Bold ideas about humanity’s future went on full display at the World Future Society’s annual conference. Approximately 700 attendees debated game-changing developments like self-driving cars and 3-D printers, and speculated on where our world is heading and how it might get there.
Thinkers and innovators from across the globe presented their best guesses about what the future holds for humanity at the World Future Society’s annual meeting. “WorldFuture 2013: Exploring the Next Horizon” convened July 19-21 at the Chicago Hilton and hosted 80 discussion forums. About 700 attendees—from more than two dozen countries and from business, government, academia, and the nonprofit sector—took part in lively discussion and debate over emerging technologies, changing social mores, economic upheavals, and environmental challenges, and the impact each might have on human life in years to come.
“Over time, you look back at how you once looked at the future, and for me, the future looks very different than how it looked 20 or 30 or 40 years ago,” said Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the prolific nonprofit One Laptop Per Child, in an opening plenary speech. He contrasted the seven years that it took Bangkok to install a cable telecommunications system in the 1980s with the mere seven days that Bolivia needed to install wireless communications throughout its entire territory.
Likewise, no one in the 1980s seriously expected self-driving cars, and yet they are debuting now, Negroponte noted. He added that the day when they are a common sight on roadways could come soon, and that it could cut traffic congestion by as much as 90%: Much present-day traffic is humans looking for parking, whereas self-driving cars will park themselves much more quickly and efficiently.
Self-driving cars were a hot topic at the conference: Charles Fadel, founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, pointed out that Google Autonomous Vehicles have driven a grand total of 300,000 miles and suffered just one minor accident.
“How many taxi drivers do you know have driven 300,000 miles and only had one minor accident?” he said.
Robots—automotive and otherwise—will take over many human jobs, but they may create other jobs in the process. Negroponte sees a long-term diminishment ahead in manufacturing jobs, but rapid growth in jobs in software.
“From atoms to bits is going to be the jobs transition,” he said. “Whatever the future of jobs may be, it’s not in manufacturing.”
There’s just one exception to this rule: 3-D printing. Growing volumes of manufacturing will take place via personal printers that fabricate products at a simple point-and-click.
“The best way to manufacture something is to pour chemicals into a box with iPhones coming out,” said Negroponte.
Fadel likewise sees a bright future ahead for 3-D printers in medicine and possibly in food production. The machines might tailor-make individual prostheses that fit every recipient perfectly, as well as revolutionize organ transplantation by growing new livers, kidneys, muscle tissue, and other needed body parts.
And once human tissue can be printed, perhaps beef and pork could be, as well? Fadel imagines kitchen 3-D printers that churn out gourmet meat dishes with no live animals required.
“Grow muscle in your kitchen—that’s extremely environmentally friendly,” he said. “And imagine the texture and flavor of sauce that’s fused inside the meat one layer at a time.”
On a less-savory note, Fadel also went farther than Negroponte in forecasting computer-led employment upheavals. Even creativity-oriented jobs will be susceptible to machine automation, he said. Computers can already generate music, and future computers may dream up new technological inventions, through algorithms that identify technological needs and potential solutions by extrapolating from data.
“Even inventions and innovations follow patterns. Anything that follows a pattern can become automatable,” Fadel said. “You could have a system that patents ahead just by looking at patterns and discovering things alongside you.”
Humans will continue to find new employment alongside the machines, but their employability will depend on education systems becoming as adaptable as possible to incorporate vital new skills and deemphasize ones that no longer hold much relevance. And every individual must relearn and revise his or her own knowledge and skills throughout life.
“The safe bet for everything we’ve been talking about is continuously learning how to learn,” Fadel concluded.
A Changing Paradigm for Education
The potentially positive contributions that digital technology could make to education were explored by Fadel and the other Education Summit participants—including Gary Marx of the Center for Public Outreach; Carol Rieg, World Future Society board member and Bentley Systems corporate officer; Jo Ann Oravec, professor of business and economics at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater; Helen Lazarro of the Flipped Learning Network; Maria H. Andersen, Association of Professional Futurists member and Instructure learning and research director; and Jennifer Groff of the Learning Games Network.
Andersen noted that computers can save teachers time by taking up mundane tasks such as grading class work.
