Technological Mega-trends 2013 – 2113

Proposing mega-trends is more than just looking in a crystal ball. Mega-trends are mostly identified as extrapolations of past and current developments. And there are more mega-trends than only technological ones. For example social and economical mega-trends are profound and have strong mutual interaction with technological mega-trends. After-all technological development requires funding, and funding requires a certain prioritization: The question, for example, if we should spend our money on  the development of space flight or create better medical care is a valid one.

As I have argued in previous posts, there is ample evidence that investments in big science and in big technology have an accelerator effect on economic activities. For every dollar of community investments in NASA the private sector receives back 7 dollars. Part of that is “just” jobs, but also stimulation of e.g. medical sciences and medical methods is evident. Therefore I have argued in favor of spending big bucks on big science and big technology. And that is what we have been doing for quite a while.

In this post I will list the 7 mega-trends that I see, will explain what they are, and what is the rationale behind each of them. In later posts I will dig deeper into each on them, and will aim to post updates on them as time goes by. It will be interesting to see which of these trends actually materializes, and which mega-trends we completely miss. I also would welcome comments and criticism regarding my top-7!

Looking at where we come from I see the following technological mega-trends for the following 100 years, so until 2115.

Genetics

Since DNA was identified in 1944 as the molecule type that carries the blue print for all life of Earth, scientists have come a long way: Watson and Crick discovered in 1953 the double helix structure of DNA and how the code was copied for generation of proteins and for reproduction. Then we learnt the mechanism of meiosis and mitosis. And in the early 21st century the human genome was completely sequenced. Hard work is ongoing to identify which genes are located exactly where on the genome.

Double Helix DNA

We now understand that the genome contains all the information necessary to generate an organisms that is very similar to the parent organism. We also understand that the genome contains lots of non-functional code, and dysfunctional code. Some of that dysfunctional code is specific to certain individuals. These variants will show certain diseases. Other dysfunctional code is in all the instances of the species, and causes e.g. ageing. Actually aging and dying of individuals is probably very functional for a species as a whole, but that is a discussion we will have in a later post in more detail.

The better we understand the mechanisms of reproduction, both on the level of the species and on the level of the individual cells, the better we will be able to make modifications to the genetic code in order to cure the dysfunctional parts. Inherited diseases are being re-engineered as we speak, genetic limitations that e.g. cause ageing are now under the microscope.

Initial ethical doubts will disappear as the general public will adapt to the principle of genetic improvement and enhancement. Resistance will become a fringe phenomenon, just as resistance to inoculation is today.

Genetic engineering will be used, step by little step, to drive at least three of the other mega-trends mentioned below: Life extension and space flight and terra-forming.


Prosthetics

In our drive to improve the quality of life we use all means available. Apart from genetic engineering and “classical” biochemical pharmacy, more and more are we using non-biological methods of solving biological problems. Obviously this is already a very old approach: think of the wooden legs and hooks of old days, but also of spectacles. But today we are able to create very many non-biological devices that support biological life: from hearing aids to pace makers, from artificial hearts to artificial kidneys, all the way to Deep Brain Stimulation to soften the impact of certain brain defects like epilepsy and Parkinson disease.

Prosthetic hand

We start to understand that there is nothing special about biological mechanisms, apart from them being very complex and very delicate. There are basically no limits to enhancing biological functionality with non-biological technology. We will see step by step an increase in these technologies, so that the lame can walk, the blind can see and the deaf can hear. And we will be able to enhance our brains. We already start to understand how the brain works, and what APIs the brain has, how we can connect our electronic processors to communicate with the chemo-electrical circuitry of the brain. This will be a major development, that will make our intellectual capabilities increase exponentially.


Life Extension

Immortality has been the Holy Grail for as long as we have records of human thinking. Probably immortality would be unbearable, but a significant extension of our lives would be something to strive for. And that is what we have done for centuries, with quite some success. The average life expectancy increased from below 40 less than 200 years ago in Western Europe to over 80 in 2010. Current thinking is that without fundamental developments in genetic engineering and other medical techniques the increase in life expectancy will top out somewhere around 100 – 106 years.

But these advanced methods are already being developed, with successful experiments doubling the lifespan of mice. I expect these developments to receive ample attention and funding, with the actual life expectancy increasing to well beyond 100, and with preservation of quality of life.

A phase in-between life extension, prosthetics and robotics is the field of non-biological life. I will not dive too deep into that right now, but this entails transplanting the complete conscious and subconscious footprint of a biological person into a non-biological mechanism. This is a fascinating field that has been used a lot by SciFi writers, just think of the talking space ships with personality in both Dr. Who and in the Culture books by Iain Banks (The Culture Boxed Set: Consider Phlebas, Player of Games and Use of Weapons).


