Like my post on Resource Depletion and Peak Oil, this is intended as a reference article for another key future trend. One important observation I will make at the beginning is that the approach of Limits To Growth (already imminent in the developed world) will not lead to a cessation in technological growth. In fact, they might even act as a spur to innovation, because 1) the end of growth prospects in material product will encourage a reallocation of resources to doing things better or more efficiently, and 2) the Boserupian Effect (in the Malthusian context – “relative overpopulation creates additional stimuli to generate and apply carrying-capacity-of-land-raising innovations”). So to my fellow peakists, please bear these qualifiers in mind before condemning me for “cornucopian” or “techno-progressive” heresies.
One of the best summaries is the Wikipedia page with the List of emerging technologies and I’ll be drawing heavily on it. I’ve marked out the technologies I consider to be more important and MOST IMPORTANT. Please feel free to chime in with your own suggestions.
Energy & Transport
OVERVIEW: Up to 2050, the dominant trends will be 1) exploitation of already-existing energy sources like coal and natural gas, as well as conventional oil in ever deeper and remoter locations, with marginally improving technology, 2) new unconventional hydrocarbon sources such as shale gas or coalbed methane, and 3) a massive expansion in nuclear power (assuming problems in the supply side don’t materialize early). Many modern renewable, battery, and energy efficiency technologies are critically reliant on Rare Earth Metals. Too bad that 1) you need energy to mine them, 2) they peaking at the global level (see 1, 2, 3, 4) and 3) their production has been largely monopolized by China. Though wind and solar are becoming more efficient, they are starting from a low base, which added to their other problems (dependency on REM’s, low EROEI, low energy density, intermittence, etc) will prevent them from becoming dominant energy sources within the next few decades. However, space-based solar power may be an exception. If an extensive space infrastructure is built up, e.g. for military purposes, then adding on an energy component will become highly desirable.
- Despite its hype, hydrogen economy is not gonna happen (too much new infrastructure needed, too much energy wastage and storage problems).
- As for nuclear fusion power, it always seems to be just a decade or two away. The biggest nuclear developments are going to be in GENERATION 3+ REACTORS such as the PBMR, SVBR & NuScale. This may become the dominant energy source within fifty years should industrial civilization survive the post-hydrocarbons transition.
- Biofuels – due to land constraints, they can never displace oil as the primary source of locomotive power. If anything, they will sooner exacerbate global inequality by increasing the bind between food prices (important for low-income nations) and fuel prices (important for industrialized nations).
- ENERGY STORAGE techs such as nanowire battery and ultracapacitor, in conjunction with wireless energy transfer (esp. in it the possibilities opened up for SPACE-BASED SOLAR POWER (see 1, 2). Given the great efficiencies of solar power generation in space, coupling this with other technological improvements in battery technology and space payload delivery may be a silver bullet out of our neo-Malthusian trap.
- Artificial photosynthesis is a possible energy source.
- Electric cars are a fast-growing industry in Japan, Korea, the US, and China. Effects are going to be 1) a slow divorce of transportation’s reliance on hydrocarbons and 2) a neo-colonial scramble for lithium.
- Precooled jet engines and scramjets could vastly increase aircraft speeds and are likely to have major military applications.
- Proposed systems for non-rocket space launches such as launch loop, space elevator, and mass driver / space gun may be introduced, especially if there emerges an economic or military based need for them.
- See also Sustainable development, Industrial Ecology, Energy Development, Ecosocialism, Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy, Renewable energy development, Sustainable Retreat, A Future Timeline for Energy, A Future Timeline for Automobiles, and the concept of the Ecotechnic Society (1, 2).
OVERVIEW: As the decades go by, and as long as industrialism remains intact (i.e. at least until 2040), the line separating the real world from the virtual world of cyberspace will become blurred. There will be ultra high-bandwidth communications, perhaps directly connecting human brains in reality (telepathy?), as well as to their avatar within other full immersion virtual realities. Specialized AI’s will proliferate as ever more “conventional” products become digitized and act as “virtual assistants” to cyborg humans in “augmented reality”. Perhaps some AI’s will pass the Turing test (Ray Kurzweil suggests 2029), helped in part by accurate brainscans (enabled by nanobots injected into the bloodstream) and brain simulations (enabled by progress of Moore’s Law). The spread of these global, intelligent networks of cyborgs and AI’s will be a revolution unprecedented in history.
