Visions beyond smartphones

30. Visions beyond smartphones

In this final chapter, I will share some of what I see as the possible developments in technology in the next decade or thereabouts:

  • How technologies might evolve
  • How they could be used in new kinds of products
  • How society might react
  • How society might proactively anticipate forthcoming scenarios.

Overall, I expect the changes in society in the next 10-12 years to be at least as dramatic as in the last 10-12 years. In fact, I expect a speed up in the rate of change, for reasons I’ll explain.

As a comparison, consider the changes over the last dozen years – between 2002 and 2014. In 2002, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube, no iPad, no Kindle, almost no Wikipedia or Skype, and only a smattering of smartphones. There were no freely available online video educational courses, such as the Khan Academy. How things have changed. Online algorithms now routinely govern our choices of goods to buy, routes to follow, news stories to read, holiday venues to visit, and potential mates to court.

In the next dozen years, we could see dramatically smaller computing devices, more widespread surveillance, big data analytics that point out all kinds of patterns that previously went unnoticed, 3D printers transforming manufacturing, autonomous drones transforming transport, robots transforming employment, smart drugs transforming our mental capabilities, virtual companions that people enjoy engaging in wide-ranging discussion, and lots more changes – all deeply altering many aspects of human experience.

However, I’ll start with a caveat. As a futurist, I’m not in the business of trying to make specific predictions about events that will happen at given dates in the future.

For example, it’s not the task of a futurist to make the (hypothetical) prediction that “The first time a piece of music entirely generated by Artificial Intelligence tops the weekly download charts will be 3pm on the 20th of February 2019.” Instead, futurists are concerned with highlighting a whole range of possible futures. Futurists seek to highlight potential scenarios that deserve fuller study:

  • Are these scenarios credible? Do they involve technology and social assumptions which are mere science fiction, or are they grounded in plausible extensions of what we already know?
  • Are these scenarios desirable? What are their likely drawbacks, as well as their benefits? Their downsides as well as their upsides?
  • Are these scenarios actionable? What can we do to alter the chance of reaching the desirable scenarios, and of avoiding the undesirable ones?

In particular, futurists seek to draw people’s attention to forthcoming threats, before these threats become too damaging, and to forthcoming opportunities, before these opportunities slip outside of our collective grasp due to inaction on our part. In both cases – the threats and the opportunities – the public may at first be slow to see what the futurist sees, and may not appreciate the magnitude of these impending transformations. Futurists therefore need skill to persuade the public: “Look at things this way”. This involves highlighting some general patterns, along with some potential examples.

Technology crossover

One general pattern is that of “technology crossover”. A set of technology which matures inside one product category can jump into adjacent product categories, often enabling the creation of brand new categories. The jump won’t complete overnight – far from it – but the impact can nevertheless be large.

As an example close to the main subject matter of this book, technology which matured inside the smartphone space is already ripe to be recombined in different ways in new types of product:

  • The fierce competition in the smartphone space has led to components being improved in quality, performance, miniaturisation, cost, reliability, and functionality
  • Components of smartphone tech that are ready for re-use in new fields include graphics screens, streaming multimedia, responsive UX, interweaving of multiple wireless networks, GPS and numerous other sensors, battery management, security systems, and (last but not least) associated software platforms and software tools.

Smartphone technology is already being incorporated in devices such as:

  • Tablets and slates
  • Connected consumer electronics (such as cameras and personal navigation devices)
  • Smart clothing – sometimes called “wearable computers” – or a “personal area network”
  • Smart cars – including advanced in-vehicle infotainment
  • Smart robots – with benefits in both industrial automation and for toys
  • Smart meters and smart homes
  • Smart digital signs, that alter their display depending on who is looking at them
  • Smart TVs
  • Mobile medical equipment – including ever smaller, ever smarter “micro-bots”.

This is the grand trend “smartphone technology everywhere”, which supercedes the grand trend “smartphones for all” which describes much of the last decade.

Where things become harder to anticipate is when technology can cross in two directions at the same time – with developments in two (or more) different fields influencing each other. This is sometimes called “convergence”. An important example is “NBIC convergence”, involving crossovers between four different fields:

  • Nanotech: our ability to understand and control matter at the molecular level
  • Biotech: genetic engineering and other advances within life sciences
  • Infotech: storage, communication, and manipulation of the bits underlying information
  • Cognotech: improved understanding of neurons and other elements of brains and minds.

