What the future holds

From bioviolence to the obsolescence of professional knowledge - futurologist E&T comments on ten recent predictions from the World Future Society.

The World Future Society (WFS) recently put out an interesting list of ten forecasts for up to 2030. Of course, no-one knows for certain what lies ahead. The best anyone can do is to look at evidence mounting today, such as long-term trends or new research activity, and then use logical thinking and analysis to figure out what is coming next and what effect it will have. Since futurists start the process looking at different piles of evidence and have different mindsets with which to analyse them, their conclusions vary, though there is usually some common ground.

The first forecast is that everything you say and do will be recorded by 2030

Recording continuous video through a headset camera, video goggles, or even active contact lenses would be possible. A day's video and audio at 1.4Mbit/s produces 15Gbytes of data, which is easily stored on even today's media. Adding positioning data, so that the experience could be 'relived' in a Google 3d Streetview environment, will also be trivial. Even adding recordings of the sensations, via active skin connections to the nervous system, would less than double the amount of data needed.

But… suppose someone could access the recording later. Would you really want everything you saw or did during the day recorded? Everything? Think about it. We'd all be in trouble. You'd never be able to deny hearing your partner asking you to take out the rubbish, and every minor misdemeanour of yours would be backed up by full evidence of what you saw, heard and even felt. Remembering to switch off the recording every time you go to the loo, or do something suspect, and then editing the results to remove anything incriminating? We would spend all day on recording management. Our employers could pay us for work we actually do, not the time spent in the office daydreaming, talking to colleagues and so on.

This idea is great technically and entirely feasible but, sadly, our lifestyles wouldn't match up to the human requirements to make it usable.

The forecasters' view that "everyone will have an IP address" is a little limited. Each of us will have very many IP addresses, not just one, with every nerve-ending on our skin potentially individually addressable, along with the multitude of gadgets imprinted on our skin, in our clothes, gadgets, digital jewellery and along with addresses for all the many AI entities we will have escorting us.

The second forecast is that bioviolence will become a greater threat

This is inevitable as well as feasible. The WFS forecasters say that bacteria and viruses could be altered to increase their lethality or immunity to treatment. This is also possible - as testified by the ongoing swine flu pandemic - but, again, they undershoot the real potential.

We'll one day have the ability to design and build organisms from scratch, even network them and add network-based intelligence, so that they can be controlled remotely and linked together to engage in organised attacks. I've thought for many years now that smart bacteria will be the most potent weapon humans will ever design: they will be able to take control of other human beings to enslave them instead of killing them. And such is the likely route to human extinction - when these smart bacteria decide they no longer want us around.

The third forecast is that the car's days as king of the road will soon be over because we'll all use communications instead of travelling and flying delivery drones will replace trucks, whereas limits will be imposed on ownership of cars

 I have grave doubts on this one. Firstly, electronically driven cars will create far greater road capacity, since they could drive much closer together, bumper-to-bumper and right beside each other. This also greatly reduces consumption of energy, which in any case is likely to be electric and produced in green ways. And people will still want to meet face-to-face, not just on a high-reality comms link. Actually, what we will see much less of will be buses and trains, because they require the flow to stop-start frequently. Public transport is much more likely to be based on public fleets of electric cars. So we will have far more cars, not fewer. As for delivery drones, just imagine the noise if deliveries are all airborne and the effects on bird-life of millions of drones flying all over the place to deliver the post. No, this forecast belongs with the ones that we'll all travel to work in hovercrafts and jetpacks governed by decimal time. However, we may see new ways of making bicycles more attractive as a form of transport (see box, below).

The fourth forecast is that careers will be more specialised

It is certainly true in the medium-term that specialisation will increase in every field, simply because brain capacity isn't increasing but knowledge is. But in the longer-term, knowledge-based work is likely to be taken over by smart machines, which won't stop developing when they reach human levels of capability, but will continue until people are only left with jobs based on human interaction, human skills, personality, caring and emotional qualities. This will bring the opposite - the end of the knowledge economy and the specialisation that went with it. Most scary: with knowledge and thinking skills taken out of professional differentiation, what will us futurists do?

The fifth forecast is that legal systems will be networked globally, even if we don't get world law.

