Welcome to the future

Thinking about the future has always been a huge challenge – and a huge adventure. Some innovations predicted three decades ago have actually become a reality in 2015, while others have disappeared into the black hole of time. Now the gripping question is: what will our world look like in 2045? Innovation expert Per Poulsen ponders whether it is even possible to predict the future that far ahead.

The audience marvelled when they looked up at the big screen in New York’s AMC Theatre.  Strange technology from the distant  future: holographic 3D pro -jections, TV goggles, instant food, auto-nomous flying drones and even something as futuristic and exotic as a precise weather forecast service.

On this cold November night, history was written. The future was closer than ever be-fore. And some have been trying to make the predictions come true ever since. The film, of course, was Back to the Future Part II. You can argue about what they got right as they wrote the script in the mid-eighties and what turned out to be completely wrong. The drones are here, and they are used for news photography as predicted.

The TV goggles might have turned into virtual reality headsets and Google Glass, but close enough. And the flying cars are still as distant as an accurate weather service.

And then there are the big blunders. They completely missed the rise of the internet, the mobile revolution and social media, things that most of us have trouble imagining our day without, although it has only existed for a little more than 10 years.

But how would we write the script today?

What if the story was about a teenager from 2015 travelling to the distant future, to the year 2045? Is it even possible to predict a future so far away?

Sometimes the easiest way to see into the future is to look at the past. One thing that has been changing continuously is the speed of change itself. The agricultural revolution made the world feel less slow. The industrial revolution made it spin faster and the digital revolution is making us all dizzy on a daily basis. We have problems grasping the speed of change because almost all of the systems surrounding us are exponential – and humans have a fa-mously bad history in forecasting exponential changes.

Even though our lives might seem to speed up or slow down as certain things happen, we are used to a linear world. One day at a time, week after week, month after month, year after year. The scale of time is a static progression. Biological systems, however, unfold on exponential scales. One cell turns into two, two cells into four, four into eight. The systems we as humans create seem linear, but are actually exponential. Take the development of tech-nology as an example.

In 1985, the Massachusetts-based start-up Thinking Ma-chines revealed their first supercomputer, the CM-1. It was an incredible piece of work: a five-foot cube of 8 smaller cubes, in a colour that Thinking Machines employees called ‘Darth Vad-er Black’, in whose innards red lights flickered mysteriously. The supercomputer’s internal design was based on a “massively par-allel hyper-cubic arrangement of thousands of microprocessors” delivering a screaming one billion instructions per second. It cost $5 million per computer.

Let’s jump forward three decades.

In 2014 the iPhone 6 came onto the market. It followed up on the success of the iPhone 5s with an improved processor, better display, new camera and a rad-ical new design. It cost $649 and is capable of about 25 billion instructions per second.

In 30 years we have created a super-supercomputer in a pocket size format. The increase in terms of development is almost impossible to grasp for a human mind. Doubling the speed at half the price within every 18 months, since the start of computing, we will keep accelerating.

Another thing that has happened over the last 30 years is the fabric of our communities. We used to be bound by geography. Travel was expensive and time-consuming. Then came the cars, the planes, the internet. We now live in a world that is not limited by technology but rather, if at all, by policies, economics and regulation. Anyone could have access to everything – all the time. Only the boundaries of technology bind us. ‘Live’ is a must in any new idea. We build networks based on opinions and interests – connec-tions are like gold.

The mobile revolution has put us in touch with everything and delivered an economic hammer to back up the argument. Face-book is little more than 10 years old. It has more than 1.44 billion monthly users and a market capitalisation of $250 billion. Yes. Billion. Will Facebook still be around in 10 years? Probably. Will it still have the same form? Unlikely. Details and directions are always difficult to forecast.

The internet was pretty sure to change something, but no one expected it to change everything. And your guess is as good as mine as to where the next internet will rise or where the next social media will develop.

Technology is easy to quantify.

It’s not the technology itself, however, but our use of it that changes the most. Supercomputers were only made for the most elite institutions, but you’ll find an iPhone in any pocket. Companies used to make the world go round, but now anyone can upload their homemade drone video to YouTube and change the world. The power to change things has shifted from companies and institutions to single individuals.

You can implement all the technology you want, but if you have a poor service or fail to deliver a value important to the end customer, a faster computer won’t help you. This, in fact, was the fatal flaw of the 1985 supercomputer CM-1. It was the fastest thing around, but it couldn’t run the standard software because of its design. In the end, Thinking Machines only managed to sell seven CM-1s. This is maybe why Back to the Future missed the internet, the mobile revolution and social media: these inventions are not hinged on technology, but on psychology and sociology. If we pay more attention to technology than people, we might miss the future completely.

A famous quote goes something like “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” So consider this my call to action.

As soon as wearables become “not thereables” and assisting systems become a part of us, the world will never be the same again. Just as it was never the same again after the first farmer started the agricultural revolution by creating his own field instead of harvesting wild wheat on the meadows.

The world in 2045 will be invisibly small, always connected and moving much faster that we can imagine, even if we try. But it will still follow our human nature. It will allow us to be more human. How exactly it will do that and why, is up to us to define.