Two decades is not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but owing to accelerating change we can expect to see the emergence of some fairly disruptive technological innovations in the coming years. Here are 10 mindblowingly futurist technologies that should appear by the 2030s.
As a futurist, it’s my job to make predictions. But I absolutely hate timelines, and you’ll rarely find me making claims about when some specific sort of technological wizardry will make an appearance. Feasibility interests me more than dates on a calendar.
But the fog is starting to clear on what we can expect to see within the next twenty years. All the technologies I’ve listed below have a better than 50/50 chance of being actualized.
Some of you may complain that I’m being a bit conservative by not including AGI (artificial general intelligence), molecular assembling nanotechnology, hive minds, IA (intelligence augmentation), radical life extension, powerful spacecraft propulsion engines, useful quantum computers, mind uploads, or whole human brain emulations — but I just don’t see these things coming to fruition until much later.
Last month, researchers created an electronic link between the brains of two rats separated by thousands of miles.
Alright, here’s what we should expect by the year 2033:
1. Artificially Intelligent Personal Assistants
I’ve been impatiently waiting for this one for quite some time now. Microsoft got the ball rolling on this concept with Clippy, the office assistant that proved to be more annoying than useful. More recently, Apple developed SIRI for its iPhone, an intelligent assistant that can respond to specific language cues and access the Internet. But this is nothing compared to what’ll be available two decades from now.
Looking ahead, we can expect our personal assistants to fully respond to natural language, including colloquialisms and our personal idiosyncrasies. And owing to ubiquitous computing (which we’ll look at next), our personal assistants will be accessible to us 24/7.
What’s more, these agents will exhibit an uncanny level of general intelligence. We’ll even be able to have conversations with them. They will know everything about us, including our behaviors, our tendencies, our preferences, and our typical ways of responding to certain situations. Accordingly, they’ll be our virtual clones. In essence, they’ll be our proxy selves, representing us on the Internet and in the real world by taking the form of telepresent holographic avatars. They’ll write emails for us, book appointments, perform menial thought tasks, and even anticipate our needs. Of course, we’ll still be responsible for the decisions they make on our behalf — so we’ll need to be careful about the degree of autonomy we give our mind clones.
2. Computers Are Everywhere — But Unseen
As noted, ubiquitous computing — also known as “pervasive computing” and “everyware” — is coming. Already today we have computers in our cars, our phones, our toys, and even our fridges. But they’re still very obvious. We often have to hold them. Or use keyboards to input information into them.
These devices, however, are getting steadily smaller owing to the miniaturization revolution that’s in full swing (e.g. the shift towards microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS). In short order we’ll be living in aRainbow’s Endworld, where information processing devices will be virtually everywhere, but completely invisible — absorbed into our surroundings. These computers will be in our clothes, our fashion accessories, and even in ourcontact lenses. And to use them we’ll use natural language and haptic technologies (i.e. tactile feedback). Or better yet, these devices will be endowed with a certain level of “ambient intelligence” to help them perform autonomously under specific conditions.
So by the 2030s we’ll be completely surrounded by computers, but utterly unaware of their presence.
3. Virtual Animals with Digital Minds
Whole brain emulations of human minds are quite a ways off, and likely won’t appear until the second half of the 21st Century. But in the stage leading up to this we’ll be able to emulate the brains of much simpler organisms. Already today there’s the OpenWorm project, an effort to digitize the brain of a nematode worm.
This one’s fairly straightforward, but no less profound. Someone from Earth will reach Mars by the early 2030s — whether it be private enterprise or a government agency. At least we freakin’ hope so! But regardless of who gets there first, one of the first things they’ll do is set up an Internet connection with Earth. And why not? The explorers — or settlers, if they’re part of theMars One project — will both want and need to access and share information. Oh, and they’ll probably want to purchase something while they’re there when supplies run low.
6. The First True Anti-Aging Intervention
There are a crap-ton of products on the market that claim to be “anti-aging,” but each and every one of them is either cosmetic or a total scam. There is nothing available right now that can either slow down or reverse the effects of aging, not even resveratrol pills or rapamycin.
The rise of autonomous killing machines is a grim and frightening prospect, but it’s virtually guaranteed to happen.
