If there is one thing we humans are good at it’s inventing stuff. We might not be that good at living in peace with each other or taking care of the planet, but you can’t say we don’t kick ass when it comes to creating new technologies that revolutionize the way we live, shape and transform our environment to our liking, and empower us to do things previously only dreamt of. As a species we have been around for only 0.004% of Earth’s total life-time and yet our technologically powered activities have already had such a considerable impact on virtually every facet of our planet that geologists are speaking of the dawn of the ‘Anthropocene’ – a new age of the Earth in which humans have become the determining force in the interconnected web of natural systems that make up our planet.
Our Technological Journey
To be sure, our technological prowess has – literally and not just metaphorically – skyrocketed only in the very last portion of our time on Earth. While it took us about 500,000 years to get from early hunter-gatherer beginnings to the Agricultural Revolution, and then about 10,000 years to get to the Industrial Revolution, the next step of comparable importance took only about 300 years, pushing us from the industrial age into the Information Revolution of the last decades. The reason for this acceleration is the exponential development of technology, captured in observations like Moore’s law which states that the processing power of computers is set to double every two years. So while it took us a few thousand years to take horseback riding from bareback to equipped with fully developed saddle and stirrup, it only took us about 60 years to get from the Wright brothers’ first flight to sending a manned mission to the Moon. Well, that escalated quickly, you could say.
If the saga of human technological progress continues (and short of an apocalyptic World War Three there is really no reason why it shouldn’t) we will be seeing awe-inspiring technological advances in the next decades. The leaps that are looming at the horizon are bound to truly push us into a vastly and recognizably different 21th century, and to finally give us the feeling of having arrived in the future. Or better put, we will have arrived in an age that will require a new name and will no longer be lumped up with the preceding centuries as ‘modernity’. Of course the future remains unwritten and can’t be predicted in detail. Even Nostradamus got things wrong.
entrepreneurs are bound to find the next trillion dollar industries among the areas of research and development which harbor the potential of becoming major game changers on a global scale.
Envisioning the Future
However, there have always been visionaries who used the power of their imagination based on sound scientific and technological knowledge, to envision the future – often with surprising accuracy. In the 15th century Leonardo Da Vinci envisaged helicopters, machine guns and battle tanks. 19th century fiction novelist Jules Verne predicted submarines, news broadcasts and videoconferencing. Perhaps one day people will think of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, as a visionary who foretold some of the striking inventions of the 21st century. Apart from science fiction authors there are physicists like Michio Kaku, futurists like Ray Kurzweil, and a plethora of industry analysts and forecasters, whose work can be profitably consulted to gain insights into what the future holds in store for us. To be sure, business has a special interest in futuristic technologies. Incessantly driven by the search for the next big thing, it is clear that entrepreneurs are bound to find the next trillion dollar industries among the areas of research and development which harbor the potential of becoming major game changers on a global scale. Hence exploratory and preparatory R&D already exists in all of these fields, as well as opportunities for venture capital and investment.
So here are 8 future technologies that are lining up to change the world within the next decades.
1. Service Drones & Robots
Why should we be forced to do difficult manual or demeaning labor if machines can do the job more effectively? We have already witnessed the development of sophisticated drones – so far mostly used for military purposes – and a variety of autonomous robots, including the robot dog developed by Google sponsored Boston Dynamics. Did those engineers doom mankind by kicking the robot dog? Will robots rise up in the future to avenge the aggression inflicted on their distant precursor? Is the dystopian SKYNET from the Terminator movies going to become a reality?
To be sure, a whole bunch of ethical and philosophical questions need to be asked and answered to make the proliferation of autonomous drones and robots work for us and not against us. However, as a species we have never been known to shy away from possible downsides to technological progress and the promised returns on this one are sheer impossible to forego. First possibilities are already being explored by Amazon and its plan to run its global supply chain through an army of delivery drones, rendering the company completely independent of delivery services and ensuring maximal responsiveness to customer demands. Of course there are infrastructural challenges at the moment with the implementation of any such plan, starting with the question how delivery drones would get to customers in densely populated areas or apartment blocks.
