Friday, 4 July 2008

Your survival is not mandatory.

I went along to last week's Visions of the Future event at London's Science Museum as organised by the New Scientist. The aim of the event was to present awards to those who had won a competition to decide which technology would have the biggest impact on our working lives in 50 years’ time. However, shoring up the awards ceremony were futurologists James Bellini and Ray Hammond and I was keen to hear what they had to say about how our lives are going to change over the the remainder of this century.

My trick back meant that I took a seat towards the back of the 500 or so guests as they milled about quaffing wine and eating canapes. So whilst I saw very little of the speakers, I had the opportunity to sit and think about what they had to say instead of shuffling from foot to foot.

Bellini kicked off with some definitions. Most importantly he makes a differentation between digital natives and digital immigrants. Those who've grown up with the internet and mobile phones are without doubt digital natives, whereas those who've begun to adopt and adapt tend to form the digital immigrant community. The main point though is, when over 50% of the world's population has yet to make a phone-call, most of us are still digital immigrants!

A lot of the commentary which followed focused on work and its shift from being somewhere we go to, to something we do. This, combined with our ongoing immersion in an always-on, always-connected, networked world introduces wider concepts such as the wisdom of the crowd and the worldwide conversation. By 2020, Bellini suggests that 80% of all workers will be free-workers or teleworkers. Yes people will still meet up. The hotdesking trend of the '90s continues, but human nature still intervenes as regular staff get in earlier and earlier to bag the same hotdesk every day!

Hammond followed on from Bellini with a number of clear themes which he feels are going to shape our future. Firstly, the world population explosion actually underpins a number of the subsequent themes, particularly the energy and food crisis, as we seek to find enough water for a global population set to almost double in our lifetimes.

Unsurprisingly, the climate crisis was up next. Hammond refuses to use the term climate change, which sounds more like a lifestyle choice or global warming which almost hints at being a good thing.

In discussing the looming energy crisis Hammond reassured his audience that oil will never ever run out. This is simply because it will become far too expensive to burn.

Globalisation is a theme which can probably contribute the most as a force for goodness and peace across the planet, as it lifts millions out of poverty.

A revolution in medicine will see us shifting towards the prevention of the disease and extending life. Nano medicines and stem cell technologies may see us regrowing and replacing organs within 15 years!

The exponential accleration in technological development is a critical theme, as it just might contain some of the answers to the challenges set by the others. As the Moore's Law curve reaches the near vertical we will draw closer to what Hammond describes as a singularity event between 2028 and 2035.

If this sounds like science fiction, that's because it has been to date, but around that time computers will become as clever as humans. In the years to follow, they will carry on along that same curve. So after a year they'll be twice as clever as we are, after two years, they'll be four times as smart, and so on. Scary stuff for Terminator fans. However, we simply don't know what lies beyond the singularity and just how technology will be brought to bear on the other challenges we face.

Will this super-human intelligence be able to deliver renewable energy sources quickly enough to enable us to reduce the density of carbon in our atmosphere in sufficient time to avert disaster. Will it enable us develop new crops and food technologies to meet the needs of the world's burgeoning population.

Of course, we simply don't know, but it just might be too soon to give up hope for Lent.

On the other hand, something reminded Hammond of a final theme, just before the close of the event. The others... the bottom billion people on the world who don't form part of the developing 2.2 billion. If we don't do something for them, the revolution in cheap and ubiquitous communications means that they will see our lifestyles and they will come and take it for themselves by whatever means necessary. What's more, we may not notice this final theme until it is too late.

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