Emerging Technologies and Their Implications

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Starting in the middle of the last century, humanity embarked upon the largely serendipitous development of a wide spectrum of massively disruptive technologies, including information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, quantum computing, and energy technologies. These are projected to alter nearly everything, including precepts of the human existence theorem.

It is alleged that there is little “natural” evolution of much of anything now, and that human-engendered evolution is some 10 million times faster than any natural evolution. This human-caused evolution thus far has largely been happenstance, with little discernible planning, and changes are the result of economically tactical, rather than strategic, applications of the ongoing technology revolutions. Sometimes these technology-driven changes are favorable, but often they are not and are sometimes perplexing.

The following examples are changes that have resulted from tactical moves rather than long-term or strategic planning, with no discernible consideration of the combined impacts of these changes.

First consider climate change, a result of technological developments begun in the Industrial Revolution. As Peter Ward wrote in Under a Green Sky (Smithsonian, 2007), climate change could result in a replaying the Permian Extinction—the Great Dying. The current slowing of ocean thermal haline circulation is consistent with Permian development.

Technologies have greatly reduced the costs and increased the efficiency of renewable energy to a point where renewables are now some 25 percent of all electricity generated on the planet and 62 percent of new generation. Costs are below parity with fossil fuels and are continuing to decrease, with some folks speculating about energy becoming too cheap to meter. The U.S. Department of Energy has demonstrated lithium-air batteries capable of being recharged 750 times, and the Japanese lithium-air batteries have far higher energy density, as much as 15 times that of lithium-ion batteries. As these are commercialized, nearly all transportation will go electric, with propulsion efficiency greater than twice that of chemical fuels and energy costs far lower.

Lithium-air batteries represent a societal opportunity from combined technologies. The recent DOE Argonne success with these batteries proffer the very real possibility of the Jetsons’ personal air transportation operating from the local street. It would be affordable, safe, quiet, and autonomous—a revolution in personal travel, with a projected market of $1 trillion per year. Enablers include an autonomous air traffic control system to accommodate 36 million such vehicles, compared with 14,000 aircraft currently in controlled air space.

As electricity goes renewable, transportation becomes emissionless. And if that happens, the major market for petroleum—heavy transportation fuels—will atrophy. This would, along with renewable electricity generation, put the brakes upon excessive carbon-dioxide emissions and create a massive economic shift—perhaps trillions of dollars—away from fossil fuels.

Another very disruptive technology is the combination of artificial intelligence and information technologies writ large. Machine intelligence and data availability have enabled the rise of big data and deep learning via neural nets, leading to AI at and beyond the human level in an increasing number of niches. Additionally, the many large human brain projects are projected to produce human brain “replicants” in another decade or so. Therefore, AI at or beyond human levels is no longer science fiction, and the initial steps to the Singularity are developing now.

A major AI issue now involves machines taking away jobs. In the discussions that surround this issue, many allege that humans would still have superior creativity, but this is probably not correct. As Marshall Brain has stated, this time is different. We never before created a second intelligent species. Stephen Thaler’s Imagination Engine is extant machine creativity via machine brute force. Nearly random combinations are created and evaluated as solutions for various problems and metrics at machine speeds many orders of magnitude faster than human speed for such activities. The process is actually analogous to the way humans create: They load information into the subconscious, which supposedly tries various combinations, and when it finds something it likes it reports back to the conscious when it is not otherwise occupied, similar to the Eureka moments humans experience while walking, showering, and so on.

The machines can do this, and are doing this, at rates and speeds with which humans simply cannot compete. Therefore, going forward, machines could very conceivably take all the jobs. This would be a massive change in the human existence theorem. Humans have always had to work to earn their daily bread, but in the future, this may no longer be the case. If the machines producing wealth are at least conceptually owned by the workers they displace, then a sizable guaranteed income could be arranged in lieu of a job. That would not, however, address the question of what humans would do all day. With five-senses virtual reality, humans could virtually be anywhere, be anybody, with anybody, doing anything they want. Many millions of people are now spending more time in virtual worlds than they do in the current real world. The social fabrics humans have created over the past million years are changing—a lot.

Five-senses VR is also accelerating “tele-everything,” from telecommuting to telemanufacutring, medicine, education, and shopping. Impacts include fewer miles driven per person per year, and it is now possible to be educated and certified on the Web, often for free. With the Internet of Things (IoT), the size and cost reduction of sensors, and the rise of big data, we appear to be headed for a Global Sensor Grid, with estimates of many trillions of sensors. These would inform the emerging global mind and greatly enhance the societal shift to tele-everything.

An additional disruption from AI and IT is the increasing digitization of nearly everything. AI and data analytics are giving us increasing power to make decisions on issues in ever more arenas. Yet this rapidly advancing data-based decision making has evoked an outcry over the consequent erosion of free will.

The digitization of everything also means we’ve created a mammoth existential threat with our total dependence upon electrons. These electrons are vulnerable to solar storms, jamming, electromagnetic pulse, and cyberattack, along with weather manipulation. Estimates of mortality from a solar storm like the 1859 Carrington event are not pretty. The seriousness of this electron dependence requires much further ideation and research and development.

When asked what the most immediate critical issues are going forward, many indicate increasing shortages of food and water. Fortunately, there is a readily available disruptive technology solution—largely advantageous except for its disruptions to freshwater farming. The plant universe offers the salt-tolerant halophytes—about 10,000 of them—growing in deserts and wastelands and thriving on saline and seawater. Since deserts and wastelands comprise some 44 percent of the land mass, and seawater is 97 percent of the planet’s water, halophytes represent the last major play for humans to exploit the extant ecosystem for food and fodder, as a substitute for freshwater in agriculture, and for biomass replacing the petrochemical feedstock for plastics and biofuels. This would essentially solve land, water, food, climate, and energy issues.

This brief examination of the yang and yin of the technologies that humans have wrought provides some indication that, due to human-engendered technologies, society is changing rapidly, and the outcomes are not at all clear. Humans are responsible, but at this point there is neither serious examination of the complexity and combinational possibilities of what is and could happen going forward. Nor is there yet a plan.

Dennis M. Bushnell is chief scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. His white papers for AAI Foresight Inc., “Where Is It All Going? Prospects for the Human Future” (2016) and “Emerging Impacts of the IT Revolution upon Technology, Aerospace, and Society: Creating Problems and Enabling Solutions” (2015), may be downloaded from Foresight Reports. He may be reached at dennis.m.bushnell@nasa.gov.