“There is no reason for me as an instructor to sit and grade assignments if a computer can,” Andersen said. “I would rather do other things, and most people who are teachers would rather do other things.”
The growing popularity of free online education programs, or Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), also received much attention. The median enrollment for a MOOC is 33,000 students, of which a median total of 2,600 finish with a passing grade, according to Oravec. That’s not as low as it sounds: Last year, she reports, she taught 225 students in her in-person classes—just a tenth of the students who completed and passed a single MOOC.
On the plus side, online courses expand access to education enormously, said Oravec. Additionally, more corporations are starting to hire students based on exemplary performance on MOOCS. But there are issues of online privacy and academic freedom, as well as students’ rights: Students have no intellectual property rights to any material that they complete for a MOOC. Furthermore, no online course can offer the quality of interaction that students get from teachers in a classroom.
“MOOCs can have some disturbing features as well as exciting features,” she said.
Andersen, who has managed MOOCs for nine months, said that she certainly sees a role for these online courses in higher education but that there will be no replacing core academic curricula. Students need a baseline of knowledge to make sense of all the information that digital media presents them, she argued.
“You cannot get through your life searching on Google if you don’t know what to search for,” she said.
Also, many students will need a teacher present, in person, to hold them accountable for staying on task, she said. And they don’t find that accountability in a MOOC.
“When your life gets busy, you just drop [the MOOC],” Andersen said. “Teachers are the ones that students should want to be accountable to. We are never going to want to be accountable to our computers.”
Technology Gets More Personal
The more that we use our mobile phones and social-media sites, the more they come to know us and give us personal recommendations on products to buy, news to read, and events to attend. This personalization phenomenon can be useful, but it also strikes many consumers as slightly “creepy,” according to Andersen. She described this dilemma in her own session, “The Promises and Perils of Personalization.”
We will accept a certain level of creepiness, she said, if the service is useful enough. Google Now and Facebook are two examples.
Andersen suggested that we might one day see Personal Life Operating System (PLOS) devices that each consumer will carry, which will store every bit of data about the owner’s lifestyle. Walk into a store, and the store will register the PLOS and offer instant bonuses to preferred shoppers. Travel to a new city, and your PLOS will tell you entertainment options based on your usual entertainment choices. Step into a car, and the car’s seat will instantly adjust to the settings that the PLOS tells the car you use.
“Would you let somebody track all of your loyalty cards? Maybe not, but then the discounts get bigger and you’re not getting them; then at some point you cave,” she said. “I think that they’ll get us there, and I think we’ll be happy when they do.”
Making Environmental Destruction a Thing of the Past
Technological innovations will provide us some powerful new tools to mitigate ecosystem destruction and climate change, according to Brenda Cooper, futurist and science-fiction writer who serves on the board of the Lifeboat Foundation. In her session, “Stepping Backwards into Eden”—one of a dozen special “22nd Century Lectures” at the conference—she looked into the conservation potential of roles for technologies such as geospatial mapping, unmanned aerial drones, and DNA sequencing.
“We’re kind of outracing climate change and some of the other things with our innovations and technologies,” Cooper said.
Geospatial mapping, assisted by satellites and manned or unmanned aircraft, now enables us to compile detailed information on any spot on Earth and record indicators of its soil, animal life, and flora. This technology’s ongoing advancement will make it continuously easier to identify troubled areas and monitor efforts at protecting and restoring them.
“We’re going to be able to say, ‘Where is every elephant in the world? Where is every bear in the world?’ and that’s going to make a big difference for us as we try to make the world a better place,” she said.
Even species that have already died out may be saved, via labs that will clone new specimens from samples of extinct species’ cells and DNA. Two tissue banks are currently collecting tissues from animals for this very purpose. We can partner with nature through simpler, lower-tech means, too, such as building ecosystem corridors to connect one nature reserve with another, Cooper suggested. Also, vertical farming in cities could allow us to return some existing farmland to nature.
Let the Sunshine In
The Earth gets more energy from the sun in 10 seconds than all the energy that humans burn in an entire day, according to Ramez Naam, technologist and author. In his keynote presentation, “Innovating Our Way Past Global Crisis,” he explored the potential for breakthroughs in solar energy and other technology areas to help us overcome the crises of pollution, resource depletion, peak oil, and climate change.
