Innovation is accelerating and entropy is increasing (as always). Several huge scientific revolutions are peeking at us from the horizon of the future. Looking at how we’ve dealt with the Internet revolution, I’m not sure we’re ready for them.
What 3 revolutions am I talking about? When are they going to happen? It’s impossible to predict which of these revolutions will happen first, or exactly when, but I suspect that it is safe to assume that all of them will come to pass in the next 100 years. I won’t focus on providing every tiny piece of evidence and analysis of these phenomena in this post, but I will examine them in much greater detail in the future.
The first revolution is a vast improvement in machine learning and artificial intelligence. We can see today the early signs that algorithms in their many forms are a Big Deal. Some might call this the “Big Data” revolution, but that data is useless without clever algorithms to make sense of it, and it seems likely that such pursuits will continue to be heavily influenced by machine learning, rather than mere human intuition. The number of situations in which a computer might insert itself grows constantly with the incremental improvements in machine learning and software development that are commonplace today.
Second is a revolution in matter akin to the revolution that has taken place for information in the last several decades. Whether it be flown by drone, extruded, CNCed, produced by stereolithography, spawned by some magic of the Higgs-Boson particle or black holes, or made by some other totally undiscovered means, I see the future as an unlikely place for humans to be bothered with lugging around matter from one place to another very often. You can get a 3D printer for $100 today, and that number is sure to fall. At its extreme this revolution could mean an end to many kinds of material scarcity. It could also mean a great many other things, but most likely it means that at least some people will do extraordinarily well as a result of its growth, while others might not.
Third is a revolution in how we envision the planet and our role in it, and re-evaluate our biological footprint as a species. This is not a revolution that will come easily or gladly, but it might be forced by the scarcity of basic resources, the magnitude of environmental and social chaos wrought by the energy and nutrition demands of a population that is growing and becoming more affluent, or many other factors. Whether we continue using fossil fuels until we run out, or we choose to stop at some point, the path forward will be one that requires us to change how we view energy, the most essential ingredient of our modern world. Feeding and providing drinkable water to growing populations while facing serious droughts in some places and potentially declining crop yields will also be a huge undertaking. And, if we’re lucky, we won’t force too many other species into extinction along the way.
If you have objections to the likelihood of these predictions, I will admit that I do not have any special skills of pre-cognizance and can’t say exactly when or even that these things will happen. All I can say is that they are trends that, if played out as they are playing out right now, will be highly significant in the future. Take AI: computer-generated articles (somewhat) like this one have been a thing since at least 2011. Computers are getting much better at seeing, too.
“We see innovation and creativity exploding,” she said. “The algorithms are more complex and they are just more interesting.”
Applications of these improvements won’t manifest immediately, but if history is any guide, they will be here sooner than we’re ready for them. The future is a place where your local newspaper could be entirely computer-generated. Whether it will be or not is what we have to decide. Hopefully we make some kind of conscious decision as a society before it happens without anyone noticing.
Each of these revolutions will have profound implications for human life – the way we work, travel, eat, live. We can’t see the end results from here, but there are clearly many signs of a great rising tide of change today.
What about all the other important stuff going on right now? Is Ello a revolution? How about the iWatch? The cloud? Compared to what’s coming, these will be seen as mere incremental changes. Imagine a day when no one is employed with making goods, delivering them, or helping consumers choose which ones to purchase. Without much of a stretch of the imagination, a huge segment of current employment is made obsolete or at least significantly reduced, with little in sight to replace it.
How about the global effort, coordinated or not, to find a new energy source after fossil fuels? Whether it’s peak oil, global warming, or a new breakthrough energy source that causes the shift, the choices we make about the way we power our planet in the future will have profound impacts on ourselves and the Earth.
My concern is that these revolutions and more might all happen in my lifetime, a time period that is infinitesimal when compared with the geologic time scale from which we originally emanated. I’m not sure we’re ready for a brand new, massive technological revolution every decade or couple decades. The amount of time it took for the transition from the steam engine to the Internet was enough for several generations to bridge the gap. Our children will be experiencing new, previously unimagined technological innovations at a pace that might very easily be described as “nauseating.”
I’m not here to make bold predictions, or say I have all the answers. In fact I’d say that on balance, all my guesses are just that – guesses – and rather conservative ones compared to what could maybe, possibly happen if things keep accelerating. But just looking at these three phenomena, I think we can begin to see signs that society is shifting in significant ways, and that the time to start thinking and acting with a broader, more future-facing mentality is now. The problems and successes of our coming age will be unlike anything we’ve seen up to this point, and we must be prepared to face them when they arrive, or else they seem almost certain to overwhelm us.