A reasonable expectation, I think, which will make it easier to set companies up across different countries. Actually, it makes a lot of sense to make law much more compatible with internationals working. To do so effectively will require regulations to be written less ambiguously, as today much of the debate in courtrooms is over exactly what the law says.

If ever there was a profession in need of standardisation, it is jurisprudence. Having to write laws in such a way as they could be interpreted by machine would be an excellent requirement, as computer software has to be totally unambiguous. In fact, interactive law-making would eliminate ambiguity while the laws are being constructed. There would still be room for human judgement in terms of guessing whether someone is lying, intent and interpretation of circumstances, but at least the law itself could be developed to make sure it actually says what the lawmakers intended.

From there to automation of the profession might look like a short step, but the rate of human development is now accelerating so quickly that it would be very many years before we catch up. In the meantime, we will, sadly, need more lawyers, not less.

Sixth, the WFS says the race for biomedical and genetic enhancement will be for this century what the space race was in the last century

Well, it will certainly be important and will create many headlines in the next several decades (President Obama has already removed one of the big barriers holding science back in this area until recently), but I think that the big breakthroughs this century will be bigger still than anything biomedical or genetic modification can bring.

Firstly, the use of 'bio' ignores the likelihood that some of the greatest potential enhancements will arise from linking our nervous systems to external IT, or even implanting IT into our bodies. Adding nanotech-based materials, sensors and other devices into our bodies will also yield rich rewards, but, again, not using 'bio' in any conventional sense.

As for what bio means, this itself will be changed by the development of synthetic biology, where engineers create new ways of accomplishing the same things that biology used to do for us. New biology will make conventional biology redundant.

So rather than simple genetic enhancement, we should expect wholesale genetic and proteomic redesign, or even creation of new alternatives to genes, as well as a high level of man- machine convergence, with most of our minds residing outside our bodies by the end of the century (see box, right).

Forecast seven is that professional knowledge will become obsolete almost as soon as it is acquired

No argument at all here - that has been true for many years in engineering, where a degree has a half-life for usefulness of about six months. In the mid-term, this will require ongoing learning throughout the career in almost any field, but in the long-term, as machines gradually take over knowledge work, degrees will be useful only for self-actualisation purposes and will offer little or no commercial value.

Forecast eight is that urbanisation will hit 60 per cent by 2030, i.e. most people will live in cities, leading to environmental problems and epidemics

Again, this seems a reasonable view, based on current evidence. Many futurists predict a major plague erupting in a mega-city some time soon, killing perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. We have no solutions to such a problem and so far have relied on luck to avert disaster, but eventually statistics will catch up. If they do so before there are sufficient advances in biotech to tackle new strains of diseases quickly enough and none are coming over the horizon, then we will have problems.

The other listed area of concern is acceleration of CO2 output, but, if anything, this would decrease as we urbanise, because it becomes less necessary to travel or transport things over long distances, and general resources can be used more efficiently in cities than when people are spread out.

The ninth forecast is for the Middle East to become more secular while China will become more religious

When people talk about religion, they often mix up the belief in deities with the types of behaviour associated with religious doctrines.

As religion has declined in the West, it has been replaced by political correctness and adherence to new forms of 21st century piety, such as environmentalism, vegetarianism, new ageism and so on. These satisfy many of the same human needs as conventional religion, but also share many of the same problems, such as the desire to occupy the supposed moral high ground and trying to force others to comply. If this is true in other countries, as belief in deities comes and goes, then the impact of religious decline or growth might be much lessened and all we will see is a moving of the goal posts.

The final forecast is that access to electricity will reach 83 per cent of the world by 2030

This is based on assumptions of connection to electric grids, but the forecast covers the same period over which many futurists predict decline in the importance of grids as solar power makes it possible to become electrically independent at low cost in many parts of the world.
In much the same way as people have acquired access to telecoms via mobile networks rather than fixed-wire infrastructure, we should expect most provisions after the next few years to be wireless for electricity too, using local solar, wind or microCHP technology. Relying on grid rollout might be only relevant to major industrial consumers and local housing might use it where available, but they won't need to wait for grids to be electrified. Also, much of IT will use energy-harvesting technology - absorbing energy from the local environment, such as ambient radio - to power up sensors or other devices that use power sparingly. Electronic jewellery will replace a great deal of personal IT and will use very little power.

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