Past American President Barack Obama once said: “While the future is unknowable, the winds always blow in the direction of human progress”. This quote was probably a variation of the better-known quote by United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.” Both quotes teach us to rid ourselves of the fear of the future. While it is true we cannot predict the exact impact of our actions into the future, we understand a great deal more about the world today than we used to. Thus, we can direct our society towards the most desirable of futures. Having foresight through practiced method like that practiced by futurists since the 1970s should give us confidence that we can find the path to a better future.
I write these words with our children in mind. They will, as it has always been, live in the world we adults build. They are our legacy. The world our kids will live in depends on our ability to see the threads of possible futures. Through the lens of technology forecasting we can direct our energies towards the thread with optimal chances to benefit our children. Governments, as national caretakers, must deploy resources to do this. With the proper mechanisms in place, the next generation will have no trouble taking over the previous and build an even better future for all of us.
We have much work to do, and the possibilities are endless.
So, let’s establish some technological certainties. Based on those certainties, we can see how united citizens, governments and private institutions can mold the in-between bits, the unknown parts, to ensure the elements mentioned below serve the next generation’s wellbeing.
The effect of free markets and artificial intelligence on future trends
Economies have always been built on humanity’s consumer demands. We live in a complex system of production from natural resources and management of the production process, leading to the consumption of products and services. The full economic cycle involves transforming natural resources into consumable goods, which later return to nature to where the discarded elements revert to natural resources. This latter part takes time, hence our current environmental crisis. Since the dawn of civilization, human beings have been active in all three parts of the economy: production, management and consumption. Over time, we’ve built systems and tools to increase the efficiency of the production and management aspects of the economy and to introduce consumer convenience. Tools have become more sophisticated; work has shifted based on the new tools being developed. The human worker has been at the center of it all. All in the name of consumption for a growing global population.
Grocery shopping in 2030
Anup Prasad, 29 years old. New Delhi, India
Anup is busy with his job programming human emotions into the new line of artificially intelligent robotic restaurant waiters. He also has a new baby on the way so Anup barely has time to get anything done after work. His time is best spent with his youngest son. With the mother gone on a business trip in Mumbai, he needs to do more chores than usual. “Oscar, please do the groceries for the week. Shweta won’t be back until Wednesday, so calculate accordingly”, Anup says out loud. Oscar is his smart home’s personal assistant, butler, shopper, home operator, security and voice web search engine. Oscar beeps his understanding leaving Anup to spend time with his first-born. Oscar knows what each of the family member eats, the quantity of food consumed in a week, and the family’s weekend and weekday eating habits. The digital AI assistant is connected to the home’s smart appliances and a plethora of sensors that give it the ability to know exactly what fresh ingredients are in the house and what is missing to ensure the family, minus the mother until Wednesday, will eat. Oscar lists the grocery items to be purchased and sends it to the nearest grocery fulfillment center. It’s the family’s favorite because the automated grocery store is filled with fruits, vegetables and meats grown inside the city of New Delhi year-round thanks to the new cultured meat centers and automated vertical farms. The robots at the fulfillment center pick all grocery items from the list and bags them for the delivery drone to take home to the Prasad family a few blocks away. The average delivery time is 25 minutes and the average time from when a produce is plucked from the soil to when it enters a consumer’s home is less than 24 hours.
Nowadays, our best tools include computers, artificial intelligence, robots and drones. The tools have become smarter. Technology deployments and research continue to evolve our tools to replace more and more paid tasks. We’ve been doing great at creating new tools to increase efficiency and reduce costs as part of our free market system that a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report concluded that about 50% of all paid tasks (in 2017) could be automated by currently demonstratable technologies. This report on the global future of work also mentions that 6 out of 10 current occupations have over 30% of its activities technically automatable. India is an outlier in the McKinsey report with expected employment growth rates in all sectors thanks to the adoption of automation by 2030. Most other countries will see an increase in most categories except for physical work, office support positions and customer interaction, domains that are more easily automated.
However, development and adoption of artificial intelligence and robotics will continue to develop and cross-pollinate beyond 2030 leading towards the displacement of technology, management and even creative work.
The driving force behind this trend is our consumer habits: we want inexpensive and convenient consumer goods and services. For reasons of convenience, consumers often want more intelligence working on their behalf to free their time to do what they wish to do every moment of every day. They also want lower costs. This demand is transferred to companies who try to out-compete each other to reduce production and management costs and increase efficiency. This disrupts workers towards other types of tasks. It has always been so.
