vol 5 issue 1

The world in 2020

18 January 2010
By Rohit Talwar and Ian Pearson
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At the recent European Futurists Conference in Lucerne, Switzerland, E&T asked some leading futurologists for their prognosis for year 2020. Here’s what they had to say.

Clive van Heerden

Senior Director, Philips Design

Over the coming decade, our interaction with machines will inevitably need to become more ‘natural’ through the dramatic increase in the use of indirect channels of communication - making machines sensitive to biometric data from which emotional and contextual information can be derived.

As people we communicate through facial expression, gesture, utterance, contextualization and so on. Currently we navigate our way through codified, layered, unforgiving, syntactically pedantic, keyboard-dependent user interfaces that are fed back through LCD displays. These are the stone wheels of this genre of technical exploration. They don’t have the capacity to deal with the scale of the information tsunami about to strike or the sophistication to keep us engaged. By 2020, machines will need to be sensitive and people will need to become smart.

Ian Pearson


By 2020, lightweight sunglasses will use tiny lasers to write computer-generated imagery straight onto our retinas superimposing them on what we see in the real world. This is called augmented reality and it is already with us today in primitive form - as direction-sensitive images on our mobiles. By 2020, augmented reality will be much more mature and a familiar part of our lives.

By then, we will be well used to the practice of offering overlay cyber-architectures for shops and malls, so that their appearance will be different for each customer. Dual architecture will simply be the norm but in such a world, where marketing departments compete to offer the most standout appearance, invisibility will become the peak of cool.

Buildings will be designed to be extremely plain in the physical world and also appear to people in the dual world as very plain, unless they are in the select target group. The buildings will be therefore almost invisible to people outside of this select group. That only some specific people can see the ‘true’ hidden identity of the places and their proper appearance will make them highly desirable.

Rohit Talwar

CEO “Fast Future”

In this ‘futurescape’, I explore how a day in our lives might look if the technology advances, expected by 2020, become part of our personal ecosystems.

“Life really changed once I got my personal genome mapped - it only cost $100 and the entire profile is stored in a chip in my side and on my mobile. I recently had a body area network installed. Now, overnight a remote service runs a partial or full diagnostic on all my vital signs. When I wake, I get a message to my mobile phone indicating my health status - if I need a check up, the appointment is already scheduled.

Some mornings I treat myself to breakfast at a cafe - the phone interacts with the e-menu, so I only get shown items that are positively indicated for my health. In the supermarket, I scan each item with the mobile phone as I place it in the trolley. The phone instantly alerts me to any items which are contra-indicated for my health.  It also guides me round the aisles to pick up the items I need for the recipes I’m cooking tonight.

Attended a live conference today - something I do a little less often than in the past. Half the room was populated by the holograms of people attending virtually. I used one of the augmented reality headsets, so I could learn more about the speakers and the topics they discussed.

My eco-car has an intelligent control and navigation system, so I can talk on the phone, read or watch a movie while driving. At the end of each day, I spend

20 minutes reviewing and annotating the downloads from my personal data chips that captured every conversation I had and every image I saw.” 

Elina Hiltunen

TrendWiki Consultant

Year 2020 will see the emergence of various technologies that will be changing the future gradually, but radically.

Tissue engineering  and breakthroughs in the stem cell technology will have cured many lethal diseases or conditions that were incurable before. Nanotechnology will have brought new qualities and applications to materials, making them more durable and adjustable to various situations and shrinking the size of electronic gadgets. Household machines, such as vacuum cleaner robots, will have found their way to ordinary homes as their prices decrease and quality increases.

By 2020, the Internet will have merged with the reality and almost all data will exist in the cloud. This extra-virtual layer, called AUG, will indicate the birth of the augmented reality, everywhere. Wherever you go, information about surrounding objects will be transmitted to your eyes via mobile devices, your AUG glasses or contact lenses. A loaf of sliced bread in a shop will send information to your virtual eyes about the manufacturer, ingredients, packaging material, carbon dioxide emissions during the bread-making process and the freshness level, to name but a few.

People will also wear chips enabling a transfer from virtual life to reality - or, more specifically, to AUG. If you have a pre-determined profile, a passer-by with a matching profile will get connected to you. 

Year 2020 therefore will be the time of the emergence and connectivity of data everywhere and for every purpose. 

José Luis Cordeiro

Director, Venezuela, The Millennium Project

Are artificial brains actually possible? Will artificial intelligence ever reach the level of human intelligence? Well, computers are already better than humans in several important tasks. Just to name three indicators: computers process data much more quickly than humans, computers have expandable and more stable memories than humans and computers transfer information between them much faster than humans.

Nonetheless, artificial general intelligence has not yet reached the level of human intelligence, if by intelligence we mean universal pattern recognition. The problem is not so much the hardware as it is the software, although more advanced and flexible software is on the way too. Following Moore’s Law about the exponentially increasing power of computers, famous engineer and inventor Ray Kurzweil believes that an artificial intelligence will pass the Turing Test by 2029. According to others, like former BT futurist Ian Pearson, this could happen as early as 2015.

Supercomputers should be capable of the same number of calculations per second as a human brain in just a couple of years, and personal computers should be at this level around the year 2020. In fact, 10 Terabits (1013 bits) of computer memory (roughly the equivalent of the memory space in a single human brain) will probably cost just $1,000 in about 10 years.

