For Rebecca, to whom we are grateful for her ideas and support, and Aiden, of whom we are envious for the technology he will get to see
We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.
—CHARLES F. KETTERING,
American inventor and businessman
Advance praise for The New Digital Age
CHAPTER 1 Our Future Selves
CHAPTER 2 The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting
CHAPTER 3 The Future of States
CHAPTER 4 The Future of Revolution
CHAPTER 5 The Future of Terrorism
CHAPTER 6 The Future oF Conflict, Combat and Intervention
CHAPTER 7 The Future of Reconstruction
The Internet is among the few things humans have built that they don’t truly
understand. What began as a means of electronic information transmission—room-sized computer to room-sized computer—has transformed into an omnipresent and endlessly multifaceted outlet for human energy and expression. It is at once intangible and in a constant state of mutation, growing larger and more complex with each passing second. It is a source for tremendous good and potentially dreadful evil, and we’re only just beginning to witness its
impact on the world stage.
The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. Hundreds of millions of people are, each minute, creating and consuming an untold amount of digital content in an online world that is not truly bound by terrestrial laws. This new capacity for free expression and
free movement of information has generated the rich virtual landscape we know today. Think of all the websites you’ve ever visited, all the e-mails you’ve sent and stories you’ve read online, all the facts you’ve learned and fictions you’ve encountered and debunked. Think of every relationship forged, every journey planned, every job found and every dream born, nurtured and implemented through this platform. Consider too what the lack of top-down control allows: the online scams, the bullying campaigns, the hate-group websites and the terrorist chat rooms. This is the Internet, the world’s largest ungoverned space.
As this space grows larger, our understanding of nearly every aspect of life will change, from the minutiae of our daily lives to more fundamental questions about identity, relationships and even our own security. Through the power of technology, age-old
obstacles to human interaction, like geography, language and limited information, are falling and a new wave of human creativity and potential is rising. Mass adoption of the Internet is driving one of the most exciting social, cultural and political transformations in history, and unlike earlier periods of change, this time the effects are fully global. Never before in history have so many people, from so many places, had so much power at their fingertips. And while this is hardly the first technology revolution in our history, it is the first that will make it possible for almost everybody to own, develop and disseminate real-time content without having to rely on intermediaries.
And we’ve barely left the starting blocks.
The proliferation of communication technologies has
advanced at an unprecedented speed. In the first decade of the twenty-first century the number of people connected to the Internet worldwide increased from 350 million to more than 2 billion. In the same period, the number of mobile-phone subscribers rose from 750 million to well over 5 billion (it is now over 6 billion). Adoption of these technologies is spreading to the farthest reaches of the planet, and, in some parts of the world, at an accelerating rate.
By 2025, the majority of the world’s population will, in one generation, have gone from having virtually no access to unfiltered information to accessing all of the world’s information through a device that fits in the palm of the hand. If the current pace of technological innovation is maintained, most of the projected eight billion people on Earth will be online.
At every level of society, connectivity will continue to become more affordable and practical in substantial ways. People will have access to ubiquitous wireless Internet networks that are many times
cheaper than they are now. We’ll be more efficient, more productive and more creative. In the developing world, public wireless hot spots and high-speed home networks will reinforce each other, extending the online experience to places where people today don’t even have landline phones. Societies will leapfrog an entire generation of technology. Eventually, the accoutrements of technologies we marvel at today will be sold in flea markets as antiques, like rotary phones before them.
And as adoption of these tools increases, so too will their speed and computing power.
Moore’s Law, the rule of thumb in the technology industry, tells us that processor chips—the small circuit boards that form the backbone of every computing device—double in speed every eighteen months. That means a computer in 2025 will be sixty-four times faster than it is in 2013. Another predictive law, this one of
photonics (regarding the transmission of information), tells us that the amount of data coming out of
fiber-optic cables, the fastest form of connectivity, doubles roughly every nine months. Even if these laws have natural limits, the promise of exponential growth unleashes possibilities in graphics and virtual reality that will make the online experience as real as real life, or perhaps even better. Imagine having the holodeck from the world of StarTrek, which was a fully immersive virtual-reality environment for those aboard a ship, but this one is able to both project a beach landscape and re-create a famous Elvis Presley performance in front of your eyes. Indeed, the next moments in our technological evolution promise to turn a host of popular science-fiction concepts into science facts:
thought-controlled robotic motion,
artificial intelligence (AI) and fully integrated
augmented reality, which promises a visual overlay of digital information onto our physical environment. Such developments will join with and enhance elements of our natural world.
This is our future, and these remarkable things are already beginning to take shape. That is what makes working in the technology industry so exciting today. It’s not just because we have a chance to invent and build amazing new devices or because of the scale of technological and intellectual challenges we will try to conquer; it’s because of what these developments will mean for the world.
Communication technologies represent opportunities for
cultural breakthroughs as well as technical ones. How we interact with others and how we view ourselves will continue to be influenced and driven by the online world around us. Our propensity for
selective memory allows us to adopt new habits quickly and forget the ways we did things before. These days, it’s hard to imagine a life without mobile devices. In a time of ubiquitous
smart phones, you have insurance against forgetfulness, you have access to an entire world of ideas (even though some governments make it difficult), and you always have something to occupy your attention, although finding a way to do so usefully may still prove difficult and in some cases harder. The smart phone is aptly named.
connectivity continues its unprecedented advance, many old institutions and hierarchies will have to adapt or risk becoming obsolete, irrelevant to modern society. The struggles we see today in many businesses, large and small, are examples of the dramatic shift for society that lies ahead. Communication technologies will continue to change our institutions from within and without. We will increasingly reach, and relate to, people far beyond our own borders and language groups, sharing ideas, doing business and building genuine relationships.
