When we think about “the future” we think mainly of two things: what technology we will create, and what its consequences will be. We are inclined to see technology as unpredictable, and consequences as easy to predict, but it is the other way around. When it comes to technology, the future is as easy to see as it is hard to believe. Consequences, on the other hand, are chaotic.
Technology first: whatis our easy-to-see, hard-to-believe future? Computing is the most predictable technology ever developed. For more than fifty years, computing has followed three laws. Moore’s Law, which says microprocessors halve in size every two years; Metcalfe’s Law, which says the value of a network is the number of users squared; and Koomey’s Law, which says the energy of a computation halves every eighteen months. In short, computers keep getting smaller, more networked, and more energy efficient. Whatever you may read (“the end of Moore’s law” has been predicted almost every year for decades) these trends will continue for the rest of your life. Computers will become microscopic, will always be connected to the Internet, many will run without batteries. What are these computers for? That’s the hard-to-believe part. They are not for people to use. They are autonomous devices: sensors that automatically gather information about the world and controllers for mechanisms that change the world. This is what I once called “the Internet of Things,” a nervous system for the network that constantly monitors, measures, and reacts to the world around us. One practical, almost-here example is the self-driving car. These exist today—new cars from Tesla can come and pick you up, Google’s prototypes have driven almost a million miles on public roads—and soon they will be everywhere. The big limit is not technical, but legal: we need new laws to govern these devices. Then they will proliferate like cell phones. Expect self-driving features in most new cars by 2020 and cars without steering wheels between 2025-2030, varying by country. What’s the point? They will be safer, faster, more fuel efficient, and you’ll be able to get things done, or take a nap, while you move from place to place.
Another easy-to-see hard-to-believe prediction: in the next hundred years we will discover life on other planets. We may even discover that that the universe is full of life. This does not mean we will be visiting aliens, or that we will find aliens with advanced technology, or even any technology at all. We will discover life using probes and radio telescopes, enabled in part by that ever more powerful, ever more energy efficient computing technology, and the aliens may be more like exotic plants, or bacteria, or deep sea creatures than terrestrial mammals.
What is hard to see are consequences. The one thing we can say for sure is that the most commonly predicted consequence is wrong: none of this will result in the end of the world. Ever improving technology will assure that both our planet and our species continue to thrive. Apocalyptic visions are a permanent feature of human civilization. Thousands of years ago the end of the world was nigh because of pestilence and famine sent by angry gods; hundreds of years ago it was because of rapidly growing population; tens of years ago it was because of nuclear war; today it is because of climate change. Climate change is real, dangerous, and it will have catastrophic and deadly effects, but it will not wipe us out. We will find ways to adapt to it and eventually mitigate it, using new technology, just as we did with the ozone layer, with war, disease, with famine. And then we will discover other dangerous problems we must to solve.
Beyond that, all we can say is that the consequences will be largely positive.
Despite all those previous apocalyptic threats —which were all real, and all deadly—we have a huge and growing population; life expectancy and quality of life is increasing all over the world; deaths from war, violence, and famine are in rapid decline; and, in the last few centuries, advances in technology led to the sudden rise of literacy and education. In 1800, one-third of all Europeans could read, in 1850 one-half of all Europeans could read, and in 1900 almost all Europeans could read; in 1919, fewer than three thousand people in the UK received undergraduate degrees; in 2010, over a third of a million graduated. The consequences of these changes include better, more just societies, with greater equality for women, people with dark skin, disabilities, and “different” sexual orientations and gender identities. We are far from perfect, but we are much better than we were, and even our awareness of how much better we can become is evidence of progress.
Terrible things will happen too; they always do. But no matter how awful they are, they will be a small minority of the consequences we face. We will continue to make our world and ourselves better. It may not be fashionable, especially among “intellectuals,” but the easiest-to-see, hardest-to-believe prediction of them all is this: our future shines bright.