Here’s a list of trends I see going into 2015, created for this year’s “State of the World” conversation.
Privatization of outer space: A number of companies are developing spaceware, and there’s one nonprofit that’s formed to colonize Mars by 2023 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_One). Is the investment entirely speculative, or do we have clear business models driving a potential new space age?
Currency revolution: a number of alternative currencies have appeared, most notably the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. There are also technologies for digitally mediated barter. How will these be integrated into existing economic systems? Are we really looking at a (more? or less?) radical transformation of global economies?
AI/robotics: we’re beginning to see practical, usable applications of robotics, and there’s much talk of evolving artificial intelligence and possible singularity.
Alan Turing, via Benedict Cumberbatch, is getting some attention. When asked in “The Imitation Game” whether machines will ever think like humans, he scoffs – that’s the wrong question. Machines may think, but not “like humans.” Much of the singularity talk doesn’t get this point, but is rooted in anthropomorphism, which makes about as much sense as a golem emerging from a carefully-shaped clay effigy.
We like to think there’s no intelligence that ain’t human, but that’s a shadow of anthropocentric hubris. As we get into robotics and AI in a bigger, industrial-strength, way, what will they teach us about intelligence, human and other?
Practical backlash against 1% and hyper-neoliberalism: the political pendulum swings persistently, and it doesn’t make human sense to roll backwards to some sort of feudal society. Also propaganda only works so far before practical intelligence engenders some degree of critical thinking. Okay, I’m being hopeful here, but I believe the extreme factions in the civil cold war du jour will be overcome by those who are more balanced, reasonable, and practical. 2015 could be the turning point; waiting to hear the alarm ring.
Internet of things: There’s buzz around the IoT now, probably not altogether practical, but driving investment that could fund innovation. We ask the wrong questions about it, i.e. “why do I want my toaster to talk to my refrigerator?” We should be considering what “things” are most practical to network, and the pro and con implications. Are there security implications? Are we depending too much on networks, creating too great a vulnerability to network failure?
Cyberwars, hacktivism, crypto activism: Networked information systems have inherent vulnerabilities, increasingly exploited by various actors for various reasons. To the extent that we live our lives online and invest in our online identities, we’re subject to these vulnerabilities. This is increasingly obvious, and the question for any one of us is, how vulnerable have I become, and how to I mitigate risk? This is a question for individuals, corporations, and governments. Mitigation can create obstructions and limit the value of networks, so we have to think hard about the risks we’re willing to take the measures we’re willing to adopt to limit those risks. It’s also clear that governments (and non-governmental movements) will engage in cyberwar – to what extent will some of us suffer collateral damage from those engagements?
Network fatigue: Expect to see more strategic cord-cutting: limiting online activity generally and persistently, or perhaps periodically (“no Facebook for 30 days”). Response to information overwhelm is inevitable.
“New democrats”: Liberal entities like the Democratic party in the U.S. have proved ineffective as alternatives to well-organized corporate conservatives. The health of societies depends on a balance of the two approaches characterized simplistically as “left vs right.” Correction of the current imbalance is inevitable, but will likely involve entities that are nascent or don’t exist yet, vs the established entities of the left, which seem irrelevant and obsolete, partly because they have sought to compete by identifying with their opponents, rather than by emphasizing alternatives.
One possible trend could emerge from a middling trend, i.e. a rejection of polarization and an emphasis on a practical middle path between “left wing” and “right wing.”
Demilitarization of police: Militarization of police after 9/11 may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but none of us wanted to create a police state, which is a potential effect. Going forward, we’ll be reconsidering the roll of police departments in communities and considering how to undo the downside of the militarization efforts. We’ll be rethinking the role of police departments in communities, and how to respond effectively to potential terrorist acts within borders without confusing police objectives with military objectives.
Crowdsourcing medical solutions: smart patients will have more of a role in evolving therapies, and have more input into our understanding of human systems and response to disease. Participatory medicine will become more established. Medical research will consider patient feedback to get a better sense of complex contextual factors affecting health. More people will do granular “quantified self” tracking, and there will be systems to aggregate and analyze this information, impacting our understanding of prevention as well as disease.