In my book, Tech Trends in Practice, I talk about a lot of technology trends that are already moving out of the R&D departments and into everyday life, but the following five I think will have the most profound impacts on our society and the human race as a whole.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, and machine learning refer to the ability of machines to learn and act intelligently, meaning they can make decisions, carry out tasks, and even predict future outcomes based on what they learn from data.
AI and machine learning already play a bigger role in everyday life than you might imagine. Alexa, Siri, Amazon’s product recommendations, Netflix’s and Spotify’s personalized recommendations, every Google search you make, security checks for fraudulent credit card purchases, dating apps, fitness trackers… All are driven by AI.
AI is going to revolutionize almost every facet of modern life. Stephen Hawking said, “Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history.” And Hawking immediately followed that up with, “Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.”
There are potentially huge risks for society and human life as we know it, particularly when you consider some countries are racing to develop AI-enabled autonomous weapons. AI and machine learning are the foundation on which many other technologies are built. For instance, without AI, we wouldn’t have achieved the amazing advances in the Internet of Things, virtual reality, chatbots, facial recognition, robotics, automation, or self-driving cars, just to name a few.
AI is also going to transform human jobs. AI-enabled automation will have a particularly significant impact and may lead to the displacement of many jobs. But rather than subscribing to a vision of a dystopian future where all human jobs are given over to robots, I believe AI will make our working lives better. AI will enhance the work of humans, and new jobs will arise to replace displaced jobs.
What’s more, as machines become more intelligent and capable of carrying out more human tasks, I believe that our uniquely human capabilities, things like creativity, empathy, and critical thinking, will become all the more precious and valuable in the workplaces of the future.
Genomics is an interdisciplinary field of biology that focuses on the understanding and manipulation of DNA and genomes of living organisms. Gene editing is a group of technologies that enables genetic engineering in order to change the DNA and genetic structure of living organisms.
Biotechnology is advancing to the point where it’s viable to alter the DNA encoded within a cell; this will influence the characteristics or traits that its descendants will have. In plants, this could affect the number of leaves or their coloring, while in humans, it could affect their height, eye color, or their likelihood of developing diseases. This opens up a range of possibilities that are almost unlimited, as it means that any characteristic of a living organism that is inherited can theoretically be changed.
Much of the work being done with gene editing is in the field of healthcare. Among the most exciting current projects is the correction of DNA mutations which can lead to serious illnesses such as cancer or heart disease. But, perhaps more than with any other technology, there are a huge number of ethical and legal concerns as well as “what if” questions when it comes to genetic manipulation and editing. Genome editing in humans is currently banned in many countries, including much of Europe, as its long-term results are not understood.
With anything as potentially transformative to society as genomics, it can be easy to get carried away thinking about possibilities such as wiping out cancer or even indefinitely prolonging human life. In reality, such huge advances are likely to be a long way away, if they are ever possible at all. Focusing on solving smaller problems that will have an immediate real-world impact is likely to be more fruitful in the short term.
Human-computer interfaces create wearable devices and technology that help to improve the physical and potentially mental performance of humans and help us lead healthier and better lives. Perhaps the most prevalent examples of wearables today are fitness tracker bands and smartwatches: small, easy to wear devices that typically monitor our activity and provide insights that help us lead healthier, better, more productive lives.
However, the term wearable doesn’t necessarily mean something that you strap onto your wrist or where elsewhere on your body; it also extends to smart clothing such as running shoes that can measure your gait and performance, advances like robotic prosthetics, and robotic wearable technology used in industrial settings.
As technology gets smaller and smarter, the sheer range of wearables is going to expand, and new, smaller, smarter products will emerge to supersede the wearables we’re familiar with today. For example, we already have smart glasses, but these are likely to be replaced by smart contact lenses. After that, smart contact lenses will likely be replaced by smart eye implants.
Advances like this lead many to believe that humans and machines will eventually merge to create truly augmented humans, transhumans, or humans 2.0, where the human body is souped up like a sports car to achieve enhanced physical and mental performance. This would transform the world of medicine and eventually maybe even challenge our understanding of what it means to be human.
At a societal level, we could be heading toward an even greater divide between rich and poor, between the Haves and the Have Nots. Technology is promising to help us live longer and healthier lives, maybe even offering the chance to live forever, but probably only for those who can afford it. Imagine a society in which the rich are effectively superhumans that live forever, and everyone else is normal and disadvantaged… There’s also a wider ethical question about whether we should want to live exceedingly long lives given the huge strain that would put on our planet.
Extended Reality (XR)
Extended reality, or XR for short, encompasses virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality and refers to the use of technology to create more immersive digital experiences.
In practice, XR is being used to boost brand engagement, let customers try before they buy, enhance customer service, make workplace learning more effective, and improve other organizational processes.
XR Technologies offer exciting and entirely new ways for people to experience the world around them. XR technology is already finding very real applications in our world, and is likely to dramatically change the way we interact with technology. In fact, mobile-based AR experiences, such as the Pokemon Go app, generated over $3 billion in global revenue in 2018. XR is also the user interface into the metaverse, the idea of a virtual universe where we can be whoever or whatever we want, while exploring the digital world of gaming, meeting up, going to events, or anything along the lines of the movie ‘Ready Player One’.
But accessibility and availability are obvious obstacles to overcome, given that XR headsets can be pricey, bulky, and clunky. But the technology will become more common, affordable, and comfortable to use, which will only increase the chance of widespread use. The biggest challenges will include privacy and the potential mental and physical impacts of highly immersive technologies.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, means creating a 3D object from a digital file by building it layer by layer. 3D printing may seem distinctly more low-tech than artificial intelligence or gene editing, but it has the potential to completely transform manufacturing and other industries.
Using 3D printing, the factories of the future could quickly print spare parts for machinery on site. Entire assembly lines could be replaced with 3D printers. We could print human tissue for transplant, print weapons, even print food.
3D printing technology brings many opportunities, but it also brings some downsides, challenges, and obstacles to overcome. While it has the potential to reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing by using fewer materials overall, we have to consider the environmental impact of the printers themselves.
3D printing also presents problems for intellectual property owners, since the technology enables counterfeiters to produce fake license goods cheaply and easily. There’s also the problem that weapons can be easily 3D printed. One thing I find particularly exciting about 3D printing is the potential it brings for mass personalization of products. Thanks to 3D printing, products and Designs can be customized to suit one-off requests in orders, and this could cover anything from personalized sneakers to food that’s personalized to our individual nutritional needs.
Keep an eye on these technologies, as I believe they have the biggest potential to impact the future of human life and our society. To stay on top of these and other trends, sign up for my newsletter, and check out my books ‘Tech Trends in Practice’ and ‘Business Trends in Practice.’