Technological change is accelerating, and it means the world is set to change, and maybe change in a pretty profound way. Work, leisure, the economy, politics and business will all be transformed. Maybe the species we know as Homo Sapiens will change too – becoming Digital Homo Sapiens perhaps, or even Enhanced Homo Sapiens. But should we look forward to these imminent changes with relish or dread. One thing is for sure, now is the time to start thinking about it, now is the time to prepare.
Sometimes it feels hard to recall an age before the internet – as recently as 25 years ago, there was an understanding that we would start doing more things online – or via a distributive medium – but the jury was out as to whether the internet would be the medium which we used. Bill Gates famously failed to call the rise of the internet, he is reported to have said “the internet is a passing fad” – although there is precious little evidence he actually did say this.
But then, erroneous predictions on technology permeate the books by futurologists. Back in 1949, the publication, Popular Mechanics wrote: “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tonnes” or a few years earlier in 1943, Thomas Watson, then chairman at IBM said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” In 1977, Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp said: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Then again, Gordon Moore seemed to hit the nail on the head when in 1965 he predicted a doubling in the number of transistors on an integrated circuit ‘every two years’ – Moore’s Law shows that some predictions prove accurate.
Sometimes experts, people who have done things that suggests we need to listen to their prophetic powers, become cynical, not so much about the future of tech, but tech as it is.
If you were to watch the 1950s cartoon the Jetsons, you could be forgiven for assuming in the early years of the 21st century the skies would be littered with flying cars – a hard days work might involve two or three hours of toil. In one episode, George Jetson comes home from work shattered, bemoaning his tyrannical boss Mr Spacely. “Yesterday, I worked a full two hours,” he laments, to which his wife Jane replies “Well, what does Spacely think he is running, a sweatshop?”
We looked forward to a world of flying cars, short working weeks, what we got instead, was a world in which we seem to work more hours than ever, minimum wage jobs seem to permeate the labour market, the streets clogged up with stationary traffic. But hey, we have the internet, smart phones, Netflix, and devices strapped to our wrists that tell us if we are still alive. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PalPal once said: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” The economist, Robert Gordon argues that technological progress has slowed, we have picked the low hanging fruits of technology – flushing toilets and hot and cold running water, for example – we can no longer expect to be better off than our parents, because innovation ain’t what it used to be.
Meanwhile, Thiele’s co-founder at PayPal, Elon Musk appears to have a view of the future that is the complete opposite – that technology is changing so fast we may lose control over it, and we may end with https://www.freshbusinessthinking.com/musk-and-zuckerberg-clash-over-ai-who-is-right-it-depends-on-the-time-frame/AI taking over the world, unless we act now.
But for every negative, there is a positive.
This year has seen a glut of companies reveal plans for flying cars. If autonomous cars converge with the uber economy, the cost of travel may plummet – combine travel with the internet of things, and traffic management may be transformed. Technologies such as hyperloop promise to bring down journey times over several hundred miles to less than an hour.
Technologies such as augmented reality may do away with the need to travel, we can meet people remotely, even eat together, in front of green screens, hologram hand holding hologram hand, our brains stimulated to simulate a sense of touch.
Stem cells may yet transform the way meat is created – bypassing the need for meat processing factories such as cows and pigs altogether. Clothes may become virtually indestructible, and resistant to dirt so that they never need washing, and last for decades.
Technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9, nano tech, genome sequencing, big data, and AI may help us eliminate disease, creating significantly extended longevity.
Prosthetics can help the disabled walk, other technologies may help the blind see.
But will tech destroy jobs, create greater inequality, or will it create new jobs, and will it free us up, liberate us, or imprison us?
And then there is the smart phone and its evolution. In an age when most of carry the greatest library that has ever existed in our pockets or handbags, where ignorance should be banished to the never world, we see fake news, group polarisation, digital communities form that shelter their inhabitants from any form of objectivity, relegating science and logical thought into a box marked “we have had quite enough of experts.”
But smart phone type technology will become more closely integrated to us, forming a part of our clothing, or, via smart tattoos, our skin, and then find its way into our brains itself – as Bob Geldof could have said: “silicon chip inside our heads, so ISIS can switch to overload” – and beyond that, technologies such as neural lace, may provide interfaces between the brain and AI. Will we become smarter, or will our prejudices become amplified by group think?
Homo Sapiens sapiens – for that is the full name of our species, means wise man – or literally wise, wise man. Will AI enhance our memories, as Tom Guber suggests in this Ted talk, article suggests? Will it make us more intelligent, giving us IQs of 2,000 within three decades, as this article suggests?
Will video games act to stimulate our brains?
Or will we instead choose to do nothing with our time, play video games all day, shop online, take delivery of everything we need by Deliveroo, interact with our fellow humans over virtual space, make love to machines, reproduction relegated to something that occurs in test tubes?
And more immediately, how do we remain relevant in the jobs market, when AI and robots are changing so fast? The era of a job for life is long gone, but now the era of a career for life is going – re-training is something we may have to do three or four times before we retire at 80.
To survive in such an era, we may need to become more entrepreneurial – not in the sense that we all start a business, but that we apply an entrepreneurial way of thinking to our work.
This is the introduction to many more articles to follow that will continue this theme. In the meantime, where are two pieces by Alexandra Whittington, and Rohit Talwar. looking back from the year 2030. In one, we have a pessimistic letter from 2030 to Mum, the other Dear Dad has a more optimistic tone.