Where Will Our Tech Take Us This Century?

Over the next 100 years, technology will change the nature of how humans live, work and play.

The past 100 years have seen the greatest rate of technological change at any point in recorded history.  Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, technology in all aspects of our lives has become more complex, more advanced, and more influential.

Manufacturing has moved away from the cottage industry, through to factories and modern mass production using automation and additive technologies. Farming has come from horses and hand-plows to mechanized machinery, and is now entering the era of smart precision agriculture. Travel and transport have also left animal labor behind with the introduction of the automobile, and these days humans and their machines can travel at high speeds, through the air, and even into space. Computers are ubiquitous, thanks to the early days of Turing, and are permeating every aspect of the modern era with the Internet of Things (IoT), supercomputing and the Cloud.

The list goes on.

Engineering is the common thread that runs through all these innovations and technical discoveries.  Though science and engineering are inextricably linked, it is the engineers who bring to life the new technology that will lead humans into the future with the ongoing development of disruptive technologies that will change the very nature of how we live, work and play.

How We Live

Every story of predictions for the future has to begin somewhere; this one opens close to home, with our health.

Some of the greatest improvements over the past century have been in healthcare and medicine, covering everything from basic hygiene practices to advanced pharmaceuticals, disease detection and treatment, vaccines and preventative drugs—all of which have improved both quality of life, and length of lifespan for most of the world’s population.

While eradicating all sickness and disease is hard to imagine, bioengineers are hard at work toward this goal, making great strides in treatment and medical technology.

The medical industry has already begun to employ smart pills, nanorobots and smart devices both inside and outside the body. These innovations are able to deliver targeted drugs and treatments, offer preventative care and medicines or vitamins on an as-needed basis, and monitor a wide variety of health concerns through the use of sensors and wireless signals.

The ingestible sensor from Proteus Digital Health is one example, as the first FDA-approved “digital pill” for a drug used to help treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and depression. The treatment method features a nano-sized sensor embedded in a pill, a receiver patch worn on the abdomen, and a smartphone app. Soon enough, most or all drugs could be administered through a similar system.

As these technologies get better, it will be possible to refine treatment, operate remotely and at the molecular scale, and pre-emptively identify and address illnesses before they can take hold and impact a person’s overall health and quality of life.

All the data generated by sensors and smart monitors will likely be handled by artificial intelligence (AI) agents and supercomputers. The modern healthcare industry has made some moves in this direction, with advanced digital systems set to tasks such as analyzing health data, seeking new compounds through simulated protein folding, and developing pattern recognition algorithms that can identify indicators of disease in images or data sets. 

The Folding@home initiative run by Stanford University made the news a few years back for it’s distributed computing model of running protein-folding simulations and computational drug design by using idle resources of Internet-connected computers around the world. With the future advancement of cloud computing and other technologies, not only can simulations like these be performed at an even higher level, but they can even be performed by a single machine or AI.

As these AI and analysis systems grow in scope and complexity, diagnostics and predictions of health information will be possible for everything from the individual up to the global scale. For example, an advanced AI could recognize the early signs that indicate a pandemic, and identify the illness, prescribe treatments, and stop the sickness before it spreads. AIs could also design, develop and test better drugs through simulation, perfecting treatments before they ever reach a person.

And this doesn’t even address things like robotic or virtual surgery. While the prevention of disease through medicines and other treatments will go a long way toward making disease a thing of the past, there are some issues that can’t be changed by these methods.

Physical augmentation is also a popularly envisioned path for a variety of physical health problems. We’re already seeing steps toward bio-augmentation and neuro-augmentation of the human body, and in the future these technologies are expected to only become more sophisticated.

Mechanical and robotic exoskeletons often appear throughout science fiction and other future-looking media, and with good reason. These devices are already helping people suffering from paralysis or another disability to walk under their own (assisted) power and rediscover their mobility, such as the Ekso GT from 2015.

In many cases, though, these are still heavy, awkward and slow. As technologies in robotics and materials engineering advance, we could see exo-suits and similar mobility devices become as easy to wear as a pair of pants, or perhaps even integrated directly into the body and brain.

In a similar vein, robotic prosthetics that are connected to and controlled by the wearer’s brain are already appearing, though they are mostly in the prototyping and testing phases. The same is seen in the development of robotic and artificial organs, which are slowly being tested as replacements for human organs damaged from accident or illness. However, one day, these replacements could work significantly better than their natural counterparts. 

