The future isn’t what we thought it would be. We don’t walk around in silver suits, travel to colonies on Mars or drive in flying cars. Instead, we dress casual, take selfies and communicate in 140 characters.
Yet in many ways, we’re much better off than we imagined. Rather than a Mad Max dystopia of war, famine and disease we are safer, richer and healthier than we’ve ever been. As I’ve argued before, in a very real sense 140 characters are better than a flying car.
That’s the funny thing about the future. It’s never as fantastic as we hope nor as horrible as we fear. The one thing that’s for sure is that times will change and we will have to adapt. While there is no way of knowing exactly how that change will play out, we can identify trends, make common sense judgments about where they lead and prepare for them.
1. Change Will Happen Much, Much Faster
If you think back ten years, the world was very different. In 2004, Google was still relatively new and just had its IPO. There were iPods, but no iPhone and no real mobile Internet. A 42 inch flat screen TV would cost you $4000. There was no social media, no cloud and very few location based services. Life was recognizable, but very different.
Twenty years ago there was no commercial Web. Even simple mobile phones were expensive, relatively rare and so big that we mostly kept them in our cars. We listened to music on CD’s and had very little personal technology. It’s hard to imagine a present day millennial living in 1994.
No one can predict exactly what life will look like in 2024, but there are a few things we do know. Our technology will be a thousand times more powerful than in 2004 and a million times more powerful than in 1994. So change of all kinds will happen exponentially faster than it ever has before.
If you thought it was tough to keep up in the past, it will be that much more challenging in the future.
2. The World of Bits Will Invade The World Of Atoms
Probably the most dramatic difference in the next decade or two will be the extent that the world of bits will invade the world of atoms. A smartphone today replaces an amazing array of technology we used to buy separately. Now, when you want a new gadget, you download a new app. We will see similar trends in manufacturing, energy and healthcare.
Solar energy will be competitive—or cheaper—than the grid and getting your personal genome sequenced will cost less than $100. A vast array of technologies, from CAD software to 3D printers to robots has been transforming the way we produce physical goods.
We’ve become used to a virtual world where things get cheaper and better with astounding speed, but as X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis argues in Abundance, that may soon be true of the physical world as well. When the economics of manufacturing, healthcare and energy starts to look like the economics of information technology, life will be very different.
3. Your Technology Will Know You
When IBM recently released its five trends for the next five years, they chose to focus on the personal web. Up till now, technology has been built for the masses—it works reasonably well for most of us, but can be maddening when we depart from statistical norms.
Our schools educate our children to perform to national standards, but take little note of individual aptitudes and deficiencies. Go on vacation off the beaten track and, chances are, your credit card will be blocked. The websites we frequent know our buying history and can recommend us new items, but in the physical world we are strangers.
That will all change. Google Now can already look at our schedules and alert us if we need to leave early because of unusually bad traffic, but we can expect our technologies to get much, much more personal. IBM has recently opened up its Watson platform so that every service we use can access cognitive computing.
So in the future, our technology will know us. Teachers will be able to access data about our child’s aptitudes not only across classrooms, but across school years. Medical treatments will take into account our personal body chemistry. When we walk into a store, the selection will be catered to our tastes, body size and shape.
4. The Meek Will Inherit The Earth (And Find Out They Are Powerless When They Do)
Technology is not an island. It ends up affecting every fabric of life. The automobile did not only end travel by horse, it also created suburbs, gas stations, shopping malls and contributed to global warming and the environmental movement. The ripple effects often eclipse the initial innovation.
Communication technology has already begun to transform human potential. Our fates used to be very much tied to the circumstances of our birth. If you grew up middle class in London, your life chances were remarkably different than a child from reasonably prosperous family in India. That gap has closed tremendously in the last generation.
Yet as Moisés Naím explained in The End of Power, the effect is probably most deeply felt in power relationships. Every significant institution—from governments to religions to charities—has declined in its ability to shape events and been replaced with… well nothing really. As Naim puts it, “Power has become easier to get, but harder to use or keep.”
Probably the most salient example is social media. It used to be that if you had a message for the world, it would be filtered by gatekeepers—the government, an editor or an academic institution—but now anyone with a smartphone can broadcast—in text or video—as they see fit.
We can only expect this trend to accelerate as open technology takes hold. Today, we all have access to the world’s most powerful technology through the cloud. In a decade, as I noted above, that technology will be exponentially more powerful and no one will truly be in control of it.
5. You Will Have To Learn To Collaborate With Machines
If you’ve been on a plane lately, you might have noticed that there were pilots in the cockpit, but probably weren’t aware that they don’t fly planes as a normal matter of course anymore. In reality, they fly-by-wire, meaning that they operate computers that do the actual flying.
But it’s not as if pilots don’t still have important work to do. They monitor the flight, communicate with humans on the ground and take over in emergencies. In the rare case of a crash, data from the onboard computer is analyzed and and the insights gained are applied to future flights.
Now, as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee show in their new book, The Second Machine Age, computers are starting perform a variety of tasks that we used to associate only with humans. IBM’s Watson system is already helping doctors personalize treatment and it’s working on similar solutions for other human endeavors, even cooking.
So in the future, we will all need to learn how to collaborate with machines much like pilots do. In effect, rather than depend solely on our personal databases of experience, we will apply the sum total of human knowledge to our everyday and professional tasks.
6. Your Business Model Will Not Last
A generation ago, when you started a career, you were expected to learn and then perfect your trade. As you progressed up the ladder, you gained prestige and authority, but your job didn’t really change all that much.
Today we no longer have that luxury. Whatever your field of endeavor, the one thing you can be sure of is that your business model will not last. Your basic assumptions about how you will create, deliver and capture value will be disrupted and you will have to radically rethink how you go about things.
So the future is certainly not what it used to be. We can no longer extrapolate from the past to understand what lays ahead, but must experience it and adapt as it happens. We can no longer plan, we can only prepare.