That an octopus called Paul had a better success rate than Goldman Sachs when predicting World Cup results (credit to the Wall Street Journal for the headline “Octopus Beats Vampire Squid”) tells you something about the wisdom of guessing the future in public.
Guessing what the world will look like in 50 years’ time, however, is pretty safe, as I won’t be here to see myself proved wrong. Or will I?
If Google’s director of engineering has his way, we’ll all be around indefinitely – in the cloud at least. AI (artificial intelligence) guru Ray Kurzweil is one of a number of technologists, inventors and futurists who believe that the ability to upload our minds to the web, create virtual bodies, and thereby live forever, is within touching distance.
Kurzweil invented the first flat-bed scanning and optical character recognition systems, foresaw the internet explosion and correctly predicted that a computer would beat a chess Grandmaster by the turn of the century. The 66-year-old thinks we’ll achieve digital immortality as soon as 2045, and takes 150 supplements a day as part of his efforts to get himself across the line.
Whether or not his vision for humanity (“increasingly non-biological to the point where the non-biological part dominates and the biological part is not important any more”) appeals to everyone is another matter.
Our trend-watching consultancy The Futures Company groups various technology-led enhancements in human capacity (of which “mind uploading” is perhaps the most extreme example) under the label “cognitive enrichment”.
Developments in real-time translation (think Google Translate, without the gobbledegook) are expected to break down cultural barriers and foster greater collaboration. Microsoft has already launched a real-time translation app for Skype.
Artificial intelligence is no longer a sci-fi writer’s dream but part of our everyday lives: from aviation and manufacturing to medicine and computer games.
More than that, AI is on the verge of becoming self-operative and self-sustaining. Most of the major car makers say they’ll have at least semi-autonomous vehicles on the market by 2020, and researchers believe that robots will have been promoted from the production line to running their own businesses by 2050.
J Walker Smith, executive chairman of The Futures Company, predicts that – as we move from screens to sensors as the chief user interface – people will become less actively engaged with technology while simultaneously getting more of what they want. He calls this the “pivot to passive” and argues that it will be as big a change as the rise of the internet itself.
The driverless car is the most talked-about example of the phenomenon and the benefits it could bring. You give up control to the machine, it takes you where you want to go, and you get to do other things on the way. In Smith’s words, “consumers are spending the currency of control for a superior value proposition.”
Self-driving cars are just the beginning: their equivalent is “coming to every category” – from vending machines that recognise your face and remember what you like, to headphones that know what you want to listen to before you do. Our relationship with technology looks set to be transformed once again.
Cognitive enrichment is one of several universal “mega-trends” that forecasters believe will define the next 50 years.
Another of them, closely connected to the preoccupations of Ray Kurzweil and his colleagues, is ageing.
The world is getting older: we are living longer than ever before, and older people represent an increasing percentage of the global population.
The UN expects that the number of people aged 60 or over will more than double, from 841 million globally in 2013 to more than two billion in 2050. At the current rate, the over-60s will outnumber children for the first time in 2047.
This relentless demographic shift presents challenges for governments across the world, which will have to find new ways to secure the health and wealth of an ever-expanding grey army.
In the commercial arena it will mean big changes for brands and marketers, with lower growth in demand for products consumed by younger households alongside ever-greater demand for products consumed by older people.
As life expectancy rises and retirement dates stretch into the distance there will be particularly strong growth in products and services that keep older consumers active and productive.
Medical businesses will experience a boom: from laboratory-grown organs to robotics, medical tourism and drugs to boost mental capacity.
Many will be cheered by the promise of longer life, but if your dream is to retire to the country, you might be disappointed. A third mega-trend is urbanisation, and a resulting concentration of people and resources unlike anything we’ve seen before (as IBM’s Smarter Planet and Cities campaigns foresaw).
The UN says that by the middle of the century the world’s urban population will be as big as the world’s total population was in 2002.
As we become more urban, cities will begin to displace states and regions as the entities that matter most in the global economy (London is already doing this). McKinsey estimates that the world’s top 100 cities will account for 35% of global GDP growth between now and 2025.
In this environment, national governments will find it harder than ever to exercise authority over such dominant cities and the transnational businesses that operate from them.
The cities themselves will look very different, as massive population increases force the adoption of new models for transport, food production and retail.
“Proximity retailing” (local convenience stores) and e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Alibaba will disintermediate the traditional “big-box” retailers.
Home delivery will ultimately supplant in-store browsing as consumers’ favourite way to shop, as the remaining barriers to a seamless experience are lifted by innovations like 3D home printing, Amazon’s delivery drones and Google’s same-day Shopping Express service.
Talking about 3D printing, its wider application in manufacturing will reduce demand for labour, carrying implications for future employment levels.
Like shoppers, food will have smaller distances to travel as its production moves from the countryside to population centres. The New Scientist reports that “vertical farms” are “sprouting all over the world” as warehouses and high-rises are used to grow fruit and vegetables. The giant cities of the future will look to become increasingly food self-sufficient, driving rapid growth in urban agriculture.
So where does all that leave us in 50 years’ time? Frankly, who knows? I’ve not even touched on other mega-trends like the rise of non-Western economies and the effects of climate change, which will also reshape the world in ways we can only imagine today.
How to predict, for example, the long-term effects of the unstoppable ascent of the 21st century’s two great Eastern powers? 2028 may be the year to watch. According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, it’s when China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy and India leapfrogs Japan. It’s also the year that the People’s Republic will itself be overtaken, by India, as the world’s most populous country.
Not even Goldman Sachs or clairvoyant cephalopods can be certain of the future (Paul called it wrong in the final of Euro 2008).
But on our present trajectory some things do seem inevitable: we’ll be urban, older and so entwined with technology that it may be hard to see where we end, and it begins.
Published in collaboration with LinkedIn
Author: Sir Martin Sorrell is the CEO of WPP, the world leader in advertising and marketing.
Image: Performers dressed in futuristic costumes demonstrate Toyota Motor’s single passenger vehicle “i-unit” in Nagoya, central Japan. REUTERS/Toshiyuki Aizawa