by George Dvorsky: With the decade winding down it’s time for us to set our sights on the next one…
The 2020s promises to be anything but dull. From the automation revolution and increasingly dangerous AI to geohacking the planet and radical advances in biotechnology, here are the most futuristic developments to expect in the next 10 years.
Making predictions is easy; it’s getting them right that’s tough. That said, some tangible trends are emerging that should allow us to make some informed guesses about what the future will hold over the next 10 years.
A new industrial revolution
Of great concern, of course, is the pending automation revolution and the associated onset of technological unemployment. Indeed, the coming decade will involve considerable disruptions to the global workforce, the result of steady improvements in robotics and artificial intelligence.
For example, research from 2018 predicted the loss of 75 million jobs around the world by 2022 as a result of automation, with an associated creation of 133 million jobs over the same period, for a net increase of 58 million jobs. This rather sizable swing in vocations will require significant re-training and other major adjustments. A likely trend in the 2020s, for example, will be jobs involving centaurs, that is, human-AI collaborations.
P. W. Singer, author of Ghost Fleet, LikeWar, and the upcoming book Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, says we should focus less on a revolt of the robots and more on the onset of a robotics revolution.
“We’re entering an industrial revolution akin to the rise of the steam engine and factories,” explained Singer in an email to Gizmodo. “A wave of automation and AI is hitting across all sectors of society, applied everywhere from the farm and home to the battlefield. There will be incredible efficiency gains and pathways taken that humans could never have done on their own.”
It’s worth pointing out that the outmoding of specific jobs to robots and AI will primarily be done for economic reasons. If business owners can save money, even if it involves the massive displacement of workers, it’s something they’ll likely consider.
Singer said people have already forgotten about the traumas inflicted by the previous industrial revolution, but we’re already witnessing the disruption of jobs and roles, the altering of vote politics, the emergence of thorny legal and ethical questions and new politics and ideologies.
“Remember, the last industrial revolution also brought everything from our conception of modern capitalism to ideologies of socialism, communism and fascism, which we spent the next few centuries shaking out,” said Singer.
Society readjusts to new normals
For every action there is a reaction, which means we’re going to spend a good part of the 2020s finding new ways to adapt, recover and take full advantage of the ensuing social and technological changes. That will involve adjustments to new modes of work, altered socioeconomic dynamics, and novel ways of living and moving in our environment.
Roman Yampolskiy, an AI researcher at the University of Louisville, says the capability gap between people and machines will only increase in the next 10 years.
“Machines will become capable of driving unsupervised, generating captivating news articles, and fully automating many jobs, including basic secretarial work, and investing,” Yampolskiy told Gizmodo. “At the same time, and as a side effect of such progress, the cognitive gap between people and machines will also increase,” meaning that the degree of intelligence separating AI from humans will get increasingly bigger — and not in a way that favours humans.
According to Lyndsay Wasser, a co-chair of McMillan’s Privacy and Data Protection Group and its Cybersecurity Group, the impact of widespread autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will be “enormous.”
“A number of industries will be affected, and job losses are inevitable, including both directly impacted organisations, such as taxi and tow truck companies, and associated industries like auto insurance, gas stations, and parking facilities,” explained Wasser in an email to Gizmodo.
The widespread introduction of AVs will also impact on how people and households approach transportation, she said.
“The cost of owning an AV makes it unlikely that most lower and middle income families will purchase such a car in the near future,” said Wasser. “However, many consumers will likely forego ownership in favour of vehicle sharing ecosystems. Although there are many predicted benefits associated with AV’s—such as improved safety and mobility for persons who are unable to drive—the technology is associated with significant risks.
In particular, an AV could be used as a weapon if a malicious hacker or cyberterrorist gains control of the vehicle. The volume of data generated by AVs also gives rise to real privacy concerns. Although some commentators and regulators have espoused the benefits of voluntary industry codes, I predict that some governments will move toward specific laws to regulate this transformative industry.”
Likewise, Sarah Kaufman, the Associate Director of the NYU Rudin Centre for Transportation, believes much of the 2020s will be characterised by the rise of AVs.
