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Tuesday, Oct 27, 2020

2020s visions: We'll get flying cars just before becoming software-based people

2020s visions: We'll get flying cars just before becoming software-based people

Life in 2030 could barely be recognizable if these bold predictions come true.

In some ways, the future that so much science fiction promised us is already here. We have genetically altered humans, conversations with computers and robots that run around the woods and do backflips.

But the decade beginning in 2020 will take us even further toward a world where far-out ideas like hooking brains up to computers - and even immortality - become topics of serious conversation.

Vivek Wadhwa, author of the 2017 book The Driver in the Driverless Car, expects that along the way, several other major advances will be in common use by 2030, including the ever-delayed flying car, medical tricorders, bionic exoskeletons and unlimited clean energy.

"Some technologies will take longer to reach the masses than others, but they will be at hand," he tells me. "The 2020s will be when the incredible promises of technology finally happen."

As 2019, the year in which Blade Runner was set, draws to a close, here's a deeper look at what the next 10 years will bring.


About those flying cars…

Predicting that George Jetson's or Rick Deckard's favored method of commuting is just around the corner has become the ultimate futurist's faux pas, but here we are again. The barrier to flying around town isn't technology at this point; it's laws and logistics. A number of small companies make flying cars right now, but most require a pilot's license and might cost as much as a helicopter, preventing airborne autos from becoming a replacement for the average driver's Prius anytime soon.

What could happen for the rest of us is a system of flying taxis. Uber hopes to beta-test limited flight-sharing in select cities using small, electric VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) vehicles as soon as 2023.

The driverless future will arrive much sooner. A Tesla can already valet-park itself and take the wheel on the highway -- not completely self-driving, but a start. Several other automakers aim to catch up in the next few years, moving toward fully autonomous driving by the mid-2020s. There's even been a rumor that Apple could create a driverless electric car that adds augmented reality or some sort of smart displays to the concept by 2025.

But engineer, inventor and former BT "futurologist" Ian Pearson sees our self-driving destiny playing out differently.

"I think there's going to be a shock in the 2020s on that one," he says.

Pearson envisions bans on personal cars in city centers in favor of electric "pods" (sometimes called personal rapid transit) that would be inexpensive and basic - perhaps akin to big, covered golf carts - running on designated roadways and controlled from riders' phones.

If you're looking to go farther than just across town, Elon Musk has promised he'll be ready to ferry us around the globe on super-fast flights via space using the same rockets he hopes will begin carrying humans to the moon and Mars in the 2020s.

Musk has always been a little loose with meeting self-imposed timelines - SpaceX took several years longer to get its commercial space business off the ground than the founder initially promised - so it's tough to say how soon regular folks might be catching a ride on his Starship. Other space companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are closer to ferrying space tourists in the next few years, at least for a quick joyride in the skies.


'Always connected' will soon be way more literal

The 2020s are opening with millions speaking to digital assistants, and the decade will see the ways we interact with computers evolve and even surpass how we communicate with other humans.

Bill Gates said earlier this year that natural language inputs and AI voice assistants will improve to the point they might be able to fill the role of a human secretary.

"I do think that we'll have executive assistant-type capability in a five- to 10-year period," Gates told MIT Technology Review in the above video.

Pearson thinks that instead of talking to smart speakers or phones, we could soon be conversing with our own eyeballs. He says he first thought up the idea for an "active contact lens" back in 1991. The notion of an augmented reality display floating on your cornea would have been perfect cyborg sci-fi movie fodder back then, but now at least one startup seems to have it just about worked out, with a tiny display that seems just right for embedding in contacts.

We'll soon see if hiding your screen on your eyeball is appealing, but Elon Musk is already thinking one step ahead. His startup Neuralink is just one outfit working on brain-computer interfaces that use our thoughts as input mechanisms rather than taking the time to type, speak or gesture our commands.

Musk hopes to demonstrate the technology with paralyzed patients in 2020, and by 2030 it may become significantly easier to communicate with the digital world than the human sitting next to you.


We'll prepare to live in the cloud… forever

In 2030, artificial intelligence may be as smart as your biological friends.

"I think that in three to five years you will see a computer system that will be able to autonomously learn how to understand," IBM Watson lead developer David Ferrucci says in 2018's Do You Trust This Computer. "Not unlike the way the human mind works."

