Tech Innovation

The iQ Zeitgeist: Futurists Forecast the World of Tomorrow, Part II

Luke Kintigh Head of Publishing
computer controlling a lightboard

Technology innovation is enhancing human experiences at almost every turn. In our series celebrating the second anniversary of iQ by Intel, we introduced Part I of our collection of interviews with futurists, who shared how they see technology evolving in people’s lives in the near future. Here in part two, our seven futurists discuss the possibilities of artificial intelligence, virtual companions, and how we can prepare for the technological world of tomorrow.

Brian David Johnson is a futurist at Intel Corporation. His charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020.

Dan Abelow is an American inventor, author, speaker, and technology consultant. His latest patent-pending invention, the Expandiverse, is new technology to build an advanced Digital Earth today.

Daniel Burrus is a technology forecaster, the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, and the author of six books, including The New York Times bestseller ”Flash Foresight.”

Paul Higgins is an Australian futurist and keynote speaker with a Masters degree in Strategic Foresight; a guest lecturer at Victoria University (Melbourne Australia); a tech editor on Tumblr; a partner at Social Venture Partners International (Melbourne); and a very slow triathlete.

Whitney Johnson is a Managing Director at Springboard Fund, and co-founder of Clay Christensen’s investment firm.

Frank Rose is the author of “The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories” and a correspondent for Wired.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at Stanford University; Director of Research at Duke University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering; and Distinguished Fellow at Singularity University; and was listed as one of 2013′s 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech by TIME Magazine.

What will the role of tablets be in the future? How do you see personal computers continuing to change as they’ve evolved from desktops to laptops to Ultrabooks to 2-in-1s and tablets?

Rose: I think tablets are the natural evolution of screens. Lightweight, portable, versatile, and in a form-factor that humans have found handy for several millennia. Obviously, the keyboard still needs work, but that will happen. And there’ll always be handwriting recognition.

B.D. Johnson: Look for the future, not just surrounded by screens but with smart devices with which we interact in different ways using our emotions, haptics, and richer, more human interactions.

Abelow: In the future your device family will know you and respond to you like an automatic door. When you walk through an automatic door, it opens for you and then when you have gone through it, it closes behind you. When you start using one of tomorrow’s devices, it will recognize you and display your digital environment. It will restore the state of all the pieces so what you do continues and moves to the new device with you. Then when you are done using the device, it turns off. When you turn to your next device it continues your digital world for you.

Burrus: When it comes to desktops, laptops, Ultrabooks, and tablets, it is important to understand that mainframes are not obsolete. Instead, we are using them differently than we did 10, 20, 30, [or] 40 years ago. Most who have a smartphone and a tablet, still use their laptop; they are simply using them for different things and using them less.

If you take a look farther ahead, based on what is in the labs now, we will have the ability to spray a special nano-coating on a surface and put our ultra-thin smart glass (smartphone) on it, and turn the surface we sprayed into a screen that is connected to the cloud giving us everything we want.

Higgins: I think that we will naturally move toward wearable systems that will become more integrated into our lives… In the not-too-distant future, the use of smartphones and tablets will seem a little archaic. Wearable technology is at its early stages now and people are still fumbling around for a solution or combination of solutions that really work. However, we tend to forget that tablets of different kinds were around for a long time before the iPad got such widespread adoption. Ongoing increases in computing power, changes in user interfaces, continuing miniaturization, and reduced energy requirements, plus rapid trialing of different systems and business models, will move us a long way down this path in the next five years. The interfaces we will deal with are likely to be even more intuitive than the ones we have today, and be a combination of wearable technology, cloud computing, and projected interfaces that can be easily controlled through speech and motion.

Which technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on humankind by 2025? By 2050?

Wadhwa: Many advances will happen at the same time. Computing, sensors, medicine, AI, robotics, 3D printing… These exponential technologies will help us solve many of humanity’s grand challenges, including [problems with] energy, education, water, food, and health. We will go from scarcity to abundance. We will be debating how we share the abundance we have created and uplift mankind.

