Every time I travel, I try to pay attention to how the experience has evolved thanks to technology. Here are my notes about a recent trip:

  • Only fifteen years ago, I would travel with a dedicated camera. It was relatively bulky and it only had a small screen. Sharing the pictures over the Internet in real time was unthinkable. Today, I can point a camera, say “Take picture” and a picture is taken. If I want to share it with the world, I can then share it with whoever I want in seconds. Oh! And the phone is cheaper, lighter and takes better pictures than the specialized camera I had fifteen years ago. (On this front, I was told that this would not happen because good pictures require a large lens. Evidently, the importance of having a large lens was overstated.)
  • Organizing the trip, including the purchase of the air fare and the hotel, took less than fifteen minutes using an online portal. Fifteen years ago, such work required trained professionals working at a travel agency. I remember at the time that a friend of mine wanted to become a travel agent. I told her that this was a dead-end… that computers would soon do most of the work. She would not believe me. In fact, people thought I had a rather extreme view on this front. I do not know what happened to my friend but, evidently, we need far fewer travel agents today.
  • Checking in for a flight can be done online easily. You also get to pick your seats if you so desire using a convenient map of the airplane. Fifteen years ago, checking in meant waiting in line and getting a desk person to pick your seats. Airlines still appear to have manned desks everywhere, but fewer people work at them, and the lines are shorter.
  • To get to the airport, I did not (sadly) enjoy a self-driving car. However, I spoke in my phone, telling it the name of the airport, and it automatically guided me to the airport by voice, apparently taking into account a major traffic jam. What is more, my phone somehow knew about my flight and reminded me of the departure time, even though I never entered this information by hand.
  • I should add that almost all airports have gotten slicker. It is becoming standard to get free Internet access at the airport. They also include power plugs at convenient locations.
  • Security checks at airport are much more invasive than they used to be… that’s a big negative. However, machines are fast replacing expensive human beings. More and more airports have automated desks that take a picture of you, ask you questions… at the gates, computers try to identify parts of your body that need to be further searched. Evidently, the whole security theatre is becoming more and more automated. Given that these jobs do not appear to be exciting, I would be glad if robots handled most of this silly security work.
  • People sometimes complain that planes have hardly improved since the 1970s. However, the experience has massively improved. Planes offer cheap Internet access, power plugs, a wide choice of movies, TV shows, games… On several planes, you can connect to an external camera and see what the pilot can see. And while prices in real dollars have fallen by half in the last few decades, confort has generally improved. For example, even American airlines offer sensible meals. At one point, in the chairs next to mine, I saw a line of scientists doing hard core programming and simulations. Maybe it was a professor and his students. It became clear at some point that they were interacting live with another team elsewhere. That would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago, to say nothing of the 1970s. (I am not quite sure what was so urgent that they had to work feverishly during the flight. Maybe a conference deadline?) I believe things will improve further: I am hoping for virtual or augmented reality to become common place in airplanes within another fifteen years. Carrying a bulky laptop will be old school in 2030.
  • It used to be that when you parked your car at the airport, you would need to pay the parking fees at a gate where a human being would collect the toll. This has been entirely automated many years ago (at least in Montreal). Paying the fee is now almost instantaneous. Likewise, for many years now, train stations are entirely automated in Europe. You come in, buy your ticket at an automated teller and get in the train. But you have now automated ordering at McDonald’s.
  • Though it can still fail you some of the time, I have a lot of luck with Google’s translation app. Often, you can just point the camera of your phone at some foreign text and you will get a decent translation. It is a bit slow and clunky, but it is a lot more than a proof of concept.
  • Coffee has gotten better worldwide. Fifteen years ago, when ordering coffee in a foreign city, half the time I would end up with something that was barely drinkable. You may argue that coffee is not about technology, but I think it is. It is easier than ever to find a coffee machine that makes decent coffee. My first espresso maker required skills to brew something drinkable where I can brew a much better coffee with my current machine even if it costed far less in constant dollars.

