Meet the futurists
LoneMind.com asked nine futurists what future technologies actually have a shot at becoming a reality and what they provided are some pretty mind-bending outlooks representing some of the greatest minds in the world of futurism.
From AI to nano to education to even, well legal pot--the following are just a few of the ideas that show that the future is not just some far off fantasy that will someday affect us but a coming reality that in many cases, as you will see below are already beginning to impact our lives.
Dr. William E. Halal
Professor, George Washington University and President, TechCast Global
Bold experiments are now demonstrating that electronic equipment can be used to recognize, respond to, and even transmit human thought, allowing individuals to communicate with computers, robots, and other people. These are primitive systems as yet, but they represent a beachhead in the new area of brain-computer interfaces. As the brain is better understood and the technology improves, humans could control all manner of devices by simple thought, gain mastery over their bodies, and even communicate with each other silently at great distances. The great physicist Freeman Dyson called it "Radiopathy."
TechCast expects Thought Power to achieve 30% market penetration around 2025.
Ever since Alan Turing defined the possibility of intelligent computers, the goal of creating artificial intelligence (AI) has proved as attractive and elusive as the Holy Grail. Computers have already beaten world-champion chess masters, chatted with humans, guided robots, and most recently steered vehicles through obstacle courses and city streets. Yet even children still outperform AI-assisted machines in many ways, and many experts think AI has failed in its promise. This is likely to change in the coming decade, as computer power approaches that of the human brain. IBM, Google, Microsoft, DARPA, MIT, and other research organizations—even Facebook—continue to make gains in AI. One researcher said, "The work done by doctors, lawyers, and scientists could be done by computers." Rather than trying to make computer intelligence identical to human, TechCast suggests focusing on "weak AI"—developing smart machines that may not think as humans do, yet are capable of replacing them in routine mental tasks.
TechCast experts estimate this goal will be met in the early 2020s.
The Jesuit anthropologist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin long ago anticipated the growth of a global network of communications covering the planet in a web of consciousness. Today, the technology revolution is realizing this vision by forming a rudimentary Global Brain. In the global equivalent of a brain, each person represents a neuron connected by PCs, smart phones, television, and endless other media to other "neurons," forming trillions of synapses. Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, said: "There is only one time in the history of each planet when its inhabitants first wire up its innumerable parts to make one large machine." The challenge of bringing modern communications media to poor nations is enormous, but cheaper technology still is relentlessly unifying the globe. Wireless connectivity is especially promising because it is cheap and fast and requires less infrastructure than wired connectivity. Fears of a digital divide persist, but technologies often become widely adopted as costs fall and convenience reaches the level where all can participate. India alone now has well over 250 million middle-class people using IT, and that number is closer to a half billion in China. (Economist, Nov 9, 2013)
TechCast experts estimate that half of the world's population will be connected via the Internet by about 2016.
Virtual Reality (VR) is one of the more exciting promises of the Technology Revolution. The ability to immerse oneself in an artificial environment that simulates the sensory experiences of warfare, sports, and space is a dream come true. VR has been around since the 90s, but now we are seeing the convergence of the Internet, graphical interfaces, 3-D modeling, digital games, augmented reality, and social networking. We also see the rise of augmented reality (AR)—digital information laid over the real-world environment—and experts think these diverse virtual environments will converge into a virtual metaverse. (KZero Worldswide Report, 2013; Linden Lab Live Data Feeds, 2013) Governments have been investing millions of dollars in VR, and it is being used by the military, medicine, educators, architecture, and other business sectors. At the end of 2012 there were near 900 virtual environments in use with more than 1.4 billion accounts registered. The estimated revenue value can reach 9 billion in 2013 and Second Life alone may finish the year with more than 33 million accounts. VR is being adopted so quickly that regulatory and legal issues are appearing, including criminal activities.
TechCast thinks VR will reach mainstream adoption about 2020.