We already have various levels of autonomy in a number of weapons systems, including cruise and patriot missiles. The Aegis Combat System, which is found aboard naval ships, has an autonomous mode in which it uses powerful computers and radars to track and guide weapons to destroy enemy targets. There’s also Samsung Techwin's remote-operated sentry bot — which is currently deployed in the Korean DMZ. And the U.S. packbot/REDOWL system could be easily modified to take out snipers on its own.
We are in the midst of the biotechnology revolution, the benefits of which are finally starting to appear. Personalized medicine will emerge in the coming decades, where physicians will be able to prescribe medicines tailored specifically to our genetic constitutions. Biologists are also exceedingly close to being able to generate differentiated tissue from our very own stem cells. This will eventually allow us to grow our very own organs, including the heart — no donors needed, and with virtually no chance of rejection.
Okay, maybe not every home — but it’s certainly poised to be the kind of thing that may be as ubiquitous as DVD players and traditional 2D printers are today. And there’s very little doubt that 3D printers are poised to be as disruptive as the techno-cognoscenti are predicting.
Indeed, the ability to produce our own products in our very own homes will upset traditional models of manufacturing. At first, we’ll have to pay for these items to download the specs. But eventually, owing to the open source movement, many of these items will be shared and available for free.
Industrial-scale desalination is poised to make an appearance by the 2030s. Owing to advancements in solar power, namely the development of affordable and scalable photovoltaic cells, we will be able to build massive concentrated solar power plants (CSPs) that utilize the residual heat to strip ocean water of its salt. Experts predict that the growing freshwater deficits could be increasingly covered starting in the 2020s, and possibly as late as the 2030s. The spread of CSP desalination plants will likely reduce non-sustainable water supply and inspire the development of most of potable water production by the year 2030 and afterwards.
Advocates of human enhancement often say that we ought to increase our intelligence as a species. But the consequences of actually doing this have never fully been explored. An excessive amount of intelligence might actually prove to be a bad thing — and a distraction from what really matters.
Top image: The supremely intelligent Ozymandias from The Watchmen. Credit: Warner Brothers.
But as Changizi and Walker told me, “intelligence” isn’t just some easily identifiable thing that we can just boost willy-nilly. There are many other types of intelligences that are often discounted, as are other worthwhile enhancements — such asmoral enhancement, increasing empathy, ordeveloping designer psychologies. Moreover, an excessive amount of intelligence could be quite detrimental to the individual, resulting in maladapted, anti-social, and even psychotic individuals. And potentially worse, we might just end up being even more deeply integrated within the superstructure, serving as computers that feed the machine.
The Intelligence Bias
We value smartness, no doubt about it. No one likes to be called stupid, especially in the sci-tech-saturated world we live in. High intelligence, goes the argument, is what’s needed for success in this society, a trait that trumps physical strength, the conviction to succeed, and even a solid education.
But as Walker told me, this is an intelligence bias, one that’s twofold. There’s the emphasis towards intelligence itself, and then there’s the bias towards certain kinds of intelligence — namely “IQ-type” intelligence, or what Changizi calls chess-and-brain-teaser-like intelligence.
“Transhumanists, when they say that intelligence ought to be enhanced, almost never mean some kind of social intelligence,” Walker told io9. “They rarely talk about other forms of intelligence, like enhanced empathy, or understanding what it means to promote another person’s well-being.”
The reason for cutting to this narrow conception of intelligence, says Walker, is that it’s all-too-often seen as a universal tool.
“But just because you have intelligence in the IQ sense doesn’t necessarily mean you have a universal instrument to help you get everything else you want in life.”
What Exactly Do We Mean By “Intelligence”?
Changizi brought up a related point, saying that we tend to use "intelligence" to refer to the sorts of things the brain is not too good at, like chess and logic problems.
“That's what makes brain-teasers and complicated board games "work" as games — they work because they're not tapping into natural human talents at all, and so they're deeply challenging, hard to get good at, and blow our minds when someone is good at it,” he says. “Chess, logic and brain-teasers are heavy on working memory and its bottleneck — a "tiny portion" of what the brain can do. And we're largely conscious of these brain activities, so it feels like something to solve it.”
Changizi says that when we're naturally good at a task — like one we evolved to do (e.g. an instinct), or a task that's culturally evolved — we don't tend to notice the talent at all, and are less likely to label it with the term "intelligence" in the first place.