- 4G cellular communication is already being implemented giving people access to mobile ultra-broadband access to applications such as Google Maps (with geo-locator, nearby places of interest with info, etc). Same goes for solid-state drive which are already in process of diffusion.
- ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, enabling the creation of intelligent entities, is by far the most important prospective technology, perhaps the only one with the potential to propel universal history onto a higher evolutionary stage. “Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever… Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make” (Good 1965). Not only is AI a self-reinforcing technological trend beyond a certain critical point, but it can also accelerate the overall pace of technological progress. Popularized in books by Asimov and the film AI.
- The more mundane and shorter-term effects will be machine translation and vision; pattern recognition, ubiquitous automation, brain simulation, and HUMAN-MACHINE INTERFACE (e.g. see cyborg, exocortices, bionic contact lens); data mining, surveillance and SEMANTIC WEBS; and a plethora of other applications. Will be covered in more detail in later posts, including a review of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near.
- MOORE’s LAW “describes a long-term trend in which the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years”. See also Law of Accelerating Returns, Technological Singularity, Amdahl’s law, Bell’s law, Metcalfe’s law, Haitz’s Law (LED’s), The Mythical Man-Month, Rock’s law, Wirth’s law, Son of Moor’s Law (in DNA sequencing). Most of these complements or restrictions to Moore’s Law.
- 3D optical or holographic techniques could vastly increase the efficiency and longevity of data storage. Photonic computing may resolve one of the biggest problems for improving computer hardware, what to do with the emitted heat.
- Quantum cryptography provides perfectly secure means for communicating a key and is already being proliferated. Meanwhile, most other encrypting systems (including RSA) will become breakable by quantum computers.
- Advances in 3D display, holography and phased-array optics may herald a new era of video conferencing and active camouflage.
- VIRTUAL REALITY is “an artificial environment where the user feels just as immersed as they usually feel in consensus reality”. With time, the growth of parallel worlds can be envisaged. Popularized in The Matrix films.
- See also Law of Accelerating Returns (Ray Kurzweil), Top Ten Transhumanist Technologies (Michael Anissimov), Openness and the Metaverse Singularity (James Cascio), Predictions made by Raymond Kurzweil, Technological Singularity, Simulated Reality, Augmented Reality, Cyberspace, Immersion, Are you living in a Computer Simulation? (Nick Bostrom), free novel True Names by Vernor Vinge.
Biotech & Agriculture
OVERVIEW: Bioengineering will revolutionize the way people live and very soon – longer and healthier lives, largely free of degenerative diseases, and with enhanced physical and mental capabilities. Existing life forms will be modified or mated with machines, while entirely new bioconstructs may be created to fulfill specific purposes. And with the decline of the petroleum economy and the industrial agriculture it subsidizes, other techniques like permaculture, organic gardening, and hydroponics will become more prominent.
- GENETIC ENGINEERING is a way of directly manipulating genes, e.g. taking an antifreeze gene from an Arctic fish and inserting it into a tomato. This will be a very helpful technology for agricultural adaptation to climate change. Closely linked are synthetic biology and synthetic genomics, in which biological principles are used to engineer new genomes. There is accelerating progress in biotech – see Son of Moore’s Law, where costs of DNA sequencing are falling faster than for IT. Popularized in Crichton’s Jurassic Park and numerous films.
- LIFE EXTENSION “refers to attempts to slow down or reverse the processes of aging to extend both the maximum and average lifespan [by means of] future breakthroughs in tissue rejuvenation with stem cells, molecular repair, and organ replacement (such as with artificial organs or xenotransplantations)”. If this were to translate to higher healthy life expectancies, this may help mitigate the negative economic impacts of aging populations in the developed world. See also REGENERATIVE MEDICINE, indefinite lifespan, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, List of life extension related topics, actuarial escape velocity.
