The revolutions that shape us
Seven technologies that are making the industrial revolution look like the introduction of the pitch fork
The advances in science and technology — and the way in which they feed into each other — create an ever increasingly rapid feedback loop that pushes us towards changes in society that we can barely imagine. Many give in to the temptation to sit back and wait for the impact to emerge; however — the gap in knowledge about these topics, and the breadth of their possibilities, creates a new socio-economic divide that will create a new super-class, or underclass. The more we know, the more we can shape how they impact each of us in society.
Let’s look at seven currently developing technological revolutions.
Artificial intelligence and robotics revolutions
Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will change the role and make up of the work force. Manual and intellectual labour has already begin to be gradually replaced by more efficient machines.
AI also functions as a base technology. Once we have AI working at a certain level it will enhance all other technologies and the way that they evolve, helping bring about other revolutions.
Media about the changing job market due to automation has proliferated recently. Yet it fails to recognise that this process has been going on for tens of thousands of years, ever since humans started using tools. Each tool (or technology) brought about more efficiency helping fewer people do more work. For a long time we still had enough work to keep most everyone busy.
As this process has sped up due to the scientific methodology, mechanical engineering and now computer engineering, we have reached a point where we have more people than work we need done. We also have an increasing amount of work done by fewer people. We will have to redesign our economy to meet this change.
Quantum computing revolution
We also have the revolution of quantum computing. Up to now, computing has improved in very small, incremental amounts. People like Ray Kurzweil have tracked this using Moore’s law showing that every 18 months computing doubles in power and halves in price.
As we head into the age of quantum computing, where we currently see breakthroughs, computing power will extend by orders of magnitude higher than that predicted by Moore’s law. This change will make Moore’s law seem quaint by comparison. A quantum computer can theoretically solve a problem that would take our fastest current computer a 10,000 years to compute in a matter of seconds.
Once again, quantum computing will enable a series of other revolutions to happen. For example: an AI running on a quantum computer can create much more powerful AIs, and that alone can change our entire world.
Genetics and biotech revolutions
The understanding of genetics across all species has redefined biology. The discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology allows us to edit genomes as easily as we cut and paste text on a document. We’re already heading onto the second generation of this tech, just a couple short years after its introduction.
Genetics principal limitations come from processing power and analytical techniques, now helped by quantum computing and AI respectively. We’re exploring creating a programming language for life. This introduces the ability to design new life or edit existing life. This ability will allow us to create brand new plants, animals, microbes, and bacteria — from scratch. Whereas Jurassic Park revived dinosaurs from their fossilised genetic remains — this technology will enable you to design a whole new or vintage style dino.
Genetic processing will allow us to create personalised medicine to heal all manner of ailments. And also add abilities to existing genomes. For example, being able to regrow limbs like a lizard or see with sound, like a bat. This sounds outlandish, but as we all evolved from the same genetic source, it can all theoretically happen.
We may use these abilities to create humans better suited to surviving space travel and living in lower gravity planets. We may use it to create superfoods that contain everything a human needs, or even personalised food that only gives an individual what they need.
The biotechnological revolution will also allow us to create new materials and bridge the connectivity gap between the organic and silicon-based.
Brain-machine interface revolution
The deeper understanding of our brains began on the heels of our understanding our bodies through genetics. Brain-machine interfaces, where we connect organic brains directly to computers, continues its rapid growth. At its most basic. this means we get rid of keyboards, touchscreens and microphones as input devices, and we dispense with screens and voices as computer outputs. We communicate directly with machines using our brains.
This allows us to have external processing power, external memory along with thought-based control of our electronic devices. This also introduces the possibility of memory manipulation, allowing us to instantly download knowledge and experiences into our brain. Imagine, as part of your packing for a vacation to Italy, to download fluency in the Italian language the night before you fly.
In addition, coupled with the internet and networking generally this effectively, brings us a brain-to-brain connection. Essentially telepathy with the ability to transfer thoughts and even emotions to others; an unprecedented change in human and interspecies communication.
