I would like to share some of my thoughts on key developments that I believe will determine our lives in the upcoming two decades. Almost all of this is fueled by ever more accelerating technological progress and there are a lot of opportunities in it. As well as significant challenges.
Looking back at the perceived principle of the industrial age, where growth occurred or seemed to occur in a linear function, today we know about Moore’s Law. We have been able to observe it for the last 50 years where over time it became clearer that we have a doubling of computing power roughly every 1,5 years.
Now how does that apply in our everyday life? Where do we actually see that technologies get more and more “disruptive”? To show that this is not about buzzwords, here are a couple of examples for “wow” type of developments:
Self-driving cars: While in 2004 early self-driving cars – on a barrier-free course – couldn’t even finish the DARPA race and made it to roughly 12 km in the last two years we have reached a level of almost readiness for full autonomy in inner city environments. Self-driving vehicles have driven millions of kilometers (Link 1, Link 2) and there have been only a handful of incidents.
Robotics: In 2006 humanoid robots miserably failed when trying to climb stairs while today they can jump, dance and generally scare the sh** out of us by their robustness and motion stability they have reached.
Strategy games: After IBM’s DeepBlue supercomputer had trounced human chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997, The New York Times chimed in on predictions that “It may be a hundred years before a computer beats humans at Go — maybe even longer”. Go is a strategy board game way more complex than chess (on its 19 x 19 boards layout there are more possible Go-board positions than there are atoms in the visible universe). Well, it was not “a hundred years” but 18 years when Google Deepmind’s AlphaGo AI-based algorithms first beat several times European champion Fan Hui in 2015 and then in 2016 the South Korean Lee Sedol who is regarded one of the best players in the world.
Touring test: The world famous touring test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950 to assess a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human was seriously challenged for the first time by a computer AI in 2015. It is in dispute if this instance is a valid proof of passing the test. But even if not, we are getting pretty close; a challenge many observers never thought would be in reach in these days.
Natural Language access to knowledge comprehension: Already in 2011 IBM Watson won the knowledge TV game show Jeopardy in a man vs. machine edition. It defeated two former champions who had no chance at all.
What is underlying in all of is math, namely exponential development/growth. Futurist Ray Kurzweil puts it very nicely as the law of accelerating returns. Exponential growth takes a long run-up (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc.) but then later the inevitable hypergrowth curve kicks in. People may perceive exponentially growing technologies and trends as non-exponential, even slow, in the best case linear in the beginning. That lies in its nature. Slow in the beginning with very little progress for a long time and then a massive kick in with doubling on a very large scale with every iteration.
Kurzweil puts the challenge that humans have with predicting the future in light of exponential interrelation into perspective:
“The future is widely misunderstood. Our forebears expected it to be pretty much like their present, which had been pretty much like their past.”
Let me give some examples to get a better grasp of what exponential growth means in real world examples:
- If you walk 30 linear 1-meter steps, you end up 30 meters from where you started. That’s pretty straightforward to grasp.
However, if you take this to an exponential level und take 30 steps that grow exponentially with each step, you end up at a distance twenty-six times around the planet.
- Here is a useful little comparison: Lake Michigan’s capacity in fluid ounces is about the same as our brains capacity (in calculations per second). If you started in 1940 to fill it with 1 fluid ounce of water every 18 months, by 1970, you would have had 16,000 gallons. That compares to an average suburban swimming pool. Even by the year 2010 – 70 years after having started – there would only be a few inches of water here and there, but nothing more. But only 10 years later in 2020, you would already be at around 40 feet of water. And 5 years later in 2025, the job is done. 70 years almost nothing and then a sharp rise in only 15 years.
There is a beautiful and speaking for itself visualization:
Image courtesy of Pawel Sisiak / AI Revolution
This is the underlying principle of almost all technology that has entered our lives in the last decades. We are all becoming eyewitnesses of the accelerating development and get more and more evidence every year. It is my personal belief that we are at the brink of a time where many technologies which we assumed science-fiction not so long ago are about to become an everyday reality.
In this respect, self-driving cars, photo-realistic virtual reality, humanoid robots, super efficient solar cells, breakthroughs in gene editing and genetic engineering, self-learning artificial intelligence systems and much more are not examples of the peaks of their development. In my opinion, those are just snippets of their beginning. This is what is made possible when chipmakers are able to squeeze the power of last century’s supercomputers into systems-on-a-chip which fit into a smartphone or something similar or smaller. Already today we have powers at our fingertips — literally at our verbal command — that would have seemed magical just a few years ago. It is just fascinating how technology can move at this unbelievably rapid pace.
