Mark Gundy peeks into our future and shows us some of the technological advancements we can expect to see.
Here’s the thing about progress, it’s difficult to see the big picture when you’re living in the moment of that change. This rapid rate of change we have grown up with appears normal. Compared to any other period of history however, we live in anything but normal times. For the first time in history our civilization has not only embraced change but expects it. We expect next year’s technology to be better. Better cell phones, better computers, better TVs … better technology across the board. Again, we do not appreciate this because we’ve grown up with this optimism. Society now accepts a dynamic view of the future.
Rewind the clock just a few hundred years and we see very little visible progress and a society that rejects change and instead takes comfort in an unchanging static view of the universe. New ideas typically met opposition. Theirs was a static view of the world in which everyone had their place and few questioned that “next year” might somehow be different. This view has been the norm for as long as man has been here.
Man has existed on this planet for at least 50,000 years, and perhaps more. Why then has the vast bulk of technological progress occurred in basically the last 100 years?
The answer is that progress is not a linear process but rather an exponential one. If progress were linear we should expect to see roughly equal examples of that progress throughout history. History shows instead a slow, plodding march towards progress, lurching ahead occasionally.
The first major innovation of man was language. In fact there are some experts who believe man may be the first animal to influence his own evolution. Mankind is a weak and generally slow animal by comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom. Working in groups, however, we became the dominant life form. In order to work in groups effectively, language is an obvious tool required. It is believed through fossil records that man’s language centers of the brain exhibited a tremendous explosion in size, capability, and importance while at the same time making man a more efficient hunter, and as time passed farmers as well. With the advent of language, a parent could teach their children everything that they knew and this was passed downwards through generations.
The next big leap was writing. Before writing, you could only know what your parents knew that was passed on through instructions or stories. With the advent of writing, you could know most of the knowledge that someone else spent a lifetime accumulating. With this innovation, man developed a racial memory that did not perish the moment you died.
All of this developed over a painfully long period of time. Looking at the chart below you can see the progress of man over the last 50,000 years or so, represented in the static baseline line and which coincidentally roughly matches the linear change model early on. Once the two lines separate, however, it is quite a different story.
Our progress is exponential and after spending thousands of years on the static baseline of the curve, we have now progressed to the “knee” of that curve. Eventually the curve becomes vertical. The rate of change is accelerating. We are privileged to live during this period of time to witness this, though some will always argue otherwise. Change is inherently unstable and unpredictable and this can be challenging just to keep up with. If you were an expert in most fields just 30 years ago, your knowledge is outdated today.
A static view of the universe meant an unchanging world and your place in it. This was very predictable and, in some ways, comforting. I would argue the dynamic view we now accept as the norm, while more challenging, also embraces more optimism. We believe things will be better. We no longer accept diseases as inevitable but look forward to the time they will be eliminated and/or cured.
Looking back to the 1960s, a brash new television series was beamed into our homes. The series was called Star Trek and of course most have seen or heard of it today. There have been many theories for its success as a television drama, but I submit it became wildly popular for its optimistic view of the future. I remember how we marveled at Kirk’s communicator, an impossible device that allowed him to communicate with his ship or crew members. The simplest cell phone available today makes Kirk’s amazing technology seem like a toy now.
This rate of change is going to continue to accelerate. The computer has of course been a recent driver in that progress allowing man to run simulations and evaluate data in ways never before possible and has spawned entire new game-changing technologies such as 3-D printing and robotics.
The progress in robotics will be even faster than we have witnessed with cell phones, and this will include the next big breakthrough in AI or artificial intelligence. AI will revolutionize our world in ways that are simply unimaginable today. The promise of AI is machine intelligence that is smarter than human. Many of the toughest problems in science and physics will be solved by AI. The solution for fusion power reactors has eluded man for some 60 years. That will be solved either by man using computers or by artificial intelligence machines.
So here are a few predictions. In the not so distant future, energy will become limitless and pollution-free thanks to solving the fusion riddle. Fossil fuel vehicles will disappear as better batteries become available. Cancer will be solved as well as most other diseases. We will develop the ability to regrow most parts of the body, including teeth, hearts, livers.
The population growth of man will taper off and in fact recede. Every industrialized society is already showing this trend. Food will become plentiful and inexpensive through advances in crop genetics and robotic management. Travel will become much safer and faster with a typical flight between London and New York taking just under an hour. Wearable electronics will eliminate the cell phone and computer altogether.
Cars will drive themselves, with enormous benefits to mankind. Right now, cars must be made massive in part to survive potential accidents. Once the car takes over driving, powertrains can be made lighter and chassis smaller and lighter. That means cars can shrink in size and weight dramatically, which of course improves the range of the vehicle even more. In time, the concept of owning a vehicle at all may disappear and transportation will merely become another service like cable television. With all of the vehicles communicating with each other there will be no need for street lights, there will be no traffic, and, best of all, there will be no accidents. In the USA, the yearly blood toll we pay for self-driving is roughly 50,000 fatalities per year. This just about matches the toll from all lives lost in battle during the Vietnam War.
3-D manufacturing along with robotics, will allow for highly customizable manufacturing and the ability to manufacture small runs of product efficiently, thus serving small niche markets cheaply. Individual creativity will be enhanced and enabled by such technologies.
Robots will travel to other stars. They are rugged enough for the rigors of space flight and can survive journeys that take thousands of years. In effect, they will become our children that inherit the stars, though, of course, they may have the capacity to bring our DNA with them and start human civilization on a suitable planet. All of this is foreseeable in less than 100 years, and some of these predictions in less than 20. Sometime in the next 50 years, we will be on the vertical leg of our exponential curve and the rate of change will finally usher in a Utopian Age. Unless, of course, the super-smart robots decide we’re no longer needed, as with Skynet in Terminator.