With technology advancing more rapidly than ever, digital enthusiasts believe it is a panacea for the world’s problems, while sceptics believe it is a threat to our very civilisation Fiona Walsh, Business Editor of theguardian.com, asks: Which camp is right?
In the 1940s, at the height of the Cold War, a group of atomic scientists in America created the Doomsday Clock. Initially set at seven minutes to midnight – doomsday – it was intended as a symbolic representation of the growing risk of nuclear catastrophe.
Currently set at three minutes to midnight, the clock has become a powerful symbol of global instability over the years. But now, in our age of rapid technological advancement, should we be more worried about a coming clash between man and machine?
According to leading futurist and technology expert Gerd Leonhard, the tsunami of change currently underway in our digitally enhanced, interconnected world poses a potentially greater threat to the future wellbeing of the human race than politics or a nuclear bomb.
It’s a provocative point of view but Leonhard, author of the recently published Technology vs. Humanity, is convinced that unless we can thrash out a code of ethics to manage our digital development our very humanity could be at risk.
“Every technological advancement impacts on how we interact as humans, and we need to safeguard and hedge our essential human idiosyncrasies,” he says. The risk is that we simply develop into “app-tapping apes” and “expensive wetware” in constant need of upgrading.
“Will we enjoy augmented reality and virtual reality simulations so much that reality becomes a let-down?” he asks. “When cyborg Man Friday accumulates enough human code to mimic Robinson Crusoe, who will rule our desert island?”
Leonhard believes that humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years, perhaps even the previous 3,000. And that’s because the compound effect of recent technological change “vastly surpasses” anything seen in previous industrial revolutions.
One of the key factors is that technology will no longer remain outside the human body, as in washing machines or modes of transport, but will become a part of us. The market for wearables, for example, has exploded in recent years, with fitness trackers and heart rate monitors now commonplace in the developed world.
Virtual reality is also a rapidly emerging trend – VR headsets can already be bought at Amazon or Argos and, as the price falls and the experience improves, they are likely to follow the same dramatic growth path as the fitness tracker.
We already have intelligent digital assistants. The next step in human augmentation is expected to include smart contact lenses, incorporating video cameras and medical sensors, brain–computer interfaces (BCIs), nano-technology and human genome editing.
Charlie Brooker’s critically acclaimed sci-fi series, Black Mirror, taps into our fears about what might happen if technology is allowed to advance unchecked. Its creator offers a dystopian view of the world of the near future: “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects?” Brooker asks.
The ‘Black Mirror’ of the title is, he says, “the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone”.
The next decade
Leonhard, however, is hugely optimistic about the benefits technology will bring, despite his fears about the future.
“I have a much more hopeful view than the one portrayed in Black Mirror,” he says. In an ideal future, humanity will sit on top of technology and harness its power to solve some of the biggest issues of our time – disease, energy supply, drought and food shortages.
The advances he predicts are little short of breathtaking. We can already turn on our heating or restock our fridges as we sit in our office but within the next ten years the Internet of Things will have connected our cars, homes, appliances, parks and cities, medications, gadgets and machines.
Everything that used to be dumb will become connected and intelligent, such as gas pipelines, farms, cars, shipping containers and traffic lights, releasing a vast flow of data. Everything that can become digital will, and everything that can be automated will be. The once truly futuristic concept of a direct connection to an external brain in the cloud will start to become a reality.
Under this scenario, computers will largely become invisible but they will be better at reading our minds and connectivity will be ubiquitous, with 90% of the world connected at very high speed and very low cost.
“Computers will always be there, always watching, always listening and always at our command. Nothing and no one is offline, ever – unless you can afford the luxury of disconnecting or visit one of the offline worlds, such as the Swiss Alps, that have already become popular ‘digital detox’ vacation destinations,” says Leonhard. In other words, offline will become the new luxury.
By 2026 machines will have learned how to understand language, images and beliefs. They will speak, write, draw and simulate human emotions. Hundreds of millions of jobs will be handed over to them – in call centres, accounting, legal, retail, manufacturing and financial services. Human-only jobs will become increasingly rarer and pairing people with machines will become the new normal.
“If Technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug. Then what, precisely, are the side effects?”
By 2030, technology and pharma will have converged almost completely, with mankind’s biggest diseases – cancer, diabetes and heart disease – being tackled by advanced bioengineering. Technology and genetic engineering will become the normal way to predict and prevent sickness rather than expensive, often ineffective pills or painful, invasive treatment.
“Because we have analysed the DNA of billions of connected humans via cloud biology and quantum computing, we can now determine with great certainty which exact gene is responsible for triggering which exact disease. In another five years or so, we will be able to prevent cancer,” Leonhard predicts.
So by 2030, society will be older, healthier and liberated from work. As Leonhard says: “What’s not to like?”
But the challenges ahead are huge and this brave new world will not come without a cost.
Everything we do, say, see and, increasingly, feel and think can be tracked and measured. Privacy will become ever harder to maintain and attacks on technology infrastructure, unauthorised access to our data and information manipulation will be a constant threat. Crime and wars in the future will move to a digital battleground with artificial intelligence – intelligent machines – the new soldiers.
Who needs work?
But with machines doing everything from driving buses to performing operations, piloting planes, serving our food and educating our children, the cost of most consumer goods, transportation, medical care, housing and energy will plummet. The economic logic of working for a living will evaporate, ushering in a new post-capitalist era.
Governments will begin to introduce a basic guaranteed income, which Leonhard predicts will become a global standard within the next two decades. It will be unrelated to employment, leaving us free not to work at all or to pursue work as a passion, rather than for pay. This dramatic shift in the proportioning of personal time will improve the way we live, love, play and interact with one another.
Now that really does sound like science fiction.