Neurotechnology analyzes, repairs, or enhances functioning of neural tissues including the brain, central nervous system, and peripheral nerves. Alvaro Fernandez, of the World Economic Forum's Council on the Aging Society, said "Cognitive neuroscience and technological innovation can fundamentally transform what brain health is, how it is measured, and how it is achieved." An estimated 2 billion people worldwide suffer from brain or nervous-system illness, generating healthcare costs and lost income of some US$2 trillion annually, more than any other health problem. As the population ages, the need to prevent and cure nerve-related illness will grow. Simple medical techniques are in use today, and accelerating research has launched a neurotechnology revolution. Potential results include improvements in diagnostics, drugs, analysis, treatments, neural implants, and direct control of prosthetic limbs and other devices via links to the brain.
TechCast's data show neurotech will find broad practical applications over the next 10 to 20 years.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States (US Office of National Drug Control Policy). Although recreational drugs, including marijuana, remain illegal in most countries, this policy has begun to change. Recognition of the medicinal and pain-relieving benefits of marijuana, the aging of the drug- experienced Baby Boom generation, and a growing consensus that the "war on drugs" has been a colossal and costly failure, are three of the factors fueling a rapid shift in national drug policy. The legal status of marijuana is evolving quickly. A growing list of countries and American states (including Washington DC) have decriminalized use of marijuana, and a few have eased restrictions on all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. The US Congress quietly ended the federal government's ban on medical marijuana in 2014, causing Bill Piper, a lobbyist with the Drug Policy Alliance, to claim "The war on medical marijuana is over. Now the fight moves on to legalization of all marijuana." (Los Angeles Times, Dec 16, 2014)
TechCast results suggest a third of G-20 nations are likely to legalize marijuana use about 2020, when lenient drug policies could eventually become a global norm.
Telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, near death experiences, reincarnation: Can the paranormal be proved? Ever since the Society for Psychical Research was formed in 1882, the paranormal has fascinated some and inspired derision in others. Social psychologist James Alcock wrote that "parapsychology is indistinguishable from pseudo-science, and its ideas are essentially those of magic." Is it really all pseudoscience? Or could there be proof that paranormal phenomena actually exist? (Alcock, J.E. (1981) Parapsychology: Science or Magic? Oxford, UK: Pergamon)
The TechCast Brain Trust is not very confident in this happening. They assign it a low probability and think it would have little impact.
Internet of Things
The Internet of Things refers to more than one technology; it's rather an ecosystem of multiple technologies enabling smart objects that sense, communicate, and act in the built environment. The IOT is happening now and will only grow. The forms IOT will take include security systems, advertising, big data and analytics, smart cities, and more. Once it passes a tipping point, smart objects will be everywhere, and the real-world, "offline" world will look a lot more like the digital online world. Things will talk to each other and to us.
Automation and Robotics
Again, an ecosystem of various technologies. More work is being automated, both physically and digitally. Demographic and economic trends will drive more automation. Similarly, robotics and robot-like objects are being successfully developed to provide a wide range of real-world services. We will see robot firemen, robot caregivers, and more.
Through wearables and implants, humans will begin to collect, process and manipulate data about themselves and their environment at a level we've never seen before. We will connect our bodies to the surrounding internet of things, to each other digitally, and to virtual environments as well. As connected humans meet smart environments, we will have to ability to dispose of many of the devices of today (like keys, etc.) but also we will face privacy and identity issues.
The virtual online and actual offline worlds are merging, and we will see workable augmented reality infrastructures available in the near future, where digital objects will appear in physical space, with which we can interact. The world will look different for everyone, and react differently for everyone. See the magic leap concept in development or read Vernor Vinge's novel Rainbows End.
I've written about many of these on my blog. Technologies still out there a way (and more uncertain in terms of widespread adoption to me): nanotech and biotech applications for disease treatment. But breakthroughs in these areas could change everything.
