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What are the biggest ways in which the world 20 years from now will probably be different from today? What are the biggest “X factors” (changes that are not probable, but are possible and could be huge)?
Kurzweil (American author, Computer scientist and futurist) in his book “The singularity is near” suggested that the progress of the entire 20th century would have been achieved in only 20 years if the rate of innovation was like in the year 2000. The entire 20th century rate of progress happened between 2000-2014, another between 2014-2021, according to the “law of accelerating returns” these would eventually begin to happen many times within the same year and later even within a month.
So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today rate).
Given this, we can’t begin imagine how far our technology might progress in by 2036, transplanted in time we will be as blown away by what we see in 2036 as a person from the 18th century would have been blown away by the year 2000 (such a person would have never imagined radioactivity, fission, the nuclear bomb and how it shaped the course of the 20th century) . This might be very difficult to believe because we imagine progress to be linear, when we should be thinking exponentially. So to predict the next 20 years, we should not look at the previous 20 years, but observe the current rate of progress.
Frey and Osbourne in their 2013 paper, estimated that about about 47% of the total US employment would be at risk. Like how the assembly lines in continuous-flow production lead to machines becoming cheaper relative to skilled labour, so are intellectual routine jobs likely in trouble.
Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Unmanned Vehicles, Nanomedicine, 3D printing and Virtual Reality are some key sectors which are bound to percolate into everyday life.
Drones would become ubiquitous, their applications are endless, already they are being used for the military, aerial surveillance, photography, search and rescue, Security (the stun gun drone CUPID), Health and Rescue services (Ambulance Drone), Delivery services (Amazon, Dominos), Parties (Spotify’s PartyDrone), Selfies (Dronie), Tour Guides (MIT’s SkyCall), Advertising (DroneCast), Farming, Ranching and even scaring of Geese at airport tarmacs.
Autonomous and Semi autonomous cars too are already being tested and pursued by literally every major auto company including Google, Toyota, Daimler, Nissan, Audi, Tesla, Volvo, Honda, Jaguar, VW, KIA, Uber etc. From self parking to collision avoidance to summoning to emergency stops they are slowly making the functions of a driver to become irrelevant.
Human error accounts for 90% of all the road accidents and over 1,250,000 die of traffic related deaths every year, 1.25 Million! for comparison the death toll in the 2004 Tsunami was 227,000, it is expected that unmanned systems could bring down a lot of these fatalities (though they do have their own set of problems, ie. they follow the law ALL the time and humans keep slamming into them, though all of them are slow speed without fatalities).
Google and Uber are already on the race to develop self-driving taxis. Uber has announced that it wants 500,000 autonomous Cars by 2020.
Start the following video at 4.30:
Meanwhile Mercedes has been developing self driving trucks, practically every industry relies on trucking for delivery of materials and food or to take the product to the marketplace.
I can’t even begin to imagine how our current economic structure could cope with all the millions of taxi drivers, delivery jobs going, the domino effect on the economy is going to be huge.
Outer Space Exploration and Space Mining:
Today, countries and companies small and large jockey for position in the suborbital track, and many privatized companies such as SpaceX are set to take over the helm from existing government behemoths.With deep enough pockets, they can skip the economic and political risks of establishing their own space program and, for a relative pittance, flag down a parabolic taxi, book lodgings on a space station or secure cargo room for a satellite, experiment or instruments. NASA has already tapped into SpaceX and Virginia’s Orbital Sciences to build Unmanned Space Ships to stock up the International Space Station.
Space Mining has huge potential, the single asteroid Ryugu alone is made of so many tons of material such as Ni, Fe, Co that it’s worth is estimated at $95 Billion, deeper in space the asteroid Davida is valued at $100 Trillion by the space mining company Planetary Resources (which is backed by the likes of Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt). For comparision in 2014 the annual GWP (Gross World Product) was $78 Trillion.
The inevitable “AI singularity” guarantees an exponential growth of intelligence (where AI’s smarter than us begin building other AI’s in an exponential growth), some say this is within the next 50 years or so in our future.
