Written by Maciamo in March 2014.
Most adults alive today grew up without the Internet or mobile phones, let alone smartphones and tablets with voice commands and apps for everything. These new technologies have altered our lifestyle in a way few of us could have imagined a few decades ago. But have we reached the end of the line ? What else could turn up that could make our lives so much more different ? Faster computers ? More gadgets ? It is in fact so much more than that. Technologies have embarked on an exponential growth curve and we are just getting started. In 10 years we will look back on our life today and wonder how we could have lived with such primitive technology. The gap will be bigger than between today and the 1980's. Get ready because you are in for a rough ride.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), Supercomputers & Robotics
Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering, predicts that by 2029 computer will exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to that of a human, and that by 2045 computers will be a billion times more powerful than all of the human brains on Earth. Once computers can fully simulate a human brain and surpass it, it will cause an "intelligence explosion" that will radically change civilization. The rate of innovation will progress exponentially, so much that it will become impossible to foresee the future course of human history. This point in time is called the singularity. Experts believe that it will happen in the middle of the 21st century, perhaps as early as 2030, but the median value of predictions is 2040.
Let's start with cognitive computing. IBM's Watson computer is already capable of reading a million books a second and answering questions posed in natural language. In 2011 Watson easily defeated former champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings at the TV game show Jeopardy!, reputedly one of the most difficult quiz competitions in the world. Watson's abilities are not merely limited to finding the relevant facts and answers. It can also make jokes and clever puns. Most remarkably, Watson can provide better medical diagnostics than any human medical doctor, give financial advice, as well as generate or evaluate all kinds of scientific hypotheses based on a huge amount of data. Computer power increases in average 100 fold every 10 years, which means 10,000 fold after 20 years, and 1 million fold after 30 years. Imagine what computers will be able to do by then.
The X Prize Foundation, chaired by Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University in the Silicon Valley, manages incentivized competitions to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. One of the current competitions, the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE, aims at developing a smartphone-like device that can test vitals like cholesterol, blood pressure, heart rate or allergies, analyse your DNA for genetic risks, diagnose medical conditions, and predict potential diseases or the likelihood of a stroke. All this without seeing a doctor. The device could be used by you or your relatives anywhere, anytime. All this is possible thanks to highly sensitive electronic sensors and powerful AI.
Google is working on an AI that will be able to read and understand any document, and learn the content of all books in the world. It will be able to answer any question asked by any user. This omniscient AI will eventually become people's first source of knowledge, replacing schools, books and even human interactions. Just wonder about anything and the computer will provide you with the answer and explain it to you in a way you can easily understand, based on your current knowledge.
Once AI reaches the same level of intelligence as a human brain, or exceeds it, intelligent robots will be able to do a majority of human jobs. Robots already manufacture most products. Soon they will also build roads and houses, replace human staff in supermarkets and shops, serve and perhaps even cook food in restaurants, take care of the sick and the elderly. The best doctors, even surgeons, will be robots.
It might still be a decade or two before human-like androids start walking the streets among us and working for us. But driverless cars, pioneered by Google and Tesla, could be introduced as early as 2016, and could become the dominant form of vehicles in developed countries by 2025. The advantages of autonomous cars are so overwhelming (less stress and exhaustion, fewer accidents, smoother traffic) that very few people will want to keep traditional cars. That is why the transition could happen as fast as, if not faster than the shift from analog phones to smartphones. Robo-Taxis are coming soon and could in time replace human taxi drivers. All cars and trains will eventually be entirely driven by computers.
AI will translate documents, answer customer support questions, complete administrative tasks, and teach kids and adults alike. It is estimated that 40 to 50% of service jobs will be done by AI in 2025. Creative jobs aren't immune either, as computers will soon surpass humans in creativity too. There could still be human artists, but artistic value will drop to zero when any design or art can be produced on demand and on measure by AI in a few seconds.