Bioengineers are also working to develop materials and the processes for 3D printing human tissues, and one day this could replace even advanced robotic augmentations with superior, custom-designed bio-printed limbs and organs.

Whether these augmentations are like advanced wearables or are built right into the body, they will undoubtedly be connected to each other and the user’s brain through embedded sensors that can monitor and offer feedback, communicating with nanotech and smart devices to optimize medical treatment and operate mechanical or robotic components with a thought.

However, augmentation solely for the purpose of improving health and wellness is only one aspect of this technology—it can also be expected to see wide use recreationally, as a part of everyday life.

For example, RFID technology is already being used for basic tasks such as unlocking doors, paying for purchases, and holding personal identification information. Right now, these RFID chips tend to be single purpose, or designed for only a couple different tasks. But it’s easy to see how RFID-style devices in the future could use a single chip to make all your personal ID, financial access, keys to your home and work, and much more available at the wave of your hand over a scanner.

The idea of augmentation certainly isn’t new, and we already have a type of physical and neuro-augmentation in the form of wearables and smartphones—just picture Google Glass, Apple Pay, Wikipedia, FitBits and the wide assortment of gadgets that help us monitor ourselves or perform a task.  Right now, these are almost exclusively external to our bodies, but it’s increasingly feasible—and likely—that the coming decades will see these technologies integrated directly into our bodies and brains, or incorporated into bionic body parts.

Brain-machine interfaces (BMI) are a popular area of research, and while the tech used to develop them is currently some of the most advanced stuff available, the operation/output remains fairly rudimentary.  Some systems currently enable users to control robots or drones by tracking the electrical signals from their brain but there’s still a long way to go.

Ideally, one day there will be direct connections between your brain and the devices around you, letting you control or communicate with these devices, other augmented humans, call your friends, or interface with your home.

In case you haven’t heard the news, smart homes and smart cities are the future of urban living. They are already coming to prominence, as devices are becoming more and more connected throughout residential and commercial buildings in our neighborhoods, streets and urban centers.

Smart cities are still in the early stages, building on top of existing infrastructure with Internet of Things technology, wireless and Bluetooth signals available ever more widely, and connected smart architecture. Smart homes are at about the same level, with smart, connected devices slowly replacing those used for daily tasks and other operations.

Brain-machine interfaces like those mentioned above will be integral to interacting with future homes and buildings, enabling control of all digital devices from the television to the fridge. Every device in the home will communicate with the others, as well, creating a system that can optimize every aspect of your life.

All these smart homes will be connected to—and in communication with—the surrounding smart city infrastructure, too; thousands of nodes on a vast network of buildings and roads. By having a city structured like a single network, it will be possible to monitor and operate central systems, such as power, water, traffic and emergency response services. With the integration of AI and supercomputing resources, a handful of people could run an entire city from a single office, with the digital systems doing all the heavy lifting.

Even with a city that practically runs itself, people will still need to get form point A to point B, and true smart cities will one day feature a robust network of autonomous vehicles of all kinds.

Autonomous vehicles are currently experiencing a heyday of development, with multiple companies—from the traditional automakers to newcomers such as Tesla and Uber, and universities across the country—working on cars, trucks and drones that can operate autonomously.

Despite some recent setbacks, autonomous vehicles are considered an eventual surety for getting from place to place in the future.  Most people can envision fleets of driverless, autonomous and electric (or another emission-free, low-pollution power source) cars and trucks that can be summoned on command and paid for by use or by distance travelled.

Smart cities, vehicles and the digital IoT-style infrastructure they use will mean that the cars, trucks, trains and drones will be able to communicate with each other, the surrounding road environment and the passengers riding inside. Putting all this data together will enable optimized, efficient traffic management—no more sitting on the freeway during rush hour.

Not to mention the expected prevalence of high-tech mass transit systems, of which the Hyperloop is a core example. This will change the way people travel, making it possible to move between cities in a fraction of the time it currently takes, and removing the need for people to live in the same city they work, for example.

Smart transportation options like these will offer mobility and travel to demographics who previously had no access, such as the elderly and those who are unable to operate a traditional vehicle, and making vehicular travel a more enjoyable experience overall.