I believe that most of the conceptual technologies I write about including flying cars, nanofactories or smarter-than-human artificial intelligence will eventually be developed, given enough time and interest. That doesn't mean you won't see some mind-blowing technology in the meantime. The futuristic technologies I feel are mostly likely to arrive first are as follows:
The Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a scenario where everyday items are all connected. For example, your floor could recognize that you got out of bed and start your coffee. The IoT revolution has already begun. There are security companies that offer web cams you can access from your smart phone and will even allow you to lock or unlock your doors. Smart thermostats are available that can control smart vents. Appliances are on the way that will let you know when they need service. Smart light bulbs that you control from anywhere can change color and brightness on demand. Smart homes will lead to smarter lives as homes, businesses and transportation all become connected. As wireless cameras, sensors and identifiers get smaller and cheaper, the Internet of Things will become increasingly embedded in our daily lives.
Connected and Self-Driving Cars
This is one of those scenarios that I expect will creep up on us in more ways than one. First, imagining a car with no driver is a bit creepy. Secondly, I've seen a driverless car on a city street already in a Google Self-Driving Car Project video. Legislation has been passed in four U.S. states and Washington, D.C. allowing driverless cars. The potential benefits include increased safety, fuel economy and eating crab legs while driving. Look for no driver soon.
Nanotechnology (the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale) is one of the rapidly advancing and merging technologies, like computers and imaging techniques, which are fanning the flame of futuristic products. Nanotechnology is already being used in sunscreens and cosmetics. In the near future we could see self-cleaning windows and paint, which dirt and contaminants won't stick to. Nanomedicines are being developed that can target and destroy cancer cells and there are many more medical uses for nanotechnology being developed. You probably won't see a "Made with Nanotubes" label on a product any time soon, but many products will become stronger, lighter and more energy efficient thanks to nanotechnology.
Other technologies that you might see become a reality soon are: 3D printing in your home, devices like computers or drones being controlled by your thoughts, flexible and holographic displays.
Legislation has been passed in four U.S. states and Washington, D.C. allowing driverless cars. The potential benefits include increased safety, fuel economy and eating crab legs while driving. Look for no driver soon.
Professor Sohail Inayatullah
Graduate Institute of Futures Studies, Tamkang University, Taiwan
The future that emerges does so because of the interplay of three forces. First, is the image of the future. Skype, for example, as many of today's technologies were once imaginations. Becoming reality requires the second force, the push of the present. These are market forces, demographic shifts, technological drivers, globalization, for example. But while the image creates the possibility and needs create the possible reality, a third factor is also crucial - this is the weight of history. The possible reality can remain just so if the weights of the past conspire to ensure the status-quo remains - these are mindsets, generally.
So what are the promising new technologies? Certainly, new technologies that can reduce animal pain (a vision of peaceful future), increase food sustainability (a bountiful world) and reduce climate change (survival) are probable. Invitro-meat supported by PETA and the Dutch Government is an example of this. But can the weight of the past - how meat today is created and how it tastes - be overcome?
Other likely realities include real time smart learning personal assistants. An ageing society, reduced funds for governments, a desire for a healthier life, and research that shows that information, wisely used, can make a difference, all point to these assistants becoming reality. And the economic pushes from insurance companies will certainly push this future. The weight is individuals not wishing to having information on their health. But with an ageing society and the desire for real time information, we can certainly imagine a near time future where instead of annual blood tests, we will live in a world of smart cities, homes and rooms and bodies where we can be healthier.
As a futurist, one thing I've observed is that the public tends to discredit sci-fi ideas which show up in popular culture. It's as if the mere fact AI has made its way into countless speculative movies (AI, I, Robot, Short Circuit, Chappie, The Matrix, Prometheus, etc.) puts enough psychological distance between AI technology and reality that people aren't concerned about it. But people "in the know" (like Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, even Bill Gates) are concerned enough to go public with their thoughts.