Up to the present we have based our economy on the idea of limited resources. We have limited clean water, limited oil, limited materials, limited labour-force. Finite or costly energy drives the majority of these limits. However, over the past 5 decades, the cost of solar power has continually dropped and the power output risen, not quite in line with Moore’s law but not far off.
Presently the cost of solar has dropped below that of fossil fuels and continues to drop, even as efficiency increases. As the cost of energy approaches zero causing abundant resources to proliferate, we will have to redesign our entire economy. We already feel the pressures of that in the current global political environment.
The barriers to a lot of limited resources effectively disappear with abundant energy, for example, abundant energy equals abundant clean water.
Over the centuries, the materials we have available to us have got better. Originally we used naturally occurring materials such as wood, limestone and iron. Then we started to create our own materials, such as plastics and steel, made from combinations or treatments of those we found naturally. Now we have begun to move to the next step: reactive materials.
These materials react to their environment, such as a cloth that stiffens under pressure or a polymer that changes colour with temperature. We have begun to use these in modern military armour and protective coatings for vehicles, for example. Imagine thin suit that makes you as impregnable as superman. We make these materials by designing them at a molecular level. These materials will soon give way to smart materials through our next revolution.
Nanotech refers to creating machines at a very, very tiny size. These can be mechanical machines like a lever, complex machines like an engine, or digital machines such as a computer — but minute. At such a nanoscopic scale no one of these machines really has a huge effect but rather thousands or millions of them working in concert can have significant outcomes. Much like atoms or molecules.
Think of them as smart atoms or smart molecules, which then become smart materials that can adapt. This base technology enhances many other revolutions. Nanotech enables programmable matter. For example, imagine a whole house built of a smart material. A single room can automatically re-purpose from a bedroom into a kitchen in seconds, a smartphone could become a laptop or a you could create a window where one did not exist before. This technology, called claytronics, effectively fulfils the dreams of alchemists, while removing the need for manufacturing of all kinds.
In another use, when we place nanomachines in our bodies they can repair damage, optimise functions and remove disease. It may even stall or reverse aging, leading to a growing population of unaging humans.
No part of human society will escape the phenomenal effects of these technologically driven convergent forces.
No one of these technologies stands alone. They will not bring about a singular revolution, but rather the convergence of these technologies will each bring as much change as the internet, the axle or controlled fire did. Each one of these technologies changed the direction and speed of advancing civilisation on earth. I just scratched the surface of seven such revolutions which we have underway — all at the same time. Many more exist: space exploration, augmented/ virtual reality, holography, climate engineering, digital currencies and more.
The impact of this convergence will bring about change like we have never seen. It will make the industrial revolution look like the introduction of the pitch fork. So what will change? These revolutions put into question many basic assumptions. They redefine communication, life, work, identity, culture and even the physical world. They will affect the structure of the economy, the meaning of power, the definition of work and the existence of nation states.
The French could not fathom life without the monarchy — until revolution brought about freedom and democracy. These technological revolutions will catalyse and redefine war, medicine, politics, economy and religion. No part of human society will escape the phenomenal effects of these technologically driven convergent forces.
Many experts and sofa-bound specialists argue that history shows that these revolutions will take a lot of time and be controlled by “men with guns”. As for timing, we know Moore’s law has shown an acceleration of innovation. With the introduction of these technologies we’re set to smash Moore’s law and accelerate at an unprecedented rate.
We can always listen to the argument that guns, germs, and steel rule our world and history shows that nothing will change. I find these arguments naive, at best, in the face of truly awesome technological advance. More and more these technologies fall under the guidance of private individuals and private companies. Breakthroughs both small and large come from entrepreneurs and enterprise, not governments and nations. As astrophysicist Matthew O’Dowd said, “our technology is fast outpacing our ability to choose collectively whether or not to use it.” It rests in the hands of individuals with the willpower, the imagination. and the finance to move it forward.
Now is the time to imagine the world we want. With some forethought we can help guide our future. Let’s not wallow in the past but attend to our amazing future.