Physical products will also still need to get around, and autonomous transport and delivery vehicles will be essential to an increasing population’s need for food, clothing and other commercial goods. Delivery drones are already being prototyped and tested, such as those being developed by Amazon, so it’s easy to imagine a fleet of future drones practically doing your shopping for you—place an order online (through your thought-interface in your smart home, of course) and a factory robot will produce and package your product, then a drone will pick it up and fly it right to your doorstep.

Just as physical goods need a physical transportation system, they also have to come from somewhere.  Today, nearly everything we buy—from food to electronics to furniture to cars—is, to some degree, mass-produced in a factory. Usually this means low variability (everything is the same) and high volume (there are a lot of them). This type of factory is the mainstay of 21st century production, but we are already seeing the move toward the future of mass production: high variability and customization.

3D printing is already making strides in this area, enabling custom design and production across a range of products and applications. Some 3D printers are even self-repairing, in that they can print their own replacement parts.

But the future will see these machines go even further. As we develop more advanced materials and higher computing power, 3D printing is expected to be used to make everything from car parts to human organs, on-demand and fully customized.

With enough advancement, 3D printing might replace all other forms of manufacturing and production by having the capability to “print” atom by atom or molecule by molecule, creating any product at any time.

Advanced production techniques will also fundamentally alter the agriculture industry—hopefully for the better. Smart farming and connected agriculture already exist, and many believe that future farms will optimize all aspects of the farming process—from planting, watering and weeding to monitoring crop health, harvesting and processing—in order to increase yields and quality.

Now, no doubt all this new technology sounds energy-intensive—and you’d be right. But where current tech of all kinds needs a lot of power, advances in materials, efficiency, and power sources like batteries, mean that future technology will require a lot less power to keep things running. You may well have devices that can charge and operate on wireless ambient signals or kinetic energy, and never need a separate recharge cycle.

But the future population and all their robots, cars and computers will still need vast amounts of power, for which sustainable renewable sources of energy are the obvious solution. Wind and solar power are already used around the world, and depending on the source of information, over the next 50-100 years the world is expected to have anywhere from 80 to 100 percent of power generation coming from sustainable sources.

Solar is considered to be the way to go by many, as sunlight is ever-present in most parts of the world. With collection and storage technologies continuously improving, there’s no doubt that within 100 years we will have cracked the efficiency code—whether through new materials or better conversion technology—to enable close to 100 percent conversion efficiency in every solar panel.

This is all pretty big-picture in terms of lifestyle and the world at large—but these over-arching effects of technology will also change one of the largest single aspects of our lives: the workday.

How We Work

Most of us get up each day, grab a coffee and head out the door to work. An increasing number of us, however, grab that coffee and settle into our desk at home to work remotely. Beyond the current trend of millennials and gig economy freelancers who prefer to work from home for the flexibility, the future of work enabled by advanced digital technologies is anticipated to almost eliminate the need for physical, centralized office for many businesses—especially those in the “knowledge economy.”

Many jobs can already be done over the computer almost exclusively, with video and audio available for the times you need to speak directly with another person. As computer power increases, and as more work can be done remotely, companies and the job market will become decentralized almost entirely, with the job you work no longer depending so heavily on where you live.

But the real change to work interactions will come through the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies.

Engineers are already making great progress into crafting virtual environments, digital avatars, and developing sensors, haptic tech and audio feedback that enable users to interact with virtual surroundings and objects, as well as each other.

While a lot of the AR and VR tech available isn’t exactly rudimentary, it’s still in the early stages of what we envision it to become. Many favor the idea of being able to slip on a head-mounted display and be able to experience a virtual environment, interact with other users, have meetings or work on a digital representation of a real project. But the expected advances in computing and visual technology mean headsets probably won’t even be necessary—your entry into the virtual space will come directly through brain interfaces, bionic visual receptors, and with only a thought.

For the rare occasion future workers will physically need to be somewhere in person, the aforementioned autonomous vehicles will also change the nature of the workday commute. Since passengers won’t need to control the vehicle, commute time can be spent doing other things, such as beginning the workday—or, more likely, sleeping or engaging in other leisure activities.

But the real question is what types of work will humans even need to do 100 years from now?