Higgins: By 2025, I think that the most impactful technology is likely to be driverless cars, and by 2050 artificial intelligence is likely to have the greatest impact. It is possible that large-scale implementation of driverless cars could be done in many countries by that date, although it is likely to be a little slower. Driverless cars have the capacity to create wholesale change across our communities with significant reductions in road trauma, requirements for hospital resources, and the capital investment needed in cars. The effects will go wider than this with significant impacts on the car manufacturing supply chain worldwide, elimination of the taxi industry, airport parking, and big changes in road and public transport infrastructure, as well as urban planning.

The effects of significant levels of artificial intelligence are almost unimaginable. Combined with improvements in robotic technology, they have the capacity to wipe out large swathes of current jobs and I am unsure whether the new jobs that are created will replace them. If this occurs, we may see a fundamental restricting of the economy and a complete rethinking of people’s relationship to work. My fear is that this will be played out as a have and have-not type of scenario, and while there may be a strong chance of a rosy future, the path to that future my be traumatic and tumultuous.

Will humans ever decide to forgo real-life companions for virtual ones?

Rose: Um, no. Sorry, Spike. It’s pretty obvious that humans respond primarily to (a) little creatures with lots of fur and (b) other humans. Samantha, the operating system in “Her,” had the unfair advantage of being scripted by Spike Jonze and voiced by Scarlett Johansson. We love to freak out about artificial intelligence when computers win at “Jeopardy!” or chess, but those are highly constrained situations where machine computation has a distinct advantage over human thought. Ask a computer to function in the real world and it will seem a lot less appealing.

Abelow: Human relationships can be difficult and some prefer companions that are designed to please us, whether they’re robots or virtual.

W. Johnson: We already do. Not like in Ryan Gosling’s “Lars and the Real Girl,” but we already spend an outsized percentage of our time interacting virtually, rather than in-person.

Burrus: As 3D Web browsers become common, and electronic e-agents like Apple’s Siri and Google Now get more intelligent, avatars will become very real. And yes many people will have relationships with them — but not all of us. We live in a human world and relationships with actual humans will continue to thrive in new and powerful ways.

Higgins: Absolutely, on several fronts. If we finally move to uploading our own consciousnesses — which I have significant doubts about — then virtual artificial companions are likely to be indistinguishable from “real” ones anyway. In a world where we have had pet rocks, people (including my 7-year-old niece) have named their Roombas, and increasing numbers of us seem to be living alone, I think that it is highly likely that semi-intelligent virtual companions are not far away.

cow looking at a drone

What can we do today to prepare for the technological advances of the future?

Rose: Stock up on canned food? Seriously, the best preparation is education because it’s obvious that lower level “knowledge worker” jobs are going to be automated soon, to the extent they haven’t been already. Clearly, software developers are going to be more and more in demand, but so are people who perform functions that only humans understand — entertainment, game design, journalism, storytelling. (I’ve seen storytelling programs at work and they’re not very convincing.) Meanwhile, here in the U.S., we have underfunded education programs and school districts mandating the teaching of “intelligent design.” Imposed ignorance is not going to help.

Abelow: For billions of people all across the Earth, yesterday’s world isn’t succeeding well enough or fixing problems fast enough. Too many are educated, aware, capable and connected — yet locked in a limited future… Today there is a new way forward. When we see a new kind of future, we can decide the parts we want and accelerate them into today… One day greatness will be in our grasp, and everyone will be able to rise to the top. But rather than waiting, can we reach it now?

Wadhwa: We can start learning, opening our minds, and start thinking about the legal and ethical issues of advancing technologies. There will be many. With every good comes a bad—there will be new risks and threats. We need to be aware and start developing a social consensus on what is right and what is wrong.

Higgins: I think that the best thing we can do is to embrace new technology and experiment with it continually. I do despair at times, though, that we are using these great technologies for trivial purposes and that some of the brightest brains in the world are focused on trivial applications because that is where the money is. We need to think a lot more deeply about the human and social applications of existing and new technologies because in the end that is all that really counts.

W. Johnson: I don’t know that we prepare for technological advances. Rather, I think we look at what problems we want solved, and figure out how to harness technology to find a solution. The problem we want solved today is psychological self-determination. A century ago, we wanted a more comfortable life. For this, we were willing to check our identities at the door and become automatons in a factory. Now that we can afford basic luxuries, we want the luxury of achieving our dreams. So the question for me is how will we harness technology so that people can ”make” themselves?


Images courtesy of Bruno Hautzenberger, The Creators Project, and Lima Pix

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