The vast majority of us will increasingly find ourselves living, working and being governed in two worlds at once. In the virtual world we will all experience some kind of connectivity, quickly and through a variety of means and devices. In the physical world we will still have to contend with geography, randomness of birth (some born as rich people in rich countries, the majority as poor people in poor countries), bad luck and the good and bad sides of human nature. In this book we aim to demonstrate ways in which the virtual world can make the physical world better, worse or just different. Sometimes these worlds will constrain each other; sometimes they will clash; sometimes they will intensify, accelerate and exacerbate phenomena in the other world so that a difference in degree will become a difference in kind.
On the world stage, the most significant impact of the spread of communication technologies will be the way they help reallocate the concentration of power away from states and institutions and transfer it to individuals. Throughout history, the advent of new information technologies has often empowered successive waves of people at the expense of traditional power brokers, whether that meant the king, the church or the elites. Then as now, access to information and to new communication channels meant new opportunities to participate, to hold power to account and to direct the course of one’s life with greater agency.
The spread of connectivity, particularly through Internet-enabled mobile phones, is certainly the most common and perhaps the most profound example of this shift in power, if only because of the scale. Digital empowerment will be, for some, the first experience of empowerment in their lives, enabling them to be heard, counted and taken seriously—all because of an inexpensive device they can carry in their pocket. As a result, authoritarian governments will find their newly connected populations more difficult to control, repress and influence, while democratic states will be forced to include many more voices (individuals, organizations and companies) in their affairs. To be sure, governments will always find ways to use new levels of connectivity to their advantage, but because of the way current network technology is structured, it truly favors the citizens, in ways we will explore later.
So, will this
transfer of power to individuals ultimately result in a safer world, or a more dangerous one? We can only wait and see. We have only begun to encounter the realities of a connected world: the good, the bad and the worrisome. The two of us have explored this question from different vantage points—one as a computer scientist and business executive and the other as a foreign-policy and national security expert—and we both know that the answer is not predetermined. The future will be shaped by how states, citizens, companies and institutions handle their new responsibilities.
In the past, international-relations theorists have debated the
ambitions of states—some arguing that states maintain domestic and foreign policies that aim to maximize their power and security, while others suggest that additional factors, such as
trade and information
exchange, also affect state behavior. States’ ambitions won’t change, but their notions of how to achieve them will. They will have to practice two versions of their domestic and foreign policies—one for the physical, “real” world, and one for the virtual world that exists online. These policies may appear contradictory at times—governments might crack down in one realm while allowing certain behavior in another; they may go to war in
cyberspace but maintain the peace in the physical world—but for states, they will represent attempts to deal with the new threats and challenges to their authority that connectivity enables.
For citizens, coming online means coming into possession of multiple identities in the physical and virtual worlds. In many ways, their
virtual identities will come to supersede all others, as the trails they leave remain engraved online in perpetuity. And because what we post, e-mail, text and share online shapes the virtual identities of others, new forms of collective responsibility will have to come into effect.
For organizations and companies, opportunities and challenges will come hand in hand with global connectivity. A new level of accountability, driven by the people, will force these actors to rethink their existing operations and adapt their plans for the future, changing how they do things as well as how they present their activities to the public. They’ll also find new competitors, as widespread technological inclusion levels the playing field for information, and therefore opportunity.
In the future, no person, from the most powerful to the weakest, will be insulated from what in many cases will be historic changes.
We two first met in the fall of 2009, under circumstances that made it easy to form a bond quickly. We were in Baghdad, engaging with Iraqis around the critical question of how technology can be used to help rebuild a society. As we moved around the city meeting with government ministers, military leaders, diplomats and Iraqi entrepreneurs, we encountered a nation whose prospects for recovery and future success appeared to hang by a thread. Eric’s visit marked the first trip to Iraq by the CEO of a Fortune 500 technology company, so there were lots of questions about why Google was there. At the time, even we weren’t entirely sure what Google might encounter or accomplish.
The answer became clear instantly. Everywhere we looked, we saw mobile devices. That surprised us. At the time, Iraq had been a war zone for more than six years, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, who, in his totalitarian paranoia, had
banned the use of mobile phones. The war had decimated Iraq’s physical infrastructure, and most people had unreliable access to food, water and electricity. Even basic commodities were prohibitively expensive. In some places, garbage hadn’t been collected in years. And, critically, the security of the population was never guaranteed, either for high-level officials or for everyday shopkeepers. Mobile phones seemed like the last item that would appear on the country’s dauntingly long to-do list. Yet as we came to learn, despite all of the pressing problems in their lives, Iraqis prioritized technology.
Not only did the Iraqis possess and value technology, they also saw its huge potential to improve their lives and the fate of their embattled country. The engineers and entrepreneurs we met expressed great frustration over their inability to help themselves. They already knew what they needed—reliable electricity, enough bandwidth for a fast connection, accessible digital tools and enough access to start-up capital to get their ideas off the ground.
It was Eric’s first trip to a
war zone, and Jared’s umpteenth, yet we both came away with a sense that something profound was shifting in the world. If even war-weary Iraqis not only saw the possibilities of technology but knew what they wanted to do with it, how many other millions of people were out there with the drive and basic knowledge but not the access? For Jared, the trip confirmed to him that governments were dangerously behind the curve when it came to anticipating changes (fearful of them, too), and that they did not see the possibilities these new tools presented for tackling what challenges lay ahead. And Eric confirmed his feeling that the technology industry had many more problems to solve, and customers to serve, than anyone realized.
In the months following our trip, it became clear to us that there is a canyon dividing people who understand technology and people charged with addressing the world’s toughest geopolitical issues, and no one has built a bridge. Yet the potential for collaboration between the tech industry, the public sector and civil society is enormous. As we thought about the spread of
connectivity around the world, we found ourselves captivated by the questions generated by this divide: Who will be more powerful in the future, the citizen or the state? Will technology make terrorism easier or harder to carry out? What is the relationship between
security, and how much will we have to give up to be part of the new digital age? How will war,
revolution change when everyone is connected, and how can we tip the balance in a beneficial way? When broken societies are rebuilt, what will they be able to do with technology?
