Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Official List of Predictions

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of all the predictions I’ve made on this blog, and discuss which ones are likely to be right, and which ones I may have gotten wrong.

In my predictions, I’ve consistently tried to err on the side of pessimism as much as I thought was reasonable. I think that predictions of the future often have a tendency to be overenthusiastic, based on wishful thinking rather than what the evidence actually suggests. I’m certainly not exempting myself from that, but I’ve tried to minimize the problem by giving myself a few years’ leeway whenever reasonable. That’s why all of my predictions are in the “By 2020” format. For most of my predictions, I think that the most likely date is earlier than the date listed.

Furthermore, I’ve tried to focus most of my predictions on the foreseeable future - the next 20 years. The farther ahead we try to gaze into the crystal ball, the more difficult it becomes to make predictions with much confidence. Since my predictions tend to be based on examining the state of emerging technologies today, it becomes much more likely that they will hit some unforeseen roadblock or that I will completely miss a transformative technology, the farther ahead I try to look. Imagine trying to explain an iPhone to someone in 1980 who had probably never seen a personal computer, much less the internet or a cell phone!

I suppose that one of the benefits of not being a famous prognosticator is that no one is likely to hold me accountable if I’m wrong. This website may not even exist for more than a few years into the future, but I’m hoping to at least maintain the list of predictions as a sort of time capsule. If nothing else, it provides an interesting snapshot of “the future” as seen from 2010.

Without further ado, here is my list of predictions. This list will be continuously updated as I make new ones, so check back for the latest updates. This blog entry is now linked from the menu on the right.


By 2011 – Near-field communication comes equipped in many new smartphones. Mobile payments become even more popular in the developing world, and makes inroads in Europe and the United States. (Jan. 2011)

By 2011 – Internet-equipped televisions or add-ons will become popular. (Jan. 2011)

By 2011 – At least 75% of countries improve their score on the Human Development Index compared to 2010, with the biggest improvements in developing countries. (Jan. 2011)

By 2011 – There will be a major shakeup (or a total implosion) in the top leadership of North Korea and/or Iran. (Jan. 2011)

By 2011 – Tablet computers account for at least 13% of the US personal computer market. The market will become competitive with several new tablets seriously challenging Apple’s iPad. (Jan. 2011)

By 2011 – Gaming (led by Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect) will begin to become gesture-based, rather than controller-based. (Jan. 2011)

By 2011 – The migration of computer files from the hard drive to the cloud will begin in earnest, as people become more willing to allow third-parties to store all of the content on their computers via the internet. (Jan. 2011)

By 2011 – Voice Over IP services, such as Skype, become popular on smartphones, thus portending the eventual demise of traditional voice-telephone services. (Jan. 2011)

By 2011 – At least one company offers genome sequencing for $1,000 or less (Jul. 2010)

By 2013 – Useful augmented reality applications exist on PCs and/or tablets to allow shoppers to virtually try on clothing before purchasing it online. (Aug. 2010)

By 2013 – Cuba has made substantial progress toward democracy relative to where it stood at the beginning of 2011. (Feb. 2011)

By 2014 – At least one company offers genome sequencing for $100 or less (Jul. 2010)

By 2015 – Effective smartphone applications exist which can turn lights on and off, and start or stop home appliances. (Sep. 2010)

By 2016 - Personal health monitors, which are ingested or worn, can automatically call 911 whenever a person's vital signs indicate an emergency. (Sep. 2010)

By 2016 – Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan have made substantial progress toward democracy relative to where they stood at the beginning of 2011. (Feb. 2011)

By 2017 – The average American carries at least ten computing devices on (or inside) his or her person. (Sep. 2010)

By 2017 – At least one-third of all smartphone and/or tablet users have an augmented reality application to project virtual images over the real world, as seen through their screen. (Aug. 2010)

By 2018 – Smart walls are becoming popular, which can display any image the user wants at any given moment, or can cycle through a series of posters. (Sep. 2010)

By 2018 – China has made substantial progress toward democracy relative to where it stood at the beginning of 2011. (Feb. 2011)

By 2019 – Over half of all Americans have had their genomes sequenced (Jul. 2010)

By 2020 - Driverless cars are commercially-available and street-legal somewhere in the United States. (May 2010)

By 2020 – There are fewer than 5 million cases of malaria annually, and fewer than 15,000 deaths. (May 2011)

By 2021 – U.S. sales of personalized medicine (i.e. drugs tailored to the patient’s specific genetic profile) are greater than sales of non-personalized, mass-market medicine (Jul. 2010)

By 2021 – Augmented reality is routinely used to train people how to perform process-based tasks such as cooking, dentistry, surgery, furniture assembly, factory work, and/or auto repair. (Aug. 2010)

