Is the future really better than the present?

My grandfather forwarded me an email that I wanted to share with you. It is about how technology is about to change the world and the economy. I found it slightly horrifying, because I have a few friends who are going to be in some serious trouble if the facts in the article are true.

I just went to the Singularity University summit and here are the key learnings.

In 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide. Within just a few years, their business model disappeared and they got bankrupt.

What happened to Kodak will happen in a lot of industries in the next 10 year – and most people don’t see it coming. Did you think in 1998 that 3 years later you would never take pictures on paper film again?

Yet digital cameras were invented in 1975. The first ones only had 10,000 pixels, but followed Moore’s law. So as with all exponential technologies, it was a disappointment for a long time, before it became way superior and got mainstream in only a few short years. It will now happen with Artificial Intelligence, health, autonomous and electric cars, education, 3D printing, agriculture and jobs. Welcome to the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Welcome to the Exponential Age. Software will disrupt most traditional industries in the next 5-10 years.

Uber is just a software tool, they don’t own any cars, and are now the biggest taxi company in the world. Airbnb is now the biggest hotel company in the world, although they don’t own any properties.

Artificial Intelligence: Computers become exponentially better in understanding the world. This year, a computer beat the best Go player in the world, 10 years earlier than expected. In the US, young lawyers already don’t get jobs. Because of IBM Watson, you can get legal advice (so far for more or less basic stuff) within seconds, with 90% accuracy compared with 70% accuracy when done by humans. So if you study law, stop immediately. There will be 90% less lawyers in the future, only specialists will remain.

Watson already helps nurses diagnosing cancer, 4 time more accurate than human nurses. Facebook now has a pattern recognition software that can recognize faces better than humans. In 2030, computers will become more intelligent than humans.

Autonomous cars: In 2018 the first self driving cars will appear for the public. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted. You don’t want to own a car anymore. You will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination. You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car. It will change the cities, because we will need 90-95% less cars for that. We can transform former parking space into parks. 1,2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. We now have one accident every 100,000km, with autonomous driving that will drop to one accident in 10 million km. That will save a million lives each year.

Most car companies might become bankrupt. Traditional car companies try the evolutionary approach and just build a better car, while tech companies (Tesla, Apple, Google) will do the revolutionary approach and build a computer on wheels. I spoke to a lot of engineers from Volkswagen and Audi; they are completely terrified of Tesla.

Real estate will change. Because if you can work while you commute, people will move further away to live in a more beautiful neighborhood. Insurance companies will have massive trouble because without accidents, the insurance will become 100x cheaper. Their car insurance business model will disappear.

Electric cars will become mainstream until 2020. Cities will be less noisy because all cars will run on electric. Electricity will become incredibly cheap and clean: Solar production has been on an exponential curve for 30 years, but you can only now see the impact. Last year, more solar energy was installed worldwide than fossil. The price for solar will drop so much that all coal companies will be out of business by 2025.

With cheap electricity comes cheap and abundant water. Desalination now only needs 2kWh per cubic meter. We don’t have scarce water in most places, we only have scarce drinking water. Imagine what will be possible if anyone can have as much clean water as he wants, for nearly no cost.

Health: The Tricorder X price will be announced this year. There will be companies who will build a medical device (called the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that works with you phone, which takes your retina scan, you blood sample and you breath into it. It then analyses 54 biomarkers that will identify nearly any disease. It will be cheap, so in a few years everyone on this planet will have access to world class medicine, nearly for free.

3D printing: The price of the cheapest 3D printer came down from 18,000$ to 400$ within 10 years. In the same time, it became 100 times faster. All major shoe companies started 3D printing shoes. Spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports. The space station now has a printer that eliminates the need for the large amount of spare parts they used to have in the past. At the end of this year, new smartphones will have 3D scanning possibilities. You can then 3D scan your feet and print your perfect shoe at home. In China, they already 3D printed a complete 6-storey office building. By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed.

Business opportunities: If you think of a niche you want to go in, ask yourself: “in the future, do you think we will have that?” and if the answer is yes, how can you make that happen sooner? If it doesn’t work with your phone, forget the idea. And any idea designed for success in the 20th century is doomed in to failure in the 21st century.

Work: 70-80% of jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be a lot of new jobs, but it is not clear if there will be enough new jobs in such a small time.