Tapping just a small fraction of that daily infusion of sunlight would be a momentous start, he said: We could cover just 0.3% of the Earth’s land mass in efficient solar panels and have all the energy that we would need. Product developments have been bringing solar arrays’ costs down precipitously, and could make this worldwide solar infrastructure affordable by the 2020s, he argued.
This turn of events would save the planet from the toxic effects of fossil-fuel use and offer developing countries a way toward sustainable prosperity, Naam said. Much of the developing world is very sunny and therefore very solar-energy-endowed. Once their communities acquire the tools for accessing this energy, they would have a valuable clean-energy export and a way to sustainably provide their own populations with power to desalinate water, build homes, and create better overall qualities of life.
“If we can crack energy, so much more becomes possible. Energy can be the master resource that we can use to address so many other problems,” he said.
World civilization is at a critical juncture right now, Naam also told his audience. The last hundred years saw dramatic improvements in living standards, life expectancies, and overall health, but it has also seen nonstop deforestation, destructive climate change, and an alarming depletion of the planet’s resource base.
We can continue to improve living standards and human well-being while protecting the planet, he continued. Innovations in farming, such as genetic crop modification, enable us to grow more food on less land. And family planning, taxes on pollution, and other policy measures can curb our species’ excessive strains on Earth’s ecosystems. Naam urged much more investment worldwide in environmental protection, poverty reduction, education, and research and development into energy efficiency and resource conservation.
“The condition that we’re in is a race between massive consumption on one side and the powers of innovation on the other side,” Naam said. “You don’t win the race by saying, ‘We’re going to win,’ and just sitting there. You win the race by working hard.”
New Rules for New Markets
The developing world is poised to lead a worldwide transformation in not just energy, but all commercial activity across the board, said Don Schultz, marketing professor at Northwestern University. In his session, “CN2: A Marcom Model for Emerging Markets,” he predicted that China, India, Brazil, southeast Asia, and other developing markets will be the source of 70% of growth in global GDP between now and 2025. Meanwhile, their share of global consumption will climb from 32% in 2012 to 50% in 2025. Businesses will find enormous market opportunities in these emerging markets—but only if they unlearn the traditional Western sales models.
“Most of our new marketing concepts are going to be invented in China, India, and other emerging places,” he said.
First, Western businesses are accustomed to appealing to the individual customer. But in many emerging markets, society is more communal, according to Schultz. A company will not attract many new buyers unless it builds up strong personal rapport with the would-be buyers’ families, clans, or communities. That requires some in-person negotiations, reciprocity, and, sometimes, gift giving.
“You have to build an infrastructure before you build channels of distribution,” he said, noting that Walmart did not follow this rule when it tried to expand into Brazil, and consequently foundered there.
Second, the businesses must also engage person-to-person with the customers. Communicating with them through social-media channels, conversing with them, and bargaining over prices will all go much farther than simply pitching clever ads and expecting customers to be persuaded by them.
“You take the basic marketing concepts, turn them around, and look at them from the customers’ point of view,” he advised.
We Will Never Stop Evolving
Are you taken aback by the many young people today who text-message frequently but rarely ever talk on the phone? This preference for talk-free interaction could just be the next step toward the eventual disappearance of speech, if you ask José Luis Cordeiro, chair of the Millennium Project’s Venezuela Node and founder of the World Future Society’s chapter in Venezuela. He foresees speech ultimately being replaced by instantaneous mind-to-mind transmissions via brain– computer interface devices.
“Talking is a very primitive technology, very low bandwidth,” he said. “I have to talk word by word and you have to listen word by word. In the future, I will just transfer my thoughts. This is how we will communicate in the future, at very high speed and in very high data transmissions.”
Cordeiro co-hosted the session “Exploring the Next Horizon: Challenges for the Future Evolution of Humanity” with Linda Groff, professor of political science and future studies at California State University–Dominguez Hills, and Frank Catanzaro, chair of cyber futures for the Millennium Project.
All three agreed that the process by which Homo sapiens evolved from tree-dwelling primates never really stopped. Our species’ physical form will continue to change in centuries to come. The change process may even pick up speed, since we will directly guide it through technological interventions.
