Since the beginning of humankind, scientists, philosophers, academics and just everyday people have liked nothing more than to theorize and speculate about the future. This is as true today as it ever was, but perhaps what has changed is our understanding that the future is ours to shape and craft.
The huge changes that the world has seen over the past century make this a particularly tantalizing subject. Technology is advancing at such a pace that things we take for granted today would have seemed like science fiction just 20 years ago. At the same time, the world faces an ever-growing population, is struggling to meet energy demands through decreasing resources and hangs on an ecological knife-edge.
While past generations might have looked at the stars or weather patterns to divine what the future holds, our better understanding of the dynamics that shape the world mean today’s thought leaders and researchers are proactively working towards a better tomorrow.
If you were asked what would be the most critical factor that will dictate the success or failure of humankind’s future, you would probably think about technology and artificial intelligence. You might also consider the political and ideological turmoil seen throughout the world and the rise of global terrorism.
However, most academics agree that there is one consideration that trumps all of these, and that is the question of energy production.
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the world has demanded more and more energy every year. As the population increases, so do its energy demands. We all know that the fossil fuels we have been burning to create electricity, and to power our cars, constitute a finite resource. The oil, coal and natural gas will not last forever.
Renewable energy supplies have been touted for the past 30 years or more, yet it is only in recent years that they have started to look like they could become a viable alternative. Solar power cells become both cheaper and more efficient every year, and wind energy has begun to take off over the past decade, in the USA and beyond, particularly in mainland Europe and by way of offshore wind farms off the UK.
However, those who are seeking to invent a better future look even beyond these innovations in renewable energy. The problem with them is that while they can certainly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, they do not eliminate it. To do so needs a more radical solution, and this is where innovators such as Andrea Rossi come in. His E-Cat cold fusion generator has the potential to change the energy production landscape forever, and consign fossil fuels and the concept of an energy crisis to the history books.
Most people’s visions of the future involve some sort of smart computers and artificial intelligence, and the exponential increase in processing power of modern computers gives us a real insight into what AI looks like, and how it can help shape the future.
In much the same way as mechanization provided tools to perform repetitive, boring manual work so that people would not have to, AI will fulfill the same role for repetitive mental tasks. AI can “think” faster and better than a person within defined parameters, and with advances in machine learning, those parameters get broader every day.
In the years to come, an artificial brain will even be able to create a bestselling novel or draw an original artwork.
Some worry that AI will result in mass unemployment – after all, if a computer can do it better and faster, why employ a human. In part, this is a fair comment. However, history shows that while technology eliminates some jobs, it also creates new, more interesting and innovative ones in their places.
Reaching for the stars
Finally, no discussion of the future can be complete without discussing space exploration. Over recent years, governments have cut funding in this area, compared with the glory days of the space race in the 1960s and 70s.
However, we can expect to see a change in this pattern, as private enterprises take up where the governments left off. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic hails itself as the world’s first commercial spaceline, and even more intriguing is the concept of asteroid mining that is being explored by a company called Planetary Resources. This could effectively lead to a modern day gold rush in space.
Shaping our future
These are just a few ways in which the leading innovators are using technology to create a better future. The opportunities are all there for the taking.