It seems that the world is moving very fast. Technology increasingly permeates everything we do and in the last decade it seems that every company, regardless of what it does, has made at least its first steps along the path to becoming a technology company. Organisations in sectors as diverse as agriculture, mining, manufacturing, retail, transportation, healthcare and financial services are pursuing a ‘digital transformation’. IT is no longer a back-office function but a fundamental part of any organisation’s strategy. To the average business, this is the scariest time they have known in terms of the disruption caused by technological change. But it is a wave. The process of digitalising and automating operations will eventually be complete and then the pace of change will slow. Frankly, this accelerated rate of technology-driven change couldn’t carry on much longer. Could it?
The inventor Ray Kurzweil proposed in 2001 that the rate of technological progress was accelerating at an exponential rate, meaning that in the 21st century we won’t see 100 years of progress, but 20,000 years. The implications of that degree of change seem hard to comprehend, it being equivalent to throwing prehistoric people, only just capable of making pottery, into the early 21st century to enjoy the delights of cellphones and the internet. We won’t be able to achieve that change alone. The key to unlocking the rapid advances envisaged by Kurzweil lies, as he knows only too well, in Artificial Intelligence.
At the most basic level the capacity for technological change is linked to collective human intelligence and therefore population growth. At the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years ago there were perhaps 5 million people in the world, a figure that reached 1 billion in 1804 and 2 billion in 1931. Currently it stands at just below 8 billion. That exponential growth has been the key trigger for innovation. At the same time as growing, humanity has also developed new technology which further helps the ability to communicate, share ideas and further innovate. Think of written language, the printing press, the telegraph and so forth. Growth creates more tools and a greater ability to supplement raw human intelligence which is itself increasing. At some point, however, that needs to end. The world cannot support ever-increasing populations. At the point of population stability, we may find that innovation dries up.
Liberating technological innovation from the restrictions of human imagination and ingenuity perhaps offers an opportunity for almost infinite innovation, constrained only by the physical limitations of the processing power that can be harnessed. Perhaps. There has been a lot of very positive steps in the last 70 years in moving from information theory, through expert systems to deep learning. But it is almost impossible to tell whether we are on the cusp of unleashing artificial general intelligence, or it will remain forever out of our grasp. It is not clear that there is a linear development path that incorporates beating chess grand masters, winning Jeopardy or passing the Turing Test as steps on an inexorable route to true intelligence.
The next 50 years will see the completion of this automation wave. The technologies that give us autonomous driving and 3D printed houses and most of what we collectively know as the Internet of Things, is all but proven. The billions, if not trillions, of connected devices we were promised in 2010 will finally arrive. The big challenge is coping with the societal changes implicit in the increasing redundancy (in both senses) of people. We won’t be required to make things, drive things or many of the other manual tasks that are the basis for large swathes of employment. Universal Basic Income is almost inevitable. Either that or a wave of neo-Luddites overthrowing the technology-led order and leading us back to a more manual and pastoral age.
Even greater disruption comes with the Artificial General Intelligence wave, if and when it arrives. With that, not only manual activities become a thing of the past. Eventually perhaps the very task of inventing and thinking will be handed over to the more efficient machines. The subsequent wave of invention from the artificial mind will, inevitably, come at an exponentially innovative rate. Answers to interstellar flight, immortality and where all the odd socks go will finally be secured. The big question is timing.
[This blog post originally featured as an article for Multitech looking at the prospects for technology in the next 50 years.]