Everyone knows or has heard of famous sci-fi works like Star Trek or The Hitcher-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which showcase a level of futuristic technology that is very far from our own. But just what is Earth’s technology expected to look like in 50 years, and should we be worried?
Ian Pearson is a futurist (a scientist who explores predictions and possibilities about the future), who has predicted some of the technological innovations humanity is likely to create in the next half century. The list includes mainstream usage of self-driving cars as early as 2030, virtual reality replacing textbooks in schools within the next decade. By 2050 we could see the construction of buildings so tall and large that they might function like individual towns, with floors dedicated to parks, gyms, shops and offices, so residents never have to leave.
This all seems very in the realm of science fiction, but some predictions about technology are more relatable, such as artificial intelligence. At the moment AI is limited to simple applications, such as its use in digital assistants such as Siri or Alexa, its use in luxury travel companies or in applications such as the preference programming that you might see at work on Netflix or Amazon. By 2025, it is likely humanity will see the rapid spread of independent AI in many applications, and the development of hyper-intelligent supercomputers with artificial consciousness. Indeed, Hans Moravec, of Carnegie Mellon University, predicts AI is will outperform humans in all tasks before 2050, and will be able to complete tasks in nearly all sectors of work. This would then allow humans to “occupy their days with a variety of social, recreational and artistic pursuits, not unlike today’s comfortable retirees or the wealthy leisure classes,” as he wrote in an edition of Scientific American.
With all of these improvements, one would be forgiven for visualising the prospect of a utopia, with the basic issues the world currently faces having been solved by technology. Food shortages, poverty and the spread of disease could be a thing of the past. Sadly, this is not likely to be the case. Although the present day problems, such as the spread of individual diseases, may themselves have been addressed, the underlying issues are likely to remain. Divisions between the most and least developed countries have always existed, and the current and historic advancement of technology does nothing to suggest it will help the gap to close. Just the same as today, in the future there are always going to be those who use the advancement of technology for harmful or malicious purposes.
There are a multitude of problems that might arise from the development of technology. Many scientists, including Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, are concerned that humanity could suffer an increased chance of extinction level events. There has always been a looming, although terribly small, chance of global extinction, from sources like asteroid impacts or even supervolcano eruptions. In the 20th century however, the chance of self-destruction increased significantly with the creation of nuclear weapons. This was the first time humanity really had a way to destroy itself worldwide. Nowadays, Hawking said most of the threats humans now face come from advances in science and technology, much more so than natural disasters, such as nanotechnology and genetically engineered diseases or weapons. These examples this could not only provide a greater potential for destruction, but also allow smaller groups, and even individuals, to make use of this technology.
Some of these threats seem very far off in the future. Take the prospect of ‘Grey Goo’ a theory so popular that it has spawned video games and even featured on Sci-fi shows. The theory is that self-replicating nano-machines, if programmed incorrectly, could destroy the entire biosphere of the planet by systematically deconstructing it. Rees says that such a concept is not in breach of any known physical or natural laws, but is as likely to happen in the next century as starships traveling between planets at the speed of light- that is, not very likely at all. So while humanity may be safe from the hungry robots, there are threats just as deadly and much closer to home that we should be worried about.
Scientists have experimented for years genetically engineering bacteria and viruses to help treat illnesses, such as cancer or HIV. But the same technology that allows scientists to design viruses for medicine also means that viruses can be designed to carry and infect people with diseases, especially ones that are designed to kill. In the present day only large countries or companies have the equipment for such as task, and so progress of genetic modification can be monitored on an international scale. But as technology progresses, smaller and smaller labs will be required, and therefore the harmful technology will be much more widely available. And the more people who have access to the technology means a greater chance of someone using it.
So what is the solution? We are not going to be able to stop the progress of science, we need it to advance as a race. Indeed there is no way of un-inventing problematic technology, and it might me amoral to even do so. For example, if we stopped genetic modification entirely we could lose thousands of potential cures for deadly disease. Regulation, legislation and developing responses to harmful innovations can be implemented just the same as military deterrents and laws are used. We just have to be mindful of the threats. Technology can make everyone’s lives happier and easier and healthier, but we have to be aware of the dangers it presents, or it could literally result in the end of the world.