This is a reblog of the Business Weekly piece I wrote for their 25th anniversary.
It’s essentially a very compact overview of the enormous scope for technology progress, followed by a reality check as we start filtering that potential through very imperfect human nature and systems.
25 years is a long time in technology, a little less than a third of a lifetime. For the first third, you’re stuck having to live with primitive technology. Then in the middle third it gets a lot better. Then for the last third, you’re mainly trying to keep up and understand it, still using the stuff you learned in the middle third.
The technology we are using today is pretty much along the lines of what we expected in 1990, 25 years ago. Only a few details are different. We don’t have 2Gb/s per second to the home yet and AI is certainly taking its time to reach human level intelligence, let alone consciousness, but apart from that, we’re still on course. Technology is extremely predictable. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is just how few surprises there have been.
The next 25 years might be just as predictable. We already know some of the highlights for the coming years – virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, advanced AI and conscious computers, graphene based materials, widespread Internet of Things, connections to the nervous system and the brain, more use of biometrics, active contact lenses and digital jewellery, use of the skin as an IT platform, smart materials, and that’s just IT – there will be similarly big developments in every other field too. All of these will develop much further than the primitive hints we see today, and will form much of the technology foundation for everyday life in 2040.
For me the most exciting trend will be the convergence of man and machine, as our nervous system becomes just another IT domain, our brains get enhanced by external IT and better biotech is enabled via nanotechnology, allowing IT to be incorporated into drugs and their delivery systems as well as diagnostic tools. This early stage transhumanism will occur in parallel with enhanced genetic manipulation, development of sophisticated exoskeletons and smart drugs, and highlights another major trend, which is that technology will increasingly feature in ethical debates. That will become a big issue. Sometimes the debates will be about morality, and religious battles will result. Sometimes different parts of the population or different countries will take opposing views and cultural or political battles will result. Trading one group’s interests and rights against another’s will not be easy. Tensions between left and right wing views may well become even higher than they already are today. One man’s security is another man’s oppression.
There will certainly be many fantastic benefits from improving technology. We’ll live longer, healthier lives and the steady economic growth from improving technology will make the vast majority of people financially comfortable (2.5% real growth sustained for 25 years would increase the economy by 85%). But it won’t be paradise. All those conflicts over whether we should or shouldn’t use technology in particular ways will guarantee frequent demonstrations. Misuses of tech by criminals, terrorists or ethically challenged companies will severely erode the effects of benefits. There will still be a mix of good and bad. We’ll have fixed some problems and created some new ones.
The technology change is exciting in many ways, but for me, the greatest significance is that towards the end of the next 25 years, we will reach the end of the industrial revolution and enter a new age. The industrial revolution lasted hundreds of years, during which engineers harnessed scientific breakthroughs and their own ingenuity to advance technology. Once we create AI smarter than humans, the dependence on human science and ingenuity ends. Humans begin to lose both understanding and control. Thereafter, we will only be passengers. At first, we’ll be paying passengers in a taxi, deciding the direction of travel or destination, but it won’t be long before the forces of singularity replace that taxi service with AIs deciding for themselves which routes to offer us and running many more for their own culture, on which we may not be invited. That won’t happen overnight, but it will happen quickly. By 2040, that trend may already be unstoppable.
Meanwhile, technology used by humans will demonstrate the diversity and consequences of human nature, for good and bad. We will have some choice of how to use technology, and a certain amount of individual freedom, but the big decisions will be made by sheer population numbers and statistics. Terrorists, nutters and pressure groups will harness asymmetry and vulnerabilities to cause mayhem. Tribal differences and conflicts between demographic, religious, political and other ideological groups will ensure that advancing technology will be used to increase the power of social conflict. Authorities will want to enforce and maintain control and security, so drones, biometrics, advanced sensor miniaturisation and networking will extend and magnify surveillance and greater restrictions will be imposed, while freedom and privacy will evaporate. State oppression is sadly as likely an outcome of advancing technology as any utopian dream. Increasing automation will force a redesign of capitalism. Transhumanism will begin. People will demand more control over their own and their children’s genetics, extra features for their brains and nervous systems. To prevent rebellion, authorities will have little choice but to permit leisure use of smart drugs, virtual escapism, a re-scoping of consciousness. Human nature itself will be put up for redesign.
We may not like this restricted, filtered, politically managed potential offered by future technology. It offers utopia, but only in a theoretical way. Human nature ensures that utopia will not be the actual result. That in turn means that we will need strong and wise leadership, stronger and wiser than we have seen of late to get the best without also getting the worst.
The next 25 years will be arguably the most important in human history. It will be the time when people will have to decide whether we want to live together in prosperity, nurturing and mutual respect, or to use technology to fight, oppress and exploit one another, with the inevitable restrictions and controls that would cause. Sadly, the fine engineering and scientist minds that have got us this far will gradually be taken out of that decision process.