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What’s In: New technologies for everyday life by 2020:

  • Pervasive computer - a blurring of technology and information products, including cheap ($100 or less) devices to access ‘the Internet cloud’, along with a semantic Web to easily find just about anything;
  • ‘Build-on-Demand’ Manufacturing - ready availability of cheap  3D printers and ‘fabricators’ that can construct just about anything   that can be described by a 3D blueprint.

What’s out: Technologies that will disappear from everyday life by 2020:

  • Fax machines - if they haven’t already disappeared by the time this piece is in print;
  • DVD players - streaming of films and advanced gaming consoles will send these devices to electronic heaven;
  • Analog TV - who’s going to miss it?;
  • Landline phones - ditto.

What’s maybe: Don’t count on these - but they would be nice:

  • ‘Personalised’ energy - local power generators to replace centralised sources of electricity;
  • Enhanced transportation - smart vehicles guided by onboard sensors and computers and ultra high-speed rail transport (200mph or faster) between major cities.

2020 Jobs That Don’t Yet Exist

1. Body Part Maker

Due to huge advances in bio- tissues, robotics and plastics, the creation of body parts - from organs to limbs - will soon be possible requiring body part makers, body part stores and body part repair shops.

2. Nano-Medic

Advances in nanotechnology offer the potential for a range of sub-atomic ‘nanoscale’ devices, inserts and procedures that could transform personal healthcare. A new range of nano-medicine specialists will be required to administer these treatments.

3. Farmer of Genetically Engineered Crops and Livestock

New-age farmers will raise crops and livestock that have been genetically engineered to improve yields and produce therapeutic proteins. Works in progress include a vaccine-carrying tomato and therapeutic milk from cows, sheep and goats.

4. Old Age Wellness Manager / Consultants / Specialists

Drawing on a range of medical, pharmaceutical, prosthetic, psychiatric, natural and fitness solutions to help manage the various health and personal needs of the aging population.

5. Quarantine Enforcer

If a deadly virus starts spreading rapidly, few countries and few people will be prepared. Nurses will be in short supply. Moreover, as mortality rates rise and neighbourhoods are shut down, someone will have to guard the gates.

6. ‘New Science’ Ethicist

As scientific advances accelerate in new and emerging fields such as cloning, proteomics and nanotechnology, a new breed of ethicist may be required. These science ethicists will need to understand a range of underlying scientific fields and help society make consistent choices about what developments to allow. Much of science will not be a question of can we, but should we.

7. Space Pilots, Architects and Tour Guides

With Virgin Galactic and others pioneering space tourism, space trained pilots and tour guides will be needed as well as designers to enable the habitation of the planets. Current projects at SICSA (University of Houston) include a greenhouse on Mars, lunar outposts and space exploration vehicles.

8. Vertical Farmers

There is growing interest in the concept of city-based vertical farms, with hydroponically-fed food being grown in multi-storey buildings. These offer the potential to dramatically increase farm yield and reduce environmental degradation. The managers of such entities will require expertise in a range of scientific disciplines, engineering and commerce. 

9. Climate Change Reversal Specialist 

As the threats and impacts of climate change increase, a new breed of engineer-scientists will be required to help reduce or reverse the effects of climate change on particular locations. They will need to apply multi-disciplinary solutions ranging from filling the oceans with iron filings to erecting giant umbrellas that deflect the Sun’s rays.

10. Memory Augmentation Surgeon

Surgeons that add extra memory to people who want to increase their memory capacity and to help those who have been over-exposed to information and simply can no longer take on any more - thus leading to sensory shutdown.

11. Weather Modification Police

The act of stealing clouds to create rain is already happening, altering weather patterns thousands of miles away. Weather modification police will need to control and monitor who is allowed to shoot rockets containing silver iodine into the air - a way to provoke rainfall from passing clouds.

12. Virtual Lawyer

As more and more of our daily life goes online, specialists will be required to resolve legal disputes which could involve citizens in different legal jurisdictions.

13. Avatar Manager / Devotees - Virtual Teachers  

Avatars could be used to support or even replace teachers in the elementary classroom, i.e. computer personas that serve as personal interactive guides. The Devotee is the human that makes sure that the Avatar and the student are properly matched and engaged.

14. Alternative Vehicle Developers

Designers and builders of the next generations of vehicle transport using alternative materials and fuels. Could the dream of underwater and flying cars become a reality within the next two decades?

15. Narrowcasters

As the broadcasting media become increasingly personalised, roles will emerge for specialists working with content providers and advertisers to create content tailored to individual needs. While mass market customisation solutions may be automated, premium rate narrowcasting could be performed by humans.

16. Waste Data Handler

Specialists providing a secure data disposal service for those who do not want to be tracked - electronically or otherwise.

17. Virtual Clutter Organiser

Specialists will help us organise our electronic lives. Clutter management would include email, ensuring orderly storage of data, management of electronic IDs and rationalising the applications we use.

18. Time Broker / Time Bank Trader

Alternative currencies will evolve their own markets - time-banking already exists.

19. Social ‘Networking’ Worker

Social workers for those in some way traumatised or marginalised by social networking.

20. Personal Branders

An extension of the role played by stylists and executive coaches - advising on how to create a personal ‘brand’ using social and other media. What personality are you projecting via your Twitter? What personal values do you want to build into your image? Is your image consistent with your real-life persona?

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