Kurzweil predicts that in the early 2020ies $1,000 will allow us to acquire a computer which can calculate at 10^16 cycles per second (10,000 trillion cycles per second). That is the equivalent processing speed of the human brain.
So you have technologies that are driven by exponential growth entering their more advanced stages. These are developing rapidly within themselves. But then you have got artificial intelligence, gene editing techniques, synthetic biology, nanotechnology and the internet, and altogether Moore’s Law upon all of these. It is very difficult to imagine what is going to happen as they all accelerate and affect each other. The only thing that is clear is that this will disrupt every aspect of life as we are going forward.
Next are a couple of areas and some developments within them that I believe will enlighten or bother us in the next two decades. As I said, exponential technologies that start overlapping each other is a box of chocolates. But let’s give it a try. It is going to be an interesting future.
Hyperconnectivity – Smart Home, Senors and the Internet of Everything
- The world will be hyperconnected. Billions of people will be enabled for the online, digital world in the next decade. This time it will not rely on slow and clunky modems like when the first wave of the internet started, but in a megabit fashion, if not gigabit.
- Existing fixed networks will be upgraded, albeit at a different pace depending on the country and circumstances. However, this matters less as wireless network access technologies will make leapfrog progress.
- 5G radio networks which will already go live in the next 3-5 years will move into the 100s of Mbit/s area; imagine what the next evolution in 10-12 years will bring.
- As a totally new experience, solar drones and satellites will power a good deal of internet connectivity, bringing ultra-high speed connectivity even into remote locations; there is plenty of evidence this will become commercially and technically viable very soon (link 1, link 2, link 3, link 4, link 5).
- At least 90% of the world population will possess of an advanced and powerful mobile computing device.
- Almost every single thing in our homes will be connected. From the plugs to the locks, to the lights, to the thermostat, to the kitchen appliances, the scales; there are no limits.
- We will be able to talk to the systems powering our houses (see more in the section on virtual and voice-based assistants).
- Small sensor-laden devices and beacons that are embedded almost anywhere will connect the real world to the digital world. There is likely going to be trillions of them.
- This trillion sensor economy will be enabled by more than 100 billion connected devices. The opportunities are almost unimaginable of what to do and enable with this.
- Security: hacking, worms, viruses, trojans, etc. take advantage of errors in coding. Harmful exploits are made possible due to insecure code. Today the main target of attacks is the mobile phone. In the next years, it will increasingly be our homes, our cars, our autonomous-driving support systems, our robots, even our bionic body parts. There is nothing unimaginable.
- Privacy will be ever more paramount to consider. In the age of big data, ubiquitous cameras, and a trillion-sensor economy, it will be nearly impossible to keep all crucial elements of our lives private, intimate, and to ourselves. I believe consumers and citizens no doubt will have to arrange with inevitably becoming more transparent and glassy. One of the biggest social challenges ahead when “being digital”.
Autonomous Driving & Self-Driving Cars (Vehicles)
- The baseline principle in this areas is a very straight forward one: everything that moves will go autonomous. Period.
- The combination of better hardware technologies (smaller and more powerful sensors next to the “normal” exponential progress in computing power), open source machine learning agents and more advanced algorithms will get us closer to the self-driving car future and allow for fully autonomous cars. Tesla has confirmed that their cars being produced today already have the hardware for level 5 autonomy capabilities on board. So when the algorithm is ready, Tesla will be able to make these cars autonomous with the touch of a software update.
- So, people, humans will less and less be the drivers of vehicles, eventually totally getting out of the equation in order to allow for smoother mobility solely based on self-driving vehicles. A big push forward in this is to be expected by the early 2020ies. Many automakers have announced larger scale commercial availability by then, e.g. Ford.
- Automotive manufacturers will face a variety of challenges, which will shift over time with the evolving market:
- First, they will sweat over a complete twist of the sales approach. Today it is common to market and sell based on the argument how much fun it is to drive their cars. It is all about emotion and passion… that is not sustainable as the level of autonomy increases.
- I strongly believe that after that the overall model will change from an ownership business into a service business. By then it will be an exception that consumers purchase a vehicle at all (vs. use a vehicle based on an on-demand mobility service).