We already mentioned the improvements to production that will come with the smart factory, and this relies in no small part on advanced automation and robotics. There is already a trend toward automating manufacturing and other production processes, and in the future humans may not need to be involved at all—lights-out factories will run with minimal human oversight. The smart factory will operate autonomously through the entire production process.

Human workers will be unneeded in these factories, freeing them up to pursue jobs requiring higher skill and human knowledge. But it’s not just boring, repetitive physical work expected to eliminate its human quotient—many currently human-knowledge-based tasks will also become automated through the use of high-powered supercomputers and artificial intelligence.

These AIs are in the early stages, but already seeing use in applications such as customer service, research and data analysis or generative design.

This means in the future, working could be as simple as asking an AI a question, and waiting for the system to determine the answer, design the product, or perform the task—probably quicker and more accurately than a human. With advanced-enough AIs, we may not even need to ask—they will simply be monitoring and calculating all the time, designing, producing or informing as it determines there is a need for a product or piece of information.

What this all comes down to is that all this technology is likely to make familiar forms of “employment” entirely obsolete. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it would free people up to pursue whatever work they find personally interesting, meaningful or fulfilling, rather than merely trying to earn a paycheck.

Of course, it isn’t just the work side of life that will see these changes; like every evolution in technology, there will be new and exciting ways for people to entertain themselves and have fun.

How We Play

While it’s mostly the same technologies we will use for work and other aspects of life, they will be more closely integrated into our entertainment and leisure activities than ever before.

AR and VR experiences may top the list for most-highly-anticipated future entertainment—we’ve barely dipped a toe into those virtual waters, and there’s a never-ending stream of people eager to try each new headset or virtual environment.  We all want that ideal virtual entertainment experience—the Holodeck of Star Trek fame. Considering where engineers are going with research and development in AR and VR, holographic displays, and similar technologies, it’s entirely possible—and even likely—that the Holodeck will be part of our future.

This tech, in whatever form it takes—neural implants, a physical room with holography tech, a wearable or other augmentation—will provide the broadest range of entertainment and play.

We will be able to travel to remote countries, virtually and with no risk, or enter the equivalent of books, movies and video games to experience the story up close or engage with fictional characters. People can also participate in sports and athletic activities that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

Along with the aforementioned health and mobility reasons, advanced bio-augmentation will enter into the sports arena, too, and will change the way we play and compete.

New sports that use the enhanced physical abilities of augmented humans will be developed, along with separate leagues for competition. And with human-like AIs and androids, there would likely be independent leagues and events for competition between fully-artificial beings.

AR and VR will also create opportunities for travel and exploration outside of our own planet, where advanced 3D mapping and robotics will enable you to walk on the surface of another world through a virtual interface and a machine avatar.

With lifelike robots, android and AI at a level comparable to a real human, we are likely to have friends and companions who aren’t human yet can feel a very human attachment through our interactions.

We could even reach a point where the technology used for augmentation and for androids is indistinguishable from a plain, flesh-and-blood human.

Such advanced robotics will also have a hand in people visiting and exploring other parts of the solar system themselves, and not just through a virtual simulation.

Full-body exo-suits like those discussed previously can be outfitted as advanced space suits and allow for people to take their vacation on the Moon or go hiking on the surface of Mars. It’s likely that in the next 50 to 100 years there will be at least nascent permanent colonies on both those extraterrestrial surfaces, especially since today there are already detailed plans in place for how we can get to that point—most notably NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. With spacecraft capable of travelling fast enough to make the trip a manageable one, there will also be a thriving space tourism industry operating right alongside the permanent colonies.

What Does the Future Hold?

Despite touching on so many technologies and how we might use them in the future, these ideas are actually fairly conservative as far as future predictions go—and there are stacks of books and hours of movies and television that examine these ideas in much greater depth than is possible in a single article.  Humans are endlessly innovative and strive for progress, so it’s entirely possible these ideas will extend even further.

Maybe every device and system in the world will be connected to—and run by—a single, massive supercomputer AI. We may have machines and devices that give us complete control of the weather on our planet, or have cities on every planet in the solar system. 

Perhaps we will have developed a form of immortality by inserting a human mind into a cyborg, robotic or organic 3D-printed body.

Maybe humans won’t be here at all. (But we’re pretty resilient, so we’ll probably do okay.)