Should we be optimistic about the future of tech?

Daniel Franklin's book Megatech explores how technology will influence our lives in 2050.

by Rachel Barton
Last Updated: 20 Mar 2017

Our fascination with the world of the future has long been the topic of fact and fiction, and this book is no exception. Based on the idea that it can be useful to consider the longer term, it encourages us to be more thoughtful about the technologies we are building and their implications on our world, three decades from today.

Although focused specifically on technology (its predecessor Megachange: The World in 2050 looked at broader trends), it makes the point that technology has become such a dominant force in our society that it pretty much influences everything. Therefore, deep-diving into this topic provides a good indication of what the future might look like.

The first section introduces a toolkit to help make predictions. By looking at how technologies of the past defined and disrupted our world, the trends of today and the imagined ideas of science fiction, we can identify patterns and have a reasonable idea of how the world will evolve. The book explores 'Edge' cases (eg, smartphones were commonplace in Japan long before the iPhone came along) and how they can give us a glimpse into the future. The present is brought to life through the innovations we are seeing today (Elon Musk's SpaceX, reusable rockets and the end of Moore's Law). Arthur C Clarke's world of AI and robotics reminds us of some of the weird and wonderful predictions and how they have often formed blueprints for our inventions (the flip phone was first seen in a sci-fi movie many decades ago!).

By the end of this first section I was ready for some context. This was provided by diving into a number of industry sectors to bring the fundamental tech trends to life. The predictions feel very real but could benefit from more storytelling, to allow the reader to feel part of this future world rather than clinically observing it. I loved the start of the 'Farming Tomorrow' section, which described Farmer Giles waking up on a sunny September day in 2050 ... 'The harvesting app on his phone is telling him conditions are perfect to get in the crop from three of his ten barley fields.' And 'he and his wife are far from home on a weekend city break, but no matter. Last night they dined on loup de mer, fresh that afternoon, the menu claimed, from the pelagic shoaling tanks of the local Oceans Apart aqualab ...' If only there were more of that.

I also enjoyed 'The great innovation debate' where arguments were presented from 'productivity pessimists' and 'productivity optimists'. Robert Gordon, an economist and so-called pessimist argues that 'digital technology, however nifty, cannot generate the same qualitative improvement in living standards that the fundamental innovations of the 19th century did'. He suggests that the pace of innovation in computing is slowing (back to Moore's Law running out of steam again) and that digital technology has largely brought economic disappointment over the past few decades. But the book is clearly on the side of the optimists and suggests that all kinds of new ecosystems will spring up that we just haven't considered before, such as driverless cars or drones being used to collect shopping, food etc - making the entire retail landscape even more accessible than it is today.

Whether you buy into this or not, the author highlights that the trickiest adjustment of all is the way we manage new technologies alongside labour markets and pay earned by workers.

The last section focuses on the ethics of AI and it explores the usual questions:

1. If the trouble is always human stupidity or evil nature, is evolved technology a new weapon or a way to save humanity?

2. Will technology take away jobs or just force us to do different types of work?

3. Is technology creating two global nations or is it driving democratisation?

But what I like is that it encourages us to think positively about the future. Ending with a look back at the Industrial Revolution felt like a cathartic way to close. The excitement, fear and disruption that it brought was felt by our predecessors just as we feel it today. We're reminded that we'll never stop innovating - because we can't. It shows us that some big decisions will need to be made over the next three decades. If we can look to the past for some clues, we might be on the brink of something fantastic.

Megatech: Technology in 2050 by Daniel Franklin is published by Profile Books, £15

Rachel Barton is managing director of advanced customer strategy at Accenture, and a former member of MT's 35 Women Under 35


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