“Everyone and everything will move in fleets,” Kaufman told Gizmodo. “Fleets of taxis, UPS trucks, bikes and drones. No vehicle ownership in cities. Instead people will travel as part of a larger intelligence network tracking that person’s calendar, mood, physical makeup, and travel needs: they will be matched to the right vehicle.”
For example, Kaufman predicts that phones will say things like, “You ate too much pizza last night: you’re biking to work today,” or “Since you’re taking your kid and her three friends to hockey practice, use this SUV.”
All vehicles on the street will detect each other and move in perfect concert to avoid collisions and conflicts, she said. Sure, they’ll move more slowly, “but safely and specific to users’ needs,” she said.
The 2020s could also see a dramatic change in how we live.
“Twenty-first century RVs will sit at cities’ edges,” Kaufman told Gizmodo. “They will become the new home offices, as younger generations are priced out of permanent homes, increase the number of freelance positions, and exist wherever internet access is available. Every home will be an office, and vice versa.”
Like a rolling stone, these mobile pioneers of the 2020s will “relocate regularly,” whether it be towards the Silicon Valley of the moment, to steer clear of climate-change damaged locations, or to the next desert-based music festival, she said. The “new home/office RVs will permit a nomadic life that will breathe new life into cities as populations ebb and flow, experiencing their offerings for the first time,” predicted Kaufman.
Deepfakes, people hacking, and other scary tech
“Our ability to tell if something is an AI generated fake news story or a deep fake video will be no better than random guessing,” said Yampolskiy. “This will have an unprecedented impact on our democracy and social cohesion as well as privacy, safety and security issues. An explosion of social engineering attacks fuelled by advanced chat bots, using realistic, and familiar voices combined with personalised profiling will target billions of users.”
Singer expects to see a surge in people-hacking, in contrast to the hacking of computer networks. This will be done, he says, by driving viral ideas through likes, shares, and outright lies. Russian meddling during the 2016 U.S. election was a test of what its operatives could get away with, he said, but the big takeaway was that “it works and is effective,” according to Singer.
The 2020s will be a test to see if the U.S. and other targeted countries “can change their calculus and push back on this,” he said. This will include “companies taking on more responsibilities for toxic forces on their platforms… democracies developing strategies to better defend their population from digital threats,” and citizens “not falling for the same old crap again and again,” said Singer.
Frighteningly, however, this won’t be simple or easy given that hackers will increasingly leverage their powers with AI during the 2020s.
Finn Brunton, associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, foresees two near-term technologies taking shape.
“First, the ability to generate mostly-synthetic or wholly-synthetic video — of which deepfakes are the early stage work — will get cheaper and easier fast, which, combined with image classification of existing libraries of images and video, means that you can produce custom, targeted video — to say nothing of pictures — for very small audiences, even one-offs, more or less on demand,” Brunton told Gizmodo.
Some of these fakes will be crude, he said, but plenty of people will still fall for these tricks.
This development, says Brunton, “will be exacerbated by bot and algorithm driven subcultures and consensus.” Instead of messing around on Twitter to manipulate public opinion, actors bent on persuasion will “create, reinforce, and amplify small isolated subcultures to push their ideas and beliefs further and further in the directions their creators want to see them go.” To which he added: “This portends the emergence and proliferation of strange new militant cults — [possibly armed with] DIY drone bombs — bubbling up out of isolated individuals who neither have nor need a strong connection to empirical reality.”
Grimly, this reminds me of one of my own predictions for the 2020s: We could witness the first assassination of a high ranking politician or otherwise important public figure at the hands of a remotely operated, or possibly autonomous, drone. On a somewhat related note, the issue of autonomous killing machines for use in warfare will emerge in the 2020s as a contentious, hot-button, in terms of whether such devices should be allowed.