Once computer graphics and AI simulation of human behaviours become so realistic that we can't tell if a person in a video is real or not, Hollywood won't need to use real actors anymore, but will be able to create movie stars that don't exist - and the crazy thing is no one will notice the difference !
3D printers are the biggest upheaval in manufacturing since the industrial revolution. Not only can we print objects in three dimensions, they can now be printed in practically any material, not just plastics, but also metals, concrete, fabrics, and even food. Better still, they can be printed in multiple materials at once. High-quality 3D printers can copy electronic chips in the tiniest detail and have a functional chip. High-tech vehicles like the Koenigsegg's One:1 (the world's fastest car) or EDAG's Genesis are already being made by 3D Printing. Even houses will be 3D-printed, for a fraction of the costs of traditional construction.
In a near future we won't need to go shopping to buy new products. We will just select them online, perhaps tweak a bit their design, size or colour to our tastes and needs, then we will just 3D print them at home. More jobs going down the drain ? Not really. Retail jobs were already going to be taken by intelligent robots anyway. The good news is that it will considerably reduce our carbon footprint by cutting unnecessary transport from distant factories in China or other parts of the world. Everything will be "home-made", literally. Since any material can be re-used, or 'recycled' in a 3D printer, it will also dramatically reduce waste.
3D printing is also good news for medicine. Doctors can now make customized prosthetics, joint replacements, dental work and hearing aids.
The other advances in robotics, AI, 3-D printing and nanotechnologies all converge in the field of bioengineering. Human cyborgs aren't science-fiction anymore. It's already happening.
There are artificial hand with real feeling controlled directly by the brain thanks to a nerve interface converting electric impulses in the nervous system into electronic signals for the robotic prosthesis. From that point on, any improvement is possible, like this drummer who got an extra bionic arm.
Electronic membranes can keep the heart beating forever.
Microchips implanted into the brain can restore vision in blind people and hearing in deaf people. Soon such chips will allow bionic humans to see and hear better than humans in their natural state. Equipped with one of these, humans will be able to see ultraviolets and infrareds, hear ultrasounds like dogs, echolocate like bats, and perhaps even eventually understand animal languages, including the whale vocalization. The potential for improvements is unlimited.
We are on the verge of developing telepathic abilities. Placing microchips on the brains of two individuals, then connecting them with one another through the internet, one person can hear what the other hears directly in their brains. Studies with rats went further. Microchips implanted in their motor cortices effectively caused one rat to remotely control the movements of the another rat in a separate room.
Neural prostheses have been used to repair a damaged hippocampus inside a monkey's brain, and could be used in a near future to repair various types of brain damages in human beings too.
Robotic exoskeletons like Iron Man will augment our physical capacities tremendously. The advantage of these exoskeletons is that they can be easily removed and don't require permanent changes to our body. Researchers at Stanford University are currently working on Stickybot, a gecko robot capable of climbing smooth surfaces, such as glass, acrylic and whiteboard using directional adhesive. It's only a matter of time (years, not decades) before a gecko suit enables humans to climb buildings like Spiderman. And what next ?
Stem cells & Bioprinting
Regenerative medicine offers even more promises than artificial limbs and body parts. What if instead of having a robotic arm, you could regrow completely your original arm ? Sounds impossible ? It isn't. Lizard regrow their tails. Axolotls regrow severed legs. We now understand how they do it: stem cells. These pluripotent undifferentiated cells have the power to repair any body part. Using organ culture, stem cells can regrow any organ as fresh as new through. In the future it will be possible to regrow limbs or organs directly on a person, as if the body was simply healing itself.
Combing 3-D printing and stem cell regeneration paves the way to the printing of human organs, a field known as bioprinting (read articles on the topic in New Scientist and The Economist).
Genetics has progressed tremendously too over the last 15 years. From the sequencing of the first full human genome in 2003, we have now entered the era of personal genomics, gene therapy and synthetic life, and could be approaching the age of genetically enhanced humans.