- Suspended animation or cryonics can be used prior to hibernate people within clinical death prior to intensive surgical work – may be particular useful in emergency situations or the battlefield.
- Stem cell treatments may hold the cure to numerous degenerative diseases.
- Personalized medicine tailored to individuals for maximum effectiveness, but will probably be costly to implement.
- Body implants and PROSTHETICS may drastically improve human abilities or repair disabilities. Ties in with cyborg themes above.
- PERMACULTURE using organic methods is agriculture in which “work is minimised, “wastes” become resources, productivity and yields increase, and environments are restored”. No fossil fuels or pesticides are used, high yields are permanently sustainable, and the system can be used almost anywhere. It is even possible that this technology will be industrial civilization’s greatest legacy to its deindustrialized descendants, in which agriculture becomes pressed for space (spreading deserts, cities, oceans). This can be supplemented with fish farming or in vitro meat (for protein) and hydroponics (in areas with limited soils or urban areas). See Feeding the Deindustrial Future (John Michael Greer), Terra Preta: Biochar And The MEGO Effect, aeroponics, aquaponics.
- See also Transhumanism, Artificial Womb.
Robotics, Nanotech & Materials Science
OVERVIEW: Nanomanufacturing may revolutionize economic values, but only if it’s of the “bottom-up” variety; but there is little cause to expect a general breakthrough in this sphere until around 2040 at the earliest, since even the experimental basis for it is very weak now (upshot: we won’t die from gray goo). But there will be a great deal of innovations in materials building using nanotech using the “top-down” approach – lighter, tougher, stealthier, and more flexible, efficient, and resilient. This will improve many already existing technologies and physical assets.
- The long process of miniaturization is at the heart of NANOTECHNOLOGY, the science of manipulating matter on the molecular and atomic scale (see molecular self-assembly, nanomaterials, molecular nanotechnology). Progress will advance along two fronts – smaller size, bigger complexity. Distant possibilities include the reengineering of the human body, building nanoscale “swarm bots” that can enter the human body and do anything from creating an inner virtual reality to killing her, and molecular replicators that could build anything or turn the world into “gray goo”. Its nearer and more realistic possibilities include powering the continuation of Moore’s Law and creating nanomaterials.
- SWARM ROBOTICS involve many agents operating by simple rules and communicating with each other to organize complex outcomes (like bees or ants). Popularized in Crichton’s Prey novel.
- Powered exoskeleton are suits that can increase the wearer’s strength, endurance, and mobility. Obvious applications to prosthetics, workers in hazardous conditions, and soldiers. Popularized in Iron Man films.
- High-temperature superconductivity so as to create no loss conductors, frictionless bearings, magnetic levitation (MAGLEV) and lossless high-capacity accumulators. High-temperature superfluidity may enable frictionless mechanical devices. Huge efficiency savings will be made if such devices are developed at a cheap enough cost.
- Nanomaterials are new materials created with nanotechnology such as fullerenes (e.g. carbon nanotubes needed for space elevators) or other nanoparticles “of particular interest for their mechanical, electrical, magnetic, optical, chemical and other properties” (e.g. see quantum dots, with applications in quantum computing, solar power, and LED’s). Metamaterials “are artificial materials engineered to provide properties which may not be readily available in nature” with applications such as the superlens, “cloaking” (stealth), and sensors.
- Self-healing materials could detect and repair physical faults in a structure like biological organisms do. Programmable matter can change its actual physical properties “based upon user input or autonomous sensing”.