We collaborated first as writers of a memo to Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton about lessons learned in Iraq, and thereafter as friends. We share a worldview about the potential of technology platforms, and their inherent power, and this informs all of the work we do, both within
Google and outside it. We believe that modern technology platforms, such as Google,
Apple, are even more powerful than most people realize, and our future world will be profoundly altered by their adoption and successfulness in societies everywhere. These platforms constitute a true paradigm shift, akin to the invention of
television, and what gives them their power is their ability to grow—specifically, the speed at which they scale. Almost nothing short of a biological virus can spread as quickly, efficiently or aggressively as these technology platforms, and this makes the people who build, control and use them powerful too. Never before have so many people been
connected through an instantly responsive network; the possibilities for collective action through communal online platforms (as consumers, creators, contributors, activists and in every other way) are truly game-changing. The
scale effects that we’re familiar with today, from a viral music video to an international e-commerce platform, merely hint at what is to come.
Because of digital platform-driven scale effects, things will happen much more quickly in the new digital age, with implications for every part of society, including politics, economics, the media, business and social norms. This acceleration to scale, when paired with the interconnectedness that Internet technology fosters, will usher in a new era of globalization—globalization of products and ideas. As members of the technology sector, it’s our duty to fully and honestly explore the impact our industry’s work has and will have on people’s lives and on society, because, increasingly, governments will have to make rules synergistically with individuals and companies who are moving at an accelerated pace and pushing the boundaries sometimes faster than laws can keep up with. The digital platforms, networks and products they launch now have an outsized effect, on an international scale. So in order to understand the future of politics, business, diplomacy and other important sectors, one must understand how technology is driving major changes in those areas.
By coincidence, just as we began to share ideas about the future, a string of highly visible world events occurred that exemplified the very concepts and problems we were debating. The
Chinese government launched sophisticated
cyber attacks on Google and dozens of other American companies;
WikiLeaks burst onto the scene, making hundreds of thousands of classified digital records universally accessible; major
Haiti and Japan devastated cities but generated innovative tech-driven responses; and the revolutions of the
Arab Spring shook the world with their speed, strength and contagious mobilization effects. Each turbulent development introduced new angles and possibilities about the future for us to consider.
We spent a great deal of time debating the meaning and consequences of events like these, predicting trends and theorizing possible tech-oriented solutions. This book is the product of those conversations.
In the forthcoming pages, we explore the future as we envision it, full of complex global issues involving
war, among other issues, with both the challenges and the solutions driven by the rise of global connectivity. Where possible, we describe what can be done to help channel the influx of new technological tools in ways that inform, improve and enrich our world. Technology-driven change is inevitable, but at every stage, we can exert a measure of control over how it plays out. Some of the predictions you’ll read in these pages will be things you’ve long suspected but couldn’t admit—such as the logical conclusions of commercial drone warfare—while others will be wholly new. We hope that our predictions and recommendations will engage you and get you thinking.
This is not a book about gadgets, smart-phone apps or artificial intelligence, though each of these subjects will be discussed. This is a book about technology, but even more, it’s a book about humans, and how humans interact with, implement, adapt to and exploit technologies in their environment, now and in the future, throughout the world. Most of all, this is a book about the importance of a guiding human hand in the new digital age. For all the possibilities that communication technologies represent, their use for good or ill depends solely on people. Forget all the talk about machines taking over. What happens in the future is up to us.
Our Future Selves
Soon everyone on Earth will be connected. With five billion more people set to join the virtual world, the boom in digital
connectivity will bring gains in
quality of life and myriad other avenues in the physical world—and this will be true for everyone, from the most elite users to those at the base of the economic pyramid. But being “connected” will mean very different things to different people, largely because the problems they have to solve differ so dramatically. What might seem like a small jump forward for some—like a
smart phone priced under $20—may be as profound for one group as commuting to work in a driverless car is for another. People will find that being connected virtually makes us feel more equal—with access to the same basic platforms, information and online resources—while significant differences persist in the physical world. Connectivity will not solve
income inequality, though it will alleviate some of its more intractable causes, like lack of available education and economic opportunity. So we must recognize and celebrate innovation in its own context. Everyone will benefit from connectivity, but not equally, and how those differences manifest themselves in the daily lives of people is our focus here.
Being able to do more in the virtual world will make the mechanics of our physical world more efficient. As digital
connectivity reaches the far corners of the globe, new users will employ it to improve a wide range of inefficient markets, systems and behaviors, in both the most and least advanced societies. The resulting gains in efficiency and productivity will be profound, particularly in developing countries where technological isolation and bad policies have stymied growth and progress for years, and people will do more with less.
The accessibility of affordable smart devices, including phones and tablets, will be transformative in these countries. Consider the impact of basic mobile phones for a group of
Congolese fisherwomen today. Whereas they used to bring their daily catch to the market and watch it slowly spoil as the day progressed, now they keep it on the line, in the river, and wait for calls from customers. Once an order is placed, a fish is brought out of the water and prepared for the buyer. There is no need for an expensive refrigerator, no need for someone to guard it at night, no danger of spoiled fish losing their value (or poisoning customers), and there is no unnecessary overfishing. The size of these women’s market can even expand as other fishermen in surrounding areas coordinate with them over their own phones. As a substitute for a formal market economy (which would take years to develop), that’s not a bad work-around for these women or the community at large.
Mobile phones are transforming how people in the developing world access and use information, and adoption rates are soaring. There are already more than 650 million mobile-phone users in Africa, and close to 3 billion across Asia. The majority of these people are using basic-feature phones—voice calls and text messages only—because the cost of data service in their countries is often prohibitively expensive, so that even those who can buy web-enabled phones or smart phones cannot use them affordably. This will change, and when it does, the smart-phone revolution will profoundly benefit these populations.
