Illustration: Sameer Pawar
Advances in many technology-driven fields are on the cusp of maturity. In a decade, several of them will likely be accepted as part of our everyday lives. They will influence how we live, work and entertain ourselves. Most will be promoted by businesses first, which will then lead to acceptance by society at large. While they will make life easier, some of them will bring fears of loss of independence and control over our lives. Others, if and when misused, will threaten our very existence. Here is a futuristic look at how the world is likely to change in the next decade with technology and innovations.
1. Flying taxis and hyperloop
Mobility will be drastically different and everything won’t be hi-tech either. As more of Gen-Z enter the workforce, health- and environment-conscious people will prefer to walk more or use bicycles. Public transport is likely to become more comfortable and reliable too. Also, people might use modes of transport that don’t exist today, such as on-demand flying taxis.
An experiment in the area of flying taxis—with the financial and technological heft needed to succeed—is being orchestrated by ride-sharing service provider Uber Technologies. As part of its Uber Elevate programme, it plans to deploy Uber Air—electric aerial vehicles capable of vertical take-off and landing. The company has decided on Dallas and Los Angeles for its first trials and said last August that the third location would be either in India, Japan, Australia, Brazil or France.
Other surface-based long-haul transport options will include superfast Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains as well as hyperloop systems. One Maglev is operational in Shanghai, China, but runs only 30.5 km between the city’s international airport and Longyang Road station on its outskirts. The 286-km Chuo Shinkansen in Japan is expected to be operational in 2027, cutting travel time between Tokyo and Nagoya by 30 to 40 minutes. At present, it takes 90 minutes.
The hyperloop is a system proposed by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and at least three companies are competing to build its commercial version first. The system comprises pods moving rapidly through tubes from which air has been emptied out to near-vacuum levels, drastically reducing friction.
An underlying feature of all future transport modes will be their connected nature at multiple levels. Components of entire transport networks and even the roads and rails on which they will run will be connected, with large numbers of sensors. This will allow vehicles to communicate with each other and with their roads, rails and other infrastructure in real time.
2. AI and robot companions
The field of artificial intelligence (AI) is over 60 years old, but it is only in recent years, with the advent of massive computational power and storage, that AI is extensively used in business strategies. Advances in related fields such as computer vision and the Internet-of-Things (IoT) have also helped accelerate the development of AI.
Experts feel there is no area that will be left untouched by AI, but the prominent ones that have captured people’s imagination are self-driving cars, personalised medicine, new ways of teaching and the combination of AI and robotics.
One crucial study of how our lives will change due to AI is the One Hundred Year Study launched in 2014 at Stanford University. In its first report, in September 2016, the university says: “As cars become better drivers than people, city-dwellers will own fewer cars, live further from work, and spend time differently, leading to an entirely new urban organisation. In the typical North American city in 2030, physically embodied AI applications will not be limited to cars, but are likely to include trucks, flying vehicles and personal robots.”
An area that is gaining increasing attention is the combination of AI and robots as applied to care for the elderly. In Japan, in nursing homes and elsewhere, several models of robots are being used to act as conversation companions or humanoid guides.
On the flip side, there are fears about how AI could leave humans worse off. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that the
concern was that humans will experience an overall loss of independence and control over their lives. Worries included data abuse, job losses, becoming dependent on automated systems, and finally “mayhem” due to a combination of autonomous weapons, cybercrime, and machine-driven lies and dangerous propaganda that will destabilise human society.
3. Mobiles, smart and dumb
A decade from now, mobile phones will have features that we see in movies and read in science fiction novels. One feature that is pretty standard in movies—from Star Wars to Avengers—is the hologram. It is likely that by 2030, holographic displays will be commonplace on smartphones. Another big jump will be with processing power. Today’s smartphones are superior to yesterday’s desktop-based gaming for instance, and with advances in graphics chips that companies such as Nvidia are making, tomorrow’s phones will certainly be better than today’s gaming consoles.
Also, phones will evolve to become an increasingly integrated part of the internet and IoT. Future mobile and digital communications infrastructure will be able to recognise mobile phones and their owners uniquely wherever they go, whether they go shopping or take a pod to the nearest hyperloop station.
Another under-the-hood improvement will be battery power. Phones of the future may have batteries powerful enough to last for weeks, if not longer. Users will also be able to charge them in multiple ways—wirelessly at home or work and using sunlight, for instance.
Future mobile phones will also dock right into the smart homes of the future, and physically into a smart socket or digitally via advanced versions of close proximity communications technologies such as Bluetooth. Such features could mean not having to carry the phone around the house while talking to someone. The smart home, with built-in microphones and speakers, will ensure that the owner will simply issue voice commands to place calls, while the phone remains wherever it is. Similarly, the docked phone can be used for work, throwing up messages that need quick actions, for example, on holographic displays built into the smart home.