I believe that AI actually has a shot at becoming real; and that they might threaten our existence (How could they not? Can you imagine taking direction from a smart dog? Then why would AI - whose intelligence will almost certainly far surpass or own - take direction from us?) AI will probably, sooner or later, try to control us, either through brute force or indirect manipulation. Perhaps not all AI will; perhaps, like organisms, they will have evolved by necessity towards diversity in composition and thought.... Which means there may be factions amongst AI about how to handle humanity.
Speaking of pop culture, these ideas aren't original. They are Isaac Asimov's, Dan Simmons', etc.
I would go so far as to say that if a concept shows up repeatedly throughout pop culture (such as the struggle against AI) there is a great likelihood it will become reality. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy except on the scale of all humanity.
In any discussion about AI, transhumanism needs to be brought up. Essentially, transhumanism is about humans becoming "more" than human through technological (whether that technology is organic, inorganic, or a combination of both) means. Humans are already transhumanists, what with hip implants, hearing aids, and even probiotic yogurt. We are modifying ourselves with intent.
In the context of the discussion about AI potentially turning dangerous towards humanity, transhumanism could well be the thing that saves us. You see, I believe that the natural progression of transhumanism is that we will modify ourselves WITH AI. Sounds crazy... Until you realize that Siri and Cortana are already modifying us - albeit from external devices. What happens when people start permanently installing such technology inside their brains? When rich people can afford cognitive enhancements?
Whether AI evolve exclusively or they merge with us, one thing is clear to pretty much every futurist from miles off: AI are a part of our future. Unless we all become zombies or taken out by aliens or another unlikely doomsday scenario actually becomes our reality... Statistically speaking, they actually have a shot at becoming true too.
Humans are already transhumanists, what with hip implants, hearing aids, and even probiotic yogurt. We are modifying ourselves with intent.
In the near future I would expect more tech to seep into education and educational entertainment. Pedagogically sophisticated apps that encourage not only the repetition based learning aspects (Khan Academy), but that also let the kids integrate or curate the learned material into creative products. Various apps that will make coding skills fun. I have wondered if the gap between programs like Scratch and Python is to too big. So I wonder if there will be more software to teach kids common coding languages like Python, Java etc. within a child friendly format instead of just 'coding logic'. Also, I see more offline, often wooden, eco-type toys designed to teach kids coding skills outside of the screen. A lot of parents in the tech industry want to limit screen time and are concerned with 'active' vs. 'passive' technology use/literacy. Another educational tech trends will happen in serious gaming or gamification, like e.g. Sim City.
Solving challenges in the physical environment
The best ideas will be tech that solves challenges related to scarcities and the physical world. When access to technology and tech skills becomes ubiquitous, the wow factor of "shiny gadgets" will wear off, but functionality plays a much bigger part of tech development. Petroleum is quickly being replaced with renewable energy and going through a Moore's Law of evolution. Solar has already reached price parity most places and storage- bottlenecks are being resolved quickly. The slump in oil prices might delay, but not stop this evolution. The next challenge is fresh water, and I suspect any technology in this space will have potential, whether simple as Lifestraw, more complex desalinization or even alternatives to water-based often polluting and bacteria dispersing sewer systems. The Gates Foundation is into a lot of these type of technologies with compostation-based toilets like the CalTech toilet and the Omniprocessor that turns human waste into potable water.
Eventually as 3-D printers become a viable alternative manufacturer I believe we will see more recycled waste reprocessed as filament for 3-D printers and other manufacturing. Like this one which turns ocean plastic into food for printers.
The digital footprint we leave behind by our frivolous social sharing habits combined with the data points we increasingly will generate in response to smart meters and M2M communication between our various wearables and appliances produce new privacy related issues. One reason for why kids are dumping FB these days and starting to use anonymous and ephemeral media like Snapchat and Tumblr is a reaction to their parents' sharing habits. They are digital natives and might adopt a stronger sense of privacy protection as adults. Could go both ways, either they are used to transparency or they experienced too much transparency in young age and will apply privacy filters better than the generation before. Data protection services, reputation management and various technological services that help erase/hide unwanted footprint and curate a more desirable public profile will become more important.
