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What does the future hold?

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 12 July 2017


What sort of future we are likely to enjoy, or have to put up with, has been a regular subject on the Internet for some time now. Being unsure of how much future I personally have left, I'm not totally consumed by the subject. But I saw a comprehensive list the other, and I thought it was worth reflecting on. The list was the work of Shelly Palmer, who has written a couple of interesting pieces on innovation. I have numbered the sections below for ease of comment, and done some minor editing as well.

One thing to note at the beginning: no dates are given. Some things may happen quickly, and others more slowly, and one or two may not happen in any reader's future. So we need to keep a sense of proportion. Here they are:

  1. The big will get bigger, the small will survive, and the middle will perish.
  2. Consumers of every economic stratum will demand "on demand."
  3. Access is becoming as valuable as ownership – streaming media instead of buying a download, ride-sharing instead of buying a car, etc. You will pay for it with cash, data, or a combination of both.
  4. Anything you can talk to will understand and talk back – Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR), NLU, and related technologies coupled with Augmented Reality and machine learning will have a radically disruptive impact on the way we live our lives.
  5. As a result of ride-sharing, the auto industry will contract by 20 per cent.
  6. Traffic will increase because ride-sharing service cars will always be in motion.
  7. AI will start taking white-collar jobs more quickly than experts predict. If just 20 per cent of white-collar jobs evaporate, the economic impact will be profound.
  8. New technology will not replace all of the jobs that new technology displaces.
  9. Commoditized products that are hard to pronounce or spell (or speak) or hard to search will quickly become unprofitable.
  10. The convergence of on demand, machine learning, and autonomy will change the world.
  11. Data is more powerful in the presence of other data.
  12. Anything that can be connected will be connected.
  13. Anything that can be hacked will be hacked.
  14. Distribution channel disruption is accelerating.
  15. Due to the increasing world population, we cannot train enough doctors, dentists, and other health care professionals.
  16. Fresh water is a scarce resource, and natural supplies will diminish quickly over the next 30 years.
  17. "Big Food" may go the way of "Big Tobacco" as health care costs rise.
  18. The tools used to access the free and open Internet have enabled users to filter out anything that makes them uncomfortable and have exacerbated the negative effects of confirmation bias.
  19. The entire education system is too expensive and is not producing qualified candidates for newly created jobs.
  20. Climate change will cause sea levels to rise over the next 50 years.
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Let's deal with #20 first. As regular readers here will know, whether sea levels are rising in any unprecedented way is not clear, but on the evidence does not seem a major worry. There are data to suggest that levels are falling in some parts of the ocean, and some evidence that they are rising in other parts. Sea levels seem to have been rising gently for thousands of years, and I see no reason why they will not continue to do so. Number #20, then, is not an encouraging item for me.

What did I see that I nodded at immediately? Well #2 seems to me to have been happening and will continue to happen. Consumers want things now (as do protest marchers), rather than to have to put their names down on a list and wait. More, they increasingly feel that they have some kind of right to expect instant gratification. Those merchants who can provide a product or a process on demand are doing well (other things being equal), so old practices and customs are giving way to new, with appropriate social and cultural change. Not all of it is pleasant.

Numbers #5 and #6 seemed to me probably right. I don't see autonomous vehicles arriving in any number for twenty years or more, and indeed the motor vehicle as a commuting mechanism may have been largely displaced in urban settings by then anyway, as cities rise higher.

Number #7 seems to be happening already, and to have been happening for more than a generation. Bank tellers started to go in the 1980s. Typists and secretaries lost jobs and careers in the 1980s and 1990s. Civil servants, as clerks, have lost careers steadily over the last twenty years. Libraries have changed…

Number #8 has been true since the 18th century. Technology creates new jobs and new opportunities, but they are usually not available to those whose jobs have been displaced.

I'm not sure about #15. There is, at least at present, no 'population bomb'. Birthrates everywhere are falling. Yes, we will probably get to a world of 9 billion somewhere in the second half of the century, and maybe 11 billion by the beginning of the 22nd century. All this has been set out clearly by Hans Rosling. But 'peak child' time has passed already, because family size is now small, and likely to stay small, as girls are educated properly. I see no reason linked to growing population as to why we cannot train the necessary numbers of health-care workers.

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Number #16 seems both on the ball and not a particular worry. Yes, only Brazil, Canada and the US have bountiful fresh water, but the conversion of salt water to fresh seems, at least to me, the kind of technological issue that humanity will solve when it is necessary. We have major de-sal plants now. We will need lots of them in smaller scale, and cheap. I feel pretty sure we will get them.

I wondered about #18, too. Is there anything special about the Internet in the context of confirmation bias? The mainstream media display their own problems with confirmation bias. A variety of sources seems to me the way for those who want to know, to puzzle their way to some sort of truth. But that is not new.

Is the education system too expensive? Number #19 assumes it is. Compared to what/when/where? Is its purpose to train people for newly created jobs? I don't think so, though preparing people for work generally is one of the purposes of all education systems. Since we don't know all the jobs that our graduates will have to fill over their working lives, we are increasingly preparing them for a variety of jobs. And young people know this, and most are careful to keep learning.

As for the other predictions I have nothing useful to say. Some of them are vague, like #1, #9, #10, #11, #12, #13 and #14. I know too little about artificial intelligence now to know what Perry had in mind in #4. I'm not sure who or what he has in mind when he speaks of 'Big Food'. Humans don't need tobacco, and its habitual use is likely to ordain some serious medical issues later on. But we do need food, and some of it will continue to come from somewhere else than our immediate vicinity. That requires organisation, corporations, transport and scale.

And as a final thought, peace and prosperity (economic growth) seem a basic assumption in the whole set. There are many projections of greatly increased GDP per capita in the coming century, and few projections of global conflicts on the scale of the two world wars. It is interesting that Perry didn't refer to these assumptions, and indeed that he didn't talk more about 'climate change' in his set of twenty.

I would be interested to know what readers think about these projections, and whether they have any other suggestions. If I look back to my boyhood in the 1940s, the world we have now would have seemed more like science fiction then. Is it likely, given the faster pace of technological change, that we can be any more perceptive now about what life will be like in the next seventy years?

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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