Hundreds of millions of people today are living the lives of their grandparents, in countries where
life expectancy is less than sixty years, or even fifty in some places, and there is no guarantee that their political and macroeconomic circumstances will improve dramatically anytime soon. What is new in their lives and their futures is connectivity. Critically, they have the chance to bypass earlier technologies, like dial-up modems, and go directly to high-speed wireless connections, which means the transformations that connectivity brings will occur even more quickly than they did in the developed world. The introduction of mobile phones is far more transformative than most people in modern countries realize. As people come online, they will quite suddenly have access to almost all the world’s information in one place in their own language. This will even be true for an illiterate
Maasai cattle herder in the Serengeti, whose native tongue, Maa, is not written—he’ll be able to verbally inquire about the day’s market prices and crowd-source the whereabouts of any nearby predators, receiving a spoken answer from his device in reply. Mobile phones will allow formerly isolated people to connect with others very far away and very different from themselves. On the economic front, they’ll find ways to use the new tools at their disposal to enlarge their businesses, make them more efficient and maximize their profits, as the fisherwomen did much more locally with their basic phones.
What connectivity also brings, beyond mobile phones, is the ability to collect and use
data. Data itself is a tool, and in places where unreliable statistics about health, education,
economics and the population’s needs have stalled growth and
development, the chance to gather data effectively is a game-changer. Everyone in society benefits from digital data, as governments can better measure the success of their programs, and media and other nongovernmental organizations can use data to support their work and check facts. For example,
Amazon is able to take its data on merchants and, using algorithms, develop customized
bank loans to offer them—in some cases when traditional banks have completely shut their doors. Larger markets and better metrics can help create healthier and more productive economies.
And the developing world will not be left out of the advances in gadgetry and other high-tech machinery. Even if the prices for sophisticated
smart phones and
robots to perform household tasks like
vacuuming remain high, illicit markets like China’s expansive
“shanzhai” network for knock-off consumer electronics will produce and distribute imitations that bridge the gap. And technologies that emerged in first-world contexts will find renewed purpose in developing countries. In “
additive manufacturing,” or
3-D printing, machines can actually “print” physical objects by taking three-dimensional
data about an object and tracing the contours of its shape, ultra-thin layer by ultra-thin layer, with liquid plastic or other material, until the whole object materializes. Such printers have produced a huge range of objects, including customized
mobile phones, machine parts and a full-sized replica motorcycle. These machines will definitely have an impact on the developing world. Communal 3-D printers in poor countries would allow people to make whatever tool or item they require from open-source templates—digital information that is freely available in its edited source—rather than waiting on laborious or iffy delivery routes for higher-priced premade goods.
In wealthier countries 3-D printing will be the perfect partner for advanced manufacturing. New materials and products will all be built uniquely to a specification from the Internet and on demand by a machine run by a sophisticated, trained operator. This will not replace the acres of high-volume, lowest-cost manufacturing present in many industries, but it will bring an unprecedented variety to the products used in the developed world.
As for life’s small daily tasks, information systems will streamline many of them for people living in those countries, such as
integrated clothing machines (washing, drying, folding, pressing and sorting) that keep an inventory of clean clothes and algorithmically suggest outfits based on the user’s daily schedule.
Haircuts will finally be automated and machine-precise. And cell phones,
laptops will have wireless recharging capabilities, rendering the need to fiddle with charging cables an obsolete nuisance. Centralizing the many moving parts of one’s life into an easy-to-use, almost intuitive system of information management and decision making will give our interactions with technology an effortless feel. As long as safeguards are in place to protect privacy and prevent data loss, these systems will free us of many small burdens—including errands,
to-do lists and assorted “monitoring” tasks—that today add stress and chip away at our mental focus throughout the day. Our own neurological limits, which lead us to
oversights, will be supplemented by information systems designed to support our needs. Two such examples are
calendar reminders and to-do lists—and
social prosthetics, which instantly connect you with your friend who has relevant expertise in whatever task you are facing.
By relying on these integrated systems, which will encompass both the professional and the personal sides of our lives, we’ll be able to use our time more effectively each day—whether that means having the time to have a “
deep think,” spending more time preparing for an important presentation or guaranteeing that a parent can attend his or her child’s soccer game without distraction.
Suggestion engines that offer alternative terms to help a user find what she is looking for will be a particularly useful aid in efficiency by consistently stimulating our thinking processes, ultimately enhancing our creativity, not preempting it. Of course, the world will be filled with gadgets, holograms that allow a virtual version of you to be somewhere else, and endless amounts of content, so there will be plenty of ways to procrastinate, too—but the point is that when you choose to be
productive, you can do so with greater capacity.
Other advances in the pipeline in areas like robotics,
artificial intelligence and voice recognition will introduce efficiency into our lives by providing more seamless forms of engagement with the technology in our daily routines. Fully automated human-like
robots with superb AI abilities will probably be out of most people’s price range for some time, but the average American consumer will find it affordable to own a handful of different multipurpose robots fairly soon. The technology in
vacuum cleaner, the progenitor of this field of consumer “home” robots (first introduced in 2002), will only become more sophisticated and multipurpose in time. Future varieties of home robots should be able to handle other household duties, electrical work and even plumbing issues with relative ease.
We also can’t discount the impact that superior
voice-recognition software will have on our daily lives. Beyond searching for information online and issuing commands to your robots (both of which are possible today), better voice recognition will mean instant transcription of anything you produce: e-mails, notes, speeches, term papers. Most people speak much faster than they type, so this technology will surely save many of us time in our daily affairs—not to mention helping us avoid cases of carpal tunnel syndrome. A shift toward voice-initiated writing may well change our world of written material. Will we learn to speak in paragraphs, or will our writing begin to mirror speech patterns?
Everyday use of
gesture-recognition technology is also closer than we think.
Kinect, a hands-free sensor device for the
Xbox 360 video-game console that captures and integrates a player’s motion, set a world record in 2011 as the fastest selling consumer-electronics device in history, with more than eight million devices sold in the first sixty days on the market. Gestural interfaces will soon move beyond gaming and entertainment into more functional areas; the futuristic information screens displayed so prominently in the film
Tom Cruise used gesture technology and holographic images to solve crimes on a computer—are just the beginning. In fact, we’ve already moved beyond that—the really interesting work today is building “
social robots” that can recognize human gestures and respond to them in kind, such as a toy dog that sits when a child makes a command gesture.