Robotics

Robotics is popular among SciFi fans, and has a futuristic ring. However, robotics is a simple extension of the millennia long quest to create tools to make our life and work easier. Robots are tools that are controlled by artificial intelligence. Note that we live in a world that is full of robots, but we do not recognize them as such because the do not have a humanoid form. Machine intelligence will increase exponentially, both in the number of devices that contain artificial intelligence, and in the level of intelligence these devices have.

Robots

Most of these robots will not look like humans, or dogs, or anything living. The intelligence will reside for example in our cars (that will themselves prevent accidents) and in our houses (that will optimize for energy consumption and comfort, and will order groceries). Ubiquitous intelligence, to serve you and me.

Will we get human-like robots? Maybe. Because it is cool. Or because it would be a generic tool, that can handle all tools that are designed for handling by humans. In the end this will be a cost-benefit decision. Do not expect intelligent artificial men and women to roam our streets any time soon. But do expect year to year an increasing amount of artificial intelligence all around you!


Space Travel

Space was hot in the ’60s and ’70s. Then it cooled down, after the space race was preliminary won by the USA. The International Space Station, the gorgeous photos from the different space telescopes, and the Mars rovers have warmed up the mood for space again, after a cool-down period of ever decreasing budgets. Definitively also the discovery of hundreds of (exo-) planets around nearby stars has stimulated the taste for space again.

The good thing is that now most countries that were competing with each other during the Cold War are now partners in Space: The IIS is a splendid joint effort by NASA, the Russian space agency, ESA (European Space Agency), Canada and Japan. Only China and North-Korea still consider space as a nationalistic effort, with all the waste that this approach causes. Large scientific and technical enterprises like space travel require big budgets, long and stable commitments, and should probably be handled as global efforts, efforts by humanity as a whole.

Space exploration

When we look at the picture “Pale Blue Dot“, the picture taken by Voyager 1 at a distance of 6 billion km, we start to understand what a tiny place our mother Earth is, less than a grain of sand in an almost endless Universe. The fragility of Earth is so evident. Do we want to wait, like all those extinct species before us, until something hits this planet, and also wipes us out? Or do we want to use the brains that have catapulted us ahead of all other species on our planet, and start with some serious spreading of the risks? I guess the answer to this question is evident. Therefore we need to continue our investigation of the Universe, pick up again with manned and unmanned space flight, and start seriously investigating planets and moons. First inside our own solar system. And after that also towards planets accompanying nearby stars. A pretty good further argumentation for (manned) space exploration is Zubrin’s The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. I will return to his argumentation is another post.

The technological developments needed for such interstellar travel are magnificent. But we are working on each one of them. It is a matter of having a direction, and then keep working on it!

Terra-Forming

The previous mega-trend already implied trips to other planets. What to do once we are there? Mars as it is does not support human life – or Earth plants and animals, for that matter. The search for exo-planets that contain liquid water, an atmosphere that humans can breath in (so closely resembling our atmosphere), can take a long, long time. But planets that are located in the habitual zone of it’s host star, and that contain, either in it’s atmosphere or in it’s soil or oceans, the needed substances for a useful atmosphere are probably plenty. All we need to do is go there and create a biologically habitual atmosphere using the technologies we have. We are pretty good at changing atmospheres. We have been doing that for many years on Earth. Here we change the atmosphere in the wrong direction. But we can use the same mechanisms to terra-form a planet.

Terraforming

These processes take time, in the order of magnitude of 100 – 300 years. But what is such a period in the history of men? Let alone in the history of life on Earth? Just imagine that in the time of Newton we would have started the terra-forming process of Mars: She would be a green planet by now!

Terra-forming will take time. However, I included it as one of the mega-trends, because terra-forming, or some form of climatic engineering, will be required to make further colonization of space feasible. So I expect that in the coming century this will probably not so much be actually executed, but will be a strong driver for research and development.

Energy

All we do requires energy, lots of energy. This goes especially for space travel. Inside the Solar system we can probably still manage with existing technologies of propulsion, as soon as we want to go beyond we need some serious oomph! We do understand the physics of potential energy creation: fission, fusion and matter-antimatter annihilator, to mention a few. But we will need to be able to engineer these principles in a workable fashion. That requires a sense of purpose. I again refer to the book by Zubrin, mentioned and linked above.

The mega-trends above may appear far-fetched. But let’s just look back in history. Check out what we have accomplished in the last 100 years that would have appeared fantasy in 1915: computing, men on the Moon, robot rovers in Mars, a completely decoded human genome, to name just a few.

No matter how big an effort may seem to realise these mega-trends, they are small compared with other efforts accomplished by humans, and take just a short time in our history.

Seven mega-trends that will liberate men and women. Liberation from the limits of a short life. Liberation from the limits of biological being. Liberation from the need to do all work ourselves in order to be able to survive. And liberate from the limits of our Earth. See here a program for guiding funding, both public and private, to the relevant R&D programs.

I am looking forward to receive your top-mega-trend list, so we can check that we have the right ones. This list will drive a lot of the writing I am planning for months and years to come on this blog.

A Bright Future?

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