Military & Security
OVERVIEW: I really recommend you read On Future War, but in summary, networks will become more important than ever to warfare. But they must not only be intelligent and flexible, but also resilient, because they may be massively disrupted by precision weapons, EMP’s, and cyber attacks – should the networks they rely on fail, the units beneath them must retain cohesion to achieve victory. Surveillance is ubiquitous both on the battlespace and the home front, indeed, the two are hardly distinguishable. Railguns and battle lasers will revolutionize naval warfare, and in response naval platforms will have to become deeper, quieter, faster, nimbler. On the ground, tanks will be entirely sidelined by RPG’s, and combat will come to resemble first person shooter video games in almost all respects. Drones and MANPADS will sideline legacy fighters, smart RPG’s will sideline tanks. Developments in missile defense will force a move to newer nuclear delivery systems (hypersonic bombers and scramjet cruise missiles). There will be “space wars” between satellites and ASAT weapons for control of the commanding heights and C&C might even move into space.
- Already covered in a series on this blog. See On Future War, Revolution in Naval Warfare, Augmented Reality Warfare, Thinking about Nuclear War, and my upcoming articles on future aerospace warfare (Battle for the Heavens), on cyberwar, and on biological warfare.
- [Key terms covered above: ballistic missile defense, anti-missile shields (including “plasma shield), scramjets, EM railguns, battle lasers, supercavitating torpedoes (and even submersibles), “smart dust”, hypersonic cruise missiles, hypersonic strategic bombers, battlespace awareness, precision weapons, fuel air bombs, EMP bombs, NCW/4GW/RMA, cyberwar, ekranoplan, space war, drones, Augmented Reality Warfare, “cybernetic reprimitivization”, “ecological war”, the Iron Light Phalanx, cyborg soldiers, stealth, semi-submersible arsenal ships, military bioconstructs.]
- The modern SURVEILLANCE STATE (e.g. particularly well developed in Britain) is highly subject to Moore’s Law: databases = information storage, detection = pattern recognition & processing power, based on networks, increasingly mobile (can be operated from drones, satellites) and all-encompassing (due to rising ubiquity and sensitivity of sensors). This may, arguably, encourage corruption and authoritarianism. Though the technological advances are unstoppable, one solution is to insist on a democratization of surveillance power (i.e. sousveillance) to encourage the emergence of a “transparent society“.
- The HI-MEMS project to create cyborg insects that can be controlled by a military for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.
- Due to falling costs of DNA sequencing, the means for making biological warfare will become accessible to small groups and individuals (Biowar for Dummies).
- See also force fields, particle beam weapons, The age of the great battlestars.
OVERVIEW: My own pet technologies…
- GEOENGINEERING hardly exists as a scientific discipline today, but it will become all important by 2030. Runaway climate change is pretty much inevitable and geoengineering will be a last ditch attempt to right the careening Earth ship, but has only break even chances of success at best (see The Final Gambit: Geoengineering and S/O forum discussion about this for more details).
- The science of SYSTEM DYNAMICS will achieve far greater prominence in all walks of life. It is central to understanding both the information networks that are overspreading the world, and the systemic limits to growth on the planet that we are breaching. It can also draw on the emerging science of cliodynamics, still in its incubation period, that seeks to mathematically model historical processes. Combining its insights with the World3 model, the various Hubbert’s peak models, etc, will surely yield great benefits in understanding current trends and envisioning our likely future path (and how to avoid the best outcomes).
- I suspect one side effect of increased computing power, combined with greater understanding of limits to growth and respect for the systems approach, will be a rehabilitation of central planning (e.g. as first argued in the book Towards a New Socialism by P. Cockshott A. Cottrell). Why should be intuitively obvious. The emerging complex of surveillance systems, AI’s, databases, and networks should solve the classic problem bedeviling all earlier attempts at real socialism, the problem of getting accurate, real-time information about the state of the economy. But in the future, all this information will be at the central agent’s fingertips, far more than any individual (or even cyborg) could hope to possess let alone analyze. Central planning will no longer be a byword for inefficiency and cronyism; it will be the wave of the future! See also my posts on ecotechnic dictatorship and collapse ethics.
Instead of a Conclusion…
… I’m writing a “Top 10” list* of the most significant future technologies, taking into account their 1) immediacy, and most importantly 2) their feasibility of achieving transformative global effects.