“We are not the end of evolution. We are just the beginning of technological evolution, of conscious evolution. And we will transcend the limitations of our current state,” said Catanzaro.
Cordeiro further predicted that, within another 20 or 30 years, we will cure diseases by sequencing living patients’ genomes and altering them, rendering the individuals immune to all major illnesses. We will also genetically thwart the aging process and keep ourselves healthy and vibrant indefinitely.
Nature and technological innovation will combine to remake us once we venture out into space, according to Groff. She anticipates that the humans who leave Earth for the stars will have to physically change to withstand the radiation, low gravity, and other extreme conditions of space. They might change so profoundly, in fact, that their children would not be able to survive in Earth’s biosphere.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, some people will seek immortality by uploading their consciousness into computers in order to live as disembodied entities in cyberspace. Other people will take up new physical forms in robots or amalgamations of robot components and human tissue.
“I think we will diverge in different ways. Our evolutions will diverge along many paths,” she said.
We might evolve mentally and spiritually, as well. Groff hopes that, whatever physical metamorphoses that individuals do or do not undergo, we will all grow more connected as a species. Our intellects will expand and our connections to each other will grow stronger as we bind more intricately together as a universal human community.
“All the people staying here on Earth, where limited resources are finite, we’re going to have to tune in and take care of Earth as a living system,” she said. “We will have to replace physical resources more with mind and creativity. At some point, something is going to break through, and we’ll move on to a new phase.”
Confessions of the Corporate Futurist at Ford
Sheryl Connelly had never planned on becoming a career futurist. Then she started working at Ford Motor Company, where she discovered that looking to the future is key to survival in the automotive industry. She now serves as Ford’s global consumer trends and futuring manager, a position in which she forecasts market trends for the company. She shared her career story in a closing plenary speech, “Confessions of a Corporate Futurist.”
It can take three or more years to bring a new car from the drawing board to development and market debut, she explained. Car designers have to design new models for tomorrow’s market; if they don’t, then their ideas might be obsolete by the time they are ready to hit show rooms.
“Your job is to imagine something that has yet to be imagined by consumers,” she said.
Connelly was initially a member of the company’s marketing team. Then in 2004, Ford selected her to serve on its new Global Trends and Futuring Team, with the task of spotting important market trends.
“Becoming a futurist was not part of my plan. It was not something that I aspired to. I found myself in this job,” she said.
Dramatic market changes were already afoot: surging gas prices, rising awareness of the environmental harms of automotive pollution, and a growing reluctance among the U.S. public toward dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Ford’s revenues took a nose dive. In 2005, the company was forced to cut a third of its workforce.
But Ford recovered, thanks to quick thinking and a readiness to adapt. In 2008, while Chrysler and General Motors were headed toward bankruptcy, Ford was able to boast a completely revamped portfolio and qualify for lines of credit.
“If you keep asking what if, what if, what if, you run into things that do eventually play out. And that’s part of the reason why Ford didn’t need the bailout when the real-world market crash came into play,” Connelly said.
On another note, perhaps no car industry executive in 2008 anticipated Google becoming a competitor. Nonetheless, in 2013, Google is now well on its way toward taking the automotive world by storm with its driverless car. Five years ago, however, Ford was already prepared, Connelly said. It didn’t have a self-driving car, but it had patented “active park assist.” The human driver does the driving up until it is time to park, and then pushes a button. The car looks for a space, verifies that it is big enough, and moves itself safely into it.
Unconventional Possibilities on the Horizon
“The human future depends on our ability to keep seeing outside the box and to respond to crises and to change,” said Linda Groff. “We will have to keep adapting to ever more diverse and complex factors that are external and within us.”
Many businesses and government agencies issue reports in which they speculate on what the next quarter or year will bring. Only a minority extend their guesswork to the next 20 years, 50 years, or beyond. And scarcely any factor in such unconventional possibilities as sentient machines, cloned animals, or the end of human speech and rise of radical alterations to the human body. But the three days of WorldFuture teemed with bold, far-future concepts such as these.
Its attendees gladly took up the outside-the-box thinking that Groff described and put conventional assumptions aside to look for the ways that our species might adapt to the challenges and opportunities that the future will bring us. Ideas ran a wide spectrum of opinions. Time will tell which ones the actual future most closely matches.