22 October 2009

Possible tomorrows

I recently read Halal's 2008 book on projections of future developments in the world: Technology's Promise: Expert Knowledge on the Transformation of Business and Society. The book was created through interviews with experts in a number of fields regarding their views on future developments within their areas of study. I found the book to be a bit optimistic, but hopefully, the author is correct and mankind will mature and thus take a giant step forward instead of following on its ass. The most exciting prediction, in my opinion, is contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. While experts tend to vary quite a bit, the book's experts estimates converge around 2040. Below, I've quoted a section of the book that provides an overview of the chapters:

Chapter 2: Transition to a Sustainable World

We start by showing that industrialization is likely to cover most of the globe at about 2030 producing a three- to five-fold leap in the demand for energy and other scarce resources, in pollution levels, global warming, and other aspects of the industrialization-energy-environment crisis. The modernization of China and India alone will double or triple these problems. Our forecasts show that some of these issues are likely to be resolved over the next 10 to 15 years. Corporations are now moving to green business practices because the inevitability of this transition has made environmental management a competitive advantage spurring a huge boom in anything green. The issue of global warming is likely to be addressed seriously about 2012, and alternative energy should make a good-sized dent in the use of carbon fuels about 2020. This chapter concludes that the industrialization-energy-environment crisis actually is a great opportunity in disguise. The transition to a sustainable world will produce an enormous new industry to manage the earth and may even serve to unify people after centuries of ethnic sectarian and tribal conflict.

Chapter 3: Globalization Goes High-Tech

Chapter 3 will show that old smoking factories of the industrial age are yielding to intelligent manufacturing systems operating virtually to produce almost anything cheaply, quickly, and customized to order. Research in materials and nanotechnology is making it possible to design almost any type of product and mass customization can deliver an endless stream of sophisticated goods customized for each individual driven by the logic of cheap labor in new markets.  These changes promise to bring material abundance to poor nations over the next few decades, eliminating much of the poverty that blights the planet. The tension in this emerging world of plenty, however, will be mounting demand for scarce resources like oil, massive loads on the environment, and more clashes between diverse cultures, as in the conflict between the West and Islam.

Chapter 4: Society Moves Online

Advances in broadband wireless and AI are inexorably moving life online as computer power becomes cheap, ever-present and intelligent. Our forecasts show that today’s rapid growth of online entertainment, e-tailing, virtual education and other such e-commerce services will soon dominate modern economies.  Over a long-term, optics, quantum physics, and nanotechnology offer the hope of continuing the gains in computer power when silicon chips are unable to further improve performance (Moore’s Law). Within a decade or so we could simply speak to high fidelity images on large wall monitors while working, shopping, learning, and conducting almost all other social functions.  You might buy something by simply talking with an on-screen robot that greets you by name, knows all the merchandise and displays it on demand, answers questions and has infinite patience—the perfect salesperson.

Chapter 5: Mastery over Life

A variety of breakthroughs in medicine and biogenetics is likely to provide mastery over the process of life itself. Artificial organs are being developed to replace almost all bodily functions, including parts of the brain, and stem cell research is increasingly able to repair organs.  Life extension techniques are expected to raise average life spans to 100 years within a few decades, and possibly beyond the Biblical 120 years.  Just as the industrial age mastered most aspects of the physical world, the knowledge age is now making it possible to master the biological world.  Yes, it sounds too good to be true, but so did the notion that man could fly, much less travel to the moon.  We also explore how this progress presents social and moral dilemmas that will have to be solved.  How will we make difficult medical choices about stem cell research, design babies, life extension, euthanasia, and other sensitive matters?

Chapter 6: Faster and Faster

Travel is being reinvented to manage an explosion of global commerce.  We will describe the emergence of the “intelligent car,” maglev trains floating between major cities on a cushion of air at 400 mph, and Mach 10 hypersonic aircraft that could reduce flying times around the globe from 30 hours to three hours. It may seem that information systems could replace travel, but information forms a virtual world that parallels the physical world.  People will always want to visit each other, handle the merchandise, and hammer out tough decisions together.  The need for physical contact is inexhaustible, and some studies show that growing virtual contact only makes face-to-face relations more necessary.  The physical and virtual worlds coexist in parallel dimensions, so travel will likely grow alongside the movement of information.  Thus we forecast that there will be no rest for the weary road warrior.

