Millennium man will be 14-stone sloth
THE age of sloth is almost upon us. Labour-saving devices being developed today could leave the human race facing an epidemic of obesity.
Scientists have forecast that in 50 years people will save an hour a day as a result of new technology, but that the resultant inactivity could take its toll on their waistline and threaten their health.
Unless people change their attitude towards exercise, the average British man will become 20lb heavier at 14st, while the average woman's weight will increase by 17lb, to settle at 12st 3lb. We already do a third less exercise than people did a generation ago.
Dr Andrew Prentice, a nutrition expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "Obesity is already a big cause of ill-health and it's going to get worse if people continue to get more inactive as a result of these labour-saving devices."
Technology and robotics experts say the next five decades will see almost all physical activities replaced or augmented by computers and machinery. This was the stuff of post-war prophecies but it looks as though it will finally now come true.
"It is clear that lots of the physical tasks we do today will be done automatically by 2050," said Dr Takeo Kanade, head of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in America.
Among the devices scientists predict will become commonplace are:
The intelligent cleaning droid, which will clean the home whenever it feels it is necessary and can tell the difference between Lego, a stray sock and rubbish;
A washing machine that will rapidly clean and dry clothes made from fabrics that do not need ironing;
Smart kitchens, in which the cooker, fridge, bin and cupboards interact, determining what food you have, how to cook it and when to order more;
Intelligent furniture that can adjust light levels, choose music, relay messages and even sort out your finances;
Holographic virtual reality machines that will replace e-mail and telephones, enabling people to interact with work colleagues and do office jobs from home;
Robot helpers, possibly resembling the Star Wars droid R2D2, that can help with lifting, guard the home and even do some gardening;
Sentient networks that can tell you how best to use public transport to get to your destination on time, while automatic car convoys travel in safety along key routes.
Many of these advances are already being investigated in Britain and abroad. Some examples are outlined in today's issue of Chronicle of the Future, inside The Sunday Times Magazine.
The most important development will be the interconnection of "intelligent" items and computers, said Dr Stephen Emmott, director of NCR's Knowledge Laboratory in London and developer of a microwave oven that can also do your banking. "The whole network will offer far more in terms of saving labour than the mere elements alone. Whatever you want will be there when you want it," he said.
For example, if you wanted to cook a meal for friends, one of whom was a vegetarian, you could ask your oven for ideas. It might suggest several recipes using the ingredients your fridge and cupboards had told it they contained which would be acceptable to all your guests while avoiding ingredients that you, the host, did not like. It could then cook it.
Prentice said this would probably mean more time to sit motionless in front of the television. Unless people chose to lead more active lives, there would be national epidemics of obesity-related conditions such as diabetes, cardio-vascular disease and hypertension.
"In the last two centuries, the average height has increased by 18in. We are now in the middle of another great shift, but it's outwards and not upwards, because we fill our spare time with sedentary behaviour such as watching television," he said.
Dr Joan Gandy, a research fellow at Oxford Brookes University, calculated that the average man stood to burn 180 fewer calories of energy a day, the average woman 142 fewer, taking them to the brink of obesity. "It takes only a small surplus of calories to gain weight over a long period," she said.
The problem posed by labour-saving devices is how to spend the saved time. Dr Peter Cochrane, head of the BT Laboratory at Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, said that while most people would sit in their homes, some white-collar workers might fill the time by working harder. "It is extremely unlikely that people like me will gain any more leisure time. A large slice of humanity will continue to fill their lives with work," Cochrane said.
The result could be a divided society, said Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University and author of March of the Machines: "By 2050 we're going to have a small number of hard-working rich and a vast majority of idle poor."
The social changes labour-saving devices will bring could also strain personal relationships, lead to unemployment and spark an anti-technology backlash, said Richard Scase, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Kent at Canterbury, who is writing a government report on how society and technology will change by 2010. "We could become an impersonal society, preoccupied with technology, but there are going to be lots of people with low-paid jobs who won't be liberated by it at all," he said.
However, Kanade is convinced that mankind will rise to the challenge. "You should not underestimate the amazing adaptability of human beings," he said. "If you are worried about getting too little exercise, I would be happy to build a physical exercise machine so that you could burn calories while you sat at your desk."
For the entrepreneurial capitalist the message is clear: invest in health clubs.
by Nicholas Hellen, Media Correspondent
The Sunday Times, February 21 1999