- Though the full ramifications of Artificial Intelligence are some distance away, they will be truly epochal in their significance (a superintelligent AI is the last invention man need ever make). Even before that period, specialized AI’s will become to impinge on and dominate ever wider spheres of human activity – driving, playing chess, sorting information, firing guns… and most importantly, developing other technologies (including better AI’s).
- Bioengineering enables everything from better crop productivity to life extension; though unlike AI this technology won’t displace humans, it has the potential to redefine what it means to be human. Not only will we be able to play God by modifying existing species, or creating entirely new ones to serve our whim, but we can change our own species and become transhumans. And significantly, biotech is already a huge industry.
- Permaculture, with its offshoots, may be the most significant technology we leave behind to our descendants after 2050. It will play an important role in mitigating the stresses placed on the agricultural system by energy shortages and climate change; should industrial civilization collapse altogether, then these farming techniques may be able to sustain a few billion people at sustenance levels and hence spare the world a full-blown dieoff.
- There will be rising interest in Geoengineering as the true scale of our global warming dilemma reveals itself in the immediate decades ahead. Eventually, some kind of aerosol or ocean seeding solution will be attempted in a desperate bid to prevent the world’s metamorphosis into Mad Max in Waterworld. I suspect its success (or not) will largely determine whether industrial civilization collapses or ekes out a path to a sustainable steady state by 2100.
- People will spend more and more time in Virtual Reality, which will become increasingly indistinguishable from real reality in some ways. Prime candidates for this are video games and movies (you are the direct protagonist or observer, respectively), social networking sites like Facebook (meet your “Friends” in person… on a deep space cruiser!), or even cyberspace in general.
- The falling costs of computer technology and networks, coupled with the rising social tensions of the Age of Scarcity Industrialism, will make Mass Surveillance systems irresistible for any state. The main question is whether it will be the unaccountable CCTV type, or the democratic “transparent society” type. And needless to say, advanced surveillance technologies will become more vital than ever on the ultra-lethal future battlespace…
- Exploiting “top-down” Nanotechnology will reliably deliver continuing improvements in computer hardware, as well as useful new materials such as carbon nanotubes and quantum dots. If “bottom-up” nanotechnology is realized, then this technology will become truly transformative, and will move up to the #2 slot. However, this prospect is probably at least several decades distant.
- Pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, even eye contacts can be classified as Human-Machine Interfaces. But the future possibilities are far grander. Exoskeletons can multiply human power and endurance. Bionic contacts with embedded “virtual assistant” AI’s can make people far more functionally intelligent (e.g. integrating people’s faces with their personal info streamed from their social networking profiles), thus enabling people, now cyborgs, to experience an “augmented reality”.
- Life Extension may hold the solution to Europe’s and Japan’s aging crisis. If old people become functionally younger, they can get back into the workforce instead of burdening their welfare states with expensive treatments for degenerative diseases.
- This is a bit of a wildcard, but on the energy front I’m going to throw out Space-Based Solar Power. In my view, it may be the most reliable way of solving our energy dilemma for the longue durée. Unlike hydrocarbons or uranium, it will never peak (at least not until the Sun dies). Far away from the debris in Low Earth Orbits, it should be relatively safe and stable once positioned in place. Energy can be constantly microwaved down to Earth, where it is used immediately or stored in batteries. The upfront costs are prohibitive, and in the coming age of fiscal and energy stresses many nations will be unwilling or unable to foot the bill. However, they also have an innate interest in building up their space capabilities, and providing space-based solar power may constitute an excellent economic justification for the expenditures. If industrial civilization survives its post-hydrocarbons transition and contains runaway climate change, then the second part of the 21st century will be a solar one.
I’m sure I’ve made plenty of mistakes and missed many other important technologies in this post, so please feel free to chime in on this score.
* Actually, Information Technology is not only transformative by itself, giving us ever bigger networks and more powerful computers, but it also drives progress in most of the other technologies on this list! Without its Moore’s Law dynamics, we would be in a deep technological rut. The reason it is not on the list of emerging technologies is because it has already fully emerged… it is now part of the technological background, much like the wheel or the internal combustion engine.