We’d all love a glimpse into the future. Are we going to live longer? Will there be flying cars? Are robots going to take our jobs? And what if it all goes wrong? Will we fling ourselves into a technological dark age, leaving us to fight for food with shards of scrap metal? And before we do, will part of our population escape a barren Earth for the redder pastures of Mars?
The answers to these questions lie hidden in the technology being developed today. Some in its infancy; others ready to take over the world. Join us on a technological journey through eight key spheres of our future lives.
The healthcare industry is on the cusp of several huge breakthroughs. Artificial intelligence is already deeply rooted in our lives, quietly learning what makes us sick, and what keeps us healthy. Thanks to its ability to rapidly process complex data patterns, it will help us live longer and stay active in old age. AI will suggest bespoke diets and exercise programmes, as well as medication to suit the needs of each individual, while closely monitoring the effects on users. Preventative technology can save lives as well as money by monitoring risk factors for events like falls and heart attacks.
And then there’s virtual reality. Following decades of false dawns, if VR finally breaks into the mainstream, it will revolutionise areas of healthcare that are currently under pressure. It could be used to view operations, eliminating the need to crowd medical students into an operating theatre. There are VR programmes in development which would help patients struggling with issues such as chronic pain and deteriorating eyesight. If successful, these programs will alleviate the strain on a critically understaffed NHS, allowing technology to pick up some of the slack.
One of the biggest problems affecting our health in old age is loneliness. Increased social isolation, caused by decreasing mobility and the death of spouses and other loved ones, can lead to serious emotional health issues and exacerbate physical problems. What if a robotic assistant – say, a robotic cat or dog– provided companionship? Some robotic pets coming out today are already capable of performing handy tasks such as locating and retrieving missing glasses. Looking further still into the future, sophisticated sex robots will become increasingly commonplace.
VR programmes could also impact home care. Projects are in the works that could help patients who suffer from dementia or other cognitive disorders. These can be tailored to each patient using objects from their own memory in order to stimulate the brain. By creating a fully immersive experience aimed at tackling a problem, VR could have an impact that is unlike any strategy in our current arsenal.
The UK’s current housing stock represents one of the greatest problems affecting the country. Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) is going to turn this crisis on its head. Leaders in the housing industry are adapting by modelling their production on the automotive industry. Cars are designed in a radically different way to houses, eschewing the one-size-fits-all approach in favour of constant innovation and reinvention. The steel core of a house will become like the chassis of a car – a basis to work from which is endlessly adaptable. Much like cars, houses can and should be designed to meet our needs rather than forcing the occupants to adapt to their home.
Thanks to the rise of the Internet of Things and the increased interoperability of technology for the home, we will see the smart home become the industry standard. A truly interoperable home is fully integrated with seamless technology. This means smart fridges and smart heating, but also digital assistants, sensors that monitor health and anticipate risks, and design that facilitates connections between the resident and their neighbours.
Before virtual operations and digital pets came along, the goal of developing VR was to produce entertainment – especially VR video games. Indeed, that was the main goal of Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey when he locked himself away to reach a breakthrough with the technology at the start of the decade. A video game experience that places you directly in the heart of the action is a tantalising prospect. But there’s a bigger picture to consider: Facebook’s $2 billion acquisitionof Oculus VR is part of the company’s plans to be fully integrated with the technology by 2026. Right now, the social media giants are working on Spaces, their VR social area for chatting with friends. Before long, we could be experiencing genuine interactions with others without even leaving our homes.
As (social) technology becomes more and more immersive, there will be a countermovement of increasingly intense real-life experiences. Space tourism will gradually become accessible to a wider audience. As NASA loses funding in 2025, and with plans to privatise the agency underway, this key player is set to join the leisure space race alongside three billionaires – Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson.