And, looking further down the line, we might not need to move physically to manipulate those robots. There have been a series of exciting breakthroughs in thought-controlled motion technology—directing motion by thinking alone—in the past few years. In 2012, a team at a robotics laboratory in Japan demonstrated successfully that a person lying in an fMRI machine (which takes continuous scans of the brain to measure changes in blood flow) could control a robot hundreds of miles away just by imagining moving different parts of his body. The subject could see from the robot’s perspective, thanks to a camera on its head, and when he thought about moving his arm or his legs, the robot would move correspondingly almost instantaneously. The possibilities of thought-controlled motion, not only for “surrogates” like separate robots but also for prosthetic limbs, are particularly exciting in what they portend for mobility-challenged or “locked in” individuals—spinal-cord-injury patients, amputees and others who cannot communicate or move in their current physical state.
Innovation, More Opportunity
That the steady march of globalization will continue apace, even accelerate, as
connectivity spreads will come as no surprise. But what might surprise you is how small some of the advances in technology, when paired with increased connection and interdependence across countries, will make your world feel. Instant
virtual-reality interactions and
real-time collective editing—most easily understood today as
wikis—will reshape how firms and organizations interact with partners, clients and employees in other places. While certain differences will perhaps never be fully overcome—like
cultural nuance and
time zones—the ability to engage with people in disparate locations, with near-total comprehension and on shared platforms, will make such interactions feel incredibly familiar.
Supply chains for corporations and other organizations will become increasingly disaggregated, not just on the production side but also with respect to people. More effective communication across borders and languages will build trust and create opportunities for hardworking and talented individuals around the world. It will not be unusual for a French technology company to operate its sales team from Southeast Asia, while locating its human-resources people in Canada and its engineers in Israel. Bureaucratic obstacles that prevent this level of decentralized operation today, like visa restrictions and regulations around money transfers, will become either irrelevant or be circumvented as digital solutions are discovered. Perhaps a
human-rights organization with staff living in a country under heavy diplomatic sanctions will pay its employees in
mobile money credits, or in an entirely
As fewer jobs require a physical presence, talented individuals will have more options available to them. Skilled young adults in Uruguay will find themselves competing for certain types of jobs against their counterparts in Orange County. Of course, just as not all jobs can or will be automated in the future, not every job can be conducted from a distance—but more can than you might think. And for those living on a few dollars per day, there will be endless opportunities to increase their earnings. In fact,
Mechanical Turk, which is a digital task-distribution platform, offers a present-day example of a company
outsourcing small tasks that can be performed for a few cents by anyone with an Internet connection. As the quality of virtual interactions continues to improve, a range of vocations can expand the platform’s client base; you might retain a lawyer from one continent and use a Realtor from another.
Globalization’s critics will decry this erosion of local monopolies, but it should be embraced, because this is how our societies will move forward and continue to innovate. Indeed, rising connectivity should help countries discover their competitive advantage—it could be that the world’s best graphic designers come from Botswana, and the world just doesn’t know it yet.
This leveling of the playing field for talent extends to the world of ideas, and innovation will increasingly come from the margins, outside traditional bastions of growth, as people begin to make new connections and apply unique perspectives to difficult problems, driving change. New levels of
collaboration and cross-pollination across different sectors internationally will ensure that many of the best ideas and solutions will have a chance to rise to the top and be seen, considered, explored, funded, adopted and celebrated. Perhaps an aspiring Russian programmer currently working as a teacher in Novosibirsk will discover a new application of the technology behind the popular mobile game Angry Birds, realizing how its game framework could be used to improve the educational tools he is building to teach physics to local students. He finds similar gaming software that is open source and then he builds on it. As the
open-source movement around the world continues to gain speed (for governments and companies it is low cost, and for contributors the benefits are in recognition and economic opportunities to improve and enlarge the support ecosystems), the Russian teacher-programmer will have an enormous cache of technical plans to learn from and use in his own work. In a fully connected world, he is increasingly likely to catch the eyes of the right people, to be offered jobs or fellowships, or to sell his creation to a major multinational company. At a minimum, he can get his foot in the door.
Innovation can come from the ground up, but not all local innovation will work on a larger scale, because some entrepreneurs and inventors will be building for different audiences, solving very specific problems. This is true today as well. Consider the twenty-four-year-old Kenyan inventor
Anthony Mutua, who unveiled at a 2012 Nairobi science fair an ultrathin
crystal chip he developed that can generate
electricity when put under pressure. He placed the chip in the sole of a tennis shoe and demonstrated how, just by walking, a person can charge his mobile phone. (It’s a reminder of how bad the problems of reliable and affordable electricity, and to a lesser extent short
battery life, are for many people—and how some governments are not rushing to fix the electricity grids—that innovators like Mutua are designing microchips that turn people into portable charging stations.) Mutua’s chip is now set to go into mass production, and if that successfully brings down the cost, he will have invented one of the cleverest designs that no one outside the developing world will ever use, simply because they’ll never need to. Unfortunately, the level of a population’s access to technology is often determined by external factors, and even if power and electricity problems are eventually solved (by the government or by citizens), there is no telling what new roadblocks will prevent certain groups from reaching the same level of connectivity and opportunity as others.
The most important pillar behind innovation and opportunity—
education—will see tremendous positive change in the coming decades as rising connectivity reshapes traditional routines and offers new paths for learning. Most students will be highly technologically literate, as schools continue to integrate technology into lesson plans and, in some cases, replace traditional lessons with more interactive workshops. Education will be a more flexible experience, adapting itself to children’s learning styles and pace instead of the other way around. Kids will still go to physical schools, to socialize and be guided by teachers, but as much, if not more, learning will take place employing carefully designed educational tools in the spirit of today’s
Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that produces thousands of short videos (the majority in science and math) and shares them online for free. With hundreds of millions of views on the Khan Academy’s YouTube channel already, educators in the United States are increasingly adopting its materials and integrating the approach of its founder, Salman Khan—modular learning tailored to a student’s needs. Some are even “flipping” their classrooms, replacing lectures with videos watched at home (as homework) and using school time for traditional homework, such as filling out a problem set for math class. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills will become the focus in many school systems as ubiquitous digital-knowledge tools, like the more accurate sections of
Wikipedia, reduce the importance of rote memorization.