- This will channel into an overall loyalty issue, similar to the business the big aviation companies face today: In a “mobility-as-a-service” world, who still cares about the make of the vehicle that is getting you from A to B? The loyalty will be to the services provider, not to the manufacturer of the vehicle.
- Teenagers will no longer take driving lessons to obtain their driver’s license in a world where mobility and transportation have been fully turned into an “as-a-service” model.
- Also, the vehicle insurance model will see drastic change; it is no longer relevant what kind of driver profile you have but more relevant what kind of algorithms are powering the self-driving car.
- One of the key advantages to expect from the future is that accident rates will go down dramatically (since the vast majority of accident causes today are solely human related). There might be a transition phase though during the self-driving AND human driver scenario, especially when self-driving car volumes ramp up. Human interference might challenge the statistics.
- A large part of commercial and freight transportation will be carried out by “driver-“less vehicles: driverless delivery trucks, autonomous ships, autonomous delivery drones, delivery robots, etc.
- Commuting will be less of the hassle and pain it is today but turn into a time to work productively or to relax. Commuting distance will grow since travel times will become shorter for longer distances due to an increase in efficiency enabled by self-driving technology.
- There will be a reduced need for parking space and facilities that will allow for a fundamental redesign of modern cities including a massive re-allocation space.
- The effect of changes in commuting and respective impact on where people live and how living spaces will be designed and altered is further supported by advances in virtual reality. Commuting and business related travel will be further minimized by virtual interaction, increasing the positive effects for city design, choice of where to live and the environment (freed-up space allows more people to live in cities while more hassle-free commutes allow people to live further away).
Virtual, Augmented & Mixed Reality
- We will enter a world, where everything can and likely will be augmented by a data layer. This can be simple augmentation or advanced mixed reality experiences where virtual objects can be realistically interacted with in the real world.
- We will live in a world where we wear technology gadgets on our heads and faces.
- Entertainment will be interactive, personalized, and immeasurably more engaging than today.
- It will be possible to relive own memories or events people have missed using VR volumetric 3D Telepresence technology.
- Users will be able to interact with entertainment systems conversationally, and they will show emotion, empathy, and the ability to adapt to environmental cues like the time of day.
- The degree of immersion will be radically different compared to today; it will be more sensual: Smelling, free-motion (link 1, link 2, link 3) and all sorts of haptic feedback.
- There will be lightning fast environmental mapping via sensors (compare e.g. Google Tango) to allow for room-scale and basically limitless motion.
- There will be a new generation of displays, or differently put: displays, as we know them, will vanish since they will come in any sizes and fully customizable and multipliable built into eyewear.
- There will be progress with retinal projection in order to allow for an even more reality – virtuality blurring experience.
- All of this will bring a fundamental disruption into many industries from education, to travel, to entertainment, to retail and real estate. It will change the way we will operate in every aspect of human interaction.
Wearables & Technology on our Bodies
- Wearables, or technology on us and on our skin will study us and provide a range of positive impact on our health and well-being, but also self-expression.
- There will be constant health monitoring, allowing for unparalleled opportunities for early diagnosis of health related issues. Once problems are detected, medical intervention can kick in. Personal health will benefit from big data meets real-time monitoring.
- If we don’t use our voice (see later), we can gesture control information and computing technology.
- We will have fully wearable electronics (e.g. using graphene or similar materials), vs. electronics simply embedded into traditional apparel.
- There will be a whole new level of customization and self-expression possible (LED clothing, shoes, with changing colors and patterns, custom 3D printed apparel, etc.)
Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) is can be seen as the most important technology that humanity will ever develop. AI has the potential to help humanity fundamentally solve its grandest challenges. On the other hand, AI poses a significant risk for our future according to a variety of trustworthy scientists and individuals (link 1, link 2, link 3).
- Deep Learning systems which are layered with neural nets are designed to learn how to learn and will increasingly self-improve and develop routines within their “black box” which humans cannot comprehend anymore. And they are getting faster, they are learning better.
- Already today, AI technology is getting more accessible at a much simpler level for programmers to use so that it is no longer a specialist thing. There is no need to build computer vision, deep learning or natural language components from scratch, but to build on top of existing and proven systems and APIs.
