Insights · October 2nd, 2015

I come across lists of emerging technologies all the time. This one, from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is particularly good. This institute was founded in 2004 by philosopher Nick Bostrom and bioethicist James J. Hughes. The list of 7 technologies that will “change the world forever” was written by futurist Gray Scott. I’ll add a short comment on each of the seven items, which are more fully explained in the original article.

Age Reversal. By 2025, predicts Scott, those who want to risk the expense of age reversal will be able to try techniques such as turning on or off cell mitochondrial functions, or by raising nuclear NAD+ in old mice to reverse pseudohypoxia and metabolic dysfunction. (Experiments with mice with the latter technique have shown the equivalent of turning a 60-year old back into a 20-year old).

Comment: There is also ongoing work at Stanford, Utah and elsewhere with reversing aging by lengthening the telomeres at the end of DNA strands, which it is believed could lengthen life spans. The problem with all of this research is that reversing aging processes, while promising, does not eliminate some of the major causes of death such as cancer. Until and unless that is solved age extension technologies will have less than hoped for impact.

Artificial General Intelligence. In 2015 about 207,000 general purpose industrial robots are expected to be sold. These are robots that can be instructed to carry out varying rather than single purpose functions. In a similar way automated personal assistants via cell phones continue to improve. AI will be common, says Scott, in cars, hotels, hospitals, and restaurants by 2020.

Comment: I’m sitting in a hospital as I write this as my wife recovers from a knee replacement surgery. Watching the highly variable and constantly interrupted functioning of the doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, cooks, physical therapists, cleaning crew, and others in a normal 24-hour cycle, it seems obvious to me that any suggestion that all of these people are going to be replaced by intelligent machines in any very long term future not to mention by 2025 is hopelessly silly. Better AI is undoubtedly going to better assist some of these people in some of their functions some of the time by 2025. I love the idea of what an IBM Watson is eventually going to do for medicine. But lets all take a deep breath and step away from the idea that such AI is about to throw us all of of work. Not going to happen. Sorry. Hey but I do think we will have a lot of driverless or robot cars around by 2025, beginning as soon as 2018 or so. The 14 million Americans who make their living driving vehicles do in fact face an employment issue in the long term.

Vertical Pink Farms. By 2050 some 70-80% of the world population will live in cities, or more accurately in large metro-plexes. The food needs are going to be enormous. Traditional food grown in massive outdoor plots and then shipped long distances to people may be neither a wise nor a sustainable way of feeding everyone. Instead, vertical agriculture that can save energy, eliminate the need for pesticides, and be grown near where people live, will become common by 2025. The idea of “pink farms” refers to the discovery that plants grow best under blue and red LED lights, which look pink in practice and need much less energy than even traditional indoor grow operations. Further, science is learning which plants respond to which light the best, and LED technology can calibrate the light just to particular plants.

Comment: This development seems likely to emerge in a significant way by 2025, and even more so by 2050. One estimate I’ve seen is that to feed upward of 8 billion people in 2050, we will have to grow as much food between now and then as has been grown up to now. Doing this efficiently, and with fewer chemicals seems the way to go. It will necessarily mean a more vegetarian diet. Might we see as much as 5% or 10% of our food grown in indoor vertical spaces by 20205? Perhaps.

Transhumanism. From ubiquitous intelligent phones constantly advising us, to body implants of all kinds from dental to cardiovascular we are already, without really realizing it, becoming a blend of human and machine. So one does not have to be a believing “transhumanist” to actually have joined the movement.

Comment: The knee replacement mentioned above makes my spouse a transhuman, and I’d not really thought of it in that way. Moving forward the developments of ever more implant technologies and of such things as exoskeletons will indeed make billions of humans into transhumans and sooner than we think.

Wearables and Implantables. Smart phones will “fade into history” as we wear and implant technologies like smart contact lenses, smart glasses, VR headsets, and in-ear audio devices. Information will become even more instantly available in this augmented future.

Comment: We are racing toward this future pretty quickly. Devices you can carry still have a life ahead of them – phones and tablets and the like – and some of their functionality may not be fully replicable in wearable and implanted devices – think convenient and easy to use keyboards – but I will be surprised if in 2025 we don’t see this trend all around us.

Atmospheric Water Harvesting. Several companies are developing methods to pull water from the air, mostly using micro netting. Foggy air, of course, works best, so this makes sense for coastal deserts especially. If efficient enough, the method may be preferable to drilling for diminishing ground water.

Comment: We first wrote about this in 2013 when a project using billboards to pull water from air in Chile appeared. It is very viable though just how much water can be harvested compared to traditional sources is a question. A great idea though.

3D Printing. This technology, around for many years now, is becoming capable of mainstream commercial applications. Fashion designers are printing new clothes. Companies like GE Aviation are printing high level metal parts. Large scale items such as car bodies and house shells are being printed. Furniture is being printed in one pass.

Comment: This year 3D printing seems to have progressed a great deal into far more commercial applications. Will we ever see printers that can print printers? No one that I have heard of is yet attempting to print large numbers of complex parts of various materials and then assemble them automatically. I would guess this is decades off, if doable. So most manufacturing assembly will be done in routine, if automated, ways, while more parts themselves will gradually be produced in 3D machines.

Bottom line – These 7 emerging technologies will indeed be important in a changing future. But things take time to emerge, so keep watching their progress.

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Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

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