Here comes tomorrow
"It's not so hard to predict the future, but it's sometimes hard to connect the dots." In the opening of his lecture to the Global Futures 2045 Congress, famed geneticist Dr. George Church neatly summed up what being a futurist is all about, though he was reminding the audience rather than the other speakers assembled at Alice Tully Hall in New York City this past weekend. Gathered there by a young Russian tech tycoon on a mission to do nothing less than achieve immortality through technology, a who's-who of renowned technologists, scientists, futurists, and entrepreneurs painted a sometimes terrifying, sometimes electrifying picture of what the world is going to look like in the decades to come, describing how technology is going to drastically alter economies, biologies, and perhaps even consciousness itself.
Global Futures 2045 is organized annually (this was the second) by the 2045 Initiative and its founder, Russian tech entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov, who at 32 years of age has turned his vast financial resources and dogged determination toward understanding and conquering some of the 21st century's most challenging and exciting frontiers, including human consciousness, brain-machine interfaces, and the integration of biology and technology. The ultimate goal of Itskov's Avatar Project (part of the 2045 Initiative) is to free humankind from the limitations imposed on it by the body, first by figuring out how to remove the brain (and the conscious self) from the body and keep it alive in a robotic surrogate, and ultimately how to upload the mind -- consciousness and all -- to a computer. The deadline for delivering this kind of digital immortality: 2045.
If all that sounds like a fantasy, consider Itskov's colleagues: Speakers at Global Futures 2045 included Church (who pioneered the first truly effective gene sequencing techniques and helped initiate the Human Genome Project), inventor-futurist Ray Kurzweil (now engineering chief at Google), X-PRIZE Foundation founder and far-out tech entrepreneur Dr. Peter H. Diamandis (current project: asteroid mining), and legendary computer technologist Dr. James Martin, who shares a name with the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University (and not by happenstance). And while speaking doesn't imply blanket endorsement of the Avatar Project and its lofty aims, this roll call of renowned speakers certainly lends Global Futures 2045 some intellectual heft.
But while immortality is the overarching goal of the 2045 Initiative, the Global Futures congress is more of a conversation between two dozen or so individuals at the top of their fields, many with established track records of seeing what's coming before it gets here. In other words, these are the people who successfully connect the dots between where we are now, where we're going, and how technology is going to get us there. Below: Six prognostications on just how drastically technology -- and life as we know it -- will change in the over the next three decades.
The post-brain-map era
The importance and potential of the human brain certainly isn't lost on world leaders in 2013. Earlier this year the European Union granted 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) over 10 years to the Human Brain Project, which aims to create the first full human brain simulation running on supercomputers, while President Obama similarly announced $100 million in funding for a brain activity map that will chart the complex networks of neurons and neuron clusters in the brain. And while some have criticized these outsize grants as wasteful research spending in a time of austerity, Dr. James Martin believes that the post-brain-map era will be remarkably different than anything human history has ever known.
How? We can't yet fully comprehend just how much of a paradigm-shifter an accurate, functional brain map will be, Martin said, but it will undoubtedly change just about everything. Neurological disease will largely become treatable. Brain implants will be commonplace. Genetic and cognitive enhancements (alongside the huge leaps forward in computing power expected in the coming decades) will lead not only to a whole new market for self-improvement, but to smarter, more efficient humans that in turn will feed greater ideas and innovations back into a positive feedback loop, leading to an avalanche of new technologies and economic opportunities.
The biotechnology age
Dmitry Itskov views his Avatar Project as the next evolutionary step for humankind, and he's not necessarily crazy for doing so. But perhaps Dr. Peter Diamandis sells it more clearly: When life on this planet began, the leap from simple single-celled organisms to more complex single-celled organisms occurred when some cells evolved a nucleus and other more advanced organelles that enhanced their survivability. That is, when these cells embraced and integrated better biotechnology they made a huge and critical leap forward. Kurzweil draws a similar evolutionary trajectory describing other advances in the history of human life, like when some early animals developed the neocortex in the brain (the neocortex is home to the higher functions like sensory perception and conscious thought) giving rise to modern mammals and again when some primates developed a good deal more neocortex in the area now known as the frontal lobe -- or the part of the brain that makes humans human.
Several speakers, including Kurzweil and Diamandis, noted that humans are the only species that extend our biological reach -- we've done so for millennia with technologies that allow us to travel faster, increase our strength, or hear someone that is out of earshot (or on another continent). What we're starting to do now is integrate that technology more deeply into our biologies, be it through transplantable organs fabricated from a patient's own cells or implantable machines that are placed inside the body to alter or improve its performance (like pacemakers).
As nanotechnology marches further into the realm of the ever-smaller-and-more-capable, tiny machines are going to become a regular part of medical therapies and our everyday lives. Moreover, we've begun to understand the body more like a machine itself; that is, that biology (and genetics) is the software driving our bodily hardware. We're already seeing this in the lab via gene therapies, 3-D printed organs, and stem cell treatments -- the reprogramming of the human machine by recoding the software.