Once solutions are found and infrastructures are adapted we can easily envision a reality where anything from waste disposal, over cleaning of buildings and urban environments, all kinds of delivery services inside and outside of organizations, up to manufacture, is provided by autonomous mobile robots and drones. The upside is clear. Higher quality, higher output, more flexibility, and so on. However, with a major part of potential robot and drone developments prone to occur in the military field (yes, there will be heavily armed battle robots!) we do have to ask ourselves very seriously how we want to program and control our creatures unless we want to see a futuristic version of the Frankenstein’s monster scenario play out at some point.
2. Intelligent & Hyper-fast Transport
There are a number of developments going on which will completely revolutionize the way we get from A to B. The spread of the automobile across the planet is pretty much emblematic of the success of industrial capitalism in the 20th century – however, it has also brought with it a tremendous amount of lethal accidents, wasted time being stuck in congested traffic, and environmental degradation.
The next generations of personal vehicles are going to solve these problems by taking out the inefficiency of human conducted driving and intelligently re-organizing traffic flow through coordinated and automated vehicles. The first generation of self-driving cars is already being developed now, with the Google Car taking front row in terms of prominence, Apple set to follow suit, and established carmakers scrambling to get into the game by either going all out for completely autonomous cars or at least for some of the intermediary steps such as auto-pilot or adaptive cruise control.
Intelligent sattelite guided coordination as well as computation of efficient routes and traffic flows, will allow for an elimination of traffic congestion – one of the major challenges currently faced by metropolitan areas. Moreover, the time previously used to drive cars will now be freely available for passengers to work, play, rest, meditate or whatever else they would like to do instead of staring at the road for hours at a time. Accidents should become a thing of the past.
Not strictly the same technology, but still belonging to the revolution of transportation, emerging hyper-fast trains will connect the big cities of the planet through massive subterranean tunnels and hypersonic trains. A pioneering project is the Hyperloop, a proposed vacuum tube train backed by visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk which would cover the distance between NYC and LA in about an hour. Once technical challenges are overcome, a long-envisioned transatlantic tunnel between London and New York would certainly follow together with other lines connecting the urban centers of the planet in ever-faster direct connections. Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo, Chicago to Cairo, Delhi to Lagos, all in the time it now takes to get from the outskirts to the downtown area of a large metropolis. Once distances melt like this it will certainly be time to think about things like a global passport or planetary travel agreements.
3. Responsive Reality
The coming together of rapid advances in sensorization, artificial intelligence and big data analytics opens possibilities for a responsive revolution of all our living environments, from homes, public places and offices to entire cities. The internet of things is only the first step. Captured under the rubric of intelligent environment we are basically talking about embedding computational processes into all of our appliances and living environments. Coupled with elements such as speech recognition and eventually holographic displays and controls this will result in a fully responsive reality.
Basically, you will be able to talk to all elements of your surroundings, changing the flair of a room or projecting the latest news cast or show unto surfaces upon simple commands. As in Star Trek, uttering something like “dim the lights, pclay relaxing music, slightly raise temperature”, or simpy “room: chill out!”, would show instant results. Beyond responsiveness to commands, the processing of behavior patterns, and of social, psychological and biological indicators can also lead to fully automatic adaptation of environments to the moods and needs of their inhabitants. Had a hard day at work? Your home will know it before you even get there and will be ready to accommodate your current need to rest and recuperate (an idea I recently co-created with Habib Lesevic).
Add to this advanced advisor programs powered by AI which will be able to guide you through any difficult or unknown process. Want to recreate that complicated Korean dish you had at the restaurant the other day? Your computer advisor will be able to interact with you while you are cooking and give you the tips you need get your dish just right. Possible applications are sheer endless ranging from supporting professional education to assisting in all kinds of processes from accounting or doing taxes to perfecting your shot technique with a basketball. And if hearing a guiding voice is not enough we may well see holographs of people, manuals or instructive sequences projected right into your three dimensional reality. How about having Michael Jordan appear as your holographic coach for working on that fade away jumper?
