Megatech: Technology in 2050

Apr 17, 2017

In this insightful interview, "Economist" executive editor Daniel Franklin discusses driverless cars, gene-editing, artificial intelligence, and much more. Are we entering an "accelerando" stage of technological change? And what are the ethical implications?

JOANNE MYERS: Hello, I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs at the Carnegie Council in New York City.

Today we will be speaking about the future of technology with Daniel Franklin, editor of Megatech: Technology in 2050. In a series of collected essays, he brings together today's most innovative scientists, industry leaders, star academics, and acclaimed science fiction writers to imagine how future technology will develop and shape our lives.

Mr. Franklin is the executive editor of The Economist, and editor of The Economist's annual publication "The World in . . .," which focuses on the years ahead. He is the co-editor of Megachange.

Thank you for joining us.

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Thank you very much.

JOANNE MYERS: When thinking about the future of technology, the first question I'd like to ask is a fundamental one, and that is: What is likely to drive or constrain change? In other words, where should we look for clues that will lead, or may lead, to new developments?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: I think that's absolutely the right question to begin with because you can't just stick a finger in the air and guess what's going to be happening in 2050, but you can make an educated guess if you look at the fundamental forces that might affect technological change in the years ahead.

In the very first chapter of the book, one of my colleagues, Tom Standage, gives me a toolkit for looking into this. He says, "You should seek clues in what has happened in the past. Often the patterns of technological change in the past are quite instructive for what might happen in the future." For example, the shift from horse-drawn carriages to automotive vehicles can tell you something about the sorts of issues that we'll grapple with in the shift from cars to driverless cars. And then look at edge technologies of the present that might grow big, and look at science fiction as well; that can also be helpful. So that's one way of peering into the future.

But I think perhaps what you're getting at most of all is what does the science allow: What does the state of physics, for example, and biology tell you about what we'd like to see in technology in the coming decades? And there, I think, are some very interesting insights from the contributors to the book.

JOANNE MYERS: Could you elaborate on one or two that stood out for you?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Yes. If you take the example of physics, Frank Wilczek, who is a professor at MIT and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, makes a very striking assertion that basically the state of our knowledge of physics has reached such a point that there are really equations that can broadly explain the main physical attributes of the universe or our planet such that henceforth, discovery can proceed much more than in the past by calculation rather than by experimentation. That means that things can go a lot faster, and that's a fundamental, I think, premise of the book, that technological change from now on is likely to be entering a very speeded-up era. One word for it in some science fiction is the "accelerando." So that's physics.

Biology is at a much younger stage of development. It's a very exciting one because there are tools coming into play, thanks to the very rapid increases in efficiency of genome sequencing, that mean that there's likely to be a really extraordinary, rapid age of discovery in biology. I think that opens up all sorts of technological advances in anything from medicine to new materials to biomanufacturing.

JOANNE MYERS: And certainly ethical challenges. How far do you go? What is the limit?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: That's quite right, particularly in some of those areas I've mentioned. And I think it is also a leitmotif of the book, partly because of the pace of change, but also because of the areas that this is going to be taking place in, for example, gene editing, new and novel food technologies—very basic stuff for our existence. It's going to be very tough for the regulators and governments to keep up with the pace of change of technology, and it will throw up very knotty problems.

JOANNE MYERS: Yes. The question is, of course, where do you draw the line?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Yes, and that, I think, will be extremely difficult and will require careful thought in a lot of areas. For example, if you look at the sort of gene-editing tools, the good thing about that is that it offers the prospect of really tackling some very nasty diseases and making progress in areas that cause a lot of anguish.

It allows other things too: Vistas of self-enhancements for people, and for creating perhaps traits that make you run faster or look more attractive or be stronger and so on, in a way that is perhaps more worrying about to what extent we may be able to design stronger, better, faster human beings, and who gets to decide, and who gets to take advantage of those sorts of possibilities.

JOANNE MYERS: Yes. It certainly raises questions about inequality because those who can afford it can change things, and those who can't are left behind.

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Yes, absolutely.

JOANNE MYERS: Where do you find investors are investing their money? Anything particular that they seem to feel that is going to make big advances and they can capitalize on these advancements?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Yes. There is a lot of investment in many areas, obviously. But if you look at one area which is I think particularly interesting, is always the computing industry which drives a lot of this change. Ann Winblad, who is a venture capitalist with long experience, describes the process of investment in this industry as a series of waves. She actually thinks there have been a number of these over past decades, and each of these waves takes about 10 years from forming out in the ocean and having early stage investments in lots of companies, and then only a few of them actually survive by the time the wave comes ashore. She says we're now in the seventh wave of this investment, and this wave is bringing in, above all, artificial intelligence companies, and she says we're about four years into that wave, so sometime in the middle of the next decade you might expect some very major companies in that space to emerge.

JOANNE MYERS: You brought up artificial intelligence (AI). Do you think AI machines pose a threat to the human race, because Stephen Hawking and others say, "Watch out, beware"?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: I think certainly many people—Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk; there's a long list of people. Actually I mentioned Frank Wilczek; he also mentioned this among one of what he calls "failure modes," and he generally offers lots of exciting things that technology can do, but then there are things like nuclear destruction and environmental destruction. Also he says we have to be very wary of AI-enabled warfare. So yes, I think there is a concern that you have to proceed with open eyes on this.