Such an ASI (Artificial Superintelligence), after say 50 years of exponential growth would be so far ahead of us that the difference in intelligence would be perhaps like comparing your level of intelligence. Nick Bostrom superintelligence as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.” Now imagine creatures which had 1000’s nay millions of years of such exponential growth shudder.
What will perhaps be possible in the next 20 years is a Human-Level AI, machines which can perform intellectual tasks that a human being can. Currently several organizations are working to reverse engineer the human brain so we can simulate it using computers (Kurzweil says this is likely by 2030).
Following this breakthrough an ASI would be much closer to reality as we can then make this whole thing the computers problem.
I’m not going to elaborate on the road to ASI and what it might mean for us as that is out of the scope of this question. The following article however is a highly recommended read:
These pictures from Waitbutwhy should be a TL;Dr of what an ASI means to us:
Once you get AGI, your brains could be uploaded in a computer, essentially giving us all immortality. Simulations for such brains would be next place to go, one would expect few “real” people would want to live in “real life” given the infinite possibilities and worlds which could be created in a simulated reality. In fact, I believe the closest we would ever get to experiencing interstellar travel and sci-fi like aliens in our lifetimes would be in such simulations.
ASI is the single greatest creation mankind could create or its ultimate destruction. Either way, it might just be humanity’s last creation.
Given its inherent risks, humanity should be pouring billions or even trillions into the creation of a safe ASI.
Fully Automated Mass surveillance:
Surveillance systems everywhere, already countries like the UK are under such heavy surveillance that there is one CCTV for every 11 people.
These coupled with newer technological advances in video analysis such as movement and facial detection has the potential to be a mind-blowingly intrusive tool, providing an incredibly detailed picture of where we go, who we meet, what we do.
Several major cities in the US including NY use “Shotspotter” which is a detection system to pinpoint the location of gunfire and alert law enforcement (by installing sensitive microphones in an area).
In a development almost reminiscent of the movie “Minority Report” CCTV “fightcams” can be used to detect public violence even before they happen by analyzing how crowds move in public.
It identifies how chaotic the movement is, as well as the magnitude of action and an element of direction. When these factors are detected the CCTV screen displays the word ‘Violent’ and the whole screen becomes tinted red, although a range of other outputs to alert people to the situation are possible.
Wearable computing, augmented reality:
For the past 20 years we saw the evolution and the mass adoption from desktop computers, to laptops, to smartphones to smartwatches.
While Google glass didn’t see much success (due to its intrusive, unfashionable look) the allure for such a heads up device remains. One possible way this could go would be wireless Augmented-reality contact lenses with built-in cameras. Both have already been developed!
Such a system besides obvious features such as weather, directions, place recognition and would perhaps give you a system to instantly do a facial recognition of a person and say pull up their details and interests from social media. This would eventually enable you to record everything you do, see or hear as “virtual memories”.
Combined with a recollection system, all your memory could either be played back either in front of your eyes or on screen. The consequences of such a device are very profound and was explored in the TV series “Black Mirror” in the episode “The Entire History of You“.
Some examples are live “dating guides” to ferry a person during courtship, “personality guides” to guide social situations or review interviews etc, “guides” for blind people, overlays for deaf people, special overlays to identify offduty cops, doctors, dangerous felons or sex offenders etc, computer games, mechanic instructions (how to fix your car etc), cooking instructions etc.
The implications of such a system on personal privacy, security and copyright would be significant. By 2030, virtual reality might become nearly indistinguishable from reality.
Bionic/computing prosthesis and human augmentations:
We are under a prosthetic revolution where brain controlled prosthetics are being developed which can be operated and feed physical sensations directly to the brain. One amputee even gave a TED talk with the “bebionic3” which is such a device.
Prosthetic limbs will start getting so advanced that one day the Paralympics will have better records than the Olympics. The first Cybathlon, an Olympics for bionic athletes, will take place on October this year.
Another area of interest are bionic exoskeleton suits which apart from dramatically improving the life of paraplegics, would also be used in factories, construction, military combat situations etc.
That is a suit which could almost be the one from “Halo” being developed already.