For children in poor countries, future connectivity promises new access to educational tools, though clearly not at the level described above. Physical classrooms will remain dilapidated; teachers will continue to take paychecks and not show up for class; and books and supplies will still be scarce. But what’s new in this equation—connectivity—promises that kids with access to mobile devices and the Internet will be able to experience school physically and virtually, even if the latter is informal and on their own time.
In places where basic needs are poorly met by the government, or in insecure areas, basic digital technologies like mobile phones will offer safe and inexpensive options for families looking to educate their children. A child who cannot attend school due to distance, lack of security or school fees will have a lifeline to the world of learning if she has access to a mobile phone. Even for those children without access to data plans or the mobile web, basic mobile services, like text messages and IVR (interactive voice response, a form of voice-recognition technology), can provide educational outlets. Loading
tablets and mobile phones with high-quality education applications and entertainment content before they are sold will ensure that the “bandwidth poor,” who lack reliable connectivity, will still benefit from access to these devices. And for children whose classrooms are overcrowded or understaffed, or whose national curriculum is dubiously narrow, connectivity through mobile devices will supplement their
education and help them reach their full potential, regardless of their origins. Today numerous pilot projects exist in developing countries that leverage mobile technology to teach a wide range of topics and skills, including basic literacy for children and adults, second languages and advanced courses from universities. In 2012, the
MIT Media Lab tested this approach in Ethiopia by distributing preloaded tablets to primary-age kids without instructions or accompanying teachers. The results were extraordinary: within months the kids were reciting the entire alphabet and writing complete sentences in English. Without the connectivity that will be ubiquitous in the future, there are limits to what any of these efforts can accomplish today.
Just imagine the implications of these burgeoning mobile or tablet-based learning platforms for a country like
Afghanistan, which has one of the lowest rates of literacy in the world. Digital platforms, whether presented in simple mobile form or in more sophisticated ways online, will eventually be able to withstand any environmental turbulence (political instability, economic collapse, perhaps even bad weather) and continue to serve the needs of users. So while the educational experience in the physical world will remain volatile for many, the virtual
experience will increasingly become the more important and predictable option. And students stuck in school systems that teach narrow curriculums or only rote memorization will have access to a virtual world that encourages independent exploration and critical thinking.
Quality of Life
In tandem with the wide variety of functional improvements in your daily life, future connectivity promises a dazzling array of “quality of life” improvements: things that make you healthier, safer and more engaged. As with other gains, there remains a sliding scale of access here, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful.
The devices, screens and various machines in your future apartment will serve a purpose beyond utility—they will offer
entertainment, wanted distraction, intellectual and cultural enrichment, relaxation and opportunities to share things with others. The key advance ahead is personalization. You’ll be able to customize your devices—indeed, much of the technology around you—to fit your needs, so that your environment reflects your preferences. People will have a better way to curate their life stories and will no longer have to rely on physical or online photo albums, although both will still exist. Future videography and photography will allow you to project any still or moving image you’ve captured as a three-dimensional holograph. Even more remarkable, you will be able to integrate any
geographic settings that you choose to save into a single holographic device that you will place on the floor of your living room, instantaneously transforming the space into a memory room. A couple will be able to re-create their wedding ceremony for grandparents who were too ill to attend.
What you can watch on your various displays
(high-quality LCD—liquid crystal display—screens,
holographic projections or a
handheld mobile device) will be determined by you, not by network-television schedules. At your fingertips will be an entire world’s worth of digital content, constantly updated, ranked and categorized to help you find the music, movies, shows, books, magazines, blogs and art you like. Individual agency over entertainment and
information channels will be greater than ever, as content producers shift from balkanized protectiveness to more unified and open models, since a different business model will be necessary in order to keep the audience. Contemporary services like
Spotify, which offers a large catalog of live-streaming music for free, give us a sense of what the future will look like: an endless amount of content, available anytime, on almost any device, and at little or no cost to users, with copyrights and revenue streams preserved. Long-standing barriers to entry for content creators are being flattened as well; just as
YouTube can be said to launch careers today
(or at least offer fleeting fame), in the future, even more platforms will offer artists, writers, directors, musicians and others in every country the chance to reach a wider audience. It will still require skill to create quality content, but it will also be easier to assemble a team with the requisite skills to do this—say, an animator from South Korea, a voice actor from the Philippines, a storyboarder from Mexico and a musician from Kenya—and the finished product may have the potential to reach as wide an audience as any Hollywood blockbuster.
Entertainment will become a more immersive and personalized experience in the future. Integrated tie-ins will make today’s product placements seem passive and even clumsy. If while watching a television show you spot a sweater you want or a dish you think you’d like to cook, information including recipes or purchasing details will be readily available, as will every other fact about the show, its story lines, actors and locations. If you’re feeling bored and want to take an hour-long holiday, why not turn on your holograph box and visit Carnival in Rio? Stressed? Go spend some time on a beach in the Maldives. Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Frustrated by the media’s coverage of the Olympics in a different time zone? Purchase a
holographic pass for a reasonable price and watch the women’s gymnastics team compete right in front of you, live. Through virtual-reality interfaces and holographic-projection capabilities, you’ll be able to “join” these activities as they happen and experience them as if you were truly there. Nothing beats the real thing, but this will be a very close second. And if nothing else, it will certainly be more affordable. Thanks to these new technologies, you can be more stimulated, or more relaxed, than ever before.
