If you look back to books and movies with a sci-fi element from thirty or forty years ago, you can see that a great deal of the technology we use in our daily lives was foreseen all those years ago. Some movies hit the mark closer than others, but, perhaps surprisingly, the fantastic ‘Terminator’ series, launched in 1984 (another year about which many accurate predictions were made), got more right than most: It predicted the internet and its ubiquity, tablets, the prevalence of voice command recognition software amongst other technological breakthroughs. Admittedly, the rise of artificial intelligence has not yet reached a point whereby it decides to annihilate humanity, but let’s give it another couple decades on that.
The reason that such predictions could be so accurate is that writers back then looked at existing technology, often in its infancy or being used exclusively for military purposes, and imagined what effects it would have when it filtered through the population. The term ‘internet’ was first coined in 1974 to describe the first steps that were being made towards what we know the internet to be today. R&D departments knew about nanotechnology and the possibilities to use it in mass production. Thus it was possible to have a crystal ball-like window into the future.
Like the previous generation, we also have a window into the way things are going to be in another thirty years. In developed countries, which dominate the globe, we have already seen the first major separations of man from machine. Cars and airplanes no longer need human pilots, not even remote ones. Computers have the knowledge of human millennia accessible in nanoseconds, and they are building on that knowledge at an exponential rate. Humans have been reduced from steering the direction of research to merely having to ensure these computer ‘brains’ can keep up with their own demands. In many industries, machines make other machines and it won’t be long until computers know to instruct machines to improve their capabilities better than humans can.
Although that may sound slightly menacing, it doesn’t have to. It will almost certainly make many aspects of life better. In the medical field, computers can scan and diagnose patients far better than even the most experienced doctors, and operate more safely and effectively than the most skilled surgeons, with a better prognosis every time. Your consultancy will probably take place using whatever the equivalent of a smartphone is and you’ll receive your diagnosis instantly.
Everything will become even easier and more convenient than it already is. You may well have learned how to fly your drone high and fast, but in a couple of decades it may be far too risky to allow a human to control a drone in a built-up area, as they fly about making deliveries, repairing buildings, catching criminals analyzing the terrain, the oceans, the weather and watching our every move.
We already see online resources such as Google and Wikipedia beginning to replace libraries. Although they are still on very shaky ground, these two sites alone can make a pretty good attempt at answering any question thrown at them. As computers learn to read and use information more and more efficiently, the descendants of Google will be able to answer any question and explain it to you based on your current knowledge. This will allow it to create and control machines which can do any job better than a human. Our roads, airports, farms, mines, hospitals and homes will be built by machines and run by computers.
In thirty years’ time, it is unlikely that we will be able to make such strong predictions about our world’s future. The Artificial General Intelligence Singularity (also predicted in the Terminator series) is expected to happen within a generation from right now. As soon as a computer improves itself and then repeats it, a potentially infinite explosion of intelligence will occur. The consequences of this event are unpredictable and beyond the limits of human intelligence. It would be able to overcome every problem and obstacle it faced.
Whether or not this gives rise to an existential threat to our species is irrelevant as humans would be powerless to stop it.