These have been boom times for “futurists,” a profession without credentials, in which anyone can opine about tomorrow’s Undiscovered Country. Ever since the turn of the century, a whole spectrum of corporations, intel and defense agencies, planning councils and NGOs have expressed growing concern about time scales that used to be the sole province of science fiction (SF). In fact, all those companies and groups have been consulting an ensemble of “hard” SF authors uninterrupted by the pandemic’s travel restrictions.
New technologies: solution or threat?
One question always pops up; can we navigate our way out of the current messes, helped by new technologies? The news and prospects are mixed, but assuming we restore the basic stability of the Western Enlightenment Experiment—and that is a big assumption—then several technological and social trends may come to fruition in the next 5-10 years.
- Advances in the cost effectiveness of sustainable energy supplies will be augmented by better storage systems. This will both reduce reliance on fossil fuels and allow cities and homes to be more autonomous.
- Urban farming methods may move to industrial scale, allowing even greater moves toward local autonomy, although a decade or more may be necessary to show significant impact. Meat use will decline for several reasons, ensuring some degree of food security.
- Local, small-scale, on-demand manufacturing may start to show effects by 2025, altering supply chains and reducing their stretched networks.
- If all of the above take hold, there will be surplus oceanic shipping capacity across the planet. Some of it may be applied to ameliorate but not solve acute water shortages. Innovative uses of such vessels may range all the way from hideaways for the rich to refuges for climate refugees—possibilities I describe in my novels Existence and Earth.
- Full scale diagnostic evaluations of diet, genes and micro-biome will result in micro-biotic therapies and treatments utilizing the kitchen systems of the human gut. AI appraisals of other diagnostics will both advance detection of problems and be distributed through hand-held devices cheaply available to even poor clinics.
- Hand held devices will start to carry detection technologies that can appraise across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, allowing NGOs and even private parties to detect and report environmental problems. Socially, this extension of citizen vision will go beyond the current trend of applying accountability to police and other authorities. Despotisms will be empowered, as predicted in 1984. But democracies will also be empowered, as described in The Transparent Society.
- I give odds that tsunamis of revelation will crack the shields protecting many elites from disclosure of past and present torts and turpitudes. The Panama Papers and Epstein cases—and the more recent FinCEN spill—exhibit how much fear propels some oligarchs to combine efforts at repression. But a few more cracks may cause the dike to collapse, revealing networks of extortion, cheating and blackmail. This is only partly technology driven and hence is not guaranteed. If it does happen, there will be dangerous spasms by all sorts of elites desperate to either retain status or evade consequences. But if the fever runs its course, the more transparent world will be cleaner and better run.
- Some of those elites have grown aware of the power of 90 years of Hollywood propaganda for individualism, criticism, diversity, suspicion of authority and appreciation of eccentricity. Counter propaganda pushing older more traditional approaches to authority and conformity are already emerging and they have the advantage of resonating with ancient human fears. Much will depend upon this meme-war. Of course, much will also depend upon short term resolution of current crises. If our systems remain undermined and sabotaged by incited civil strife and distrust of expertise, then all bets are off.
The risks to privacy
What about the role of technology and technology companies in individuals? Many fret about the spread of surveillance technologies that will empower Big Brother. These fears are well-grounded, but utterly myopic.
- First, ubiquitous cameras and face recognition are only the beginning. Nothing will stop them and any such thought of “protecting” citizens from being seen by elites is stunningly absurd, as the cameras get smaller, better, faster, cheaper, more mobile and vastly more numerous every month. Moore’s Law to the nth. Safeguarding freedom, safety and privacy will require a change in perspective.
- Yes, despotisms will benefit from this trend. And hence the only thing that matters is to prevent despotism altogether. A free society will be able to apply the very same burgeoning technologies toward accountability. At this very moment, we are seeing these new tools applied to end centuries of abuse by “bad apple” police who are thugs, while empowering truly professional cops to do their jobs better. There is no guarantee that this light will be used with broad effectiveness. It is an open question whether we citizens will have the gumption to apply sousveillance (the recording of an activity by a participant) upward at all elites. But Gandhi and ML King likewise were saved by crude technologies of light in their days. And history shows that assertive vision by and for the citizenry is the only method that has ever increased freedom and—yes—some degree of privacy.
Oh, the hand wringers are totally right about the problem and the danger presented by surveillance tech! And they are diametrically wrong in the common prescription. Trying to ban technologies and create shadows for citizens to hide within is spectacularly wrongheaded and disastrous. See my book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?
The ethical issue
Will AI mostly be used in ethical or questionable ways in the next decade? Isaac Asimov in his Robots Series conceived a future when ethical matters would be foremost in the minds of designers of AI brains— not for reasons of judiciousness but in order to quell the fears of an anxious public. No such desperate anxiety about AI seems to surge across today's populace, perhaps because we are seeing our AI advances mostly on screens and such, not in clanking mechanical men. Oh, there are serious conferences on this topic. I’ve participated in many. Alas, statements urging ethical consideration in AI development are at best palliatives. I am often an outlier, proposing that AIs’ “ethical behavior” be promoted the way it is in most humans, especially most males—via accountability. If AIs are many and diverse and reciprocally competitive, then it will be in their interest to keep an eye on each other and report bad things, because doing so will be to their advantage. It is a simple recourse, alas one seldom even discussed.
Will quantum computing make IA empathetic?
Quantum computing has genuine potential. Roger Penrose (recently awarded the Nobel Prize) and associates believe it already takes place, in trillions of sub-cellular units inside human neurons. If so, it may take a while to build quantum computers on that kind of scale. The ethical matter is interesting, though totally science fictional, that quantum computers might connect in ways that promote reciprocal understanding and empathy.
The author: David Brin
An astrophysicist and writer, Brin sits on the advisory board of NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group and advises companies and government agencies: from Google to the CIA. His most recent science novels include Heart (1990) and Existence (2012).
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