Inching closer to artificial superintelligence and the bursting of the AI bubble
AI is poised to be increasingly unpredictable — and in some cases unexplainable and incomprehensible, both to the general public and to experts, according to Yampolskiy. Accordingly, an ongoing issue during the 2020s will be in addressing the black box problem, that is, acquiring a coherent understanding of an artificially intelligent system in terms of how and why it reaches its conclusions. This challenge will only get worse as the decade progresses, which is frightening because we’ll eventually be out of the loop in terms of AI decision making, potentially leading to huge problems and possibly even large scale disasters.
On the topic of dangerous AI, it’s highly unlikely that artificial general intelligence (AGI) or artificial superintelligence (ASI) will make an appearance during the 2020s, but it’s a possibly that can’t be discounted outright.
By AGI, computer scientists mean an artificial intellect with a broad range of capabilities, rather than a lone core competency (e.g. bots that can only play chess or poker). Put another way, an AGI would be similar, though not identical, to human intelligence in terms of its adaptability, flexibility, and power.
By comparison, ASI would be an order, or several orders, more intelligent than human-level intelligence, particularly in terms of speed, power, capability, and reach. We might be able to control an AGI, but our pending ability to constrain an ASI once it emerges remains an open — and very troubling — question. AGI may not appear during the 2020s, but we should prepare accordingly just in case.
In 1999, futurist Ray Kurzweil famously predicted that a superintelligent machine wouldn’t appear until sometime around 2045 to 2050 — a prediction I still believe is within the realm of possibility. For it to suddenly emerge in the 2020s would require a rather massive technological leap, in which cognitive scientists and/or computer scientists would have to suddenly stumble upon the magic formula that conjures not just AGI, but ASI as well.
That said, the advent of AGI will herald the emergence of ASI shortly thereafter, due to the ease at which a machine, whether an emulation of the human brain or a series of complex algorithms, can be modified and improved even further. Importantly — and perhaps frighteningly — artificial intelligence, and not humans, will most likely be the architects of these next-level thinking machines. As I’ve argued before, ASI will give birth to itself.
Consequently, a growing social awareness about the dangers posed by powerful AI will emerge during the 2020s — a phenomenon that will likely be compared to today’s burgeoning environmental movement and the global struggle to tackle climate change. Douglas Vakoch, an astrobiologist and president of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), says that, as computers gain in power and become more human-like in both function and form, “we will feel ever more threatened, afraid that our technological children will surpass us, and perhaps even destroy us,” he told Gizmodo in an email.
Jaan Tallinn, a computer programmer, founding member of Skype, and co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, doesn’t expect the coming decade to be “drastically different” than the last one.
“I would expect the backbone of 2020s technology be defined via gradual improvements in some fundamental and commercially valuable technologies, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and AI,” explained Tallinn in an email to Gizmodo. “With that said, when considering potential risks from future technology, one should not be content with merely analysing what’s likely to happen — instead, one should look at what’s possible, even if unlikely.”
Items high on Tallinn’s concern list for the 2020s includes sudden breakthroughs leading to uncontrollable, runaway AI, the misuse or accidents involving synthetic organisms, and technological miniaturisation enabling “new ways for non-state actors to cause large scale damage without attribution,” he said.
“This will probably also be the last decade in which we can learn to control AI,” said Yampolskiy, “as it becomes more capable it will take on progressively more responsibilities for managing our daily lives.”
Robin Hanson, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University, is predicting a different kind of decade, in which the fascination with AI will experience somewhat of a downturn.
“Interest and concern regarding automation and AI has gone in big up-and-down cycles and we seem to be nearing the peak of the fourth such cycle since one peaked near the 1930s,” Hanson told Gizmodo in an email. “So an easy prediction for the next decade is that we will more clearly see that this cycle is past its peak. There will be talk of how AI has been overly-hyped and a reduction of investment and media talk. There will be fewer AI conferences, startups and students enrolling in AI degree programs.”
Hanson expects a new cycle to emerge again, peaking around 2050.
Let’s hack the planet
Artificial intelligence will get scarier during the 2020s, but so will climate change. By the 2020s we should, sadly, witness an increasing number of related discomforts and disasters, from more heatwaves and droughts through to rising sea waters, storms, floods, and wildfires.
