Every now and then I like to to take a shot in the dark and not only make some wild ass future predictions but also the circumstances that will lead to those results. Because why they hell not? I’ve never been afraid in being dead wrong when it comes to predicting the impact technology. In reality, we tend to underestimate. So to myself of 2050, how did we do? Are we getting there? Now that that’s behind us let’s start with everyone’s favorite technological innovation… the Internet.
The Internet is a relatively new invention when compared to the roughly 14-billion year history of this Universe. When you consider commercialization of the Internet, which opened up in 1995, the Internet still cannot legally drink as of the time this post is being written nor would it have had it’s first high school reunion. Not that reunions will occur anymore given the advent of social media, the flavor of the month being Facebook. For the record, I do believe Facebook will go the way of mySpace eventually because people simply are finicky. Can you imagine what the world will look like when the Internet is old enough to collect Social Security? Internet is as essential of a utility as electricity and indoor plumbing, maybe even more so. I can always take a leak outdoors! MacGyver’ing the Internet isn’t quite as simple. Smartphones are nothing compared to the technological smorgasbord of the late 21st century. At first the Internet connected data, then the next iteration of the Internet connected people, the next version of the Internet connects ‘Things’. Literally everything will have an IP address. The joke about your refrigerator having Internet access won’t be a joke for long. What else will get connected? Well Google and Nest have already brought us Net connected thermostats. I suspect every light bulb, every windows blinds, every door lock, every car and more will be connected. Before we look too forward let’s look where we’ve come from.
In the last 19 years we have seen media such as music, movies, games, TV shows, book, newspaper, magazines make the jump to digital and accessible via the Internet. It is inevitable that they will only exist in digital. It may be 5, 10, 20, 50 years away. But it will happen in the Millennial generation’s lifetime. Future generations will witness the digitization of much more than music and movies. Inevitably 3D printing will mature. In the not to distant future, I believe the concept of the “store” as a marketplace of physical goods will vanish for a great many of the products we buy today. Put it this way, if it can be easily mass produced in China or Mexico today, chances are you will be able to print it out at home. Plates, utensils, cups, etc. I dare even be more grandiose in my predictions and would summit that 3D printers will scale to sizes that one could purchase plans for, download, and then print a house or a car body that will “snap on” to their driverless vehicle. Yes, driverless, electric vehicles will become the norm once the economics (both in manufacturing and prevalence of the renewable energy smart grid) workout and insurance companies offer steep discounts for insurance if you ummmm, ‘drive’ a driverless vehicle. Will need a new word!
But I digress slightly. The point is all this innovation requires the Internet as the backbone. But the future technology is the pulling factor. Our legacy physical infrastructure, longer lifespans, and growing wealth discrepancy will be the pushing factor.
We now live in a world where the top 85 wealth owners have a combined wealth portfolio as the bottom 3.5 billion people. Yup, 85 people at the top have the same amount of money in the bak as the 3.5 billion poorest. But I will leave the ethical and economic debate to others, I simply accept this as a factor in my predictive calculus. I summit to you, that this will not change dramatically, and if it does it will not be in the favor of the bottom 3.5 billion. So with this assumption let’s prognosticate.
The ultra rich have created alternative infrastructure to that used by then general populace. They have their own aircraft, own hangars, large yachts, etc. As an American I do recognize my relative wealth in that I own two private vehicles. Much of the world does not have that luxury and relies on mass transit. The ultra wealthy do not. And because they do not they cannot fathom investing or paying taxes to upgrade and maintain roads, pipelines, bridges, railways, etc. In select areas that benefit their corporate interest they will invest, but typically by demanding privatization of public works. And these people do not get smart by being dumb. In the 1950’s business leaders and investors supported the development of the Interstate Highway System because it worked to their mutual benefit. They saw the future value in having national infrastructure owned by the Government so as to be beneficial to all. In the 21st Century, in an age less reliant on physical infrastructure the Internet infrastructure is the superhighway that business leaders and investors will still believe in investing. As an aside, I suspect we will see more companies join Google as they build out their fiber network and fight against Comcast in the move to consolidate and privatize the American Internet. I also believe that Net Neutrality and Fair Use will eventually be sanctified by all stakeholders, which in short, is everyone. Back on point, the ultra wealthy see the writing on the wall and that the advent of increased digitization, 3D printing, renewable energy, less need for physical infrastructure and the affects it will have on their personal and corporate financial interests. They are shuffling their personal and corporate interests to take advantage of this more “self-reliant” world. A world less reliant on physical infrastructure is near. I believe schools will move completely online as the cost of building and maintaining schools becomes unsustainable as population surges. Home-based online education will become the norm, augmented with social education through other avenues that parents will pay for such as youth groups, makerspaces, and sports. For parents that cannot afford to send their kids to all these extracurricular activities they will be able to augment their kids social interaction through the new open spaces that will replace our malls and stores. Think of them as marketplaces for ideas, where people can come and interact and socialize. I think restaurants, sporting arenas, music and arts theaters will play a key role in these news places, people will still go out to eat and celebrate. i know this is a fairly vague description but this is as far at the idea has percolated in my mind. The economics haven’t worked out in my mind yet. I do think we will see a reurbanization to some degree. I think the shift will be towards urban centers that are further south and away from the coasts due to climate change which leads me to the next point.