- With AI, technology will seem to disappear from the surface and put access to computing power and digital service much more subtly into our everyday lives. It will listen to all of our conversations, read our emails and scan our biometric data. We will be acknowledging this because the upside and convenience will be so profound.
- AI-based systems will get better and better at expanding the capabilities to understand and answer in natural language. The breakthrough in this has already happened these days with the first systems claimed to be more accurate than humans.
- There will be publishing and journalism based on AI software. The beginnings can already be seen today.
- The concept of “product X” + AI will really take off soon and bring us many surprises that I am looking forward to.
- AI will help bring significant improvements to the lives of huge amounts of people, especially in countries where literacy rates are currently low. Technology will enter these people’s lives in a way never observed before.
Voice-based Human-Machine Interaction
- Directly coming out of those AI advances is a new way on how to interact with technology. I have outlined how augmentation, VR, and related motion sensors will change the way we interact. But our voice will be taking over a key portion of the interaction.
- Already today toddlers are talking to Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Today’s generation of kids will not remember a time when it was not possible to converse with computers using natural language.
- Those virtual or voice assistants will only grow more powerful and interact with them will be indistinguishable from interacting with humans.
- This will help computers and computing devices to become more and more “invisible”. Why have them jumping in your face when you can interact with your mouth and ears?
The Digital, Connected Society powered by Smart Contracts & the Blockchain
- I strongly believe that technologies, services and business constructs based on the blockchain principle will be an enabler and a strong foundation for the future society. This represents as important of an opportunity as the creation of the internet itself.
- Value, i.e. money, but also data, that we exchange will be controlled by the decentralized ledgers as we have gotten to know them with the blockchain concept.
- Decentralization and democratization technologies like blockchain, cryptocurrencies and BitTorrent will redefine value by integrating democratic decision making, decentralized peer-run organizations, and organizational principles from platform cooperativism. They are offering the potential of mass disintermediation of trade and transaction processing on a very large scale.
- Everything ranging from medical records to real estate transactions will be processed without the need for banks, lawyers, and traditional legal agreements. This bears the likely replacements of legions of government or other institutional bureaucrats.
- Smart contracts based on decentralized and democratized technology will enable us as citizens to truly own and monetize our data (and better protect and control our privacy). It will protect rights of people engaging in business with immutable records and ensure better compensation for creators of value.
- There is, in my opinion, a chance that based on blockchain principles the trend towards oligopolistic platforms that have in the last years snapped up huge market share could be stopped. An example is AirBnB. Everyone loves them and they have created such a huge platform of a marketplace for accommodations by disrupting man-in-the-middle based business models. However, who wants a handful of such organizations to own and run those type of businesses on a global scale?
Education & Learning in the Future
- There is a vast array of opportunities to improve learning and education in the future. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and all sorts of AI-enabled education systems will make knowledge much easier to grasp.
- AI-enabled education systems will learn individuals’ preferences and tailor the curriculum starting from pre-school up to university. Knowledge and teaching content will be customized to the individual requirements of the student from an abstraction or detail point of view as well as learning speed. There will be customized learning plans and personalized evaluations.
- Online access to educational services will make it so much easier to really sustain lifelong learning. In developing countries, it will ensure access to top-quality education.
- Sophisticated virtual reality based education content will allow kids and students or everyone who wants to develop their knowledge and skills to immerse themselves in historical and fictional worlds or explore environments and scientific objects difficult to engage with in the real world (e.g. take students into Darwin’s lab to assemble a skeleton or inside the bloodstream or the human brain).
- Digital reading devices will be much more capable, linking to supplementary information, highlighting critical information and translating between languages.
- Kids and students will know – no matter how hard the resistance of education and cultural affairs authorities still is today in some countries – that they don’t have to memorize everything. Instead, the reality will make its way into the education system: a world of almost perfect knowledge, with a trillion sensors gathering data everywhere, where it is possible to retrieve anything you want, anytime, anywhere, and query that data for answers and insights. This is very different because so far the focus was on learning to learn. It will move to learning to search and comprehend, rather than memorizing and stocking as if one is going to be out in the wilderness by ourselves all the time.
Future of Health / eHealth
- AI-based scanning and software will help identify syndromes and diseases.
- Big data and respective pattern recognition software using AI will make better diagnoses and more accurate predictions than ever before. Such systems will analyze patient symptoms or medical scans to predict cancers and crunch numbers to provide personalized treatments.