“We're also likely to not be aware of what our brain is doing,” he explains. “These are the seemingly boring, unintelligent tasks, such as getting to work on time despite the dozens of constraints, or showers, trains, kids, caffeine, tolls, and so on — or like knowing what to say, and with what tone to say it.
Walker, who is the author of Happy-People-Pills For All, agrees, noting that people who lump intelligence into a super-narrow category of cognitive traits are grossly oversimplifying the issue.
“You can think of individual examples, where people are really good at doing math and physics problems, but can’t write an English sentence to save their lives,” he says. “And there are people with social intelligence who understand other people’s motives and how to get along. But many people fail at that. And sure, there are some people who are good in all these individual domains, but it doesn’t necessarily seem to me that if we enhance for one of these that we enhance for all of them.”
The Dark Side Of Intelligence Augmentation
But because lots of people think about enhancing intelligence along this narrow domain — like being better mathematicians, physicists, or programmers — it’s becoming something that’s intrinsically valued.
“And indeed, that does strike me as problematic because, all things being equal, people think it’s better to have more of it — but everything’s not always equal,” he says. “You could have people who would have lots of narrowly defined intelligence, but that might make for worse outcomes.”
Walker worries that people could become fantastic at physics and math, but end up lacking in the right kind of virtues. They could use their intelligence for evil ends, or perhaps become pig-headed or supremely self-confident. There’s even the potential for social detachment — akin to Dr. Manhattan’s struggles in the Watchmen and his inability to relate to “normal” people.
“If you could enhance for intelligence — but also self-reflection and modesty, and keeping in check in any kinds of biases — then it might be able to work,” says Walker. “But not many people are thinking along these lines. When scientists do their experiments on mice in the labs, none of them are thinking about increasing their social intelligence or their self-reflective abilities.”
I asked Walker if we run the risk of creating maladjusted, or even psychotic individuals. I used the example of the mathematician John Nash who, in conjunction with his schizophrenia, identified patterns where there were none. I expressed my concern that our brains are not adapted to high levels of IQ-type intelligence, and that enhanced individuals might likewise get caught up in obsessive behaviors and get lost in the ocean of their thoughts, buried in the minutiae of what’s being observed. Intelligence, as it has been said time and time again, does not necessarily correlate to well-being, happiness, and so-called success at life.
“Yeah, we’ve evolved for different kinds of intelligence for a long period of time — and a sort of equilibrium has been hammered out by evolution,” he responded. “So if you go tampering with one or some small subset of it, you have no guarantee that you’re going to have a good result. We just don’t know.”
Changizi brought up a similar point.
“The intelligence that we obsess over is primarily useful on tasks that probably didn't much matter evolutionarily,” he says. “Intelligence — in the everyday use of the term — is disproportionately, therefore, useless. And it's unclear why we're scrambling to get even more of it, and unclear why so many artificial intelligence researchers are hell bent on getting it into their artificial agents.”
I asked Changizi about human enhancement in general, and where our attention should be focused.
“Well, there’s my own Human 3.0 view, in which I make the case that any enhancements that truly take off will be ones that closely harness our brains' natural instincts — that's the only way to coax the brain to do new things brilliantly — and in this sense I deem even writing, speech and music as "enhancements".
Changizi suspects that the enhancements we’ll not want will generally be chess-brain-teaser-like-intelligence, but rather enhancements that let us unconsciously navigate new sorts of modern terrain, all-the-while seeming to the brain to be typical old evolutionarily familiar terrain.
I asked Walker the same question.
“It would seem to me that the biggest bang for our buck would be to concentrate on happiness,” he responded. “The reason for it is that people with a greater positive emotional state tend to do better in a wide variety of domains. They tend to be better husbands and wives. They tend to be better workers. They tend to be better bosses, artists, and friends. They tend to be more pro-social. They tend to have a higher GPA. They tend to earn more. It has a lot of positive benefits.”
Like Changizi, Walker says that we already have these characteristics in our genome, and that we don’t necessarily need to radically enhance people to have twice the emotions. We just need to lift everybody up so that they’re equivalent with the happiness giants who are already up there now.
“But we have to keep our eye on the prize,” says Walker. “We need to enhance our well-being. It’s a means to an end, and if you forget the end, that’s a problem.”