1. DNA sequencing: Over the next decade gene sequencing prices are expected to continue to decline by over 50% per year. That means that by the end of the decade we should probably know the genomes of a large fraction of the developed world population; of all important species of animals, plants and fungi; and of the microbial ecosystems in all sorts of natural environments. This should enable everything from GATTACA style genetic analysis of adults and embryos to improved flavors of cheese via better bacterial fermentation, as well as very advanced personalized medicine. The biggest questions relate to privacy and consent issues. Will knowledge of one’s own genome be tightly regulated? Will drugs ever be FDA approved for a market of one, and if not, how will personalized medicine work? Stay tuned to find out.
2. Regenerative Medicine: Already people are growing fingers from their own stem cells and growth factor infused protein scaffolds. Soon decellularized organs and directed stem-cell differentiation should enable the replacement of most major organs. Beyond that, such technologies could eventually lead to the creation of whole new synthetic organisms, though not, presumably, in the next decade. Still, by 2020, while we may not yet be able to build werewolves, healthy people who receive rapid emergency responses should be almost as durable. Shame to give up those dreams of bionic arms, but I’m pretty sure most people want flesh instead. Eventually any desired enhancement gadgetry can be built into the protein scaffold, but the killer app — replacement — will be taken.
3. Wireless broadband: Don’t you wish your cell phone sounded more like, you know, a phone? Reallocation of wireless spectrum and continued expansion of cellular infrastructures should make this possible, via the allocation of more bandwidth to each phone call, The continued replacement of voice by text, better technologies for compression and decompression and the like will accelerate the trend. By the end of the decade, expect voice and video quality as good as you might expect from HDTV.
4. Better energy storage: Tired of running out of battery power? Of batteries becoming worthless after too many discharges? Of your skateboard not having a kilowatt motor to keep up with traffic? In a decade these problems will be things of the past. Work on nanostructured batteries, ultracapacitors and fuel cells looks ready to enable high power machinery to operate everywhere and low power machinery to be ready for more after a few seconds of recharge time.
5. Robotics comes of age: The US military has funded robotics research extremely aggressively, and that research seems to be paying off. While today’s drones are mostly for recon, plans already exist for adding firepower. The civilian implications are tremendous. Facial recognition software will go from airports to eyewear while continuing to accelerate in the progress curve for its development. A bit further out, think widespread useful household robots, aerostats, and ultimately, the commercial robotic car.
6. Ubiquitous sensing and data: Science used to largely consist of meticulously gathering data and then using it to test hypotheses. By 2020, not so much. As HD cameras migrate from cell phones to always on line-of-site video (due to better energy tech and signal processing software as much as cheaper CCDs and better lenses) and radio tags shift from cars to inventories, the data to evaluate almost any macroscale hypothesis will already be available and recorded. Asking the right questions and translating them into statistical algorithms won’t necessarily be easy, but it sounds a lot more fun than lab work.
7. Cloud computing: Want a wearable supercomputer but don’t know what to do with the megawatt of waste heat? No problem, just borrow one for a second when you need it. Throw in some human intelligence while your at it. By 2020, Jeopardy playing AI won’t be a cool marketing gimmick, it will be a readily available servant you can talk to through your headset. No need to spend a fortune on the hardware, just ask it your questions when you feel curious.
8. The real social network: See that cute girl or boy sitting over there? Imagine seeing what you have in common at a glance. Social connections, common interests, whatever’s public. Want to try a new candy bar? People who like the things you like say you probably won’t enjoy it. Want a loan? Someone you know wants a 6% return, and based on your friends (evaluated by frequency of email exchange, not ‘friending’), they consider you trustworthy. Want to go skiing? It’s been one year since Jake, Ann and Alex last did so. They all like to go at least twice a year most years and they all have open calendars today. Did your friends really enjoy that party? Yes, but based on their proximities to one another they split into 3 groups with little overlap. Maybe try to have separate parties next time, or set up some icebreakers. The following games and exercises have worked in similar occasions in the past. Sally has done some of them before so maybe she can organize.
9. Augmented Reality: The killer app for most of the above. Want to talk with someone? Their Aura tells you how busy they probably feel as assessed by skin conductance, sleep history, and inbox content. Where did you put your necklace? Seems you last saw it on the kitchen counter. Feel like playing Pac-Man in Central Park with CGI ghosts? Totally doable. You can even dial in detailed rendering for more elaborate VR by renting out some computing clusters in Iceland.
10. Political-Economic reorganization: The good news is, as far as I can tell, none of these technologies is going to cost much. The bad news is that this means that they aren’t going to bring back much in the way of jobs, or even profits. I don’t really know what that’s going to mean, but the word Cyberpunk comes to mind. Importing oil may get quite a bit more difficult, but computer assisted ride sharing, VR, and to a lesser extent new energy and efficiency technologies should help. There’s plenty of food, cheap Chinese manufactured goods too cheap to meter via Ebay and Walmart and plenty of housing, so I’m sure that people will muddle through and figure out some way to distribute it equitably… that or elect jackbooted thugs to figure it out for them. A lot really depends on what the American middle class decides to believe once its totally clear that they aren’t going to be able to retire the way they expected, afford ever more expensive health-care, etc. The recent story with Bernie Madoff gives me some hope. No pograms. That’s progress!
Michael Vassar is the president of the Singularity Institute and is on the board of Humanity Plus. He has been writing and presenting futurist material with organizations such as Humanity Plus, Futurist.com and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and IEET since 2003.