For most of their history, humans lived in tight packs of hunters and gatherers. The life of an average human resembled a single-shooter game, only there were spears for guns. Behind every corner lurked death. It took several epochs of sustained grit and focus for humans to crawl out of this state of affairs, brick by brick, stone by stone. Which is why the lives we live today are no less a miracle.
Think about the technological level at which the world operates today. Recognise that all this technological development occurred in a very narrow window of time, mostly in the last few decades. Ask yourself, if so much could happen so fast, what all might be possible in the coming decades?
Let’s imagine the smart city of the near future. Cars are autonomous, connected wirelessly and completely self-driven. Through airwaves, these cars communicate with the internet, where powerful artificial intelligence (AI) engines fire up a vast array of smart apps and real-time services. For example, a car approaching a busy intersection can detect a vehicle approaching from the other side before the intersection even becomes visible to the human eye. There is real-time traffic monitoring and management, almost like the vehicular analogue of air-traffic controllers, and all of this is handled by cloud-hosted AI. Humans finally off the hook – with more than a million car fatalities a year, this might not be such a bad idea. Everything is connected in these cities. Smart sensors are deployed everywhere, that relay low-speed wireless data to machine-learning algorithms hosted on localised, software operated data centres. The sensor information is used for various public-service applications: flood abatement (if the water level rises), environmental regulation (if carbon emissions pass a certain threshold), and power efficiency (real-time voltage monitoring) etc.
People in these smart cities wear SIM-enabled smart glasses, not because glasses are suddenly in vogue, but because these glasses, and not your smartphones, are the digital interface to this world of massive connectivity. These glasses embed augmented-reality (AR) – all the keypad and screening functionality of your smartphone now appears before your eyes as a digital overlay upon base reality.
Suppose you are driving around in your autonomous car, looking for a place to eat. You use the mic on your smart headgear to inform your virtual assistant (another AI customised to your preferences) to look for places. Your smart glasses immediately scan your environment and within seconds, a list of options (and accompanying images) tuned to your preferences, are communicated to you. Once you have picked an option, your virtual assistant proceeds to make reservations/bookings for you. Note that your headgear is not a big helmet with tangled wires popping out. It is just a pair of smart glasses, with earphones and a mic; devices need no longer be bulky as most of the compute intensive operations are performed on the edge-cloud (local data centres).
Anyone looking for more immersive experience will have virtual reality (VR), again all wirelessly enabled. In fact, classrooms will have VR gear for kids, so textual learning is augmented with 3D visual learning. Imagine children viewing distant galaxies, or identifying starts and planets, on their VR gear.
Hospitals are reserved for emergency cases only; because most of your healthcare is delivered to you privately. Patient’s medical history feeds platforms running smart analytics to identify medical anomalies, or health alarms. Tech-enabled preventive healthcare precludes the need for post-hoc treatment. Most surgeries are robot-controlled and performed remotely.
Retail experiences are no longer the same. AR/VR offer customers a rich remote shopping experience, where any item can be examined in high-resolution 3D, before purchase. Once purchased, items will be drone-delivered to you at your doorstep.
And of course, there will be DNA slicing and engineering, which will fundamentally change what it even means to be human. Technologies like CRISPR will allow for more selective and surgical sculpting of the human DNA, filtering for various phenotypical traits (eye or hair colour, height etc). In addition, synthetic biology will allow us to fly the perch of our biological constraints, equipping us with augmented functions, like jumping higher, running faster and seeing farther. Perhaps most fundamentally, we will find ways to slow down aging (latest experiments on mice have been encouraging), if not fully stop it.
Brain cognition, too, will multiply. Our brain function is optimised for survival maximisation. The models created by our brains are a function of how we have evolved, and those might not always translate into the most accurate description of reality – hence the scores of optical illusions and cognitive biases we are saddled with. But with man-machine interfaces, for example Elon Musk’s ‘neural lace’ project, we will close some of these gaps, and outsource some of our cognitive operations to AI. We will ultimately find ways to improve memory retention, to think faster and perhaps even be able to permanently store our memories.
Machine operations will fundamentally evolve too. Quantum computing will enable faster compute times and cryptography, with orders of magnitude of better data storage capabilities, with less power consumption.
Some of these technologies are just around the corner, like the internet-of-things (IoT) and smart applications, others are being actively researched and are in trial phases. But none of this seems beyond our grasp. In fact, most will likely be mainstreamed within half a century, if not less. And any delays which may occur will likely arise more from the economic and regulatory frameworks around all this technology, and not so much from an inability to develop the technologies themselves.
So what does all this mean? It means, first and foremost, that at present levels of change, our frameworks and models of operating in the world will soon become obsolete. Educational systems, the world over, are already screaming for reform, stuck as they are in the industrial-age mindset of producing factory workers. This cannot go on in the age of automation.
Economic systems, too, have their own liabilities, relying on fiat currency and the power of central banks to publish paper money, which results in backbreaking recessions and crazy cycles of booms and busts. This will change as data becomes currency. Healthcare is also a global mess. Hundreds of thousands of people die each year from entirely preventable diseases, simply because decent healthcare in most places is a rich man’s privilege, not a poor man’s birth-right. How long can this go on?
The reality is that today we stand at a unique cusp in human history, the past slipping away from us faster than ever before, and the future breaking upon us in cascades. If there ever was a time for us – each and every single one of us – to step up, adapt and contribute to building a world that is fairer, healthier and more livable, it is now.
The writer is a freelance contributor.