Take this approach to the level of whole cities and we are talking about the smart or intelligent city. Think of a metropolis that intelligently takes care of waste management, health emergencies, pollution management or the beneficial and synergetic flow of people and ideas. But the philosophical question that is posed with all of this is how we program our new responsive realities. Which responses are prioritized? Which behaviours do we want to encourage? Coupled with gamification and incentive systems responsive realities will offer ample opportunity for social behaviour change for which projects like the Canadian Social Change Rewards project can be seen as fertile testing grounds and pioneering cases.
4. Immersive Virtual Worlds
With the advance of multi-sensory simulation we enter ever deeper into the realization of fully immersive virtual worlds. Virtual reality goggles have been around for a relatively long time and Oculus Rift, recently bought by Facebook for 2 billion dollars, has already presented its latest set of virtual reality headsets, ready to bring visual and audio immersion into gaming worlds. For now, the gaming industry – already larger than the movie industry and set to cross the $ 100 billion mark in few years – is the chief benefactor of virtual reality.
But with the rapid development of augmented reality and smart glasses and the potential of fully augmented surroundings looming, we will see a cross-fertilization of both immersive technologies that will eventually lead to a world in which you can enable various degrees of virtual immersion ranging from helpful additions to your everyday perception up to completely entering into a virtual world that will be, for all intents and purposes, as real to you as your everyday life.
The possibilities of such a technology are vast. Speak to friends or business partners over a cup of tea at a fancy mountain top restaurant, with the full advantages of perceiving non-verbal communication and looking into each other’s eyes before striking a deal, all while each person is physically sitting at their respective homes. Hold meetings and assemblies with participants from all around the world. Or enter into a virtual simulation of your favourite movie as a lead character. Communicative, educational, professional and entertainment possibilities abound, some of which were explored in the famous Holodeck technology in Star Trek.
As with any truly revolutionary technology there are also a number of interesting ethical and philosophical questions raised. What about the potential of people neglecting or even entirely abandoning their real life in favour of living in some kind fully immersive dream world in which they are superstar? Is it worse just because it’s not really real? The character Cypher faced this dilemma in the Matrix Trilogy and opted for the illusion. The steak tastes like a real steak. If it looks real, feels real, tastes real, is it not real? Philosophers have been arguing about this question at least since Descartes’ thought experiment with the malicious demon who traps people in a simulated artificial reality. The thought experiment may soon become reality.
Definitely one of the coolest technologies in Star Trek is the replicator. People walk up to a unit and say what they want: a violin, a tomato soup, a hot tea, a machine spare part, or a Fedora hat. An instant later the object has materialized and is ready to be used. What seems like a fancy fantasy may not be all that far away when we look at the rapid development of 3-D printers. These devices are already able to reproduce all manner of solid objects from a working gun to an equally functional guitar. All that is needed is a blueprint for the object and the required materials. Current devices are not yet able to produce complicated designs like electronic devices but one or two decades down the line the range of possibilities should be massively enhanced.
Moreover, first successful experiments have already been conducted with the bio-printing of living cells, raising the future possibility of recreating whole human organs in replicators. Some of the repercussions of such an advance would be to render organ transplants completely obsolete as patients could be provided with an exact replicate of their own organ – thus also dispensing with the need for anti-rejection drugs.
In future this functionality would be expanded by full recycling capacities whereby we’d be able to feed any outdated devices or unneeded objects back into the production cycle by decomposing them through backwards operating 3-D printers. Given resource scarcity functional replicators could hence become a staple of our transformation of the economy towards green and sustainable.
6. Human Memory Storage & Transfer
The past is past and all we retain of it is memories, those malleable and fleeting images of bygone experiences. The ephemeral nature of memories has given rise to much reflection, including the 3000 plus pages of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. But this basic fact of the human condition may at some point itself become a relic of the past. Granted, we are far away from any kind of functional solution to this, but as neuroscientists figure out more and more of how memories are stored and as we make considerable advances in mind-machine-interface (MMI) technology we may at some point reach the possibility of freely storing and transferring human memory.