The next decade could also see a return to the era of the ‘dumb phone’ with the user carrying a basic handset working on a voice interface alone, with almost all of the processing being done on the cloud.
4. Planet internet
One of the most exciting aspects of the internet of the future is the way it will be delivered around the globe. Among the more ambitious projects is the one backed by Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos who intends to put 3,236 satellites in low-Earth orbits to beam the internet around the planet. The project is named Kuiper after the belt of particles beyond Neptune.
Bezos isn’t the first to this idea. Kuiper will be competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is working on Starlink, a project to put a 12,000-satellite constellation around Earth to beam broadband down to the planet, as well as an initiative by SoftBank Group Corp-backed startup called OneWeb.
OneWeb has already put six satellites in space in March. One of the stated missions of OneWeb’s Founder Greg Wyler is to connect rural schools to the internet using the constellation of 650 satellites he eventually plans to put in space. Wyler has raised $3.4 billion in funding, including $1.25 billion recently.
Marcelo Claure, COO of SoftBank and CEO of SoftBank Group International, said in a statement on March 18: “OneWeb has extended its first-mover advantage and is on track to become the world’s largest and first truly global communications network. At SoftBank, our aim is to invest in transformative companies at the leading edge of technology disruption. OneWeb’s potential is undeniable as the growth in data from 5G, IoT, autonomous driving and other new technologies drives demand for capacity above and beyond the limits of the existing infrastructure.”
Among OneWeb’s investors are Grupo Salinas, Qualcomm Technologies Inc, the government of Rwanda, Virgin Group, Coca-Cola and Airbus.
These constellations of satellites are an example of many areas that experts have identified as having a bearing on the future internet and the future of the internet. For instance, government policy will need to revolve around how these satellites can and can’t be used. In 2017, the Internet Society, a non-profit organisation, pointed to the growing consolidation of the internet, and identified nine “forces” that will influence the evolution of the internet. These include convergence of the internet and the physical world, artificial intelligence and machine learning, new and evolving digital divides, increasing role of government, future of the marketplace and competition, impact of cyberattacks and cybercrime, evolution of networks and standards, impact on media, culture and human interaction and future of personal freedoms and rights.
5. A billion drones
A future with drones in it is probably closer than one imagines. The biggest obstacle in the way of a society that routinely uses these aerial unmanned vehicles is more likely to be regulatory than technological. Governments will have to come up with rules to ensure safety before drones can become commonplace.
The potential is already being demonstrated by scores of experiments around the world—from Amazon working on deliveries with drones to a small startup (which one?) in Bengaluru working on drones that will make medicine-delivery runs in remote, hilly areas of Papua New Guinea.
“When it comes to drones, we shouldn’t limit our thinking to their flying capabilities. Instead, the same drone that can fly may also be able to roll along the ground, jump onto a building, climb a tree, stick to a piece of glass, float on water or swim in it,” American futurist Thomas Frey wrote on his website. Frey has predicted that as early as 2030, there will be a billion drones around the world. He has listed a large number of applications of drones, ranging from monitoring forests to policing our cities.
“I envisage that the advantages of drone technology will be well-established within the decade—not only for business purposes, but also for helping to protect our society,” Elaine Whyte, UK Drones Lead at consultancy PwC, said in a report in May 2018. In the report, PwC estimated that drones and work on drones could boost Britain’s economy by £42 billion by 2030.
6. Printing cities and coral reefs
3D printing is the process of building an object layer by layer, using a three-dimensional digital model that is fed into a machine that can accordingly lay out the layers using raw materials such as plastic and metals. Advances in technology—technically called additive manufacturing—have allowed for printing everything from parts that could put together a house, to customised food, to small parts of coral reefs.
As the oceans become warmer due to climate change, the corals eject coloured algae and turn white before eventually dying. These ‘bleaching events’ are seen in coral reefs around the world. 3D-printed fake corals may be a new, better way to restore the reefs, the National Geographic said in a report in March 2017.
Scientists are 3D-printing fake reefs that “mimic the texture and architectural structure of natural reefs in ways that haven’t been achieved in prior restoration efforts”, according to the report.
Such reefs have been installed in the oceans in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Persian Gulf and Australia. Scientists are waiting and watching to see if these fake reefs succeed in the coming years in luring not only fish but also baby coral polyps, which attach themselves to structures and multiply to grow into new reefs, according to the report.
“3D printing could revolutionise supply chains,” according to consultancy PwC, which projects that the technology’s adoption will most likely grow at a compounded average annual growth rate of over 20 percent in the next decade. In industries such as automotive, industrial machines, health care and aerospace, 3D printing could simplify the repair of complex and costly parts or could make customised parts.