Once artificial intelligence reaches human levels, human workers have no advantages over automated systems aside from the ability to create human ties with other humans. This is the point where, because of free market drivers, human workers will be undesirable in the production and management of consumables. Based on a 2014 survey of over 1,000 AI experts prepared by the famous philosopher, Professor Nick Bostrom, this point should be reached by 2040-2050.
What is certain here is that given our free market trends, we will develop human-level human intelligence and between now and then, human workers will become increasingly “in the way” of productivity and cost effectiveness.
Therefore, young adults today may have difficulty finding work unless educated in highly creative or STEM fields between now and 2030. Within that timeline, this young adult would see many workplace changes as more automation creeps in, and artificial intelligence creates networks with each other to solve more complex problems through the Cloud. Today’s teenagers will be in their prime years when truly disruptive social and economic changes will occur. So, he or she will need to plan for a future when there is insufficient paid work for humans to do to sustain an employment-based economy.
On the other hand, a young child will enjoy fundamental economic transformations before he or she comes of age unaware of the deep economic perturbations his or her parents will go through.
5G and global internet networks
Another certainty is global connectivity. In 2019, a little over half of the people on Earth can access the Internet. Thanks to commercial efforts by companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, 100% of the planet will have access to the Internet by 2030. Broadband and soon 5G-capable satellites will orbit the whole globe from different service providers starting as soon as 2020. In 2030, we will have reliable high speed Internet accessibility from anywhere, even in the deepest jungle. These networks will connect every single human on Earth to each other and the massive resources of the Internet. But it won’t only be information. Over that same time period, we expect to have much more software accessible from the Internet as a service. Streaming videos and music are popular now, in the next 10 years, most software will be available and run from servers. Games and complex work tool software alike won’t require a computer installation. Software companies will update and upgrade software in the Cloud and consumers will only need access to an inexpensive terminal device to run almost anything, from anywhere.
Our children may not have to bother installing much software in their lifetimes. They may instead carry internet-connected devices, like the modern smartphone or tablet, and access anything they need, anywhere, always, for a quarter of the cost. Remote work will become commonplace. Human to human and human to AI interactions will abound through the Cloud. Everything our children know and all the data from their current surroundings (wearables and an avalanche of sensors everywhere), plus all historical data will feed artificial intelligence supporting their lives and occupations, whatever that may be. In effect, our children’s brains, wherever they are, will give them control over their destiny.
Healthcare and wellbeing
Healthcare in 2030
Mark Gaudet, 15 years old. Montreal, Canada.
Mark has never been to a hospital, so he’s nervous today. His parents told him he had been in the hospital several times when he was little, but he doesn’t remember. As a baby, he was diagnosed with a rare genetic eye problem that made him blind, but the doctors fixed his genes early on as part of one of the first approved gene editing trials in history. His vision is fine now and Mark has been told that this genetic condition can no longer be transferred to his children one day. It is permanently cured. Today however, he has come to the emergency room because he fractured his tibia playing hockey. That means a cast. But first, the doctor needs to operate to fix in place a bone fragment that has broken off. Throughout his life, Mark has been diagnosed for a few minor ailments using handheld self-diagnosis devices and even smartphone apps. He has taken over-the-counter medicine to dull aches and pains as he needed it, but they were all delivered by drones. For Mark, a doctor is a device and sometimes a serious looking person on a screen. The doctor that does these minor surgical procedures isn’t in the hospital today, so he’ll do the procedure remotely using virtual reality goggles while tiny robotic arms manipulate the scalpel and other surgical equipment here. “Cool” Mark thinks to himself as he rolls into the operating room. “Another doctor on a screen, as normal”, he thinks. A nurse is there to help start the equipment and assist the remotely connected doctor and patient. She says he can have some ice cream after the surgery and the biodegradable cast is put on. Apparently, the doctor will use some stem cells with hydrogel to help the bone piece fuse back into the tibia, just like they did with grandpa’s knee to help cure his arthritis. Thinking about this, Mark repeats, “Very cool”.
