Russell Jones looks at what the future may hold for humanity
In my last blog, I looked at the predictions of 1960’s scientists on what life would be like in 2000AD. Whilst it was easy to poke gentle fun at some of their predictions, there was a lot that they had got right such as the prevalence of what they referred to as ‘TV phones’ but which we now take completely for granted as Smartphones.
Whilst it is always easy to laugh at others thanks to the benefit of hindsight, am I brave enough to make any predictions of my own?
Technology and the inventiveness of humanity is moving at such a pace that I do think it nigh on impossible to be 100% accurate about what life will be like in even 10 years’ time, let alone 50 years, but there are trends happening today that point to a very different future.
This can only happen if we ensure we don’t destroy the planet before we get to the future.
I’m going to have to start by making the huge assumption that we don’t completely destroy our planet through nuclear incident (either by accident or design), and I have to believe that we will find a way to sort out the environment so that we leave some sort of liveable planet for future generations. However, please do not think me complacent here as there is so much that all of us need to do urgently to make sure we do leave something behind when we all ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’.
Electrification of travel
Probably the first thing you will notice about life in 50 years’ time is the almost complete absence of the combustion engine. We are already seeing the development of electric vehicles and I expect this to continue moving apace, once the electric infrastructure needed becomes the norm, and car and vehicle manufacturers realise that the market is shifting this way, so there’s money to be made from switching production away from diesel and petrol.
I’m not entirely sure that all of these vehicles will be driverless as there remains an independent spirit in some that will always want to be in control of the vehicle they are travelling in.
I think the vast majority of commuters though will be happy to get into some sort of vehicle (taxi, bus, train, plane) that safely and conveniently takes them to their destination, whilst allowing them to continue sleeping, reading, watching TV or even starting work on the way in to the office.
The UK Government has already said it wants to ban all petrol and diesel cars by 2040 and several other governments and local legislators are currently moving this way too, so I do feel fairly confident that we are nearing the end of the internal combustion engine in the way we know it today.
I’m less confident that these vehicles will all start flying around though. The technology does exist, so I do think flying will become much more common. I just think it will be an expensive form of travel and will therefore be limited to an elite.
A completely renewable world
We are still too reliant on carbon-intensive forms of energy in our current world and, as we rapidly head towards the stringent carbon reduction targets that Government has legally signed up to, I think it is safe to assume that we will see far more energy produced and consumed in renewable ways.
The Government is already predicting heat pump sales of one million a year by 2030 and we are also seeing more days where the nation’s electricity is produced without burning coal or gas.
In some countries we are seeing the apparent rush towards controversial fracking as a way of continuing the ‘cheap’ production of energy. Other countries, especially developing ones are embracing renewable technology so I think we will start to see political battles between the ‘green’ economies’ and the ‘dirty’ ones.
The challenge of course in all of this, is ensuring we move quickly to a low carbon economy in a way that does not leave whole swathes of industry and the people employed redundant and left behind.
Will we become the technology?
The other change that I think will happen more is the blurring of humanity and technology. This could mean that we have become so immobile and interconnected with technology that we don’t even need to leave our chairs, let alone worry about how we get to work?
I can see technology becoming a direct part of us, with embedded chips allowing us to connect to the Internet intuitively and control our machines with thought.
We are already seeing this in medicine, with technology allowing patients to control artificial limbs.
You may have also missed the report in the Telegraph about the Wisconsin Tech company that is encouraging staff to have chips embedded in them so that they can order food at the cafeteria, open doors without a pass card and even log on to their computers without a password.
That would certainly seem to appeal to what is known as Generation Z – or the Centennials – i.e. the Post-Millennial group.
Generation Z has grown up with the Internet and, if you’ve got one in your family or group, you’ll know that they are never, ever seen without some device attached to their arm.
Whilst Google Glasses do not appear to have taken off, I can see an extension of the embedded chip idea so that the technology gets installed in our eyeballs, linking to the chip in our brain that links to the technology around us.
We could therefore stay completely connected 24/7 and use technology to literally ‘see in the dark’; see enhanced information whilst on the go; or even just immerse ourselves in ‘real-world’ gaming – Think Pokemon-Go without the need to hold a phone!
On a more practical note, it would allow a surgeon to ‘see’ exactly how to perform an operation, or allow an engineer to accurately visualise the internal workings of any machine.
The endless march of AI
There’s a lot being said about artificial intelligence and this will undoubtedly have a significant impact on life in the mid-21st Century.
On the negative side, whilst I don’t believe that the ‘robots will be taking over’, AI will undoubtedly replace jobs currently done by humans, so we will need to find a way to ensure that we do not simply disenfranchise large sections of society by replacing their roles with ‘robots’.
On the other hand, AI will help remove a lot of the mundane tasks that can be better performed by a machine rather than a human. A machine can also perform some functions much better because their use removes any risk of human error.
Machines can also enter environments that humans simply can’t such as nuclear, chemical and industrial plants, deep space, ocean floors, etc. so their intelligent use can help expand the frontiers that humanity can reach and benefit from.
Like our struggle to control our effect on the environment, the way we use artificial intelligence needs careful control because the social and economic impacts of getting it wrong could upset the balance of everything.
The end of print
One thing I am truly sad to predict is the death of newsprint and possible even the majority of books altogether.
Again going back to Generation Z, they also don’t appear to read much and get whatever communications they want through personal filters and newsfeeds, or from like-minded peers.
We are already seeing daily newspapers struggling and many making the transition to online-only.
I also think this means that the whole process of communications will have to change which certainly means change is coming to my world of PR and marketing.
No more print. No more newspapers or perhaps even books. Everything in digital format and new ways needed to get past the filters.
These future generations with screens implanted in the back of their eyeballs will be able to interact with both the real and virtual worlds at the same time.
My worry though is how will they be sure they can tell the difference?
If everything you receive is tailored specifically to match your perceived interests and needs, how is anyone going to discover anything new?
Where’s the risk that is so necessary to discovery? Without mistakes and chance, we would probably not have discovered penicillin, the implantable pacemaker or nitrous oxide.
Chance also played a major role in the creation and discovery of Teflon, x-rays, microwaves and even superglue.
Will we reach a point where we plateau in terms of science and technology?
Speaking in icons
There is also the creation of a whole new language with the increased use of emojis, leading to the real potential of a huge divide between generations.
Will my future doctor be a machine that only talks to me in icons? Will I even be able to understand my children’s children – when they have them?
And, with the news recently that two Facebook artificial intelligences created their own language, will future society even need humans at all? Or does this simply mean that humanity can leave everything up to the ‘robots’ and we do finally have the nirvana of no work, all play?
But what will be left for us? And how are we meant to fund a ‘no work’ lifestyle?
There are some seriously big issues at play here … and you thought that all we had to worry about was climate change?
Russell Jones is Content and Communications Manager for Mitsubishi Electric, Living Environment Systems in the UK.