Not all of these changes are good. The security theatre and the invasion of privacy are worrying… I also find that automation can be irritating at times… replacing human beings with automated tellers would be better if the automated tellers could actually answer basic questions and provide simple advice. We should also worry about the job losses.

But what I find fascinating is how hard it is to record and track innovation over a period of fifteen years. If you are lazy about it, you will invariably conclude that nothing changed… but as soon as you pay attention, you see surprising and important changes everywhere.

We are a bit like frogs being slowly cooked… because not all the changes happen at once, we tend not to notice them as much as we should. And then, at some point, we live in a world where it is normal for a team of scientists to keep on working while they are flying. Not only do we fail to notice the change, but we even insist forcefully that nothing changed.

It is hot today in Montreal, so let me play my favorite game: (mis)predicting the future (2025).

  • If the past is any guide, we shall still program using Java, JavaScript, C, SQL, and so forth. Linux will still be everywhere.
  • Using libraries or web services, almost anyone will be able to build a simple application with human-level speech or image recognition, cheaply and quickly. And I do mean “almost anyone” as in “any reasonably smart kid in high school”.
  • Processors with 2 or 4 cores will look antiquated. Basic computer systems (at least in the cloud) will be made of hundreds of cores.
  • Whereas storage is currently nearly infinite in practice, in 2025, memory will be nearly infinite in the sense that programmers will not worry much about running out of memory, even on mobile devices. However, you will only able to access a fraction of this memory per second with any single core.
  • Though we shall still have silicon-based processors, some other technology will be taking over… maybe something esoteric like carbon nanotubes.

It is popular to fear that climate change will turn the Earth into a water world or that genetically-modified food is going to kill all of us. These fears are probably unwarranted. Instead, I view the future as follows:

  • You will be hiking in a beautiful mountain with your latest exoskeleton. It is fantastic, you can walk for hours in rough terrain without getting tired… Then, just as you are about to arrive at the top of the mountain, your exoskeleton decides that it is time to update its firmware. Sadly, the update failed and your exoskeleton is locked up “for your safety”. An emergency call has been placed, you just have to wait for someone to pick you up, ETA 2 hours. It is going to rain soon.
  • You take a day off to go watch a ball game. Your boss calls to inquire as to your health, as you reported sick. Thankfully, your phone can silence the background noise automagically. As you make up a good story for your boss, you can hear him say: “I just Googled for your location and it says that according to Google’s drones, you have entered the stadium 15 minutes ago”.
  • Your son is 32 and he hasn’t left the house in 5 years. He is somewhere in your basement immersed in virtual reality. He prints his own food from cheap material he has delivered every month. Yet he promised to finish his fifth college degree months ago. You are pretty sure to never have grandchildren.
  • Using the latest technology, you can monitor your weight and muscle mass at a precision of plus our minus 1% in real time. But to get your drug prescription, you have to show up to a doctor that weights you using a balance first designed two centuries ago.
  • You have a smart home run by speech recognition and kept in order by smart robots. However, each time you try to sit down in your sofa, you find some cleaning robot stuck in there.
  • Thanks to medical technology you feel and look younger than ever. However, one side-effect of your rejuvenation treatments are that you have acne. Sadly, unlike cancer and Alzheimer’s, acne remains incurable.
  • You are able to type and send documents by using thought sensors, without ever touching a keyboard. However, the local government agency will require that you show up in person to fill out forms, on paper.

When looking at the resolution of computer chips over time, we see that it takes roughly 5 years to cut the transistor size in half. However, this is costly. The second Moore’s law says that the cost of building a modern chip fabrication plant will double every 18 months.

In software, with voice recognition or machine translation, we see the same effect. If it takes 10 years to get the error down to 25%, it might take 10 more years to get it down to 10%, then 10 more years to get it down to 5% and so on. This might mean that if you have, today, a robot that makes 4 times as many mistakes as a human being, you might need 20 years before you reach human-level capabilities. The error rate is akin here to the transistor size in chips: it goes down regularly… However, this comes at a cost. The first machine translation systems were built by small teams using tiny budgets. Today, larger and larger efforts are needed to achieve each next step.