Self-driving cars have come under intense scrutiny. While there are legitimate reservations about putting our lives in the hands of machines, our current transport system has so many problems that we would be foolish not to persevere with this technology. Traffic jams in the UK were recently calculated to cost £37bn annually in lost productivity, wasted fuel and time. If we clear the technological, ethical and legal hurdles standing in the way of autonomous cars, we could see this problem – and its associated environmental impact – melting away.
Meanwhile, the travel industry could be transformed by the rise of exploration VR. Perhaps we will ultimately forgo physically going on holiday in favour of putting on a headset and a Teslasuit. Tesla has produced the world’s first fully integrated smart clothing apparel with haptic feedback, motion capture, climate control and biometric feedback systems. But before that technology becomes commonplace, imagine choosing your holiday destination by visually simulating a trip from the comfort of your living room. The risk of arriving at your villa to discover it doesn’t meet your expectations could be avoided altogether.
AI will revolutionise the workplace and take over many skilled and unskilled jobs currently performed by humans. Does this mean we will suffer widespread unemployment and displacement at the hands of our new robot peers? A recent study by Gartner predicts that although 1.8m jobs will be lost to AI by 2020, it will also create 2.3m new jobs. Provided we invest in retraining people for new positions, AI could be the answer to our current scarcity of qualified workers, as more highly-educated people will move into new sectors.
For those of us not sent back to the job centre by AI, the technology could serve to streamline our day-to-day working lives in the form of digital assistants. Early versions have already become household staples in the form of Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. Before long, AI will be arranging meetings, sending emails and essentially automating all the mundane tasks that make our work lives tedious. Relying on AI to carry out these activities could be of huge benefit to productivity and efficiency.
Big data and the Internet of Things mean that our data will be shared and analysed across a sprawling interoperable web of devices. We’ve already seen what an incredible breakthrough this could be for the health sector. However, it will leave us more vulnerable than ever to cyberattacks. The data being transferred across devices and apps will be more detailed and personal than ever, and if our health solutions are integrated into this system, a security breach could have dire consequences.
The head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, Ciaran Martin, has warned that a major cyber-attack on the UK is a matter of “when, not if”. Serious nation-state cyberattacks are already taking place, and predicted to become more common in the years to come. As the “Cyber Cold War” with states like Russia intensifies, individuals will also be at greater risk of coming under hostile surveillance. In response to these developments, we will see increased efforts at data protection legislation and enforcement which could make GDPR look like a mere preliminary exercise.
Between global warming, plastic oceans, air pollution, and a 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, there’s plenty on the blue planet to worry about. There are, of course, plenty of projects being developed to clean up our oceans, filter our air, reuse natural resources and preserve our wildlife, but there are no guarantees that they will reach fruition in time to save our planet. In this context, thinking about colonising Mars seems like a sensible next step. NASA’s latest Mars mission, InSight, is an exploratory probe. Meanwhile, Dutch not-for-profit organisation Mars One have a more ambitious aim: a one-way manned trip to the red planet in 2024.
Before we start packing our bags, though, it should be said that the Mars One project faces huge financial and technological challenges, which may explain why NASA is being more conservative (or should we say realistic?) in their goal-setting. But for those of us still trying to make things work at home on Earth, there is plenty to look forward to. Biomimetic design has huge potential to create an infrastructure that isn’t just eco-friendly, but part of nature itself. The principle of biomimetics is to imitate the ingenious solutions that nature has come up with, to create living buildings. This may be part of the network of solutions that allows us to create a new balance with our home planet.
Bridging the Gap
To bring us back to the present – there’s plenty of obstacles to clear before some of the more fledgling techs revolutionise our lives. Even the applications that are already taking root, like digital assistants, have a way to go before they reach their full potential. If progress is delayed, the causes will be the same across all sectors. The challenges range from educating the public, to building the right infrastructure, accessing funding, fortifying security, reassessing our legal frameworks and addressing the ethical questions. These shared issues demand a joined-up approach. Through cross-sector collaboration, we can bring tomorrow’s world closer.