The Future

Saturday October 03, 2015

Here's what the future will look like in 40 years.

Almost-free on-demand point-to-point public transit. Combine UberPool and self-driving cars and this is what you get. It could be actually free with ads, but people voted with their wallets, and they prefer peaceful and ridiculously cheap to noisy and free.

Magic is real. Wearables allow computers to perfectly recognize gestures and speech. Gestures that previously were arcane are now the way to invoke computer programs that perform actions in the real world. Simplistically, you can now order the check at a restaurant by waving your hand in the air (in restaurants without automatic payment). A more interesting example of this power - if you have authorization to the computer systems that control someone's bank account, you could (financially) curse them with a special gesture and muttering some arcane phrases.

A good segment (30%) of the world barely works. The cost of subsistence has been driven down significantly and peer-to-peer marketplaces have proliferated, so a good percentage of people have chosen to check out of the rat race. They do odd jobs for cash, but they primarily devote their time to their passions, working as artists, artisans, or community builders.

One current source of uncertainty is, who pays the infrastructural costs? A large share of that tax burden is borne by large companies, which are staffed by the large segments of the population that do choose to participate in the rat race. There is an existing tension because large companies don't want to support artists and artisans free-loading off the infrastructure that they pay for. However, the costs of infrastructure are falling, and as it gets cheaper, it means that there is less burden for these companies to bear.

More and more infrastructure follows a pay-per-use model. With the proliferation of micropayment systems, this has become easier and easier to do.

Next-generation communities have proliferated. Social isolation and mental illness were growing at alarming rates at the beginning of the 21st century following the breakdown of traditional community structures like family and church. To fill this void, some people have created or joined humanist-based communities, of which One Salon is one of the first examples. Others have doubled down on their work community, becoming life-long friends with colleagues and following each other in groups from one venture to the next.

Many people live throughout their life in campus environments similar to college campuses of the early 21st century. These campuses were seeded from the ruins of cities ravaged by crisis (Detroit), the transition of festivals to sustained existence (Burning Man), and around the headquarters of major companies. These mini Utopias on earth are small, high density villages with everything a person wants. A high density of friends, intelligent people, exciting activities, all in walkable or bikeable distances. Importantly, there is high mobility between these campuses (changing companies, new research projects), but little mobility from outside to inside.

Solar panels are everywhere. The costs of production for solar energy finally became cheaper around the year 2015, and over the past few decades, most energy production has transitioned to solar, wind, and biomass.

Hyper-personalized healthcare. We've teased out many of the complex inter-dependencies of the human biosystem, run experiments, and also proliferated sensors through many aspects of our life. Most people now self-diagnose and treat the vast majority of their ailments. This trend also extends to the beauty industry. People have personalized acne treatment plans based on their unique oil and biome profiles.

Life-style-assistance AI has proliferated. Tracking the last trend, people have AI-guided human personal trainers that give personalized, optimized diet and training recommendations. The lifecoaching industry has followed a similar trend, with each person having a motivation coach tailored to their goals and motivation profile. Dating, college applications, jobs, roommates, activities - all things that required a lot of searching at the start of the 21st century are now taken care of by recommendation engines that serve up the most relevant next experience to consume. People are still free to do their own research, but the vast majority of the time, these recommendations are spot-on.

Greater empathy by proliferation of virtual reality. Incredible virtual reality technology means that you can now experience a job interview before it happens. Even more significantly, you can live the life for a day of anyone you desire: Hillary Clinton, Elon Musk, Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian. You can even experience a neurosurgeon's day before applying to medical school, practice arguing a case before a judge before it happens, experience what it's like being at a bar as a member of the opposite sex, or experience the discrimination of going about the world as a minority.

China and the United States are the two world powers. China is the stronger of the two by a small by definite margin. Their vast natural resources and incredible population density gave them the resources to pull ahead. Their education system produced vast numbers of talented and highly-skilled workers that, combined with a relatively small entrepreneurial class, shot China to be the economic superpower of the world. The United States largely remains a superpower because of its strong ties with Europe, its cultural exports, and the supremacy of the English language. English remains the dominant language world-wide, but Mandarin is still extremely important to world politics. India, which was a contending superpower around the turn of the centry, struggled to build national infrastructure and has consistently lagged in its growth as a consequence.

Some Things Still Suck

Most of these developments are postiive, but a number of societal issues have gotten worse over the past few decades with no resolution in sight.

Mistakes follow us longer, and are more easily referenced. With the proliferation of sensors, more of our mistakes and social transgressions follow us through our lives. In some sense, this is good, as its easier to judge the character of a new person. However, it also means less opportunity for learning. (Thankfully, virtual reality provides a way to learn socialization before acting in the real world.)

Income inequality is still big. The major economic theme of the first half of the 21st century, there is no driving force to change this trend. A large chunk of the population falls into either the subsistence artisan class or the intelligence worker class, a large chunk of the population lives in misery with no driving force for change.

Economic mobility has continued to decrease. Mobility has gotten harder and harder over the past decades. The fungibility and obsolescence of most workers means that individual workers are less valuable, and even intelligence workers have extremely short live spans as they specialize in a core technology, profit for a while, and then fall into obsolescence as new technologies emerge with new experts to emerge.

Companies solidify their dominance. In 2015, there was a trend of decreasing lifespan of Forbes 500 companies. Over the past decades, this trend has reversed because of two factors. The accumulation of private wealth and private technology (e.g. self-driving car algorithms, Facebook or Google's data mines) means it is harder for an individual to disrupt an industry. Secondly, most companies have now realized that disruption is the way of the world, and thus most have become 'venture builders' that continuously run experiments and attempt to disrupt themselves, thus permanently remaining on top.

More pressure to conform. Models of most anything have gotten smarter over the past few decades, but they're still just that - models. They have assumptions, biases, and factors they ignore. Individuals, wanting to be scored highly, then conform to the model's biases. This pressure encourages groupthink and discourages individuality. That said, all these models mean we are better at predicting the future, even if we still miss the outliers.

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