Wouldn’t it be great to relieve that concert, that passionate encounter, that sports match where you scored the winning goal or bucket? With human memory storage you would be able to watch that event in high definition, show it to your friends or share it on social media. Although the charm of reinventing the past through our momentary construction would be largely lost, there would certainly be many uses for such a technology. Think about sharing your dreams with an expert at depth-psychology for interpretation and analysis.
And given that our learned abilities are essentially how-to guides stored in our memory, the prospect of transferring memory would enable us eventually to upload and access any knowledge we want. Want to read all of Shakespeare’s plays? Learn Mandarin, Korean and Japanese? No problem. Upload the right modules into your mind and you’re there. Of course the challenge remains that much of learning is based on tacit knowledge which cannot be easily codified but future advances in consciousness research could alleviate this problem. The question, posed to scientists, philosophers and spiritual leaders alike, however remains: what exactly is consciousness?
7. Human Augmentation
And we may even be able to enter into God’s domain. With advances in biotech and bioengineering the prospect emerges of enhancing and even directly intervening in human design. Early inroads into this territory are currently being made in the development of enhanced exoskeletons, such as a suit developed by the US military which enhances physical strength by factor 17, as well as advanced mind-controlled prosthetics for the replacement of lost limbs. However, these developments are only the beginning of a path that can lead to full scale human augmentation – and industry already set to cross the billion dollar range by 2020.
Choose the genetic makeup of your child, or even modify your own one. Equip yourself with bionic limbs and organs for heightened power, strength, endurance and speed, the ability to see in the dark or breath under water. All of these are viable options in a world where technology merges with biology. Is that the coming of the overhuman that Nietzsche said would replace the human?
And even the holy grail of physical immortality may be within our grasps. Or at least something coming very close to it. With nanotechnology it will be possible to have an army of miniscule bots within your body that move about and fix or replace cells in real time. Genetics research is already beginning to reveal the mechanism of physical aging to us, with the possibility ahead of reversing it (Benjamin Button anyone?) or bringing the process to a standstill. What are the ethical considerations of such a possibility, particularly in a world where overpopulation is a major challenge?
8. Space Colonization
Finally, the last frontier. As most non-renewable resources of Earth have already peaked or are about to peak, we have to begin thinking about branching out into space. This is not a fantasy but a necessity. If we manage to use up all those resources that took millions of years to form in the bosom of mother Earth without having built viable and large-scale space missions, we will be literally trapped on Earth, bereft of necessary resources to continue the process of civilization and unable to leave our planet in order to harvest distant abundance.
While 20the century space exploration was entirely an occupation for governments, space colonization is lined to become a venture for entrepreneurs – perhaps the costliest and most profitable venture in the history of free enterprise. Think about access to whole new worlds of resources, many of which will be new and bring entirely new possibilities for production and manufacture. Hence it’s not surprising to see Elon Musk, one of the world’s most daring entrepreneurs, heavily engaged in SpaceX – the project that aims at landing on Mars by 2026. A rival project, called Mars One, is entirely built on the prospects of astronomical returns on turning Mars colonization into a reality TV show and has even already begun with the process of choosing the first candidates for a no-return flight to Mars.
The distant systems in which Earth-like planets like Kepler 186-F (potentially harboring oceans, skies and life) have recently been discovered by NASA may be outside of our reach for now, but our own solar system holds an abundance of worlds waiting to be discovered. Apart from 8 planets there are, in our solar system alone, at least 50 dwarf planets and a vast number of centaurs (planet-like comets beyond Saturn) and planetary moons which often rival dwarf planets in size and variety of composition. So far we don’t know if there is life elsewhere in our solar system, but we are bound to find out. But perhaps the most interesting insight thrown up by humans in space will be to bring to everyone that beautiful realization astronauts reportedly gain when they view the blue marble from space. The insight that we are all terrestrians, children of Earth, and that it is our manifest destiny to unite and leave behind the arbitrary separations of races, nations and religions.
But that will only happen if our technological progress is matched by a collective progress in consciousness.