By 2022 - Lab-grown hamburger (with the taste and texture of real hamburger) is sold commercially, for the same price or less. (Jul. 2010)

By 2022 – Silicon computer chips are no longer flat. They are now three-dimensional because it is impossible to shrink transistors any further. (Sep. 2010)

By 2023 – At least half of all new, non-driverless automobiles in the US have augmented reality technology in the windshield for safety and/or navigational purposes. (Aug. 2010)

By 2025 - Youth literacy rates exceed 90% in both Sub-Saharan Africa (up from 72% in 2008) and South Asia (up from 79% in 2008). Gender disparities in literacy have mostly disappeared; the global female youth literacy rate is no less than 98% of the male youth literacy rate (up from 94% in 2008). (Oct. 2010)

By 2025 - Fewer than 75% of students in the United States physically attend a school on a daily basis. (Oct. 2010)

By 2025 – In the United States, solar energy is cheaper than oil on average, on a per kilowatt-hour basis. (Oct. 2010)

By 2026 – At least one treatment employing nanoparticles is routinely used in the United States to treat cancer. (Dec. 2010)

By 2027 - New driverless cars outnumber new cars requiring at least some human control, in the US market. (May 2010)

By 2028 – Augmented reality contact lenses exist which can place virtual overlays of the world directly onto the wearer’s eye, or block out the real world altogether if the wearer desires. (Aug. 2010)

By 2029 - Lab-grown steak (with the taste and texture of real steak) is sold commercially, for the same price or less. (Jul. 2010)

By 2030 – Scientists have a basic understanding of the reasons (if any) that we sleep, as well as why it evolved in the first place. (Sep. 2010)

By 2035 - Driverless cars are widely perceived as safer than human drivers. Somewhere in the United States, it is illegal for humans to drive. (May 2010)

By 2035 – The global oil trade is less than 25% the size that it is in 2010 (approximately $2.1 trillion), adjusted for inflation. (Oct. 2010)

By 2035 – Graphene is routinely used in structures (e.g. bridges and buildings) that need to be strong and light. (Dec. 2010)

By 2040 - An "invisibility suit" exists which renders the wearer almost completely invisible to those who aren't actively looking for him or her. (Aug. 2010)

By 2045 – The aging process has been halted, for all intents and purposes. People no longer grow old beyond their peak healthy age, between 18 and 25. (Aug. 2010)

By 2050 – Medication exists that makes sleeping optional, providing people with any benefits of sleep without the need to actually do so, and without any nasty side effects. (Sep. 2010)

By 2050 – Nanobots can patrol the cells of our bodies, looking for any unwelcome intruders or mutations. (Dec. 2010)

By 2055 – Molecular assemblers are able to produce nearly any macro-scale product we need, provided that they have the raw materials. (Dec. 2010)

By 2060 – It is possible to reverse existing damage from the aging process. It is no longer possible to estimate an adult’s chronological age merely by looking at them. Diseases of old age have, for the most part, ceased to be a problem. (Aug. 2010)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Future of Energy: Solar Power Is Coming

The amount of energy the earth receives from the sun each year is more than 10,000 times the total energy needs of all humans on earth. We cannot effectively harness even such a paltry fraction of the sun’s energy yet. In 2008, less than 0.02% of the global energy supply came from solar energy. In most parts of the world, solar energy is simply too expensive. Carbon-based energy such as oil and coal still provide a cheaper alternative, even while harming our environment. Solar energy currently costs about 38 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with only 5 cents per kWh for oil and less than 1 cent per kWh for coal. Government taxes and subsidies typically reduce this cost disparity slightly, but not enough to make solar energy viable for most people.

Fortunately, this will soon change. Photovoltaic solar cells are typically made of silicon: the same material in computer chips. Engineers cannot shrink the solar panels in the same way that they can shrink transistors, because solar panels need to have a large surface area to absorb as much sunlight as possible. However, they can make the panels themselves more efficient and shrink the thickness of the panels. As a result, solar energy appears to be on a Moore’s Law-like trajectory of its own. Approximately every 18 months, the total solar capacity doubles and the cost falls by 20%. Up until now, this hasn’t been noticeable because it is such a small portion of our overall energy supply. Doubling a small number is still a small number.

However, if this trend continues, solar energy will be able to supply virtually 100% of the earth’s energy needs by 2035. Some observers are even more optimistic, predicting that solar energy will cost about the same as carbon-based energy by 2015. They theorize that after 2015, the capacity of solar energy could increase much more quickly, as consumer demand for solar energy makes it very lucrative and the industry explodes. Other observers are more skeptical; some question whether solar energy is really on Moore’s Law-like pattern of exponential growth at all, suggesting that this recent trend could be caused by other factors.

