What will the next decades bring?
It's no exaggeration to say we're on the cusp of scientific and technological advancements that will change how we live.
Renowned futurist Dr. Michio Kaku characterizes this technological shift as moving from the "age of discovery" to the "age of mastery," a new period in our history where we'll be able to harness our technologies and control our destinies.
Last May, The McKinsey Global Institute published an informative analysis that examined the economic impact of global technology trends. The study, called "Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy," identified the technologies that matter most to the global economy, sustainability, and improving the human condition.
[If we don't control the technology we depend on, someone else will -- and we might not like the consequences. Read Technology Automation: Who's The Boss?]
The McKinsey study, along with Google's recent acquisitions of artificial intelligence and robotic companies, and my own company Xerox's special history of innovation (at PARC), inspired me to compile a list of three areas where technological transformation will shape our lives.
The digital age and The Internet of Things
We've come a long way from the cumbersome, slow PCs of the 70s to Google Glass and paper-thin mobile devices. We are now at the footstep of quantum computing in the cloud with flexible and wearable electronics. Cisco, which termed the "The Internet of Everything," predicts that 50 billion devices, including our smartphones, appliances, and office equipment, will be wirelessly connected via a network of sensors to the Internet by 2020.
Along with computing comes artificial intelligence. Human/computer interface will extend our human brain capacities, memories, and capabilities. At a conference last year on how the world will look in 2045, Google futurist Ray Kurzweil said that mankind will "expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold" and that the power of computing doubles, on average, every two years.
McKinsey predicts a $5 to 7 trillion potential economic impact by 2025 from automation of knowledge work by intelligent software systems. We may also have artificially intelligent personal assistants, perhaps even in holographic forms in some sort of augmented reality.
There is already an explosion in data analytics from the mounds of information we produce. New advanced technologies for data mining and predictive analytics will be used in all informatics aspects of our lives as consumers, patients, and employees.
Big data analytics has the potential to improve healthcare by identifying the best pathways in treatments and administration of patient medicines, as well as predicting the spread of the flu. In retail, data analytics can predict when and what consumers are buying. The mathematical applications used in analyzing large data sets can be used to predict societal change at almost every level of human interaction.
Health & medicine
Perhaps health and medicine is the most profound area of technological innovation. Numerous breakthroughs in genomics anti-aging therapies will extend our longevity and quality of life. Recently, Harvard Medical School Researcher of Genetics David Sinclair published findings about a single anti-aging enzyme in the body, known scientifically as SIRT1, that can prevent ailments such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and type 2 diabetes. Biologists recently extended the life spans of mice by as much as 70% through rejuvenation experiments.
The medical community will be able to implant devices such as bionic eyes and bionic kidneys or artificially grown and regenerated human organs. The world's first bionic eye, a retinal implant that helps restore vision to patients blinded by a degenerative eye disease, was recently approved by the FDA and will soon be on the market.
The global artificial vital organs and medical bionics market is expected to reach $32.3 billion in 2018. There are some early stage prototypes of artificial vital organs such as artificial hearts, kidneys, lungs, liver, and pancreas.
In the next few years, computerized exoskeletons and personal robots will be
employed to assist the disabled and elderly. Some scientists think that eventually all our biological functions will be replaced by bionic machines.
The extent that humans are replaced by robot helpers or morphed into man-machines is an interesting philosophical question. Joan Slonczewski, a microbiologist at Kenyon college, notes that humans have continuously redefined intelligence and transferred those tasks to machines. Slonczewski asks: "Could we evolve ourselves out of existence, being gradually replaced by the machines?" I think it is possible but still in the realm of science fiction.
As for tech advancements in patient care: Doctors will have new abilities for remote monitoring and treatment of patients that will benefit isolated areas and poorer countries. Wounds will also be repaired with robotic surgical systems and new procedures. A start-up, RevMedx, which develops products for military medics and emergency services, has created a device that can heal a gunshot wound in 15 seconds via an applicator filled with dozens of tiny sponges.
Advanced robotics will also have an impact on the cost and precision of manufacturing. Exciting research in materials science are creating stronger, more durable, lighter, and even "self-healing" materials.
3D Printing is already here. In fact, BAE systems successfully made spare parts for Tornado fighter jets by engineering metal parts with 3D printing technology. 3D printing will be replaced by 4D printing essentially by machines that assemble themselves. Such concepts have already been proven at MIT Self-Assembly Technologies lab. Printed electronics are a next step.
The capability to design and manufacture infrastructure such as bridges, roads, and buildings with stronger, self-intelligent, and seemingly eternal materials will help revolutionize the construction and transportation industries. In the latter, self-driving vehicles will become the norm and be fueled by solar power and photovoltaic batteries. New scientific and manufacturing breakthroughs will also lead to enhanced agricultural production, water purification, and full energy independence.
Of course there are mitigating factors when dealing with humans (Albert Einstein once observed that "the problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.") Technology advances may originally have altruistic intent, but there is always the possibility for misuse. The mastering of big data can also lead to control by dictatorships over its citizens. Developments in biotech can have dual-use applications for bioterrorism. As technology proliferates, the destructive capabilities of our adversaries can also grow with the advent of specialized algorithms, powerful lasers, and nano-military applications.
And, there is always the fear of machines run amok (such as driverless cars) and the errors often associated with early-stage deployment of new technologies. As always, human health and welfare will need to be overriding priorities.
Despite the potential pitfalls, what is evident is that science and technology will pave our futures. How we harness for good should be our focus. The list of potential scientific breakthroughs that I shared only touches the surface. It's an ever-expanding list and the future beckons.
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