- In other areas, AI will help automate mining patient records and scientific literature and do the general legwork of diagnostics.
- Biometric sensing thru wearables and AI will put us into total control of our own health.
- Autonomous surgical procedures will be carried out perfectly (every single time) by robotic surgeons.
- Large-scale genomic sequencing and machine learning will allow us to understand the root cause of cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative disease and what to do about it.
- Innovation in biotech will get us closer to regrowing livers, lungs, kidneys or hearts when we need it, instead of waiting for organ donors.
- A key lever for this is stem cells where research will make more progress to the improve human health situation. It will be possible to regain damaged body functions (already proven) or to regrow human tissue (already proven).
- Bionic body parts 3D-printed from inks made of living cells or from materials that algorithms helped design will move from proof-of-concept to a reality.
- With synthetic biology, it will become common to replace limbs and later first organs with technology based artificial ones doing the job.
- I wonder if it will become a real threat of these being hacked when considering the security aspects outlined in other parts of this post. Why not?
- Synthetic biology and overlapping developments in the areas of genetic engineering will drive the concept of transhumanism. Transhumanism literally means “beyond human”. It is about using science and technology to radically change and improve the human species and experience. It will and must become an important societal and ethical topic to discuss and decide.
Robots, Robotics (& AI)
- Robots and smart, AI-powered systems will swallow more and more of the production and services value-chain.
- It will be totally common that robots do things like deliver packages, clean offices or brew our espressos and lattes.
- Consumers will be able to benefit from robot arms as they are common today in manufacturing or research labs.
- The appearance of humanoid looking and acting robots will become common. They will be carrying out tasks in close proximity to humans (care for the elderly, medical services, but also sex workers, etc.)
- A crossover impact of intelligent walkers, wheelchairs, and exoskeletons on the one side will help keep the elderly active while smart home technology on the other will be able to monitor and support seniors helping to stay independent.
Unlocking unlimited and free Energy
- It is fair to assume that the rise of renewable energy will continue. It’s simply math when considering that it is pure exponential forces driving this. The trajectory is clear: the average cost of solar cells has gone from $76.67/watt in 1977 to just $0.26/watt in 2016, and costs are about to drop and drop and drop. Last year in 2016 Chile struck a deal pegging $29.10 per megawatt hour. That’s record-cheap electricity—roughly half the price of competing coal power.
- This will lead to independence from fossil fuels on a household level, on a community level or for entire nations. It just depends on individual circumstances, but eventually this will be true for all these entities.
- Actual growth continuously beats predictions: actual numbers were more than double of the most aggressive projections by the International Energy Agency and Greenpeace for 2013.
- There is an ongoing heavy investment: countries in the developing world invested a collective $154.1 billion in renewable energy in 2015, while the 35 OECD nations invested $153.7 billion.
- So as prices for solar and also wind power continue their precipitous fall, more than half of all nations will reach this point known as ‘grid parity’ within a few years from today, even without subsidies.
- 2016 was the year where in certain countries and locations renewable energy got cheaper than traditional fossil based energy.
- Also in 2016, Costa Rica was running for 76 days purely on renewable energy.
- In India solar is already cheaper than coal today.
- The necessary battery tech is also progressing rapidly. There is not going to be a wide scale utilization of renewable energy without the ability to store it. Massive production capacity is being ramped up; even when only looking at Tesla’s Gigafactory. More ones to come. And there is intense research and a lot of focus on further driving battery technology, exceeding today’s limits (link 1, link 2, link 3)
- Solar energy will be harvested in new and innovative ways: solar panel roof tiles and photovoltaic films that slot onto building facades will complement and replace classic farms and installations.
- Solar, but also wind, biogas, large-scale battery storage and hydrogen will be key elements of the way we will harvest and use energy in the future.
- So what does this all mean for our future? It means that with solar we will possess of cheap, quasi-free and effectively infinite energy.
- Solar energy is slowly being integrated into major infrastructure projects, which will only help speed it along the path to energy abundance.
- Energy generation or harvesting will be democratized and decentralized. There will be more and more households which no longer need to be connected to the main power grid. This will work with decentralized (on home-/house-level) self-sufficient energy ecosystems utilizing solar cells, wind turbines, advanced lithium-ion batteries, anaerobic digestion tanks or microbial fuel cells.