You’ll be safer, too, at least on the road. While some of the very exciting new possibilities in transportation, like
supersonic tube commutes and
suborbital space travel, are still far in the distance, ubiquitous
self-driving cars are imminent. Google’s fleet of
driverless cars, built by a team of Google and
Stanford University engineers, has logged hundreds of thousands of miles without incident, and other models will soon join it on the road. Rather than replacing drivers altogether, the liminal step will be a
“driver-assist” approach, where the self-driving option can be turned on, just as an airline captain turns on the autopilot. Government authorities are already well versed on self-driving cars and their potential—
Nevada became the first state to issue licenses to driverless cars, and later that same year
California also affirmed their legality. Imagine the possibilities for long-haul truck-driving. Rather than testing the biological limits of human drivers with thirty-hour trips, the computer can take over primary responsibility and drive the truck for stretches as the driver rests.
The advances in
medicine in our near future will be among the most significant of all the new game-changing developments. And thanks to rising connectivity, an even wider range of people will benefit than at any other time in history. Improvements in
disease detection and treatment, the management of medical records and personal-health monitoring promise more equitable access to health care and health information for potentially billions more people when we factor in the spread of digital technology.
The diagnostic capability of your mobile phone will be old news. (Ofcourse you will be able to scan body parts the way you do bar codes.) But soon you will be benefiting from a slew of physical augmentations designed to monitor your well-being, such as microscopic robots in your
circulatory system that keep track of your blood pressure, detect nascent heart disease and identify early-stage cancer. Inside your grandfather’s new titanium hip there will be a chip that can act as a pedometer, monitor his insulin levels to check for the early stages of diabetes, and even trigger an automated phone call to an emergency contact if he takes a particularly hard fall and might need assistance. A tiny nasal implant will be available to you that will alert you to airborne toxins and early signs of a cold.
Eventually these accoutrements will be as uncontroversial as
artificial pacemakers (the first of which was implanted in the 1950s). They are the logical extensions of today’s personal-health-tracking applications, which allow people to use their smart phones to log their exercise, track their metabolic rates and chart their cholesterol levels. Indeed, ingestible
health technology already exists—the
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first electronic pill in 2012. Made by a California-based biomedical firm called
Proteus Digital Health, the pill carries a tiny sensor one square millimeter in size, and once the pill is swallowed, stomach acid activates the circuit and sends a signal to a small patch worn outside the body (which then sends its data to a mobile phone). The patch can collect information about a patient’s response to a drug (monitoring body temperature, heart rate and other indicators), relay data about regular usage to doctors and even track what a person eats. For sufferers of chronic illnesses and the elderly particularly, this technology will allow for significant improvements: automatic reminders to take various medications, the ability to measure directly how drugs are reacting in a person’s body and the creation of an instant digital feedback loop with doctors that is personalized and data-driven. Not everyone will want to actively oversee their health to this degree, let alone the even more detailed version of the future, but they probably will want their doctor to have access to such data. “
Intelligent pills” and
nasal implants will be sufficiently affordable so as to be as accessible as
supplements. In short order, we will have access to personal health-care systems run off of our mobile devices that will automatically detect if something is wrong with us based on data collected from some of the above-mentioned augmentations, prompt us with appointment options for a nearby doctor and subsequently (with consent) send all of the relevant data about our symptoms and health indicators to the doctor being consulted.
Tissue engineers will be able to grow new organs to replace patients’ old or diseased ones, using either synthetic materials or a person’s own cells. At the outset, affordability will limit the use.
Synthetic skin grafts, which exist today, will give way to grafts made from burn victims’ own cells. Inside hospitals, robots will take on more responsibilities, as surgeons increasingly let sophisticated machines handle difficult parts of certain procedures, where delicate or tedious work is involved or a wider range of motion is required.
Advances in genetic testing will usher in the era of personalized medicine. Through targeted tests and
genome sequencing (decoding a person’s full
DNA), doctors and disease specialists will have more information about patients, and what might help them, than ever before. Despite steady scientific progress, severe
negative reactions to prescribed drugs remain a leading cause of hospitalization and death. Pharmaceutical companies traditionally pursue a “one-size-fits-all” approach to drug development, but this is due to change as the burgeoning field of pharmacogenetics continues to develop. Better genetic testing will reduce the likelihood of negative reactions, improve patients’ chances and provide doctors and medical researchers with more data to analyze and use. Eventually, and initially only for the wealthy, it will be possible to design pharmaceutical drugs tailored to an individual’s genetic structure. But this too will change as the cost of DNA sequencing drops below $100 and almost everything biological is sequenced, making it possible for a much broader segment of the world’s population to benefit from highly specific, personalized diagnoses.
For those living in developing countries, basic connectivity and access to the virtual world will offer a resource they can leverage to improve their own quality of life, and nowhere more so than in the area of health. Even though their environment in the physical world is colored by inadequate care, lack of available vaccines and medicines, broken health systems and other exogenous factors that create health crises (like
conflict-related internal migration), many important gains in health care will be driven by innovative uses of mobile phones, largely by individuals and other nongovernmental actors who seize the opportunity to drive change in an otherwise stagnant system. We already see this happening. Across the developing world today, the
“mobile health” revolution—mobile phones used as tools to connect patients to doctors, to monitor drug distribution and to increase the reach of health clinics—is responsible for a number of improvements as a range of technology start-ups, nonprofits and entrepreneurs tackle difficult problems with technology-first solutions. Mobile phones are now used to track drug shipments and verify their authenticity, to share basic health information that isn’t available locally, to send reminders about medication and appointments to patients, and to gather data about health indicators that government officials, NGOs and other actors can use to design their programs. The central problems in health sectors in poor places, like understaffed clinics, underserved patients in remote places, too few medications or inefficient distribution of them, and misinformation about vaccines and disease prevention, will all find at least partial solutions through connectivity.