Agriculture: There will be a 100$ agricultural robot in the future. Farmers in 3rd world countries can then become managers of their field instead of working all days on their fields. Aeroponics will need much less water. The first petri dish produced veal is now available and will be cheaper than cow produced veal in 2018. Right now, 30% of all agricultural surfaces is used for cows. Imagine if we don’t need that space anymore. There are several startups who will bring insect protein to the market shortly. It contains more protein than meat. It will be labeled as “alternative protein source” (because most people still reject the idea of eating insects).

There is an app called “moodies” which can already tell in which mood you are. Until 2020 there will be apps that can tell by your facial expressions if you are lying. Imagine a political debate where it’s being displayed when they are telling the truth and when not.

Bitcoin will become mainstream this year and might even become the default reserve currency.

Longevity: Right now, the average life span increases by 3 months per year. Four years ago, the life span used to be 79 years, now it’s 80 years. The increase itself is increasing and by 2036, there will be more that one year increase per year. So we all might live for a long time, probably way more than 100.

Education: The cheapest smartphones are already at 10$ in Africa and Asia. Until 2020, 70% of all humans will own a smartphone. That means, everyone has the same access to world class education. Every child can use Khan academy for everything a child learns at school in First World countries. We have already released our software in Indonesia and will release it in Arabic, Suaheli and Chinese this Summer, because I see an enormous potential. We will give the English app for free, so that children in Africa can become fluent in English within half a year.

Do you think that this is the future of the human race? Sure there are some great aspects about technology  like easy education and a longer life span. However, if most jobs will be digitally operated, then what’s the use in living that long if you can’t find a job to support yourself? What would be the point of living if a computer could solve problems quicker and more effectively than any human. Remember Wall-E! I don’t want this planet to become like that nor do I want to end up like those people on the ship. That snare is a bit drastic, but it could easily happen.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Is the future really better than the present?

  1. Good Article. I for one have no worries. I own and operate a trapping business. As long as there are critters and people who are scared to death of everything, I will make $. But some people have to worry and think about their investments to boot. But not every last person embraces all technology. I will always love old cars that still run on a carburetor. I know to go look it up. Also, if the electricity goes out, people better think how to get by with out it. I was just talking with a gentleman in Florida about how old our country`s infrastructure is… OY! We are in trouble from what he has studied and is in charge of. That’s all I am saying.


  2. I see your concern, but your scope in this post is rather limited: this won’t get rid of all jobs in the long run. Yes, the more traditional ones might become less relevant; however, this is also creating vast opportunities for other kinds of professions that never even existed before! The shift isn’t taking people by surprise, either (not the rising generation, anyways). You should just SEE how many people are going into interesting fields that are skyrocketing in demand and which are unlikely to die out. Look up ALL different branches of engineering…yep, EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM is in demand because of and for the sake of advancing technology! Not to mention, running your own business is being made much easier, meaning more competition, meaning stable capitalism with fewer monopolies. Should we want to stay in the Stone Age because GPSes take away need for guides or directional sign makers? Should we be scared of safe roads just because bus drivers might get uncommon and have to go to online college and/or find new professions? On top of that, it’s easier to spread information, meaning an increase in authors, artists, musicians, researchers, and anyone else who would like to get word of something out. There will be an abundance of free time, which historically means greater curiosity and creativity, which historically means further discoveries, advancements, innovations, etc. Adjustment will be difficult for older generations, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the game :D! The majority of the current college-age generation is ALREADY prepared for the shift, and we just need the street smarts to understand their examples and find out how to apply it to ourselves when the time comes ;)!
    Times always change, and though past sudden changes had been strenuous to say the least, throughout history, humanity has always come out more advanced, with easier lives and better opportunities for future generations. This is just the same thing that’s happened ever since the dawn of technology (meaning multipurpose stone tools, farming, agriculture, ceramic, etc.) except with different materials. Just prepare for it before it gets here, and we’ll be fine. Don’t wait until the last minute to start looking!
    You love the environment, right? Do you want air pollution to stop? Well, in order to get that, coal miners and petroleum plant workers will have to be out of jobs for a while. Does that mean they’re beyond hope forever? Not at all! If they explore new opportunities not there before ahead of time, they can survive.
    We don’t have to jump up and down with excitement, but fearing and protesting will not help in this case at all.
    Brace for the worst, but always hope for the best :).
    All that aside…
    Interesting topic, Elia! I’ve had the same conversation with my older brother (AU, Aerospace Systems Engineering major considering switching to Electrical Engineering), and I actually took your stance at the time :). Now, however, I have a slightly more logical view (SOME advancements just aren’t meant to be :/ ).
    I hope you’re not bothered by this looonnnngggg comment *sorry*: I just wanted to give a reassuring opinion :)!


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