There’s a very good possibility that the nations of the world will continue to fail to meet their climate targets and that the status quo approach to the environment will reign. In the place of internationally binding agreements and treaties, it’s likely that we’ll embark upon our first clumsy efforts to fix the environment through other means, namely the futuristic — and potentially risky — prospect of geoengineering.
Proposed solutions include efforts to increase the reflectivity of clouds, the construction of giant space reflectors, ocean fertilisation, introducing stratospheric aerosols, among other ideas. The trouble with geoengineering, however, is that we could completely screw it up and damage the climate even further. Also, once we start we won’t be able to stop. Fair to say, we should expect to see the prospect of geoengineering and proposed schemes to be actively debated during the 2020s.
The possibility exists, of course, that the world will get its act together and work to reduce carbon emissions, but as Jamais Cascio, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, explained to Gizmodo, the effects of this won’t be immediately obvious due to a phenomenon known as “climate lag.”
“One of the complexities of the climate issue that we’ll start to confront over the next ten years is the lag — technically, ‘hysteresis’ — between reductions in carbon emissions and temperature changes,” said Cascio. “Thermal inertia, soil carbon, and a whole mess of complex systems make temperatures slow to react to carbon levels. We could cut all carbon emissions today and we would very likely see continued temperature increases for the next couple of decades.”
This is an obvious environmental problem, he said, but it’s also a political problem.
“What do you say to citizens who have agreed to make big changes in their lives, even sacrifices, with seemingly no beneficial results?” he said. “Saying ‘It could have been worse’ rarely works, and saying ‘Trust me, your kids will love it’ isn’t any better, either.”
Better, more powerful biotech
Biotechnologies will continue to advance during the 2020s. It will likely take another generation or two before we see genetically modified “designer babies,” but important advances in this area should occur in the next 10 years. As it stands, scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere can genetically modify human embryos for experimentation, but the cells must be destroyed within a few days. Don’t expect this to change in the 2020s, but the 2030s could be a different story.
Personalised medicine, also known as precision medicine, should finally make its appearance in the 2020s, in which healthcare professionals will tailor treatments and therapies — whether genetic, environment, or lifestyle related — to the needs of specific individuals. This will be done primarily through genetic analysis, with advances in AI pushing this prospect forward; machine learning algorithms will detect patterns in large datasets, allowing healthcare practitioners to devise individualised treatments, instead of our current one-size-fits-all approach.
The CRISPR gene-editing tool will continue to make waves — and headlines — in the coming decade.
In an email to Gizmodo, Jennifer Doudna, co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas9 and biochemist at UC Berkeley, said that, within the next 10 years, “we could see new CRISPR-based individualised medicines and approaches to treat and potentially cure the most intractable genetic diseases, including sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis.” In agriculture and related fields, researchers will apply CRISPR technology “to grow more nutritious and robust crops and to establish ‘gene drives’ to control the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and Zika virus,” said Doudna.
Indeed, the 2020s could witness the first gene drives, in which scientists attempt to genetically modify wild organisms, such as mosquitoes. But to “ensure responsible development of these wide-ranging applications,” Doudna said it’ll be “vital to continue public discourse about uses and regulation” of these powerful technologies.
New views of space — and our place within it
Finally, the next decade will see a dramatic increase in our understanding of the cosmos — and possibly even extraterrestrial life. Next generation telescopes, like the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, are poised to redefine our knowledge of the galaxy. And as Vakoch explained to Gizmodo, advances in computing power will provide a big boost to SETI.
We’ll soon be able to “scan the heavens for signs of intelligent life at an accelerating pace, as we sift through the cosmic static for radio signals that stand out as distinctly artificial,” he told Gizmodo. “By the end of the decade, humanity will complete a survey of a million nearby stars, finally observing enough targets to have a realistic chance of finding ET if it’s out there, trying to make contact,” he said, adding: “The odds of discovering we’re not alone in the universe have never been better.”
The 2020s will likely feature a volatile mixture of the very good, the very bad, and the very weird. Without a doubt, the next decade will be anything but dull.