Actually, one of the contributors, Luciano Floridi, who is a professor at Oxford University, is less worried that we're going to have super-intelligent machines that become more capable than humans of independent thought, and more that we create the environment for those machines that may not be entirely what we would like. In other words, the machines do what we program them to do, and we create the environment for them so that they can operate most effectively. So we have to be quite careful that the environment that we create for those machines is one that really serves humanity rather than the humans serving the machines.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you think algorithms will one day speak to each other, so that man as we know him today will no longer exist? This was a suggestion, actually, in a recent book I read called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. [Editor's note: For more on Homo Deus, check out author Yuval Noah Harari's recent Carnegie Council talk.]

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Yes. I think that sort of science fiction idea probably stretches rather far beyond the horizons of this book. But who knows? These sorts of things, machines will speak to machines, but I don't think man will become redundant in the process.

JOANNE MYERS: We can only hope.

DANIEL FRANKLIN: I would hope so.

JOANNE MYERS: In collecting these essays, what were some of the most fantastic inventions that you came across?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Well I think some of the areas that are most surprising to think of are in the field of biology or bioengineering. One of the ideas envisaged is that you will have machines—well, robots—that roam around the prairies harvesting crops and turning them into chemicals and fuels, sort of "cowborg" machines, mobile biomanufacturing units. So it's that sort of very futuristic vision.

Urban farming seems to me to be something that we're quite likely to have, where we have no longer farms happening out in the fields; we will still have them, but in addition we will have urban farms that will have, for example, meat factories that are making meat from a cell culture rather than from live animals. So actually the type of farming that we have could be totally transformed.

JOANNE MYERS: Were there any new technologies that you found downright sinister?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: I think the idea of military technology is always an area where you can be concerned that things will be used for nefarious purposes, and I do think the ethical problems raised there, the sorts of degrees of destructive power that will be acquired, that's perhaps the biggest worry.

But more generally I think the biggest concern is the transition that this will imply for jobs. There's a lot of work that will be displaced by machines and by the rapid change that technology will bring about.

In the long term, I'm reasonably optimistic that we'll find all sorts of ways of creating new occupations for people, new ways of working with technology and machines. But there is, I think, a very considerable question over the transition to that, and whether the numbers of people who risk being displaced and the sorts of work that is available to them over their lifetimes is going to be adequate. That's a big, I think, social issue facing all of us, and our politicians as well.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you think there is a way that we can prepare for the opportunities? I think the advent of driverless cars will erase a population of long-distance drivers, taxi drivers, etc. But are there other ways that the loss of jobs can be replaced by something new and innovative?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Definitely. There will be lots of new and innovative things, and we see that the whole time. Most people today are doing jobs that nobody imagined would have existed before the Industrial Revolution, and many people are doing jobs that nobody thought would exist before the computing revolution, so we already see that sort of transition. It's been something we've been through many, many times, and you can see whole industries emerging out of data integration, out of synthetic tissue manufacturing, out of the grown economy. Even driverless cars, one imagines that that will create industries as well for new types of car factories, new types of design, new types of activities to do when you're inside a car.

Again, it's instructive to look at the disruption that happened with the advent of automotive vehicle displacing horse-drawn carriages. Not least, the horses were displaced, but whole categories of employment that looked after horses and drove those carriages went. But it brought a whole new category of car makers, mechanics, petrol stations, infrastructure, and so on.

JOANNE MYERS: I think the market even believes in the fact that driverless cars will possibly be profitable because I read yesterday that Tesla shares passed $300 and surpassed Ford Motor Company. Is that correct?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: The market cap is greater than Ford, which is really extraordinary, isn't it?

JOANNE MYERS: Yes. So I guess people believe in the future.

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Yes. That's not so much driverless cars in that case; I suppose it's more to do with the electric cars. But still, it shows when a technology wins the confidence, and this is something that is going to be gaining more and more market share, then truly the finance, the money follows this and makes big bets on it.

JOANNE MYERS: That's right. In compiling these essays, what surprised you the most?

DANIEL FRANKLIN: I think most of all it is the pace, the speed, and the sort of "exponentiality," if you like, of some of the ways that things are developing, where you get year-upon-year extraordinary increases in efficiency. I mentioned the improvements in genome sequencing, but you see the same sort of improvements happening in some energy areas, solar power, for example.

I think perhaps some of the less glamorous areas are ones that I would say stretch the mind most. Material science, you wouldn't necessarily think of this as a glitzy thing, but I think we're on the edge of an era where we're probably going to be inventing lots of very extraordinary materials with properties that will enable us to make things that could not be made before.

Already, for example, BMW is producing one model of cars that is using techniques that you would normally see in a textile industry, knitted together rather than bashed out of metal, using carbon fibers. So this is the sort of thing I think we're going to see over and over with surprising new possibilities.

JOANNE MYERS: For our listeners, I just have to tell them that treating each essay as a depiction of where we are today and what the trends are currently pointing us toward makes Megatech a most interesting read. Of course, we can't know the future, but if you want to know what the future may look like, one way to do it is to read Megatech: Technology in 2050, which is a guide to the possibilities.

Thank you so much for being with us today, Mr. Franklin.

DANIEL FRANKLIN: Thank you very much. My pleasure.

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