Though Apple recently announced that Siri can do voice recognition with an error rate of 5%, it is going to take us probably as much money as was invested in voice recognition in the last decades to reach the level of a competent adult. Of course, we could always experience a lucky break in this particular application, but I don’t think I am wrong in the general idea: it takes 80% of the effort to solve the last 20% of the problems. It might take thousands of engineers working every day for a decade or two. We will need about 2 times as many machine learning experts in 2020 and four times as many in 2030.

Eroom’s law says that the cost of new medical drug roughly doubles every nine years. Intuitively, it can be understood as follows. Decades ago you could create a new vaccine by heating slightly a bacteria. We also made significant progress just by getting people to clean their hands. Not long ago, we drastically reduced lung cancer deaths simply by getting people to stop smoking. These are the low-hanging fruits… dirt cheap and effective. But increasingly, we are left facing age-related diseases: cancer, heart conditions, stroke, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s… Though we have better technology than ever, these problems are orders of magnitude more challenging. So curing them is not going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars… it is more likely to cost hundreds of billions. If you think I exaggerate, consider that it costs several billions of dollars to get a new drug approved in the US. In twenty years, by Eroom’s law, we should expect the cost of any one new drug to reach 50 billion dollars. With that much money, you could buy almost 10% of Google. Again, we might hit a lucky break and cure Parkinson’s using some vaccine next summer… but the general law should hold: the more diseases we cure, the more expensive it is to cure the remaining diseases. To keep up, the medical research community should grow 4-fold in the next 20 years.

We cannot tell whether we will get human-level voice recognition in 2040, or 5-nm chips in 2020, or a cancer cure in 2060… we just know that it is going to be expensive and hard work if we do.

Any specific technology will end up hitting a wall after a time. For example, planes are not flying any faster today than they were in 1980. That’s because the increased speed of the plane is no longer important enough to justify its cost: most people would rather pay for Internet access in the plane than to the destination sooner. Progress does not make all costs go away and the problem itself is sometimes disrupted.

So it would seem like we are doomed to face imminent stagnation. How can we possibly afford the future?

There are reasons to be more optimistic however:

  • If I were, today, to consider the cost of Intel’s new plant from 2020, or the latest cancer therapy, it would look prohibitive by our standards. However, our collective wealth also grows considerably. Thus, it is a mistake to consider the cost of future goods and services using our current wealth. It is not just that, say, Americans become wealthier per capita on average over time… it is also that there are more of them… and that developing countries are catching up. Back in 1990, I suspect that most of the microprocessors were sold in Europe, Japan and North America. Today, we have huge markets worldwide.
  • Even if you have the money to pay for the research, it does not follow that you will have the expertise. Yet entire sectors of our job economy are collapsing, leaving our people free for new challenges. So it is not just that food and cars are getting less expensive… it is that Intel itself is building factories that are almost entirely automated.

    Right now, very few people design new chips, new voice recognition software and new medical therapies… but there are more than ever. We can easily multiply the number of people working directly in advancing the state-of-the-art.

    Some will object that we cannot keep on doubling the number of scientists without bound, and that we may have reached a maximum already. Indeed, if 1% of your population is made of scientists and the fraction doubles every decade, after 7 decades, everyone is a scientist.

    Yet the vast majority of bright young people are underemployed today. It is quite common to see young people unable to pursue a career in medical research. The average age to get a research grant in the US has is in the mid-forties. So we are very far from the point where we have used up all our bright people.

    And we are multiplying the numbers right now. As China is increasingly automating its factories, what are they going to do with all their smart kids? You can bet that a lot of them are going to go work on hard problems, in large numbers.

  • We benefit from innovations that allows us to better use our ressources. Open source software was a significant breakthrough in this respect… companies don’t need to reinvent the wheel each time they need to build new software. Generally, establishing a new firm is cheaper than ever. Similarly, we use increasingly sophisticated financial strategies to fund new medical therapies without getting stuck in corporate nightmares.

