML, based on an existing system for printing, became the network interface of choice.

Now that we are approaching the online point Gates reached with PCs two decades ago, Google (GOOG) has brought in Roy Kurzweil as "director of engineering," hoping he can lead the way forward.

Kurzweil has spent his career in artificial intelligence, a field that has had more stops and starts than a day in L.A. traffic. His own breakthroughs have come in optical character recognition and speech synthesis, areas that have yet to be perfected. But his biggest contribution may be The Singularity is Near, a 2005 best-seller which predicts that machine and human intelligence will merge, transforming mankind in am azing ways.

IBM (IBM) goes through the futurism exercise every year, scouring its labs, looking for themes, and delivering what often looks like technology's remainder table. This year, Gigaom.com writes, it's about computers with a sense of touch, taste and smell, that can think more like us. Barb Darrow wisely goes back to IBM's first such list, issued in 2006, and notes that telemedicine and real-time translation, which that list foretold, are just now coming to market.

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