Chapter 7: The Final Frontier

Space tourism is likely to become common in one decade, and we are likely to see the establishment of a permanent moon base and a man landing on Mars in about two decades.  But the ultimate challenge of deep space travel to distant solar systems awaits fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of physics.  The distances of deep space are so enormous and our capabilities so puny that it will take long, intense research to discover ways to traverse them.  Our estimates suggest the needed scientific breakthroughs are likely to arise from about 2050, which coincides with our forecasts for deep space travel.  Forecasting anything that far off seems foolhardy, but it is compelling that a variety of sources suggest travel services star systems is likely about this time.

Chapter 8: Shifting Structures of Society

Here we explore how this technological upheaval is restructuring business government medicine education and other institutions as a knowledge-based world alters the basis of economics and leadership.

Financial investment powered the industrial age when capital was needed to build manufacturing capability.  But today, speed, agility, knowledge, collaboration, and innovation are the critical factors needed to survive a world of creative destruction, fickle clients, transient workers, and shifting social values.  That’s why corporations are constantly in flux, scandals like Enron highlight ethical failures, government is struggling to redefine itself, education is going virtual, and rising medical costs are unsustainable.

We will see that two main trends are driving institutional change.  Hierarchies are dispersing into “self managed teams” able to manage complexity by harnessing the knowledge of ordinary people.  And the old focus on profit is yielding to a “corporate community” of collaborative partnerships among employees, clients, business alliances, investors, and the public.  These two major trends represent a synthesis of the Western ideals of free enterprise and democracy, offering the possibility of resolving the political impasse between right and left that grips the U.S. and much of the world.

Chapter 9: An Age of Consciousness

Here we explore what follows information and knowledge. Just as the agrarian economies yielded to manufacturing, which is now being eclipsed by services and information, the knowledge economy eventually will run its course as well.

Services have been automating for years (ATMs, airline kiosks, etc.) and wealthy nations now fear that even knowledge – once thought him even to export – is moving offshore to lower paid people in developing nations.  Various forms of AI are spreading, like the intelligent agent that answers your phone calls, smart computers, and cars that talk to us.  All-purpose robots are so well developed that the Japanese and Koreans expect to be selling equivalents of R2-D2 to families by about 2010.

This “automation of mental work” poses one of the most fascinating issues of our time –Is there a fundamental difference between machine intelligence and human intelligence?  Despite the fact that about 90% of us are utterly convinced that human thought surpasses sheer information, could we all be wrong?  Everybody wants accepted the flat earth model of the world for millennia.  Is science poised for another great revolution demonstrating that we are fundamentally not much more than white computers?  Or will this critical issue force us to accept the domain of consciousness and human spirit as the new frontier?  This chapter explores some of the most challenging of fundamental questions now before us.
Chapter 10: Scenarios

We conclude by integrating all forecast across fields in vivid, decade-by-decade scenarios to explore how this wave of innovation is likely to unfold – a sort of surrogate for time travel. 

2010 should see even greater advances in information systems and e-commerce, making most of the world smarter, faster, and fully wired.  By 2028 I will permeate our lives and permit huge advances in telemedicine, virtual education, and E.-government.  About 2030, industrialization is likely to reach most developing nations, enabling as many as 5 billion people to live in modern levels.  An intercultural conflict, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and threats of environmental collapse will pose an historic crisis of maturity that challenges basic worldviews.  By 2050, this crisis of maturity is likely to be resolved with the emergence of a modernized global society, somewhat like a far larger and more diverse version of the US or EU local wars, ecological disasters, and other troubles will continue but limited to the normal dysfunctions of any social system.

We then move across the scenarios outlined a larger path of civilization’s progress. The agriculture, manufacturing, and service stages have largely been completed in modern nations, and we are now passing rapidly through the knowledge phase toward some form of global consciousness.  I will show this movement through ever more powerful stages of development comprises a great “lifecycle of evolution,” somewhat like the individual human life cycle but vastly larger and longer.  Today’s crises, and their eventual resolution, can be better understood in the context of this great arc of civilization now approaching the brink of global maturity.

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