The following essay was submitted by Rachael Wood of University of California, Davis as part of the Future of Technology Scholarship competition.
One of the most interesting trends we’ve observed in human history is how past technology enables us to innovate at faster and faster rates. As the technological baseboard continues to grow, humans require less time to make the shiny gadgets that make our lives so much more fast-paced and effortless. For instance, the invention of the wheel and metallurgy of cooper and bronze required millennia to develop and perfect, whereas use of gas and electricity took little over a century. Computers were hulking, relatively simple machines back in the 1950s and 60s but were transformed half a century later into sleek, sophisticated, and efficient machines we are familiar with now. The amount of data in the world is skyrocketing, and our descendents will have the benefit of our innovations to make theirs even bigger and better. Just look how far CGI in movies has come, from beloved E.T. to the shockingly realistic blue cat people in James Cameron’s Avatar.
However, we must realize that bounds in technology are often tempered with cost of materials and production. While we have the capability to prevent pernicious diseases or make advanced AI systems that can control technical operations in the military and industry, it’s often not feasible to pursue these technologies due to how expensive or difficult they are to propagate. Researchers have created some pretty nifty viral vaccines using viral DNA to mimic replication and stimulate an authentic host response, but neither governments not medical companies have come up with a way to manufacture these vaccines in a way that is both inexpensive and timely. So despite all the sophisticated gadgets, the research breakthroughs, and the intelligence integration that is the Internet, we still lack flying cars, a vaccine for Rhinovirus (the common cold virus), or self-aware robots that can tend to our household chores. We will still lack such technology until we can devise a way to procure the necessary materials and labor to mass-produce them for world-wide consumption.
However, I predict that, with airplanes, music players, and computers shrinking, small and portable technology will dominate the early 2000 era. We are already moving towards keeping our medical records in one location on a doctor’s tablet, and bank records are following suit as we evolve to a cashless society that depends on credit cards and wire transfers. Computers will be able to store more and more data in less and less space, as evidenced by the latest USB storage devices no bigger than the tip of a finger. The Internet will encompass a virtual world likely to rival the growing size of our universe as people shift towards a paperless society by storing their entire lives on a network to be accessed by bank officials, doctors, contractors, and other business professionals that will likewise tend towards online transactions. At the pinnacle will be a personalized data chip that includes GPS positioning (so the user or chip can always be found) that includes such information as mentioned above to make seeing a doctor or paying at the grocery store more efficient and manageable.
Granted, with such technology comes certain privacy and identity issues. If all your information is stored in one place, you can bet that it will be easier to steal. And as the technology companies get wiser in their tricks, so too do the hackers. Many will argue that privacy and identity theft have been problems that long predate modern innovations, and I would agree with that sentiment. The exception now being that as technology gets more sophisticated, there will be a smaller percentage of the population who fully understand the mechanisms and operation behind it. Then again, computer science and technology/engineering will most likely be by far the biggest fields of study and industry in the coming decades, so perhaps more people will be learning how to manage the new technologies that will emerge. Nevertheless, security measures will have to evolve along with these new technologies in order to circumvent the associated dangers that comes with a more complex society.
In 2040, government military or intelligence agencies and commercial technology companies will still be trying to outdo one another in how innovative and sophisticated their technology is. Military superiority and capitalism have driven technological progress long before any of the modern technology or its predecessors were in use, and will (in my opinion) continue to do so until government or societal collapse. The air/transportation industries and the computer and handheld devices market will benefit the most from present technology workings. Engines and data creation and storage are largely the focus of society, as they are often used as analogs in other industries and power research into others. Touch screens and voice-activation will likely be the trend in all manner of conventional machinery, from household appliances to vehicles to computers. AI systems will be installed in ubiquitous computer-controlled appliances. Ovens will be able to adjust temperatures based on sensitive thermoregulators, cars will be able to adjust trajectories based on surrounding vehicles, and others are examples of the integration of preliminary intelligence into our household technology. Military craft will evolve into completely pilotless, self-sufficient machines capable of completing missions with minimal risk to soldiers or personnel. The world of espionage will be transformed by these new technologies as nations use more sensitive computer technology to monitor the activities and communications of their enemies and neighbors.
These are just a few of the examples of how technology will replace human labor in the world as computer-based intelligence grows in sensitivity and refinement. After all, the point of technology is to make our lives as humans more efficient and enjoyable, is it not? Terms like “stick-shift” and “manual” will doubtless be phased out in coming decades (except in terms of professional racing, as who would want to derby race in an automatic vehicle?). Shopping and accomplishing daily chores will be completely changed by more sophisticated online providers and intelligent domestic equipment. People will never need to leave their house to buy anything, transportation will become faster and more efficient, and automatic vacuums will see to it that dirty floors are no more. I will not go into the moral and ethical changes that this technology will bring, but it stands to reason that the expectations and necessary skills of the coming generations will definitely be different.
Yet we must also account for the lack of change in technology and innovation that will doubtlessly occur, since as humans we are imperfect in spite of our unfailing optimism that we will be able to solve all of the world’s problems by (insert date here). I predict that areas such as Africa or Indonesia will doubtlessly remained unchanged by 2040, due mostly to the point I made above about the availability and affordability of technology. Most cities that lack an affluent populace and large-scale societal leadership will continue in the simple state that they have toiled in for centuries. I also predict that pathogens like Trypanosomiasis , Ebola, and malaria will continue to wreak havoc with our health, especially the ones native to the countries with the least developed technology and medicine. We will still have world hunger, STIs, unemployment, and war. Yet those of us with means will be able to sit easy with our sparkly new devices and our ever-vigilant military equipment to keep the dangers of the modern world at bay.
Looking back at the 70s and 80s, or even the 90s, who knew that computers would be personalized and readily available to the public? Who knew that social media and online environments would dominate how we communicate and receive our news? Who knew that the Internet would encompass everything from marketing to electronic entertainment? Twenty six years is a long time in techno-chronology, and we’ll continue to escalate ever faster as our technology base becomes more efficient and sophisticated. All of my predictions can easily be outdistanced in as little as five to ten years, but I will hold out hope for those traditionalists who refuse to adopt modern technology in favor of those of the past. I also believe that, while the human imagination is limitless, we are constrained by logistics and physics. And who knows? I hear that global disaster that many naysayers are predicting is a terrible hindrance to progress.