Gene therapy is perhaps the most revolutionary of all the medical advances, as it will effectively allow to fix any disease-causing gene and to engineer humans that are better adapated to the modern nutrition, life rythmn, and technology-dominated lifestyle. Not only will all diseases and neuropsychological problems with a genetic cause disappear, but humans will also become more resistant to stress, fatigue and allergens, and could choose to boost their potential mental faculties and physical abilities, creating "superhumans". This is known as transhumanism.
Gene therapy also permits genetic modifications for purely cosmetic reasons, such as changing one's skin, hair or eye pigmentation. Gene therapy can be done over and over again, switching back or refining earlier modifications if necessary, just as one would edit text on a computer. Once the human genome is fully understood, we could even imagine applications that let people customize their physical appearance of a virtual avatar of themselves, then transcribe these changes to their DNA. This is the age of customizable humans, or rather the age of customizable life forms.
Ecologist Dickson Despommier of Columbia University came up with the idea of using skyscrapers in New York for agricultural production, eventually founding the Vertical Farm Project. The virtues of vertical farming are manifold. Food can be produced in optimal conditions inside purposely-built skyscrapers, maximizing the amount of sunlight for photosynthesis. By controlling the inside temperature, and the amount of water and nutrients each plant receives, indoor farming can produce crops year-round ultiplying by a factor from 4 to 6 the productivity compared to traditional farming. What's more all this is possible without using pesticides since skyscrapers are a closed ecosystem of their own, free of insects or rodents. Additionally, vertical farms free up agricultural land, which in turn prevents deforestation and allows for reforestation and the safeguard of the environment.
The end of the capitalist economy
Ironically it is the extreme success of the capitalist economy that will lead to its demise. The very nature of competitive markets that drives productivity up and brings marginal costs down, eventually to near zero, will make goods and services nearly free much sooner than we think. Accelerating factors include Moore's law of exponential growth in digital technologies and the fast development of 3-D printing. The Internet alone has already had a huge impact in providing billions of people around the world with an amazing range of free services, including for example online higher education such as Khan Academy.
The first step is providing free ultrafast Internet to all the world. Google and Facebook are both working on different ways of achieving this, starting with developing countries where Internet connections are extremely sparse today, notably in Africa. Google's Project Loon plans to acheive this by launching high-altitude balloons into the stratosphere, while Facebook wants to build flying drones and satellites to beam Internet around the world. 5G mobile networks (coming around 2020) will be so fast (downloading a full HD movie in one second) that cable Internet connections will disappear. The merger that is under way between TV, computers, tablets, smartphones and game consoles will very soon result in a single universal type of device being used everywhere, all connected via 5G networks. In other words, telephone, cable TV and Internet Service Providers will all go out of business, as all TVs and phones will be connected through free mobile networks.
By 2035, humanity is likely to have achieved free electricity for all the world, mostly thanks to the exponential efficiency and decreasing prices to harness solar energy, but also thanks to 4th generation nuclear reactors and later fusion power.
The Internet of Things will connect all the electric and electronic devices in the world and optimally manage energy supply through a smart-grid known as the Enernet, expected to become a reality around 2030.
Over the coming decades the economy is going to be transformed by the rise of the Collaborative Commons, i.e. peer production coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) into large, meaningful projects mostly without traditional hierarchical organization. Almost any consumer product will be downloadable online and 3-D printed at extremely low cost at home, which ultimately will lead to the end of capitalism and the start of an unprecedented era of abundance, as Peter Diamandis of Singularity University convincingly explains in his remarkable book.
Toward the Singularity
As amazing as all this seems, keep in mind that all these advances in bioengineering, genetics, robotics and 3-D printing are barely the what is being developed now and will become available to us within the next decade (horizon 2025). This isn't the singularity yet. Once the singularity has been reached, in 25 to 40 years, this is when everything will change beyond our wildest dreams (or nightmares).