By Damian Funnell
Finally, this century delivers a decade that has a catchy, easy to agree upon moniker. No more ‘two thousands’ (erm... are we talking about – the decade or the millennium?), ‘naughties’, ‘aughts’ or... what do we call the 10s, anyway?
Thank you Gregorian calendar for giving us the 20s again and what a decade of technology it’s going to be.
Although I’m not entirely sure what names history will assign to the previous two decades, it is clear that – from a technology perspective – the 00s and 10s were tectonic. We got smartphones, private space companies, and universal broadband.
What the past 20 years is most notable for, however, was the emergence of technologies that will change the face of civilisation as we know it, but that haven’t yet quite made the prime time.
So buckle up and join me as I bravely (some would say foolishly) predict the technological achievements that will most affect our lives over the next 10 years.
In 10 years’ time we will have:
Lost jobs to artificial intelligence
AI has progressed in leaps and bounds over the past 20 years. In December I received an automated call from Google asking whether our office was open over the Christmas holidays so they could update opening hours in Google Maps. The caller was an AI bot (ie, a computer) and ‘he’ identified himself as one, but I managed to chat with him almost intelligently for a couple of minutes. He was so human-like that it was exhilarating and downright scary at the same time. He made small talk and even laughed at my jokes (a sure sign he wasn’t a sentient being) and I was taken aback by how naturally the conversation flowed.
AI is here and it’s mature and we’re going to see more and more jobs lost to computers over the decade ahead. This will have a profound impact on law as much of the low hanging fruit will start to be performed by algorithm rather than by associate. Innovative new competitors will emerge with new and exciting technologies that have the potential to disrupt areas of the industry in ways that are hard to predict until it happens.
Given up driving and even car ownership
My eldest daughter is 13 and I am looking forward to teaching her to drive and to helping her buy her first car in the not too distant future. My youngest is eight and I doubt she will ever either learn to drive or own a car.
Why would she want to when cars will drive themselves and arrive within seconds of being summoned? She will never have to look for a car park again – once she’s at her destination her chariot will simply drive itself away, ready to pick up the next passenger.
By 2030 most trucks will be fully self-driving, making the trucking industry significantly safer and more efficient than it is today.
Tens of thousands of driving jobs will become redundant across the country, which sucks, but thousands of lives will be saved as more and more of us let our cars do the driving for us.
In the 1980s the music industry switched from vinyl and cassette to CD. In the 20s the automobile industry is going to switch from gas guzzlers to electric. Yes, there are plenty of us who insist that we’ll stick with the ‘richer sound’ of good old vinyl, thank you very much, but more of the holdouts will make the switch than even they think.
By 2030 over 75% of new cars sold in New Zealand will be fully electric. Electric cars will be cheaper, cleaner, safer and better in almost every way than their internal combustion counterparts. My bet is that the EU will have set a ban on the sale of new internal combustion-powered cars and light trucks from the mid-30s, meaning many car manufacturers will be well on their way toward phasing out gas guzzlers by the end of the 20s.
Despite the momentous achievements of the Russian and American space programmes during the 60s and 70s, no human has set foot on another celestial body within my lifetime. And, as my kids will happily tell you, I’m older than dirt.
This will all change in the 20s, during which time we will have true space tourism for the first time, humans will again set foot on the moon and we’ll even colonise Mars. Let that sink in for a moment – within the next decade we will become an interplanetary species. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen, but it will be hugely significant to the progression of the human race.
Even more interesting will be who manages to get there first. Will it be NASA or SpaceX? My money is on the latter. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to Virgin Galactic finally providing tourist trips into space this year after 15 or so years of building and testing. Watch for companies such as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to start offering tourist trips into space and possibly even the moon before the decade is out. What a time to be alive for an old space nerd.
Embraced blockchain and cryptocurrencies
I’ve attended and/or have spoken at a fair number of ‘Blockchain in [insert industry name here]’ events over the past few years. I think it’s safe to say I’ve never seen so many desperately bored faces in all my life.
Yes, blockchain technologies will have a huge impact on our society, but no, that doesn’t make understanding how blockchain works any more interesting, or important for the lay person.
What will be a lot more interesting is how blockchain technologies are applied into products and services that become part of our everyday lives.
One or more cryptocurrencies will enter the mainstream and will be used by more and more of us, particularly for online transactions. Blockchain features, such as smart contracts, will be found in more and more applications, particularly those related to handling large and complex financial transactions.
Said goodbye to cash registers
Does anyone else resent lining up at the till, or is it just me? ‘Look, I’ve decided I want to buy something from you and I’m ready to give you my money ... why are you making me wait to give it to you?’
Companies such as Amazon already offer cashier-free stores where customers can simply grab what they want and walk out. The customer is automatically charged as they leave.
These stores use a combination of AI technologies, such as computer vision and deep learning. The technology is still immature and very expensive to deploy, but this will change.
By the end of the decade this technology will be sufficiently inexpensive and robust to allow it to be deployed almost anywhere, meaning cashier-free stores will become commonplace. Just as we’ve become accustomed to simply waving our Uber driver goodbye at the end of each trip, we’ll soon get used to grabbing what we want at the supermarket and simply walking out the door.
A quantum of quantum computing
Just as the 00s and 10s were the ‘sleeper’ decades for some of the most promising technologies that will transform the 20s, the 20s will be the sleeper decade for quantum computing.
Without getting too technical, quantum computers take advantage of the mind-bending physics of quantum mechanics to solve problems that would be very difficult, if not impossible, for the traditional microprocessor-based devices we use today.
Unlike a traditional computer, where adding a ‘bit’ gives you a linear increase in processing capacity, adding a qubit to a quantum computer gives you an exponential increase in processing capacity.
This means that quantum computers can perform some really difficult tasks (like decoding strong encryption) really, really quickly.
This is important as the number of transistors that we can cram into each square millimetre of a microprocessor has remained static since around 2013. Until then manufacturers such as Intel managed to double the number of transistors per square millimetre every two years or so (referred to as ‘Moore’s Law’), meaning we had faster and faster processors to meet our insatiable desire for more and more capable devices.
Quantum computing promises to deliver computational performance far in excess of what is possible with current technologies. It’s an exceedingly difficult technology to perfect, however, as it utilises the spin states of electrons or the polarisation of photons to store and process data. You don’t need to have a PhD in physics to realise that manipulating electrons and photons is really, really hard.
During 2019 companies such as IBM released the first commercial quantum computers. These are not devices that you can buy, but you can rent time on them over the internet.
Quantum computing will remain relatively exotic during the 20s, but will come of age in the 30s. During that time we will have to come to terms with new machines that can decrypt data (in seconds or minutes) that would take today’s supercomputers thousands of years to decrypt. What will we do when encryption can no longer be relied upon to protect data and transactions from prying eyes?
How will we change?
Sometimes the pace of technological change can be a bit much to take in. How can we possibly process it all, let alone adapt to it?
The important thing to remember is that, although our society will be forever changed by these and other technological advancements, we’re already well-rehearsed at understanding and adapting to such changes. Look at what a massive change smartphones have had in almost every country around the world. This change was rapid and hugely significant, but we’re adapting just fine.
Although it’s clear that society will change, no one knows quite what this will mean and I for one can’t wait to find out. If I was driving for a living then I think now would be a good time to think about re-training, but otherwise I’m happy to watch in awe and amusement.
What I hope will happen is that we start spending more time trying to solve some of our most pressing technological challenges, such as saving the planet, particularly as ‘technology’ is responsible for so much of the waste and pollution that we’re grappling with.