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The future of mankind: the economics of futurology

Wednesday, 6 August 2008 — by

Predicting future technology trends requires hindsight as well as a different kind of foresight. But when fixing our gaze on the greater “What if?” of things, we also need peripheral vision — an insight into the many aspects of society and how our imagineering might be affected by the affairs of man…

In this second installment, I’m going to look at how predicting the future requires a holistic, far-reaching vision, one that encompasses many, many aspects of human life.

The dual revolution of the human race — genetic & cybernetic engineering

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to the future of man:

  1. Firstly, there’s the theory that the human race will become augmented in some way by certain devices that are beneficial to us.
  2. Secondly, there’s the theory that advancements in our understanding of genetics will lead us to various therapies and enhancements that will also deeply augment our species.

There are over 6 billion souls on Earth, the vast majority of which do not have the means to feed themselves from one day to the next. So the reality is, this future Halcyon is more likely to be a century away — if ever such a time is to exist at all — even if the technology was to be made available tomorrow.

Either that, or we deepen and widen the gulf separating those that have access to modern as well as future technologies from those that do not.

Getting a sense of the future

To illustrate the multifaceted nature of making any kind of technology prediction, let’s assume a series of novel devices are created which can be inserted into the brain, the ear, the eye and the throat, which essentially supplants the need for a mobile phone, a device powered directly by the body:

“Scientists are working on a new type of nanogenerator that could draw the necessary energy from flowing blood in the human body, by using the beating heart and pulsating blood vessels. Once completed, this new cellular engine could find various applications, even beyond medicine.”

The brain implant would help us control these devices directly, while what we hear and say are captured by the smaller, linked array of components. Finally, our control over this device array would be projected into our eyes by means of a smart contact lens:

“Catching my eye recently was a story about electrical circuits being placed on contact lenses…

With obvious comparisons to The Six Million Dollar Man and The Terminator aside, my minds eye was fixed on things like military applications for such visual augmentations.”

In the developed world, the major manufactures would most likely sell these devices in the same way they currently sell present generation mobile phones and mobile devices. So we can assume that the undeveloped regions of the world would have to be content with the existing generation of mobile phone devices and their attendant infrastructure.

Then there’s the medical costs, which every owner would have to endure — assuming anyone would want to endure such a medical procedure. Also, there’s likely to be upgrades. OK, let’s assume these devices are part biological, whose internal components are genetically engineered biomechanics. That would certainly make upgrades much simpler, since rearranging genes is preferable to yet more surgery to swap out a component.

Now, let’s also assume these devices are a byproduct of nanotechnology and are exceptionally cheap to produce. And with the advantage of being initially installed by keyhole surgery, they’re less of a problem. But I’d wager a great number of people will — after weighing convenience and sheer utility against surgery — still won’t want several different devices inserting into their heads.

We can also make the assumption that pricing and signal coverage have moved along, so we’ll skip those issues. But what about swapping manufacturers? Would that even be practical, or are we now assuming that the likes of Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Nokia et al have all just vanished and only one remains? Or maybe they’re partnering with local hospitals and health trusts, who’re supplementing their income by offering such services?

You’ll be delighted to know that I’m not even going to attempt to answer those questions. Why? Because they’re so meandering and vastly complex, I can only make wild, speculative assumptions — which is precisely what I’ve been doing for the last four hundred and seventy three words.

Technology for the sake of change?

However, the difference is, I at least attempted to examine the social issues as well as the commercial ramifications of how just one technology might play out.

Also, this illustrates one thing very clearly; just because something is technically feasible doesn’t mean it’s practical or desirable.

As you can now see, the implications of just one example of convergent technologyies can have untold and vast implications, with the potential of touching the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people, all across the world.

So what are the great leaps in technology we can expect to see in the coming decades? Chances are, there will be many, but their impact on our lives will be gradual and often minimal. Why? Because society abhors great and rapid change. But these great leaps will occur nonetheless — some of which I can see on the horizon…

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