At the very least, the adoption of mobile phones gives people a new level of agency over their personal health, even though the devices themselves, of course, can’t cure illness. People can use their phones to access information about preventative health care or recovery. They can use basic diagnostic tools embedded in their phones—maybe not X-rays, but cameras and audio recordings. A woman can take a picture of a lesion, or a recording of a cough, and send that information to a doctor or health professional, whom she can then interact with remotely, efficiently, affordably and privately. Digital solutions like these are not a perfect substitute for a properly functioning health sector, but in the meantime, they can offer new information and interactions that at a minimum will chip away at a larger and more entrenched multigenerational problem.
Connectivity benefits everyone. Those who have none will have some, and those who have a lot will have even more. To demonstrate that, imagine you are a young urban professional living in an American city a few decades from now. An average morning might look something like this:
There will be no alarm clock in your wake-up routine—at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, you’ll be roused by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, by light entering your room as curtains open automatically, and by a gentle back massage administered by your high-tech bed. You’re more likely to awake refreshed, because inside your mattress there’s a special sensor that monitors your
sleeping rhythms, determining precisely when to wake you so as not to interrupt a
Your apartment is an electronic orchestra, and you are the conductor. With simple flicks of the wrist and spoken instructions, you can control temperature, humidity, ambient music and lighting. You are able to skim through the day’s news on translucent screens while a freshly cleaned suit is retrieved from your automated closet because your calendar indicates an important meeting today. You head to the kitchen for breakfast and the translucent news display follows, as a projected hologram hovering just in front of you, using motion detection, as you walk down the hallway. You grab a mug of coffee and a fresh pastry, cooked to perfection in your humidity-controlled oven—and skim new e-mails on a
holographic “tablet” projected in front of you. Your central computer system suggests a list of chores your housekeeping robots should tackle today, all of which you approve. It further suggests that, since your coffee supply is projected to run out next Wednesday, you consider purchasing a certain larger-size container that it noticed currently on sale online. Alternatively, it offers a few recent reviews of other coffee blends your friends enjoy.
As you mull this over, you pull up your notes for a presentation you’ll give later that day to important new clients abroad. All of your data—from your personal and professional life—is accessible through all of your various devices, as it’s stored in the cloud, a remote digital-storage system with near limitless capacity. You own a few different and interchangeable digital devices; one is the size of a tablet, another the size of a pocket watch, while others might be flexible or wearable. All will be lightweight, incredibly fast and will use more powerful processors than anything available today.
You take another sip of coffee, feeling confident that you’ll impress your clients. You already feel as if you know them, though you’ve never met in person, since your meetings have been conducted in a virtual-reality interface. You interact with holographic “avatars” that exactly capture your clients’ movements and speech. You understand them and their needs well, not least because autonomous language-translation software reproduces the speech of both parties in perfect translations almost instantly. Real-time virtual interactions like these, as well as the ability to edit and collaborate on documents and other projects, makes the actual distance between you seem negligible.
As you move about your kitchen, you stub your toe, hard, on the edge of a cabinet—ouch! You grab your mobile device and open the diagnostics app. Inside your device there is a tiny microchip that uses low-radiation submillimeter waves to
scan your body, like an X-ray. A quick scan reveals that your toe is just bruised, not broken. You decline the invitation your device suggests to get a second opinion at a nearby doctor’s office.
There’s a bit of time left before you need to leave for work—which you’ll get to by
driverless car, of course. Your car knows what time you need to be in the office each morning based on your calendar and, after factoring in traffic data, it communicates with your wristwatch to give you a sixty-minute countdown to when you need to leave the house. Your commute will be as productive or relaxing as you desire.
Before you head out, your device reminds you to buy a gift for your nephew’s upcoming birthday. You scan the system’s proposed gift ideas, derived from anonymous, aggregated data on other nine-year-old boys with his profile and interests, but none of the suggestions inspire you. Then you remember a story his parents told you that had everyone forty and older laughing: Your nephew hadn’t understood a reference to the old excuse “A dog ate my homework”; how could a dog eat his cloud storage drive? He had never gone to school before
digital textbooks and online lesson plans, and he had used paper to do his homework so rarely—and used cloud storage so routinely—that the notion that he would somehow “forget” his homework and come up with an excuse like that struck him as absurd. You do a quick search for a robotic dog and buy one with a single click, after adding a few special touches he might like, such as a reinforced titanium skeleton so that he can ride on it. In the card input, you type: “Just in case.” It will arrive at his house within a five-minute window of your selected delivery time.
You think about having another cup of coffee, but then a
haptic device (“haptic” refers to technology that involves touch and feeling) that is embedded in the heel of your shoe gives you a gentle pinch—a signal that you’ll be late for your morning meeting if you linger any longer. Perhaps you grab an apple on the way out, to eat in the backseat of your car as it chauffeurs you to your office.
If you are a part of the world’s upper band of income earners (as most residents of wealthy Western countries are), you will have access to many of these new technologies directly, as owners or as friends of those who own them. You probably recognize from this morning routine a few things you have already imagined or experienced. Of course, there will always be the super-wealthy people whose access to technology will be even greater—they’ll probably eschew cars altogether and travel to work in motion-stabilized automated helicopters, for example.
We will continue to encounter challenges in the physical world, but the expansion of the virtual world and what is possible online—as well as the inclusion of five billion more minds—means we will have new ways of getting information and moving resources to solve those problems, even if the solutions are imperfect. While there will remain significant differences between us, more opportunities to interact and better policy can help blur the edges.
The advance of
connectivity will have an impact far beyond the personal level; the ways that the physical and virtual worlds coexist, collide and complement each other will greatly affect how citizens and states behave in the coming decades. And not all the news is good. The coming chapters delve into how everyone—individuals, companies,
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments and others—will handle this new reality of existing in both worlds, and how they will leverage the best and worst of what each world has to offer in the new digital age. Each individual, state and organization will have to discover its own formula, and those that can best navigate this multidimensional world will find themselves ahead in the future.
The Korean K-pop star
Psy’s fame reached global proportions almost overnight as the video he created for his song “Gangnam Style” became the most-watched YouTube video ever within a span of three months.
Robotic surgical suites are already in operation in hospitals in the United States and Europe.