Dubai has a vision that envisages 25 percent of all buildings built in the emirate in 2030 will be 3D printed. By 2025, the global market for 3D printing is estimated to be at $300 billion.
7. Missions to Mars
By 2030, a crewed mission to Mars could be a possibility if one or more of the plans by government space agencies and private companies work out. The ‘red planet’ has been the subject of human imagination for centuries. Hollywood films have been made about humans on it. Among the more imaginative ones was John Carter where the eponymous hero is transported to Mars through a portal. He fights evil priests, who are determined to take over a local kingdom on the planet, and marries the land’s astronomer-princess.
Real-life journeys to Mars are estimated to take over a year in some cases or at least 245 days based on one particular scientific calculation, which calls for the availability of much higher energy than the other trips. Scientists have calculated that there are windows of opportunity every 26 months when the relative position of Earth and Mars is such that one can find the optimal trade-offs between the energy needed to transfer a spacecraft from our planet’s orbit to that of Mars and the time required to do so.
Nasa has put forward a plan to put a manned craft on Mars in 2030. Other nations are also planning various Mars missions. The first future programmes are likely to include, on the smaller scale, flyby missions followed by missions to land a small team of scientists who might stay anywhere between a few weeks and a year on the planet. Eventually, many experts believe it will be possible to colonise Mars with people, making the journey to permanently stay there.
While practical hurdles like funding alone are daunting, there are problems that aren’t under human control. For instance, unexpected solar storms could raise the radiation on Mars to lethal levels. And there aren’t guarantees that various equipment, computers and life-support systems will function properly. Even a safe landing isn’t guaranteed, although scientists have made strides in identifying promising sites using the various unmanned rover landing missions thus far.
8. Education: Creative learning
Education for all by 2030 is one of the United Nations’ sustainability and development goals. That is one facet of the challenge of educating future generations. Another problem comes from the exponential rate at which technology is advancing to make it possible to automate an increasing number of jobs. Human jobs that involve creativity and abstract thinking, and finding and solving problems by designing creative solutions will be secure.
This calls for an overhaul of the education system as the traditional system of teaching, with emphasis on rote learning, will be useless.
From an infrastructure point of view, advances in technology will bring to bear many tools to teaching and learning. An example is virtual reality that can bring alive various concepts, creating an immersive environment in the classroom. With availability of cloud computing and storage, students will have access to their lessons and worksheets wherever they are. And internet connections will be ubiquitous.
Teachers, too, will have to reinvent their roles. They will become catalysts for problem solving and for connecting students and the industry. In the process, learning will become highly interactive. At the university level, this will bring with it the germ of entrepreneurship.
9. Hospital at home
Much of what people have to go to the hospital for today will come to their homes at their convenience. For instance, portable versions of large scanning machines are being built by startups and medical technology companies. These new-generation devices make sophisticated diagnostics available at home.
Wearable devices that can monitor patients round-the-clock and upload data to the cloud securely to their electronic health records are already a reality. They will allow doctors to be alerted to a change in a patient’s condition and help them decide on the severity of the illness.
“By 2030, the very nature of disease will be further disrupted by technology. So disrupted, in fact, that we might have a whole lot fewer diseases to manage,” Melanie Walker, clinical associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery, University of Washington, wrote an article for the World Economic Forum in November 2016.
Hospitals will become centres of immediate diagnostics and treatment, and medical technology will have advanced to a stage where a single scan will tell doctors all that they can glean from the patient’s condition at one go. Techniques such as biopsy, which involves sending a patient’s tissue sample for tests and getting results before beginning treatment, will disappear.
10. Joys of shopping
Bengaluru-based Capillary Technologies is building AI tools to help sales staff in a shop get real-time feedback based on the interpretation of computer vision data. An early, limited-capability version is already in deployment with some customers using it to make better recommendations.
Another company, Manthan, has built an AI voice interface called Maya that the CEO of a retail chain can use on a smart speaker and ask questions like ‘Hey, how many customers in store X in town Y returned the red dress that they purchased for Christmas and why?’
Businesses have such an unprecedented amount of data that they can make relevant and enticing recommendations to shoppers. Ten years from now, every vendor will have such knowledge about customers via machine learning technologies built into our homes, appliances and smartphones. That means necessities such as groceries will get delivered and payment docked automatically, without having to order them each time.
Real shopping will increasingly involve only the discretionary items that you want to purchase and browsing them will involve flicking through different makes on a holographic display.
With your consent, stores may also surprise you with their latest ware, bringing them home for you to try them out. Stores can also help you organise events around your shopping by bringing their latest gizmos.
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