As the previously mentioned fundamental systems get deployed and adopted within the next 10 years, healthcare systems will leverage advanced AI and super-connectivity too, along with exciting medical advancements. The first FDA approved human trials of a gene editing treatment for cancer is under way. Gene editing of more human cells, this time in live subjects will, in time, unlock our ability to cure all genetic diseases. By 2030, we would have cured many serious genetic diseases, permanently, using genetic techniques, ensuring that most of our children will never suffer from these diseases. Research that helps us identify defective genes causing hereditary problems is now powered by artificial intelligence, making the discovery process faster, at a fraction of the cost and more reliable. We have also identified ways to reverse aging thanks to our computing and software tools. Treatments like senolytics and telomerase activation are heading towards clinical trials within the next few years. Treating aging like a disease to be cured is not without its pitfalls, but supported by intelligent software, experts like Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation and others in the field, we could unlock the secrets of aging within the next 20 years.
Though the timeline may be fuzzy on this, it is likely our children will have access to treatments that eliminate genetic conditions and they will feel none of the negative effects of aging. From the benign male pattern baldness to hemophilia and cystic fibrosis, genetic diseases may become a thing of the past as our children maintain the vigor and looks of the 20-year-old way beyond their 60s. It sounds like science fiction, but the research is there to demonstrate the possibilities.
Supporting these fantastic outcomes we will live in the next 10 years, we’ll see an increase in the use of telemedicine leveraging the worldwide internet and virtual/augmented reality glasses. AI working on our hand-held will be used to self-diagnose a slew of diseases from the comfort of our own home wherever that may be. These will reduce the burden of the healthcare systems, prevent outbreaks and discover insidious health problems early. Doctors will treat more patients, remotely or directly, thanks to artificial intelligence easing the massive amount of time doctors take doing administrative work. With the advanced technologies which will be deployed in the next 10 years, doctors will spend more time with their patients, as it should be.
With sensors everywhere and a permanent Internet coverage, artificial intelligence can be used to identify threats to personal safety well before it manifests. Facial recognition software can now identify emotions and criminal intent. AI can also detect white collar crime by discerning irregular data patterns. This can be used in private and public areas to alert authorities of health concerns or a crime about to be committed, automatically dispatching emergency personnel (or drones) to a location.
These technologies exist today and are mostly software-based. So, depending on the regulation of such services regarding personal privacy laws and what tools police forces can use, these systems will be commonplace within the next 10 years.
Our children will most likely enjoy the perturbing discussions about privacy regarding installing sensors in public and private places that would render AI-security tools effective. A young adult today will take part in the deliberations while the youngest among us will walk around undisturbed that he or she is perpetually watched by AI for his or her own safety. By 2030, most our population will be used to AI monitoring the population, detecting safety threats and looking out for people in distress.
Building and manufacturing
Automated manufacturing plants have been around for many years already. We’re heading to the next stage: producing items from raw materials in a single step. We call this new emerging technology 3D printing. 3D printing allows us to take a 3D file from the Internet or your own, feed it to a machine which will then print the 3D object in the materials desired. Raw materials available for 3D printing today include plastics, metals, ceramics, rubbers, organic recyclables, food and even cells. Using such a technique, we’ve manufactured fully functional motorcycles (in multiple parts, then assembled), houses and even skin tissue (bio-printing). Imagine instead of your desktop computer using black ink, you have a printer that can print three-dimensional objects, in up to 10 different materials (so far), all for the cost of the electricity plus the raw materials. Many companies are innovating to make this the de facto process for manufacturing just about anything, either in people’s homes or on demand (plus convenient drone delivery to your home, a-la Amazon). Hewlett-Packard is one of the commercial front-runners in this type of offering, using their highly efficient metal 3D printers for whoever needs metal parts produced on demand and shipped.
With this technology, we’ll start seeing a drastic reduction in inventory and shipping of raw materials and intermediary components across the globe. We’ll see more households buying raw materials at the hardware store to print whatever they need at home. Everything will be customizable since all pieces can be printed one at a time by the consumers or on-demand.
Our children will think keeping an inventory of most things is pointless and will buy custom products the color, size and shapes they want. There is already a creative online market of 3D files for 3D printers. This concept will expand to resellers who will carry a digital inventory of objects in all shapes and sizes. Instead of a physical item inventory, these shops will have a cheap inventory of raw materials and will print on-demand whatever item customers order online. It is easy to imagine these shops selling anything from motor vehicle parts, to clothing and more. And of course, many medical scientists are working on bio-printing more complex human organs for transplantation, using the patient’s own cells. So, it is possible by 2030, we can also print replacement body parts for transplants after injury.