I assume that global climate patterns are going to radically shift, regardless of cause, though I do personally believe that mankind has direct and noticeable impact through our addiction to fossil fuels. I do believe we will see an explosion in renewable energy to power our electric grid. Prior to the Snowden/NSA incident I would have predicted the smart grid goal as being attainable to help fix the demand side of the energy equation. Now I feel that there will be too much uncertainty and angst in the general public, not just the fringe elements. But I counterbalance this with the fact that even in light of the Snowden accusations, use of the Internet and technology has not appreciably changed. In fact, all indication is that we are moving towards great privacy protection from government agencies at least here in the U.S. However, i would not predict such a change in most of the world outside the “Western world” nations. So herein lies an issue that I cannot satisfactorily resolve in my mind. If energy does become so abundant and cheap thanks to renewable sources than energy efficiency, outside of battery technology, becomes moot. In short, if you are within reach of an AC outlet you won’t care about cranking the AC down to 64-degrees in the middle of summer. You will however care that your electric vehicle can get 1,000 miles per charge, that the battery life is of at least 5 years, and they the cost to replace the battery is reasonable. But if renewable energy sources do not eventually yield the benefits promised and we are left with surging energy prices, then a more grim and dramatic picture comes into view. Speaking of doom and gloom, let’s talk death and aging.
No one wants to do die. But death is nature’s way of keeping balance given the finite resources we must all share. Amazing medical advances are occurring daily that can eradicate disease and extend life. How do we handle a world where access to better/cheaper medicine and healthcare extends life to 150 or even 200 years. How does that affect Social Security, retirement, quality of life, etc.? Would you be willing to accept that the new working age is 30 to 125? 95 years in the workforce? I propose 30 as the new starting age in order for people to get a more complete education and getting their youthful impulses out of their systems. On the opposite side of the age spectrum, more people will be living a lot longer. I do not see how hospitals and retirement homes remain a sustainable model for healthcare and aging. I do believe technology, again backed by the Internet, will enable us to age and die “in place” that is to say in our home. Doctor house calls will again be the norm, though they will be coming to your home over the Internet instead of coming person. Medicine I suspect will be one thing that the mail will still be useful for. I suspect that theft of medication will not be a concern as street value of medications will drop precipitously. Yes, I do believe healthcare costs will come down as we are with bioengineering today is akin to where we were with computers in the 1970’s. We will see a DIY/Maker revolution in the bio-space as we see today with software and electronics.
But if we do end up eradicating disease, people start living longer, and our population surges what do we do? Simple. We do what we’ve always we done. We go exploring. And this time it means colonizing the final frontier. Next stop for humanity the moon and Mars. Just as our ancestors left the Old World and braved the challenges to come to the New World, followed by our Westward Expansion, so too shall we move outward into space. We will start with mining asteroids, manned mission to Mars, and colonizing the moon. Then we move to Mars and start to figure out how to accomplish interstellar travel. If nothing else we need a vacation home should this planet ever become inhospitable, that is if we would like to see our species survive. Personally I would. If you are a big, industrial business this is where you put your energy and resources. Space travel, exploration, and colonization.
We won’t necessarily get there in 100 years, but suspect we will be pretty far along. There will be many innovations achieved along the way. Advancements in robotics, nanotechnology, metamaterials, autonomous systems, computing, communications and more will occur as a result of or tangential to achieving all these goals. Who knows where these innovations will actually lead us and their second or third-order effects and how they will all come together. Don’t worry, it’s not all digital doom and gloom you silly curmudgeons! I have always felt that the most important role of technology is that it frees us from the grind of just surviving so that we may partake more in the things that make us human. Arts, exploration, philosophy and so forth can be taken to new heights when humanity is freed from the shackles of “simply surviving”. More to time to create, to connect, to think, to explore, to laugh, to finally realize the goal of working to live vice living to work. That’s the future I see for our next 100 years, technology will drive us to reconnect to our humanity and our fellow man.