Further, harkening back to the aforementioned brain map, the ability to model all of the body's most complex functions on supercomputers means we're rapidly going to become better and better at fixing what's broken, optimizing what doesn't work well, and ultimately enhancing both our bodies and our minds with implants and other technologies. How? "In the future, machines will become more molecular," Church said. In other words, converging breakthroughs in biocompatible materials, 3-D printing, stem cell technologies, and genetics will lead to new kinds of machines that look less like a smartphone and more like biological objects. And if the cyborg-like nature of this biotech-heavy future makes you uncomfortable, there's not much you can do about it. "We already augment ourselves extensively," Church told the audience. "Get used to it."
Your brain on the cloud
All of this gets far more interesting when one considers what it means in the context of the connected world. Brain implants are going to become commonplace, but they won't just enhance the power of the brain -- they'll unlock the power of the cloud, Kurzweil says.
In the same way we tap our smartphones to track down information across the web or retrieve a phone number from an email, within a couple of decades our brains will be able to access the collected information in the cloud, extending its reach by an exponential degree. The number of neuron clusters and neural networks in the neocortex is finite, Kurzweil says -- there's quite literally a limit to what we can store and retrieve in the human brain. But with a direct line to the cloud, our brains could theoretically access infinite information and infinite processing power.
In other words, technology will essentially extend the neocortex indefinitely, Kurzweil said. "Remember what happened the last time we expanded our neocortex?"
2045: Immortality is real
Or, at the very least, technology will vastly increase the human lifespan in the foreseeable future.
In the last 200 years we've essentially doubled the average life expectancy for people in developed countries, and we continue to extend it at faster and faster rates thanks to better medical technologies as well as technologies that make human life better. At some point -- and that point is coming soon, Kurzweil said -- we will cross a threshold where every year that goes by we will add a year to the average lifespan.
"This will go into high gear within 10 or 20 years from now, in probably less than 15 we will be reaching that tipping point where we add more time than has gone by because of scientific progress," Kurzweil said. "Somewhere between 10 and 20 years, there is going to be tremendous transformation of health and medicine."
Of course, extending the average lifespan isn't a hedge against all death. (In fact, where resource scarcity is concerned, it's a recipe for increased misery and death.) But where the kind of immortality Itskov is talking about -- the digital kind, where the brain is either kept alive in a robotic surrogate or uploaded to silicon -- he points to the relatively huge breakthroughs in the realms of neuroscience and brain machine interfaces that have emerged over the last decade. Prosthetic limbs that respond to brain signals remained the stuff of science fiction a decade ago, yet at Global Futures 2045 the audience saw a working mind-controlled prosthesis in action. Likewise, what sounds absolutely absurd in 2013 might seem a lot more reasonable by 2023 and even commonplace by 2033.
Itskov believes a thriving immortality industry could be well underway by then, ensuring that the end of one's biological life doesn't necessarily spell the end of one's conscious life. And it will become ubiquitous; immortality won't be a privilege only the wealthy can afford, he says. Kurzweil points to the cell phone. In 10 years technologies tend to become 1,000 times less expensive, he said. Everyone has a cell phone now, and while it's true that at the dawn of the cell phone era only the well-heeled owned them, the technology at that point was cumbersome, limited in function, and didn't work very well.
"Only the rich have these technologies when they don't work," Kurzweil quipped. By the time life extension and "immortality" technologies are mature enough to be mainstream, the cost will have come down enough to place it within the reach of millions.
Technocracy, the new aristocracy
But from a socioeconomic standpoint, not everything is going to be fair in this bio-technologically augmented future. Technology will be avalanching all around us, Martin says, and those who have the best technology will be society's elites. That may not seem so different than today's gadget culture, where having the latest iteration of iProduct can be an indication of social and/or economic status. But the iPhone is an object. The body and brain, on the other hand, are more than accessories or adornments. The ability to enhance cognitive function will put some people at an advantage that goes far beyond better screen resolution on one's smartphone.
The technocracy will be the new aristocracy, Martin said. Those with access to the best technology, rather than those with the most material stuff (the two very well might go hand-in-hand, but not necessarily), will be the new one percent.
About the Fortune 500 ...
"Fifty percent of the Fortune 500 will not exist 50 years from now." Dr. Peter Diamandis made this off-the-cuff assertion in response to a question, and while it's not a scientific figure by any means (nor did he mean it to be) his larger point remains valid: What worked in the last century isn't necessarily going to work in the new one.
That might seem a prediction anyone could make, but the reference to the world's most recognized listing of successful corporations (pardon the self-referential grandstanding) is not an accident. It's not that we're in for a century of corporate collapse, but that old models (and in some cases, old industries) simply aren't going to be relevant in a world where avalanching technological developments are changing society, consumers, and fundamental economics at an increasingly dizzying speed.
But that doesn't mean corporations aren't important, Diamandis said. In fact, they are absolutely critical. "The rate of change is going so fast, innovation is occurring at such a rate, that I cannot believe that any of our existing government systems can handle it," Diamandis said. Nimble companies and institutions that are free to explore new technologies all the way to the edge of an increasingly large envelope will not only be the most successful over the next few decades, but they will be responsible -- in ways that governments simply cannot be -- for shaping the 21st century.