Home Repair and Renovations in 2030
Jonna Johansson, 32 years old. Turku, Finland
On holiday, Jonna loves to decorate the house. At work she does that for other people so holiday time is interior decoration time for Jonna since her work gives her amazing ideas for her own personal space. She puts the final touches on the 3D file of her brilliant new art piece, a sculpture of her sister riding an elk. It’ll go nicely on the one-and-a-half-meter Greek stone pillar in the corner of the living room. It’ll be a discussion piece for when her sister and family come to visit, and perhaps a gift, if they like the humor. She fills her 3D printer’s material receptacles with the needed materials in powder form: plastic for the core and beige ceramic for the surface coat and smooth texture. She sends the file to the printer and starts the machine. Jonna has about an hour before the piece is ready, so she sets off to check on the house’s air conditioning unit that has been making noise lately. Jonna opens the air conditioning machine’s casing to reveal its mechanisms and takes a video of the whole thing as it runs with her smart device. She makes sure the clunking noise is clearly audible for diagnostic. She then sends the video to the AC company’s website as instructed on the unit’s warranty. The website quickly goes through the audio-video feed and the artificially intelligent diagnostic software says the pump needs to be changed and sends Jonna a 3D file. With a sigh, Jonna finds an online shop that sells its 3D printing services for motors and other metal objects. She purchases the service to print a new motor according to the specifications of the sent file. It will cost $50 for the motor and another $15 for shipping, all automatically deducted from her bank account. The site assures her the motor will arrive in two days via drone. Jonna shrugs and says, “Two days more of this noise isn’t so bad. I wish it didn’t take that long…”.
I wrote extensively on transportation in a previous article . What you need to know is self-driven cars are being deployed starting next year (2020). The first ones will be electric consumer versions, and soon thereafter manufacturers will sell fleets of trucks and other larger vehicles. Trains, trams and subways are already largely automated and so are our airplanes. All these vehicles, driven by artificial intelligence that has been in development for over 10 years already, will replace many human-driven vehicles by 2030. The motivation behind that change is cost. A car owner today spends a lot of money on their car. It is considered a cash drain. But a self-driven car owner has a money-making asset in hand instead. Once the owner is done with his car, the car can be let loose to become a taxi driver (or Uber/Lyft driver) for others who only need to go from A to B. Ride-sharing companies already expect this transformation and have already built the applications and the adoption pattern through its human-driven ride-sharing services. All these companies need is to do is let self-driving car owners apply for their car to become part of the network of taxis. Same Uber/Lyft application, just with some cars with no drivers at all. Telsa will call its service RoboTaxi (unless the name changes later). That way, a future car owner will make money the average 23 hours out of 24 a car would normally be parked somewhere, while eliminating the need to pay for parking. On the consumer side, those who only use the service will pay a lower price because no driver is being paid and because many companies will compete in the space.
Along with the worldwide web via satellites, self-driven vehicles can exist, learn and communicate with the network from anywhere in the world, literally. This ensures the emergence of dynamic networks of self-driven transportation systems that increase vehicle capacity based on need instead of pre-defined schedules.
The lower operating costs of self-driven vehicles and its enhanced efficiency at doing their job 24/7, will ensure their strong adoption across the board, despite the limited incidents that will occur with the introduction of such a technology on our roads.
Few young adults today consider owning a car unless they must, and our younger children may wonder why we should endanger ourselves and others by driving these vehicles ourselves when there is a safer, cheaper, more convenient alternative out there. Today’s youth may never drive a car to go anywhere in their whole lives.
The future of our kids is bright
Let’s circle back to my original comment on how we should move ahead without fear. When we understand the technological certainties on our way to 2030, we can act proactively and build the future we want. What I describe above are all trends and realities that will occur in 10 years. I have put a positive use spin on these ideas because I trust people’s basic motivations of cost effectiveness and convenience won’t change in the next few years. I also hope we will be wise enough to look at these trends as inevitable truths that still require guidance to avoid serious issues. We will have to manage bad actors who will leverage these technologies for their sinister plans. Our jobs as futurists and responsible citizens of the world is to regulate and supervise the research, development and deployment of these technologies in the world to ensure their impact is positive for us and our children.
We have the opportunity to create a wonderful legacy for the next generation where genetic disease and aging are curable, where we can take care of the environment through efficient management of our natural resources. Our children will live in a connected world where everyone has access to the same vast amount of information, software and intelligence (via AI). They can live in a world where work can be a choice instead of forced labor in exchange for the right to live a dignified life.
We can build this with them, for them. If we play our cards right, we’ll live a long life too, so we’ll be alive to see our plans come to fruition.