Depending on political and cultural obstacles, I see a lot of opportunities here. This is not my strongest area, but various breakthroughs in genomics, medicine etc.
So #2 (solving challenges in the physical environment) I think is inevitable because of pending shortages and crisis, but are currently receiving little investment because it's difficult to build a profit model still. I think innovation will come in building a profit model and allocation system as much as the technology itself.
One reason for why kids are dumping FB these days and starting to use anonymous and ephemeral media like Snapchat and Tumblr is a reaction to their parents' sharing habits. They are digital natives and might adopt a stronger sense of privacy protection as adults.
CEO, Co-founder, Extended Mind Technologies
The most obvious future technologies that seem almost inevitable to me right now, are consumer grade self driving cars, and widespread adoption of augmented reality wearables.
But with regards to actual future technology (i.e. technology without an existing prototype) that could (and should!) become a reality, economically viable fusion power would be my choice. Cheap fusion power is the holy grail that has the potential to change the course of human kind forever, but at the same time, building an efficient fusion reactor is the hardest engineering challenge of all time. However knowing that thousands of the most brilliant people on the planet are constantly collaborating on solving the problem, it is something that I think will happen in the next few decades.
Dr. Kristin Alford
Futurist and Founding Director
http://www.wfs.org/Forecasts_ From_The_Futurist_Magazine (curated)
The environment around you will anticipate your every move
The forecast: “Computerized sensing and broadcasting abilities are being incorporated into our physical environment, creating what is sometimes called an ‘Internet of things.’ Data flowing from sensor networks, RFID tags, surveillance cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles, and geo-tagged social-media posts will telegraph where we’ve been and where we are going. In the future, these data streams will be integrated into services, platforms, and programs that will provide a window into the lives, and futures, of billions of people.”
From “Mapping the Future with Big Data,” July–August 2013.
We will revive recently extinct species
The forecast: The passenger pigeon, for example, may be brought back after 100 years. In our September–October issue, geneticist Ben Novak describes a strategy for “de-extincting” the passenger pigeon, which died out in 1914.
The project, dubbed the Great Comeback, involves five research phases:
- Sequencing and analyzing pigeon genomes to understand passenger pigeon biology.
- Producing cells that could be used to engineer a living passenger pigeon.
- Creating the genome from synthesized passenger pigeon DNA.
- Using altered cells to create breeding chimeras (combinations of rock and passenger pigeons) that would ultimately create pure passenger pigeons.
- Reintroducing new passenger pigeons back into the wild.
From “The Great Comeback: Bringing a Species Back from Extinction” by Ben J. Novak, September–October 2013.
By 2020 populations will shrink, and wealth will shrink with them
The forecast: “By 2020, half of the human race will live in countries where the birthrates have fallen below the death rates, and consequently, populations are shrinking. The cause is the combination of older adults living longer and fewer children being born. The countries will grapple with shrinking tax bases and workforces despite widening pools of retirees demanding social-security and health-care payouts. Society will survive, but GDPs will fall markedly throughout the world and probably never fully rise back up."
From “In Search of the ‘Better Angels’ of Our Future” by Kenneth Taylor, November–December 2012.
Doctors will see brain diseases many years before they arise
The forecast: “Brain scans can warn doctors if a patient will suffer Alzheimer’s, dementia, Lou Gehrig’s, or a number of other brain disorders as many as 10–15 years ahead of physical symptoms. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are learning to identify distinct chemical biomarkers within patients’ body and brain functions. Doctors could then slow the progression of the diseases if they start administering treatments years earlier.”
From “The Brain as Health Forecaster,” by Rick Docksai, January–February 2013.