But what about the far future? Certainly, we will hit a wall when the cost of a new drug reaches 10 trillion dollars. But we should be reminded that any extrapolation, even just a few decades ahead, is doomed to become irrelevant. For example, we may no longer have computer chips, or drugs in 2060, the same way nobody actually wants to fly in supersonic planes.

Further reading: The Singularity Isn’t Near (2011) by Paul Allen, and Don’t Underestimate the Singularity by Ray Kurzweil.

In the second “Back to the future” movie (1989), the protagonists are sent 25 years in the future… October 2015. I watched this movie as a young adult and I was in awe at this version of the future.

What did the authors get wrong and right?

Wrong:

  • We have no flying car. We do have neat remote-controlled helicopters however, available from China for a few dollars.
  • The movie shows a future dominated by the fax. But no Web. No Internet.
  • No smart phone. No Uber. No Facebook. No Google.
  • The movie has wearable devices (glasses) but not the kind we typically wear (e.g., Fitbit).
  • Though some of us have artificial implants (e.g., replacement knees), we do not have performance-enhancing implants yet. There are bionic eyes, but only 100 human beings have them so far and they do not give very good vision (yet). We do have people with prosthesis that can run faster than normal human beings, but these people are amazing athletes, not cheaters.

Right:

  • Large flat TV screens.
  • Ubiquitous videoconferencing.
  • Remote-free video games.

If you watch the movie carefully, you see that they do not have rejuvenation clinics (there are old people looking quite old). Though one of the main protagonist goes to such a clinic, it is likely that he travels further in the future.

I sometimes get comments to the effect that I am far too optimistic regarding technological progress. But on the whole, we got pretty much the vision of the future that writers imagined in the 1980s. I suppose that our present would look less fantastic to people from the 1980s than the “Back to the future” movie… but that is mostly due to their use of anti-gravity that is very present in the movie. Still, something like Google or Siri would look properly impressive to someone from the 1980s.

If anything, this suggests that you should expect 2040 to be quite impressive technologically.

Every so often, I make predictions about the following year or the next 5 years. I always get my predictions wrong, sometimes badly so.

I still like to make predictions because it stimulates my imagination.

My own predictions for 2040 include:

  • We won’t have flying cars. In fact, we will have fewer cars. And we won’t be driving them.
  • We won’t have a superintelligence (sorry). We will have, however, robots that can walk and act just like we do. People will commonly be “friend” with artificial intelligences.
  • Widespread medical implants to monitor and regulate our bodies. Fitbit is only a timid beginning. In 2040, health-conscious people will wear devices watching for early signs diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke, dementia… These devices will “talk” to us. If you try to go many days eating poorly or too much, the devices will automatically get on your case.
  • You won’t be able to eat as much as you’d like without getting fat (sorry). However, with a mix of various technologies, anyone who cares will be able to keep a healthy weight for life.
  • Some idiots will still be smoking (sorry). They will be much more likely to die from lung cancer.
  • We will have smart glasses. Really smart glasses. The glasses will figure out what you are trying to look at and they will help. Need to walk in the dark? Glasses can try to enhance the contrast. Want to read small fonts? The glasses will be able to zoom in. Looking at someone you don’t recognize? The glasses will give you a hint.
  • Common use of exoskeletons replacing most wheel chairs.
  • People with bad eyesight will get smart lenses that will give them better-than-normal eyesight.
  • Replacement organs grown from your own body, often in situ (if your heart is in bad shape, we regenerate it).
  • If you forget the name of a flower, you will be able to ask “hmmm… what is the name of this flower?” and you will get the answer right away.
  • HIV will be eradicated.
  • Real-time voice translation will be common. We will still need human translators for serious work however (sorry).
  • Genetic and stem-cell therapies will be old school. We probably won’t have robots swimming in our blood, but lots of currently incurable conditions will be easily fixed.
  • Though we won’t have true rejuvenation clinics (sorry), many old people will look a lot younger than they do right now. They will be less frail, have nicer skin and hair, and they will have stronger immune systems… if they care to. Losing one’s hair with age, or letting it turn white, will become a choice. We will have cheap and widely available technology to reduce wrinkles and many other forms of skin damage. Old people suffering injuries (broken bones, open wounds) will benefit from therapies to accelerate healing at levels close to that of young people. We won’t see an explosion in the number of centenarians nor are we likely to see many people beyond 110-year-old… that will take a few more decades… but we will see people in their seventies looking like they are fifty. Sadly, lots of people will still be in very bad health… but, increasingly, it will be due to poor life choices. Also, many people will simply not benefit from the latest in old-age therapies, either because they cannot pay, or because they do not care.
  • We will still have jobs. However, most work will receive a lot of assistance from computers. A lot more compared to today. Many people will “supervise” automated systems rather than act directly. In some sense, many more of us will become programmers… but we won’t be programming in C or Java.
  • The retirement age will often be 70 or above. Elderly people (65 and above) will contribute significantly more than they do today. We will have more elderly teachers, elderly scientists, elderly engineers… probably twice as many as we have today, or more. The time at which people do work worthy of a Nobel prize will have gone up, at least slightly.
  • People won’t use PCs. Duh!
  • The founders of Google (Brin and Page) will still be around, working hard. They will be healthy and strong. However, Google will have been supplanted as the IT leader. Bill Gates will still be going around the world doing charity work. He will still be quite rich. He might look no older than he does now. I would not be surprised if Ray Kurzweil were still around. If he is still around, he will have published another book (or the equivalent).
  • Old people will still suffer from dementia and cognitive decline (sorry). However, we will have sophisticated electronic assistants. Old people with dementia will be automatically guided in their daily lives. Some kids and mentally diminished people will also commonly benefit from such technology. We will also be able to alleviate much of the signs of cognitive decline through biotechnology, maybe by replacing brain cells. Most people over 90 year of age who can afford the latest technology will have productive and autonomous lives.
  • Healthcare will be vastly more automated than it is today. There will still be nurses, doctors and laboratories, but people will increasingly rely on tools. Most tests and therapies will be automated or handled mostly by the patient.
  • We will understand the brain a lot better, and we will have IQ-boosters. We won’t be able to turn kids into new Einsteins, but there will be tools to boost your IQ by 10 or 15 points if you have an average intelligence. Thus, people who could not make it into a good college today would using this technology.
  • I predict that top athletes in their 50s will match the performance of athletes decades younger using advanced medicine. For example, a good runner might benefit from heart and blood regeneration to give him back some of the performance he lost with age. We will get muscle and bone rejuvenation. Though young people will still dominate the Olympics, in competitions where enhancements are allowed, you will see people in their twenties competing against people in their fifties. We might even see the rise of “elderly Olympics” where people 65 and older compete. Their scores won’t match the real Olympics, but the competition level will be high.
  • People will still die of cancer (sorry). In many cases, we will have treatments that are far less damaging however.
  • We won’t have limitless safe energy (sorry). However, solar energy will be dirt cheap. Oil will be on its way out.
  • Only a handful of us will live in space (sorry). But we will have robots living more or less permanently on the Moon and Mars.
  • People will still suffer from the common cold (sorry). However, old people who are properly treated won’t fear the common cold because they will have a good immune system. How can we eradicate HIV and not the common cold? Sadly, the common cold is caused by a wide and expending range of viruses, so no definitive vaccine is likely to come soon.
  • We will have wars, but they will mostly the business of autonomous drones. We will have the technology to occupy and monitor a whole town, using only robots.
  • Most people will be idiots (sorry). Lots of people will be sad (sorry). Some kids will still go hungry (sorry). There will be unemployed poor people (sorry). Lots of people will be ugly (sorry). No utopia will be in sight (sorry). On the whole, people won’t be much happier (sorry).

I am not a futurologist and these are just made up predictions. I am also highly likely to get them wrong.

But if you think I am wrong, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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