- The pure economic driver to deploy more and eventually only renewable energy in the future will finally help tackle our greenhouse and global warming problems.All the financial assets saved by having access to cheaper or quasi-free energy will be unlocked for spending elsewhere. While in a world where we do not need to bother about energy as a scarce resource an unimaginable creative potential and opportunity for research and innovation will be unleashed.
Manufacturing, 3D Printing, and nano-scale Engineering
- In the future, our manufacturing lines are changing to have 3D printing on them and robots.
- Product design of every kind will more and more transform into a computer-enhanced “generative” process where countless options can be virtually prototyped and instantly tested.
- We will see new materials (or materials we have just discovered) give us so far unknown possibilities for designing and constructing products and machines. One of these for sure will be graphene, a material that has the potential to revolutionize the way we are able to build machines (it is a single atom thick two-dimensional structure, which is a million times thinner than a human hair or a sheet of paper while at the same time flexible while at the same time tougher than a diamond and stronger than steel).
- There will be breakthroughs in nanoscale engineering and manufacturing that will shrink machines, vehicles, engines and allow for unprecedented applications. Machines flowing in our bloodstream are no longer science fiction.
- 3D printing will get mature and enter and disrupt many aspects of the manufacturing process. This will be a big challenge for providers of traditional tools and machines (print instead of classic manufacturing) as well as the logistics and freight industries which will be hit by a strong trend to decentralized production, even up to the level of production at the point of consuming, i.e. in the households.
- There will be dramatically fewer humans involved in manufacturing our products and goods. Machines and robots will be cheaper and do a better and more precise job; and they are needed especially when considering nano-scale work to be carried out.
- By the end of these two decades, it is likely that cheap 3D printers are available in most homes which can print out almost anything from food, medicine, electronics or furniture.
The Future of Farming
- Farms will tell farmers when to plant, how much fertilizer this patch of dirt will need and more.
- Agriculture drones are taking our possibilities into the sky: checking fields and plants for disease, spraying fertilizer or live monitoring over livestock.
- Advances and new methods of “vertical farming” will further increase the efficiency level vs. traditional agriculture. Already today these concepts allow for nearly 10 times more efficient cultivation; let alone the possibilities to deploy farming in much more decentralized fashion in places never imaged to grow plants (in the cities, in stores, in our houses or on our roofs, etc.).
- Vertical farming techniques with their hydroponic systems that deliver water laced with special minerals and nutrients will generally allow for more efficient, productive and less space consuming farming.
Humans taking over Evolution with Genetic Engineering
- With genetic engineering and expected rapid progress in our knowledge about it humans are entering an era in which life itself can be designed and altered. Tools such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) are both breathtakingly precise and evolutionarily game-changing.
- Until recently, the tools of molecular biology were expensive, and few people had access to them. CRISPR has already begun to change that, and will undoubtedly speed progress in many fields. With this tool, technical limitations are evaporating. I believe that this method is here to last. First applications on human DNA and trials on humans have begun.
- We will be able to “roll out” (via gene drive) such genetic changes into the evolutionary process on our planet so that they are irreversible. All of the offsprings between genetically modified life and any non-modified life “in the wild” will inherit respective genetic changes (eg. a certain resistance).
- The challenge is to understand how “good and bad” are rolled together and mixed up. The traits that make up a human being are the product of a complex interplay among multiple genes and the environment. This is going to be a long way, probably longer than the next two decades.
- In this technology lies an extraordinary responsibility that bears unimaginable potential for both good and bad desires. Genetic engineering can eradicate cancer while at the same time become a weapon of mass destruction. Those two poles are very clear to judge upon. But how about using the technology to create an enhanced version of our species? Enhanced babies? Designer babies? Significant moral and ethical questions will keep us busy in this field.
Automation & the Future of Work
- I have outlined many developments where each one of them is remarkable in itself; but many of them will have an influence on the way we work and on our outlook for labor-related income. Artificial intelligence in particular, especially with natural language processing but also robotics and self-driving cars will have a strong disruptive impact on the labor market. They have put us on the cusp of a new automation age already, and this process will steadily continue.
- The transformation will mostly impact transportation, logistics and customer service sectors – sectors that have ties into almost everything we do. From autonomous vehicles (cars, trucks, drones, delivery robots), to personal assistants (today: Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa; in the future: much more advanced successors), to armies of cheerful customer service chatbots, our daily lives are increasingly shaped by and, often made possible in the first place by digital algorithms.