Buying and owning things will go out of style
The forecast: “The markets for housing, automobiles, music, books, and many other products show a common trend: Younger consumers opting to rent or subscribe to pay-per-use arrangements instead of buying and owning the physical products. Shared facilities will overtake established offices, renting units will become more common than owning a home, and sales of books and music might never become popular again.” From “Consumption 2.0,” by Hugo Garcia, January–February, 2013.
Quantum computing could lead the way to true artificial intelligence.
The forecast: “Conventional computers cannot make decisions, as humans do, but quantum computers eventually might, says Geordie Rose, creator of the D-Wave One quantum computer. They use programs based on quantum mechanics to see multiple possible outcomes to any given problem and combine information from each to formulate solutions. With another 10 to 15 years of enhancement, they might cross the threshold to truemachine consciousness, Rose predicts.”
From “Dream, Design, Develop, Deliver: From Great Ideas to Better Outcomes.” November–December, 2012
Phytoplankton death will further disrupt aquatic ecosystems
The forecast: “The tiny marine plants are sensitive to temperature changes, so global warming poses a major threat to their populations. A Michigan State University study projects that up to 40% of the world’s phytoplankton will die out by this century’s end.”
—From “Climate Disruption and Plankton Destruction” by Rick Docksai, March–April, 2013
The future of science is in the hands of crowdsourcing amateurs
The forecast: So-called “citizen science,” which uses networks of volunteers in scientific research, is on its way to becoming the favored twenty-first-century model for conducting large-scale scientific research. Some of the organizations involved in citizen science include the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, the United States Rocket Academy, and NASA, among many others.
From “The Rise of Citizen Science” by Kathleen Toerpe, July–August, 2013
Fusion-fueled rockets could significantly reduce the potential time and cost of sending humans to Mars
The forecast: “Space exploration is limited to how much fuel our vehicles can bring with them and fuel weighs too much to get us very far. That may soon change. A University of Washington team has devised a type of plasma encased in its own magnetic field. The magnetic field causes metal rings around the plasma to implode and converge to create a shell that ignites the fusion reaction.”
From “Rocketing to Mars with Fusion Power” by Cynthia G. Wagner, July–August, 2013
Atomically precise manufacturing will make machinery, infrastructure, and other systems more productive and less expensive
The forecast: What the term “nanotechnology” really refers to, according to K. Eric Drexler—the father of the concept—is atom-by-atom production, which will allow for extraordinary improvements in manufacturing all things. One major benefit could be far cleaner energy, such as liquid hydrocarbon fuels produced using hydrogen from water and carbon from recycled CO2.
Founding Partner, Centre For Australian Foresight
One the of the principle challenges resulting from the gifts of our industrialisation and it's underpinning of our burgeoning if nascent information age is an age old problem of all humans who want relatively stability in geography: waste. We've filled our oceans with it, our landscapes, our houses, our bodes. And not just waste like effluent, which if left alone in nature, or dispersed enough, will ultimately compost, fertilise and integrate into our ecosystems with relative harmony. But stuff that massively shifts ecosystem balances, like toxins, and stuff that simply won't break down fast enough. We've over-engineered our waste!
Efficient, effective and systems integrated nano-scale recycling of our persistent waste products - think plastic shopping bags, rubber car tires, anything metal, or mixed waste rubbish tips - into a usable form is a holy grail within our reach. With 3D printing now available at your local retailer and 3D self-making biochemical labs in prototype already, just think about how to feed inputs to these. The challenge will be de-compiling into ecologically safe form/s (in balanced amounts/locations), and usable forms ideally, what mixer ingredients if any would be needed (e.g. air, water something more complex?) and how will it be powered and funded? Think main power (or solar) inputting low volume of water into something the size of the old back yard 'incinerators'.
Efficient, effective and systems integrated nano-scale recycling of our persistent waste products - think plastic shopping bags, rubber car tires, anything metal, or mixed waste rubbish tips - into a usable form is a holy grail within our reach.
Founding Partner, Centre For Australian Foresight