E-Commerce and Retail:
Already we see the e-commerce market sites such as Amazon with their highly automated warehouses and drone deliveries topple seemingly unshakable retailer behemoths so much so that Sears, Walmart, Macys, Target, JCPenney, BestBuy and other retailers, electronic and book stores are closing most of their stores while others such as RadioShack, Circuit City, CompUSA have disappeared entirely.
Shopping malls are shuttering their doors at a rapid rate, many are being re-imagined as offices, churches or hockey rinks, many are just left to crumble.
Traffic-driving anchors like Sears and JC Penney are shutting down stores, and mall owners are having a hard time finding retailers large enough to replace them. With a fresh wave of closures on the horizon, the problem is set to accelerate, according to retail and real estate analysts. About 15% of U.S. malls will fail or be converted into non-retail space within the next 10 years, according to Green Street Advisors, a real estate and REIT analytics firm.
Delivering personalized experiences would be ubiquitous, retailers would deliver personalized experiences based on in-depth analytics on customers, merchants would know who they are serving and provide products and offer personalized perks such as discounts, first looks, notifications when a hot selling item is back in stock etc.
Robots would replace sales assistants in stores to assist with such a personalized experience. Lowe’s has already been testing “Oshbots” which are robots which can locate merchandise, report on stock, speak to customers, display promotional information and advertisements.
Lowe has also been using the “Holoroom 3D AR Virtual Room” to let customers visualize their rooms, products, colors and home projects using Virtual reality. Shoppers can design their bathrooms, make selections for tiles, sinks, appliances etc and once satisfied don an Oculus Rift and experience their created space.
Another US retailer Hointer has made the fitting room experience much easier by using robots to deliver your selections (made via mobile app) to the fitting room in seconds.
This field is going to produce some innovations which we can’ even beging fathom today, cancer killing nanobots. “DNA nanobots” which could successfully treat cancer patients are already going to go under the first human trial soon.
Advancements in genetics will allow to edit one’s genome easily. Gene therapy is now being researched to fixing genetic disorders such as Parkinson’s, Cystic fibrosis, Huntingtons, hereditary blindness, blood diseases, cancer etc.
However there is no limitation to such techniques, for eg we could identify and attempt to increase one’s intelligence, even personality traits, longevity or even sensory enhancement. Seeing ultraviolet or infrared for eg could become possible.
Finally this is one area which causes a lot of worry. You can download the gene sequence for say the smallpox from the Internet, as we develop better DNA synthesis machines (which can take the digital blueprints and print out the actual DNA string), soon they will be powerful enough to “print” these viruses. With one or two tweaks to these strings, you could make a highly contagious “super virus” for which there is no cure on hand (except perhaps a “kill switch”).
A rogue nation or a terrorist body such as say N.Korea could hold the world hostage, even worse while such viruses may be easy to make, controlling them would be almost impossible which would lead to a threat of existential proportions.
A lab in the Netherlands already created man made “super flu’s” a variant of the H5N1 strain with the potential to wipe out half the world’s population. WHO itself said it was “deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences” of work by two leading flu research teams who this month said they had found ways to make H5N1 into a easily transmissible form capable of causing lethal human pandemics.”
Several of these labs lack proper security measures as even countries such as the US issue “safety guidelines”, with no laws to comply with. “A lock on the door is the only specified requirement,” said Rutgers University virologist Richard Ebright. “There is no explicit requirement for guards, bio-identity checks, or video monitoring like 7-Elevens have. The rules require very strict paperwork but no real physical security.”
Other “minor” developments:
Cheap desalination, hopefully before the inevitable global water crisis.
Cheap artificial meat (In vitro meat), as “cultured” meat becomes more and more unsustainable (1kg of animal protein requires 100 times more water than 1kg of grain protein) and polluting (already contributes to around 20% of current emissions).
Quantum Computing, which would be crucial in making the Moore’s law irrelevant.
Space Tourism, inflatable space elevators which would enable astronauts to ascend 20km from the top, space planes launch in a single stage to orbit, returning to refuel. Such an object would dramatically bring down costs of flights, kick starting space tourism.
Robot Hookers, huge potential, the less said about it, the better.