(This article is part of the ‘Think Further’ series, sponsored by Fred Alger Management. For more ‘Think Further’ content and videos, click here.)
Yesterday I participated in a Twitter discussion about the future of technology. The assignment: imagine how things could change over the next fifty years. It was a huge brief, and I was glad (honored!) to have noted sf author, futurist, and scientist David Brin on the Twitterpanel with other foresightful folks. Discussion was fast and generous.
Preparing for it, I set myself several conceptual frameworks. One is the problem of perceiving technology over different timescales. We often overestimate a new technology’s impact in the short term, impact, while underestimating its long-term. Applying this, we might imagine many technologies we currently see as emerging (social media, mobile devices, wearable computing, gaming, big data) will increase in importance over the next decades.
A second concept was returning technology to culture. It’s a mistake to separate the two, or to consider the former without looking at the latter. Futuring (and looking at the present) gains much by combining the two. This lets us anticipate cultural changes as new technologies appear and grow. For example, new forms of storytelling have already appeared in gaming, from branching narratives to the MMO experience. Another example is the way popularly used mobile devices have altered the rules for political participation.
Imagine how cultures will change over the next decades as these technologies grow further – then imagine what utterly new technologies will appear from those new cultures.
Bearing those two ideas in mind, I headed into the Twitter discussion, and found much of it focused on a different conceptual pair: artificial intelligence and robotics. Participants were keen to explore their fates under the impact of what I took to calling AI/bots, since the two seem likely to meld into one. Setting fifty years as a limit let us step away from current frustrations with those technologies, and consider ethical, political, and personal issues.
Economics led the way, as we pondered what kind of work and society would result from massive infusions of automation. We thrashed out the unemployment problem, and debated what kinds of new, post-automation jobs would appear. Versions of the culture of 2054 began to appear: widespread unemployment, or many people working as bot-herders, or swarms of new ways of making a living. Emotion-literate technologies challenged human relations, eliciting the possibility of machines becoming better able to assess people’s emotions than, well, people.
Turning to my two leading ideas, I raised the idea of social media uses of AI, but David Brin beat me to it, wondering about massive assemblages of sensors used by distributed AIs. This could happen if we continue shifting more of our lives to social media, uploading ever more content, for decades, and if AI evolves to take advantage of it. What kind of entities would these AIs become: corporate, political organizations, religious movements, art projects?
…and then our Twitter panel’s time was up. We paused on that note of rapidly expanding possibility.
I need some time to reflect on the discussion, and return to this post.