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24 December 2009

Predictions for the decade ahead

Before highlighting some likely key trends for the decade ahead – the 2010’s – let’s pause a moment to review some of the most important developments of the last ten years.

  • Technologically, the 00’s were characterised by huge steps forwards with social computing (“web 2.0”) and with mobile computing (smartphones and more);
  • Geopolitically, the biggest news has been the ascent of China to becoming the world’s #2 superpower;
  • Socioeconomically, the world is reaching a deeper realisation that current patterns of consumption cannot be sustained (without major changes), and that the foundations of free-market economics are more fragile than was previously widely thought to be the case;
  • Culturally and ideologically, the threat of militant Jihad, potentially linked to dreadful weaponry, has given the world plenty to think about.

Looking ahead, the 10’s will very probably see the following major developments:

  • Nanotechnology will progress in leaps and bounds, enabling increasingly systematic control, assembling, and reprogamming of matter at the molecular level;
  • In parallel, AI (artificial intelligence) will rapidly become smarter and more pervasive, and will be manifest in increasingly intelligent robots, electronic guides, search assistants, navigators, drivers, negotiators, translators, and so on.

We can say, therefore, that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology and AI.

We’ll see the following applications of nanotechnology and AI:

  • Energy harvesting, storage, and distribution (including via smart grids) will be revolutionised;
  • Reliance on existing means of oil production will diminish, being replaced by greener energy sources, such as next-generation solar power;
  • Synthetic biology will become increasingly commonplace – newly designed living cells and organisms that have been crafted to address human, social, and environmental need;
  • Medicine will provide more and more new forms of treatment, that are less invasive and more comprehensive than before, using compounds closely tailored to the specific biological needs of individual patients;
  • Software-as-a-service, provided via next-generation cloud computing, will become more and more powerful;
  • Experience of virtual worlds – for the purposes of commerce, education, entertainment, and self-realisation – will become extraordinarily rich and stimulating;
  • Individuals who can make wise use of these technological developments will end up significantly cognitively enhanced.

In the world of politics, we’ll see more leaders who combine toughness with openness and a collaborative spirit.  The awkward international institutions from the 00’s will either reform themselves, or will be superseded and surpassed by newer, more informal, more robust and effective institutions, that draw a lot of inspiration from emerging best practice in open source and social networking.

But perhaps the most important change is one I haven’t mentioned yet.  It’s a growing change of attitude, towards the question of the role in technology in enabling fuller human potential.

Instead of people decrying “technical fixes” and “loss of nature”, we’ll increasingly hear widespread praise for what can be accomplished by thoughtful development and deployment of technology.  As technology is seen to be able to provide unprecedented levels of health, vitality, creativity, longevity, autonomy, and all-round experience, society will demand a reprioritisation of resource allocation.  Previous sacrosanct cultural norms will fall under intense scrutiny, and many age-old beliefs and practices will fade away.  Young and old alike will move to embrace these more positive and constructive attitudes towards technology, human progress, and a radical reconsideration of how human potential can be fulfilled.

By the way, there’s a name for this mental attitude.  It’s “transhumanism”, often abbreviated H+.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology, AI, and H+.

As for the question of which countries (or regions) will play the role of superpowers in 2020: it’s too early to say.

Footnote: Of course, there are major possible risks from the deployment of nanotechnology and AI, as well as major possible benefits.  Discussion of how to realise the benefits without falling foul of the risks will be a major feature of public discourse in the decade ahead.

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7 Comments »

  1. David, interesting post. I would may be add genetic screening and pre-emptive medicine as something that will become part our lives in the next decade. It is not as revolutionary than the other technologies and ideas you are mentioning but I happened to be a guinea pig for a biotech startup in San Diego, I donated some saliva and from there, by matching various DNA paterns, they were able to identify 4 key risks of major illness I have. I knew of three of them as my Dad had the same, the fourth one came as a surprise (obesity…looking at me it doesn’t look that obvious…). Anyway, I think the way we look at medicine in the future will be revolutionized as we will be taking pills and go through various treatments from the youngest age to avoid a highly probable illness in the future and then of course we’ll have genetic treatments at the foetus level to avoid a probable breast cancer or other terrible illness 40 years later. Merry Christmas! Christophe

    Comment by Christophe Jouin — 24 December 2009 @ 8:25 pm

    • Hi Christophe,

      Agreed, the growing power of genetic screening and pre-emptive medicine will be a powerful trend in the coming years. I see this as being enabled by the ability to rapidly analyse individual DNA – which (very loosely) falls under the heading of nanotechnology.

      As the old saying goes, “a stitch in time, saves nine”. Addressing potential medical issues before they become serious makes great sense financially, as well as enabling longer, healthier lives.

      Comment by David Wood — 25 December 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  2. Hi David,

    I was surprised to see that you didn’t mention robotics unless I blinked and missed it (see : http://hardware.slashdot.org/story/09/12/23/2321245/The-Best-Robots-of-2009).

    I still think we’re a long way from either “smart” AI or from general public use of virtual worlds for anything other than games – although lots of very interesting things are happening in Augmented Reality and I’m looking forward to seeing Natal when it comes out.

    I agree that there is a big change of attitude underway but where I really see it making a huge impact is in the social networking space (see Wikia) – especially the political arena (see MySociety, Change Congress, etc). For an excellent talk on this see Clay Shirkey at TED (http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html).

    Comment by David Durant — 25 December 2009 @ 12:00 am

    • Hi David,

      >I was surprised to see that you didn’t mention robotics – unless I blinked and missed it

      You blinked 🙂

      A search for the word “robot” will produce one hit from my original article.

      However, you’re right that this deserves more prominence. The version of this posting that ends up in the book I’m writing will give more prominence to the expected role of robots in the years ahead.

      By the way, thanks for the pointer to the Clay Shirky TED video, “How social media can make history”. It’s well worth watching!

      Comment by David Wood — 25 December 2009 @ 2:37 pm

  3. Another good video I like to show people – just in case you’ve not seen it : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ILQrUrEWe8

    Comment by David Durant — 25 December 2009 @ 2:38 am

    • That “Did You Know 4.0” video is good – thanks for the reminder 🙂

      Comment by David Wood — 25 December 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  4. David,

    I disagree “that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology and AI.” I’ll deal with the two topics separately.

    Nanotechnology. The problem is that nanotechnology is so widely used that it is almost meaningless. I’ve seen nanotechnology used to describe everything from the particles in suntan lotion, to computer chips, to DNA microarrays to molecular scale machines. Saying the 2010s will be the decade of nanotechnology is a bit like the advice Benjamin Braddock got in “The Graduate” – “Plastics”. Saying the 2010s will be the decade of nanotechnology is hardly more specific that saying the 2010s will be the decade of technology.

    I, of course, agree that various technologies at the nano-scale will be extremely important in the 2010s. But if you are making predictions for the next decade, then I think you need to be more specific.

    AI. Again part of the problem is that AI encompasses a wide variety of things. I take a narrower view of AI. For example I don’t consider the advances in machine translation over the past decade an advance in AI, I more consider them the result of brute force analysis on huge quantities of text. I wouldn’t consider a car that could safely drive itself along a motorway an advance in AI, rather it would be the integration of a number of existing technologies. I don’t really consider the improvement of an algorithm that does a specific thing (search, navigate, play chess) an advance in AI, since generally such an improvement cannot be used outside it’s narrow field of application.

    But the main reason I don’t consider AI to a major development area for the next decade is simpler. It’s no longer a sexy subject. The smartest minds are not going into AI in quantity, they are going into other fields.

    Comment by Martin Budden — 7 January 2010 @ 10:50 am


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