Executive Summaries Aug 29, 2019
Tech Trends of the Past and of the Future
Over a century ago, a group of French illustrators, including Jean-Marc Côté, was tasked with producing an image series depicting technological advances that they imagined the mankind would achieve by the year 2000. Today, some of the predictions appear absurd to us, like a tram car strapped to the belly of a humpback whale, while others – not so much.
A careful observer, however, may notice a recurring motif in the futuristic illustrations: people dreamed of flying. The idea of a flying automobile was first introduced by Jules Verne in his 1904 novel, Master of the World. Later, in the early 40’s, Henry Ford famously stated: "Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”
Will it really though?
Mobility: Automation vs Flight
Cars that are being manufactured today are considerably more advanced than what was driven a decade, let alone a century ago. For instance, as self-driving software, LiDAR technologies and other detection hardware are being refined, capability and especially reliability of automated vehicles are dramatically increasing.
It is expected that in the near future, cars without a steering wheel or gas pedal will be the norm.
There are even levels to this “madness”.
Automotive giants such as GM, Ford, Honda, BMW, and Volvo, just to name a few, foresee autonomous capabilities implemented by as early as 2020 and which range from level 1 automation, where only small steering and acceleration tasks are performed by the computer without human intervention, to level 5 automation, where vehicle movement is fully automated without any human intervention under all conditions.
When it comes to making cars fly, however, engineers have expressed some doubts. When presented with the idea, the CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, responded that launching individual cars into the air is laughingly unrealistic: the noise and airflow that their engines would produce would make living in cities unbearable.
According to Musk, the plausible solution is to go down rather than up.
Underground tunnels can be dug at different depths and he believes the resulting 3D transport system would completely relieve traffic congestion. He believes in this concept so much so in early 2017 Musk founded The Boring Company, an infrastructure and tunnel construction enterprise, with the goal of alleviating current traffic limitations in the City of Los Angeles.
Another prediction made by the French illustrators was the idea of a “smart home”. Our ancestors dreamed of equipping their residences with robotized machinery that responds to the needs of the occupants. The technology would make the home more comfortable and secure, implement convenient solutions to everyday problems and provide entertainment for owners and guests alike.
Internet of Things: The Web of Tomorrow
The concept of a fully smart home, at one time only encountered in science fiction, has moved closer to realization in recent years. Smart speakers like the Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Yandex Station utilize a plethora of newly developed Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) techniques and machine learning algorithms that enable these devices to understand and respond to voice commands for accomplishing a variety of tasks. Some of them pertain to simple control of home ambience (e.g., lights and temperature), while others, more advanced tasks, pertain to control of other electronic devices, provision of scheduling and entertainment options, voice-based search engine querying, and much more. Leading companies are filing a large number of patent applications related to voice-based interfacing with smart devices, which is a strong predicter of next generation human-machine interactivity.
These technologies are being developed at such a fast pace that it is believed that in just a few years it will be difficult to discern whether one is speaking to an ASR engine or with another human being.
Although they are not domesticated robots, all of these devices make it easy and convenient for occupants to automate everyday tasks and the inevitable widespread adoption of these smart technologies, which enable seamless connectivity among local and remote devices and applications, and fueled by customer demand will shift society towards a new era of domestic living.
On a more controversial note, our ancestors, very much alike modern selves, have been fascinated with the idea of becoming Gods. We are not talking about becoming Gods in a Judeo-Christian sense, but rather in a Nature-Controlling sense. As seen in the image series in question, the illustrators have imagined intensive breeding methods as being achieved by the year 2000, something seemingly similar to what we refer to as cloning.
Homodeus: Genetics and Human-AI Interface
A field currently displaying high potential for advancement is genetics. If this somehow eluded you, we are now empowered to perform gene editing, which is an agglomeration of techniques allowing for human genes to be edited through the insertion, deletion, modification or replacement of DNA sequences. Gene editing can be carried out for various reasons, but mainly to prevent or even cure certain diseases.
Gene editing is a controversial subject which will surely become more prevalent in the future.
Many take issue with the morality of genetically altering humans. Is it “right” for a parent, solely on the basis of their theological stance, to avoid screening their child for potentially life-threatening diseases that can be cured or prevented, or is it “wrong” for the same parent not to perform the necessary procedures for preventing or curing their child while being in possession of the essential tool in their toolkit?
Same goes for ethics. Is it “right” to allow genetically-induced enhancement of our physical capabilities in sport competitions, or is it “wrong” not to allow athletes to compete in newly-required divisions if they willingly so-choose to enhance their performance?
That being said, alteration of the human genome can present serious risks to early adopters. Among many other dangers, gene editing may cause unintended consequences for the patient or their offspring. For these reasons, currently gene editing is effectively banned in many countries of the world, including the US and most of Europe.
If you think gene editing opens the Pandora’s box, the subject of our next topic could break it altogether.
What the French illustrators certainly could not predict is the ongoing merger between Human and Machine. For example, researchers from Germany and Korea are developing a mind-powered exoskeleton – a robotic device fitted around one’s hips and legs – that would allow people who suffered severe spinal cord injuries, or people with neurodegenerative diseases, like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), to walk again. In fact, a lot of research is being done to develop technologies that help people regain control over their movements through a combination of robotics and brainpower (formally known as brain-computer interface control systems). Some of these systems work by having microware implanted in the brain which is configured to record electrical signals produced by neurons. Other electronic components are then used on top to amplify, filter and broadcast the signals, producing motion data that can be fed into a processor coupled to the exoskeleton for enabling human-desired movement.
In a distant future, humanity may become even more deeply connected with machine than what was previously discussed in the former section of this work.
In 2016, Musk introduced his new project – Neuralink. The company aims to effectively merge human brains with artificial intelligence (AI), where the latter would serve as an additional cognition layer for radically increasing our cognitive abilities. Eventually, the goal is to increase the bandwidth, or simply the rate of data being exchanged between brain and computer.
We are aware that some of our own ideas of the future may not end up materializing. After all, we are not much different from our ancestors. Nevertheless, other technological developments and scientific discoveries that are beyond even our wildest dreams may be right around the corner.
As Carl G. Jung once said: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” It is therefore imperative for us to strive forward while consciously acknowledging the immense power and capability of human ingenuity in order not to suffer a fate not worth mentioning.
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