What impact could today’s fledgling technologies have on the humans of the future? Laurence Weir, Head of Biomedical Engineering at Plextek, explores the possible implications.
Humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future. We tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short term and underestimate the effect in the long run. This is because progress is exponential, while our predictions tend to be linear. And it is all but impossible to predict discoveries, what discoveries will make possible, and how they can impact our lives.
However, it is becoming apparent that several technologies, which are in their infancy or early development today, will have dramatic effects on the way we live our lives in future years. Although we cannot predict their consequences, many of us reading this will live to see changes in our lives of greater magnitude than print, the combustion engine, and the internet.
Genetic engineering, biotechnology, medical technology
We are beginning to sense what may be possible as we move from engineering biological systems and products outside the body to engineering the human body itself. Techniques like CRISPR and other gene technologies will soon allow us to safely modify the human genome.
Undoubtedly these techniques will be debated, controlled, limited, or possibly even banned completely, but history tells us that sooner or later they will come into use. And as a result, we could see body augmentation capabilities that will enable humans to be smarter, stronger, more capable, or simply just plain different.
Changes in physiology may include everything from modifying hair colour to eliminating specific diseases to increasing muscle size, giving rise to humans that are more resilient, capable, and healthy, leading to a transhuman society in which our human 1.0 bodies have been upgraded to a far more effective human 2.0.
Robots are already deeply involved in our lives, from industrial automated machines that can rapidly and precisely assemble vehicles to chatbots and other interactive systems that use conversational interfaces to interact and provide information and assistance.
They are likely to play an increasingly important role in our lives, taking on even more procedures where reliability and precision are important, or where the practice is an unwanted or a dangerous chore for some people, such as cleaning, building maintenance or repairs in a hazardous environment.
As machines become capable of interacting further with the world and with humans (so-called collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’), we are likely to see an increase in their physical support role, for example in the care sector. Robots are also likely to be increasingly used in the delivery of healthcare and in medical operations, where surgical robots can perform extremely precise operations under challenging or hazardous conditions.
It has been suggested that up to 30% of current jobs could be automated through robotic systems by the mid-2030s. This will lead to a shift in employment for humans into roles where more social and empathic skills are required, such as teaching, caregiving and other emotionally supportive roles. Similarly, doctors may see a shift from the direct practice of medicine to providers of information, guidance, and support for their patients.
This process of the increasing obsolescence of human labour is certain to accelerate through parallel developments in Artificial Intelligence. There are many sectors where AI is already augmenting human capabilities, for example in solving the highly complex challenges of weather forecasting or the impact and amelioration of environmental change. Other sectors include legal processes or medical diagnosis, where deriving insightful conclusions from knowledge of complex data sets is required. But in addition, AI is likely to drive massive innovation in many existing professions and industries, with the potential for creating new jobs in areas that we cannot currently predict.
AI systems currently have limitations, in particular relating to their overall flexibility, as they tend to be specialised for particular tasks. That will gradually change as AI systems become capable of processing different types of input and improve their effectiveness at creating real innovation from data synergies. At some point, they may be capable of passing the Turing test, in which an AI is may be indistinguishable from human intelligence.
Perhaps the area whose impact on the future is least well understood is nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on a near-atomic scale to produce new structures, materials, and devices with a vast range of applications. The promise of this technology encompasses medicine, materials, manufacturing, electronics, energy production, and consumer products.
Unsurprisingly, nanotechnology raises many of the same issues as other new technologies, including concerns about the environmental impact of nanomaterials, and their potential effects on global economics, as well as speculation about various apocalyptic scenarios (the ‘grey goo’).
We may not know what lies in our future, but we can be sure that life in 50 years will be radically different from today. How we, and society at large, adjusts to those changes will define the type of world in which we will live.