Famed futurist Ray Kurzweil has been claiming for years we'll have humanlike AI by 2029. He doesn't see it, though, as the start of the robot apocalypse (as some, including the late Stephen Hawking, have predicted), but rather as a new era of liberation from the limitations of human biology.

Kurzweil laid out his vision in his 2005 book The Singularity is Near, and he's doubled down on it over the years. His basic idea is that advanced AI and nanotechnology will perfect our bodies and enhance our brains in such a way that we're not cyborgs, but our best selves: funnier, smarter, sexier and resistant to disease. But that's just the beginning.

All this comes, according to Kurzweil, by 2029, just in time for a new era when we can upload our minds to become fully software-based people, leaving our bodies behind to live forever in the cloud.

But that's predicted for the 2030s. You'll have to check back in a decade for how that pans out.


Going beyond just healthy

The genetic engineering genie has been let out of its bottle, with the first children allegedly born from engineered embryos living anonymously somewhere in China today.

Less illicit uses of gene-editing technologies like CRISPR/Cas9 (which acts like a pair of molecular scissors for DNA) will continue to move forward to help tackle disease and force us to wrestle with the ethical questions involved in the inevitable era of "designer babies" who have their genes altered to match the whims and desires of their parents.

Zoltan Istvan, author and Republican candidate challenging President Trump for the 2020 GOP nomination, says an emerging related technology called in vitro gametogenesis could soon shift how we approach infertility and having children. The process basically allows for sperm or eggs to be created from an individual's stem cells.

"It could change how women approach their lives, since they will no longer be on a timetable. ... They'll be able to have children at any age," he tells me. "This tech can also be used for men, and individuals may not even need partners anymore to have children."

Istvan expects the approach could be tested on humans within two to four years and commercially available by 2027.

In the meantime, look for more medical innovations, like a male birth control pill, chips implanted in the brain to give memory a boost and 3D-printed organs.


Sometimes things don't go as planned...

It's easy to go down the rabbit hole of optimistic outcomes, but there's also a darker timeline to consider. We may already be witnessing the opening scenes of multiple tragedies that could play out over the next decade. Here are just a few:

SpaceX alone hopes to nearly quintuple the 8,000 satellites launched since the dawn of the space age by middecade. Its competitors aim to launch their own mega-constellations of hundreds or thousands more satellites. Collisions in a congested orbital space over Earth could lead to a worst-case scenario called "Kessler syndrome," in which orbit becomes so full of debris it's no longer safe for astronauts or satellites. We would say goodbye to GPS, satellite communications and space exploration for some time.

At this point, most experts agree that better robots, artificial intelligence and automation will displace millions of workers in the 2020s. The impact on society and what we do about it may shape the coming years.

Istvan and Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang are among the politicians already campaigning on the issue of implementing a universal basic income as a safety net for those who inevitably lose their jobs to tech.

And what about all the potential nightmares we're already navigating online, from deepfakes to concerns over privacy?

"Advances in artificial intelligence will open up new opportunities for mass surveillance and mass-manufactured emotional manipulation," Interchain Foundation President and Tendermint CEO Jae Kwon says. "It will get worse before it gets better."

I've ignored the elephant on the barstool in the corner: a climate and environmental crisis that's already in motion and stirring up deadly extreme weather events with increasing frequency and leaving plastic waste in nearly every nook and cranny of the planet.

To echo Kwon, this also will get worse before it gets better.

But technology loves nothing more than a big problem to solve, and plenty of possible solutions could take off in the next decade. It may be the long-promised holy grail of clean fusion power, or the notion of replacing all those planet-warming fossil fuels with the very carbon dioxide that they produce (technologies already exist to capture CO2 and convert it into raw materials).

"I also think we'll see some quite advanced materials arriving, like spray-on solar [photovoltaic power] films," Pearson says. "We'll also see water supply being solved in the developing world with desalination and water collection tech."

Author and MIT scientist Andrew McAfee is so confident technology will help us turn around the mass consumption streak weighing so heavily on the environment that he's inviting people to take him up on a bet the US will consume less energy in 2029 than it does in 2019.

So far, no one has taken that bet. Interestingly, Kurzweil has put down money on his own bet that a machine will pass a test of "human-level intelligence" by 2029.

Let's plan to meet back here in a decade to see who's right. Or just look me up in the cloud.

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