Every week, for the past three years, this column has tried to shine a light on the many changes that technology has wrought on society. On occasion, I have looked into the past to demonstrate that no matter how bad things might seem to be right now, we’ve been through similar changes before—and survived. But today is the last day of the Decade, and it is only fitting that I look ahead to the decade to come. As William Gibson said: “The future has already arrived. It is just not evenly distributed yet.” Which means that the green shoots of our future should already be visible if we know where to look.
The steady, exponential doubling of Moore’s law has made many technologies indistinguishable from magic. These changes will accelerate into the new decade and transform society as we know it. Today, we can converse with our computers. Image recognition can identify us even if we’ve grown a beard or changed our hairstyle. Deep neural networks can spot trends in large datasets that are invisible to us, offering radical new breakthroughs in theoretical science, medicine and autonomous transport. The dramatic reduction in the cost of sequencing the genome has already given us a different understanding of the causes of diseases and how they might be treated. These trends will accelerate into the new decade. Throughout the history of computing we have needed accessories to communicate with our devices, first punchcards, then keyboards and now multi-touch screens. Over the course of the coming decade, these accessories will become relics of the past, as technology learns to understand what we say and infer, from the direction of our glance or the gestures of our hand. As our homes, offices and, eventually, our public spaces get blanketed with smart devices equipped with cameras that see what we do, microphones that listen to all we say, and various other sensors whose purpose is to pick up various data points about us, we will find ourselves enveloped in an immersive computational environment designed to respond intuitively to our desires.
Today, the greatest schism is between technology haves and have-nots. Much of this is because those unfamiliar with technology do not have the language needed to get computers to do what they want. Once we no longer have to speak to computers in a language that they understand, but instead have them understand us, this divide will vanish.
Despite the hype around virtual reality, I believe that augmented reality will have a far greater impact on society and, in particular, on the way we learn. When it is possible to overlay information on top of all we see around us, the fundamental premise upon which our system of education is based will have to change. Various apps are already capable of identifying plants and animals by simply pointing a smartphone at them. It is a short leap from here to a world in which smart spectacles can annotate the world that we are looking at in real time, overlaying on top of things we see additional information about them. When we can get information about something by just looking, what utility will an education system designed to train us to store information and recall it as quickly as possible have? If even the most complex machines can be fixed using computer-generated, step-by-step instructions delivered through augmented reality headsets, will we really need specialised technicians any more?
We are already seeing signs of changes in the way we move about. Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly common and autonomous transportation is no longer the stuff of fiction. In the next decade, the world will become increasingly autonomous in its private spaces, in large warehouses, private campuses and airsides at airport terminals. As we see how efficiently autonomous vehicles function in these environs, we will become more accepting of them when they eventually spill out onto the streets where we live.
However, autonomous vehicles are most efficient when designed to function as public transport. As they can offer personalised door-to-door service, once they scale sufficiently, we will no longer feel the need to own personal vehicles. While that may not happen within the decade, I believe the trends will be visible well before 2030.
Medicine, which has from time immemorial been based on the construct of the “average man”, will in this next decade become truly personalised. At the confluence of always-on, wearable medical devices, a better understanding of genetics and the impact that our internal micro-biome has on our health, will emerge a fundamental re-conceptualization of the way in which we heal ourselves. In the coming decade, we will be able to manufacture drugs on the fly using desktop machines and store-bought chemicals.
This will allow us to titrate medicines to respond to specific medical conditions of individual patients, instead of relying on drugs approved on the basis of how effective they are on a random sample of the population. As wearable devices get more accurate, we will be able to constantly track our vitals over long periods of time enabling us to ward off serious illnesses before they manifest their symptoms. Our improved understanding of the genetic basis for illness will give us new weapons that will allow us to stay healthy for longer. Unfortunately, regulators will remain blind to these changes, continuing to enforce laws that become redundant though they would not know it then.
I guess some things will never change.
Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and author of Privacy 3.0: Unlocking Our Data Driven Future
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