- Robots, software, and computers are not only able to perform a range of routine physical work activities better and more cheaply than humans, but they are becoming increasingly more capable of accomplishing activities that include cognitive capabilities that were once considered too difficult to automate successfully.
- As technology progresses, indications are that “putting people back to work” (a familiar claim in today’s societies will become even less feasible. Research suggests in the next 15 to 20 years, 47 percent of all existing employment is at risk of automation; already until 2021 6% of US jobs considered to be at risk.
- When self-driving cars will put millions of truck drivers out of work, AI-based software and algorithms will be encroaching on skilled white-collar professionals like lawyers, financial advisers, and radiologists. As software and machines become capable of taking on more roles, organizations will be able to scale rapidly with relatively small workforces.
- People who will be displaced by automation will have the challenge to find other employment. Many workers will have to change, while there is a big transformation in the world’s business processes. The order of magnitude of the long-term technology innovation related shifts will be comparable to how we have moved on from agriculture in developed countries’ workforces in the 20th century.
- Also on the positive side, the change that is coming with the outlined technological disruption has the potential to accelerate our capacity to pursue diverse interests. In the best case it will allow for us to strive for mastery in many fields, expanding the abilities of our bodies and our minds; just like the internet has paved the way for a democratization of information that led to many of us to become experts in fields in which they had no formal education or training.
- All this, of course, given we find a solution for a fair distribution of wealth in times of machines taking over employment. The risk for machines and automation becoming a lever for a few of us privileged to turbocharge their wealth is clear and present.
The Challenge ahead
It becomes so very clear that there is a future ahead of us where we cannot fully predict which technology will best fulfill a certain goal. Different technologies are able to contribute to an overarching goal. As an example, the outlined projections for developments in the space of synthetic biology on the one side and altering the human body with computer technology on the other; we can only guess in which way these different paths might overlap. Maybe it will be one or the other or a combination of both. There will be definitive surprises in what overlapping technologies will be able to achieve.
And then there is the question of ethics. As difficult as it is to say which of the technologies or which combination of them will best solve a certain problem, it is hard to predict which ethical ramifications of machine automation there will be and to what degree they will affect us. What are the political consequences of mass unemployment? How should we distribute wealth in a digitized society? And to what degree does this really apply considering that some of the outlined and likely developments will bring us closer to abundance in key areas responsible for our potential well-being? What are the ethical boundaries when it comes to “tinkering” with human DNA?
Another really interesting aspect to consider is that there is a realistic chance that those developments could lead us into an age of abundance. In my opinion, we need to have this on the agenda in our discussions about a technologically disrupted future. Abundance enabled by those technologies or a combination of them might not be there in the next few years, but we might start scratching on it towards the end of those two decades.
But assuming that these or other technologies will continue on their exponential growth path (and why shouldn’t they?) we will in the long term inevitably reach a disrupted future in which almost all goods and services will be nearly free or completely free. That is the clear consequence in an abundant world. Profit under these circumstances will become more and more meaningless. I guess this will be a painful process for those who savior profit among all other things, but it will be the natural outcome of the already accelerating technological developments.
Altogether the accelerating pace of change, driven by technological advancements and the social impact that comes as a side-impact will be hard to digest for us as a society. Looking back, the development cycles of technology in the past where determined by staggering periods of development, then some stasis. Then rapid progress again. This way we as a society were able to catch up and digest with some time attached to it how new technology could be utilized at its best. But today and more so going forward the disruptive nature of technological progress will prevail in that it will be constant. The speed of change will be so fast that that precious time we had as individuals, as businesses, as a society to figure out what is best to do may not be granted anymore. The outlined technology disruption is already today outpacing existing regulations, laws, and societal norms.
Military planners have coined an acronym to capture this condition of an increasingly unpredictable and dynamic world. They called it VUCA—an environment of nonstop volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Perhaps this has never been more valid than today and for sure with accelerating pace in the future. And that is why we need to engage today, as individuals who are passionate about the future and foresight, but also the society as a whole, to be more philosophically engaged.
There is a thought I really like about Ray Kurzweil’s considerations about the future. He says that when even a fraction of people would fill their time when they are no longer engaged in meaningless employment, then the future seems likely to be filled with even more innovations and even more creative achievements. “Do you think innovation is going to stop?” asks Kurzweil. “It’s going to explode.”