Some examples of interactions between these NBIC fields:

  • Nanotech gives us tiny devices
  • Tiny sensors help neuroscience figure out how the mind works
  • Insights from neuroscience feed into machine intelligence
  • Improving machine intelligence accelerates R&D in every field
  • Biotech and IT advances make body and machine connectable…

We can go beyond “convergence” to “super-convergence”. In his book “The creative destruction of medicine”, clinician Dr Eric Topol describes at some length what he calls a super-convergence of different technological transformations, which are collectively poised to transform the practice of medicine:

  • Genomics, which increasingly indicates connections between individuals’ DNA sequences and their physiological responses to specific drugs and environmental conditions
  • Numerous small sensors – wearable (within clothing) or embeddable (within the body) – that can continuously gather key physiological data, such as blood glucose level, heart rhythm, and blood pressure, and transmit that data wirelessly
  • Improvements to imaging and scanning, that provide clearer information as to what is happening throughout the body (including the brain)
  • Enormous computing power that can manipulate vast amounts of data and spot patterns in it
  • Near ubiquitous smartphones, which can aggregate data from sensors, host all kinds of applications related to health and wellness, and provide early warnings on the need for closer attention
  • 3D manufacturing and synthetic biology, that can create compounds of growing use in medical investigation and bodily repair
  • The adoption of electronic medical records, that allow healthcare professionals to be much more aware of medical history of their patients, reducing the number of problems arising from unexpected interactions between different treatments
  • The emergence of next generation social networks binding together patients with shared interest in particular diseases, allowing crowd-sourcing of new insight about medical conditions
  • Enhanced communications facilities, that enable medical professionals to provide advice and even conduct operations from far-distant locations
  • Improved, free medical training facilities, such as the short videos provided by the Khan Academy.

These trends are each significant in their own right. But it is their convergence – in which the trends interact and magnify each other – which raises the greatest potential for changing existing medical practice. That convergence could lead to:

  • Cures which are faster, more reliable (with fewer side effects), and less expensive
  • Better preventive measures which head off ill-health even before major symptoms arise
  • A fuller understanding of human bodily and mental health, and how to prolong and enhance it.

Obstacles to technology solutions

If technology convergence lives up to its potential, it’s not just medicine that could be substantially improved. Technology has the potential to radically improve human experience all over the globe. By around 2025, technology could deliver enough nutrition, clean energy, information, education, and healthcare, to decisively raise living standards everywhere. Sophisticated computing devices could become miniaturised from hand-carried to wearable and even embedded in our bodies, augmenting our perception, our memory, our intelligence, and our well-being. Fledgling disciplines like genetic engineering and geo-engineering could make giant strides forward, as part of a wider transformation that would see empowered individuals flourishing within smart buildings, smart cities, smart networks, and smart societies – whilst being nourished by smart agriculture. In short, if developed and deployed wisely, technology could provide unprecedented abundance, health, and vitality. We could have a great future ahead of us.

But there are many obstacles to the smooth development and deployment of technology – obstacles that can undermine predictions of faster progress. To return to the example of the transformation of medicine via a convergence of new technologies: Eric Topol explains in his book that this transformation will be far from easy. He unblushingly describes the healthcare system as

“Ultra-conservative”, “ossified”, and “sclerotic”.

The healthcare system has a lot of apprehension about change:

  • Risk aversion – as appropriate with any life and death issue
  • Security and privacy concerns – exacerbated by threats of huge fines for mishandling of patient data
  • Uncertainties about fast-evolving new technology (e.g. personal genomics) that may be over-hyped
  • Long training cycles for medical professionals that placed little emphasis on information technology, and which leave these professionals uneasy with these fields
  • Funding models that emphasise treatment rather than prevention
  • Profit reduction aversion – vs. imperatives to “provide maximum shareholder return”
  • Big Pharma doesn’t want to be associated with drugs or methods with risk of adverse patient reaction.

Another complication is the complexity of the social, business, and legal interactions involved:

  • Multiple different players from different industry backgrounds– who are in need of coordination and a common language
  • Incompatible standards: different technology fails to inter-operate
  • Different regulatory systems worldwide
  • Perverse economic incentives.

In summary, involvement in improving healthcare can be described as “potentially high reward, but definitely high risk”. Similar obstacles tend to apply to other industry sectors too.

I group these general obstacles to technological solutions into five categories:

[ SNIP ]


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