Personal 3D displays, robot-run factories and companies owned by machines are all nearer than you think, reports E&T.
Ubiquitous wireless Internet access, genetic enhancement, robots, electric cars, problems such as water shortages' many of the top items in the World Future Society's latest list of forecasts for the years between now and 2025 are familiar ones. They're all important, but we hear about them regularly. Others are less familiar and much more fun to write about, so let's look at those instead.
Not surprisingly, technology is at the heart of almost all the changes predicted. The WFS estimates that worldwide average lifespan will increase by one year per year by 2025, and this is echoed by a variety of sources. It is good news from one point of view, but you may immediately recognise that this means major problems for pensions - we will have to work longer, if we live longer.
At least, that is the conventional wisdom, but it takes no account of the increasing productivity of robots and AI, which may be able to increase wealth faster than we spend it, so actually it is entirely possible that we may need to work less, even if we live longer.
Black box economy
Technology can eventually become almost self-sufficient. Indeed, perhaps the far future could run on the basis of a 'black box economy' where automated mines and robotic recycling centres produce materials for automated factories to be distributed automatically. With little need for humans in production, the costs of material goods will start to fall faster than our average pensions. We will need less money, so the problem vanishes.
Bioviolence is a growing threat too, with genetic and biotech enabling the manufacture of bacteria and viruses that are resistant to antibiotics. If only that was the full scope of the problem. Technology is catching up, with the first bacteria already alive that have entirely synthetic DNA, the computer effectively a parent (an existing bacterium was stripped of its DNA and used as the other 'parent').
Actually, it may become possible to modify bacterial genomes so that they can evolve and adapt under intelligent control, with the intelligence itself provided by organic electronics within each bacterial cell in the colony. Smart bacteria could be a major problem, each connected to a network of others electronically in truly scalable intelligence. Smart bacteria could be used to create a form of the infamous 'grey goo scenario', adapting protein libraries in the cell to each biological niche and adopting whatever kit is required to make the enzymes digest its components, reducing the whole environment to goo.
Such adaptive capability would be essential, since most bio-weapons fail the test of exposure to the real world - no single-genome organism can populate every niche, yet. Smart bacteria also could be the basis of superhuman intelligence, with a culture in a pot of yogurt having the same processing power as all the human brains in Europe. With parallel advances in neuroscience coming up with insights for consciousness technology, this again could become a major weapon of mass destruction - enormous capability used in the right ways. Lack of antibiotics or more lethal strains of flu might be the least of our problems.
Connected with these, the WFS also suggests that invention may become automated. Reasonable. What is certain is that there will be a rapidly growing gulf between what has been invented and what we have the time and resources to actually implement as technology. The singularity concept recognises the strong positive feedback loop that exists in technology development, which may lead to huge invention rates, but the singularity can never bring about equally huge development rates in a resource-limited environment.
Nevertheless, automatic invention, driven by smart machines that don't have the same prejudices as human engineers, will undoubtedly bring about major advances across the board that would have taken many decades if humans were doing the inventing.
Leading to another of their predictions, one of the most important things that computers will invent is the means to even better and smarter machines, and that is what will drive the development of strong AI more than anything else. Smarter-than-man machines will be designed mostly by machines, using tools and components designed mostly by machines. There is a strong chance humans won't be able to understand their workings.
The WFS observes that smart machines will produce tremendous wealth for inventors and companies, but the more interesting potential is that the smart machines could actually own and use the wealth themselves, even running their own technology companies. Many human systems will have to adapt rapidly in a world where technology evolves so quickly. Today, we do not have bills of rights for machines, no protection against their exploitation or suffering, no explicit limits on their legal scope. We are still struggling with the early impacts of biotechnology, so catching up with far greater change across the whole converged field of bio-nano-info-cognotech will be challenging.
The future of TV
Along the way, the WFS says we will get holographic TV. I am not convinced by this at all. It is certainly technologically feasible, but it is likely that display technology in the 2025 time-frame will be much more personal. Already, video visors exist for players to play computer games, and these will improve until they deliver high-resolution 3D video easily. But miniaturisation can go further until active contact lenses produce images directly onto the retina using tiny lasers and micromirrors. There would be little need for holographic display systems when these exist, since they can easily emulate any other sort of display.
What will need to change is how 3D TV and film are made and shown. Today, they use two images, one for each eye, but that only gives the illusion of a 3D scene, it doesn't actually allow any other view than the one the director shot. In future, 3D will have to start using true 3D, with the scene fully captured so that the viewer can explore it from any angle. The pressure will likely come from the convergence with computer games, where elements of a scene are rendered in real-time as the user wanders. In fact, computer game technology will lie at the very heart of the main technology convergence wave over the next decade. Augmented reality will also rely heavily on the same 3D technology, where holographic displays will prove useless.
The WFS emphasises that we will have to get used to increasingly rapid change. The most certain thing about 2025 is that technology will be changing even faster by then. Hold on tight!
Ian Pearson is a maths and physics graduate who has worked in numerous branches of engineering, from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. He was BT's full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007, but now works with Futurizon, a small futures institute.