The age of conscious-technology is coming as two mega technology trends converge: our built environments become so intelligent that they seem conscious, and humans become so integrated with technology that we become cyborgs. Like every other revolution in human history, from agriculture to industry to the internet, the arrival of conscious-technology will have both good and bad effects. Can we think deeply and wisely about the future we want while we still have time to shape the effects of conscious-technology?

Humans will become cyborgs as our biology becomes integrated with technology. We are already microminiaturizing technology and putting it in and on our bodies. In the coming decades, we will augment our physiological and cognitive capacities as we now install new hardware and software on computers. This will offer access to genius-level capabilities and will connect our brains directly to information and artificial intelligence networks.

Our built environment will incorporate more artificial intelligence. With the Internet of Things, we are integrating chips and sensors into objects, giving them the impression of consciousness – as when we use voice commands to control heating, lighting or music in our homes. As our increasingly intelligent environments connect with our cyborg future, we will experience a continuum of our consciousness and our technology. As humans and machines become linked more closely, the distinction between the two entities will blur.

Conscious-technology will force us to confront fundamental questions about life. All ages and cultures have had mystics who have been interested in consciousness and the meaning of life, as well as technocrats who have been interested in developing technology to improve the future. All cultures have a mix of the two, but the representatives of each viewpoint tend to be isolated from and prejudiced towards each other. To improve the quality of the Conscious-Technology Age, the attitudes of mystics and approaches of technocrats should merge.

For example, we can think of a city as a machine to provide electricity, water, shelter, transportation and income; or we can think of it as a set of human minds spiritually evolving and exciting our consciousness. Both are necessary. Without the technocratic management, the city’s physical infrastructure would not work; without the spiritual element, the city would be a boring place to live. Like the musician who reports feeling his consciousness merge with the music and his instrument to produce a great performance, one can imagine the future “performance” of a city, or of civilization as a whole, as a holistic synthesis experience of the continuum between technology and consciousness.

History teaches us that civilizations need a kind of “perceptual glue” to hold them together, whether in the form of religious myths or stories about national origins or destinies. The idea of a feedback loop between consciousness and technology moving towards a more enlightened civilization offers a perceptual glue to help harmonize the many cultures of the world into a new global civilization.

There are profound dangers along the path towards a conscious-technology civilization. At some point, it is likely that development will start to happen very quickly: when artificial intelligence is able to rewrite its own code, based on feedback from global sensor networks, it will be able to get more intelligent from moment to moment. It could evolve beyond our control in either a positive or a destructive fashion. By exploring scenarios about the possible future evolution of artificial intelligence, can we make wise decisions now about what kinds of new software and capabilities to create?

As cognition-enhancing technology develops, we will have a world full of augmented geniuses. With the new perceptual, technological and artificial biological powers at his/her disposal, a single individual could be able to make and deploy weapons of mass destruction – a prospect known as SIMAD, or “Single Individual MAssively Destructive”. We already have structures, albeit imperfect, to monitor and prevent the mass destructive capacity of nation states and groups – what structures could prevent the threat of SIMADs?

Connecting human brains directly to information and artificial intelligence networks raises the question of whether minds could be hacked and manipulated. How can we minimize the potential for information or perceptual warfare and its potential consequence of widespread paranoia?

Accelerated automation will render much of today’s work unnecessary. Driverless vehicles could remove the need for taxi, bus and truck drivers. Personal care robots could take over many functions of nurses and care workers. Artificial intelligence could make humans redundant in professions such as law and research. Will conscious-technology create more jobs than it replaces? Or is massive structural unemployment inevitable, requiring the development of new concepts of economics and work?

If we think ahead and plan well, the conscious-technology civilization could become better than we can currently imagine. Governance could be vastly improved by collective intelligence systems; it could become easier to prevent and detect crime; needs and resources could be matched more efficiently; opportunities for self-actualization could abound; and so on. However, it would be wise to think through the possibilities of the Conscious-Technology Age today and shape its evolution to create the future civilization we desire.

This piece is one of a number of individual perspectives from the Global Strategic Foresight Community of the World Economic Forum for the Annual Meeting 2015. To read more access the full collection.

Author: Jerome Glenn is one of the leading global general futurists and CEO of The Millennium Project.