I think it’s quite clear that solar power will continue to grow at an exponential rate, since manufacturing solar panels requires many of the same techniques that drive the reduction in cost of computer chips. But I wouldn’t count on the industry suddenly exploding in popularity as soon as solar energy becomes slightly cheaper than oil and coal. It’s important to remember that solar energy is not a commodity like oil that can be traded globally. The costs will be much lower in deserts and other sunny areas. By the end of this decade, we may see the American Southwest and Southern Europe starting to switch to solar power, while other regions lag behind, using oil and coal for much longer.

Moving away from fossil fuels will be the single most important step we can take to stop making climate change worse (although much of the damage will already be done, and will continue to accumulate for decades after the switch). An international economy that was not reliant on oil would be much more stable for global security. Many of the biggest potential threats to international stability come from oil-rich regimes, where money from oil exports often funds extremist groups or large militaries that destabilize the region. Furthermore, solar energy prices would be much more predictable than oil. Unlike oil, there would be no maximum amount of energy available; new solar panels could always be added and older panels could be improved, ensuring that the price continued to drop. They would drop at a roughly consistent rate, rather than fluctuating wildly from one year to the next as oil does. Eventually, the energy cost in nearly all products will be virtually eliminated, as solar energy becomes cheaper and cheaper.

Most people look back over recent history and find it difficult to imagine that energy prices will ever go down - just look at gas prices today compared to a decade ago! But in reality, the past decade is an exception, caused by the rapid development of China and India just as we reached peak oil production. In the long term, the broad trend has been for energy costs to decline. Solar energy will ensure that that trend continues for decades to come.

By 2025 – In the United States, solar energy is cheaper than oil on average, on a per kilowatt-hour basis.
By 2035 – The global oil trade is less than 25% the size that it is in 2010 (approximately $2.1 trillion), adjusted for inflation.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Future of Education: Effective Distance Learning

The year is 2025. Moseka, a 5th grade Congolese girl living in Kinshasa, uses her tablet computer to access her interactive learning software from the cloud. It is capable of accessing any book in the world, watching high-definition videos of her instructors, and tracking her progress. Her tablet is a lower-end model – only a thousand times more powerful than the iPads of 2010. She doesn’t worry about it breaking; they are as cheap as scrap paper, and only slightly thicker.

Although Moseka is fluent in French and English as a result of her lessons, she still prefers to learn in her native Lingala. There is an entire library of online courses available in Lingala, complete with ratings from previous students and parents. Unlike the online classes in the United States of the late 1990s and 2000s, which were largely inferior to in-person education, Moseka’s classes are among the best of the best. Many of the best educators in the Congo (as well as everywhere else in the world) have become celebrities in their country, reaching thousands of pupils at a time. The old model of online education, which was mainly confined to reading text on a desktop computer screen and submitting homework assignments digitally, has mostly been replaced by interactive software and tablet computers which make the classes much more productive and engaging. Moseka doesn't have any physical textbooks; she can easily access them from the cloud on her tablet whenever she needs them. These e-books are not merely electronic copies of books that exist in the physical world. They are full of video clips, learning games, and customization.

Like most of her friends, Moseka has only ever seen schools in old American cartoons. This is not because of her location; she has lots of friends in the United States and Europe who have never set foot in a school either. What is the point of going to an old building to learn from a local teacher, she wonders, when she can learn whatever she wants to learn, whenever she wants, from some of the best instructors in the world? Her parents and friends all seem to agree, as do the governments of most nations. Nearly everyone has access to a good education now. Ubiquitous computing has eliminated the need to waste money on school buildings, and created the economies of scale necessary for the cost per pupil to drop to nearly nothing.

However, Moseka’s education is not impersonal just because her instructor has many students. Large class sizes are mostly irrelevant now that brick-and-mortar schools are a thing of the past; in fact, Moseka likes having a huge network of classmates whom she can turn to for help. Whenever she gets stuck on her lessons, she first turns to some older girls to help her (and likewise, she helps her younger brother with his schoolwork). If she is still confused, she can ask her class for help. With so many classmates, someone else is almost always having the same problem…and someone almost always knows the answer. Intelligent software can easily match these students with one another.

Moseka is excited about her future. In much of the developing world, her generation will be the first that has the opportunity to use their abilities to change the world. She wants to be a teacher, confident that she’ll be just as successful as the teaching superstars who instruct her today. And due to the new education paradigm, she very well might be.

By 2025 - Youth literacy rates exceed 90% in both Sub-Saharan Africa (up from 72% in 2008) and South Asia (up from 79% in 2008). Gender disparities in literacy have mostly disappeared; the global female youth literacy rate is no less than 98% of the male youth literacy rate (up from 94% in 2008).
By 2025 - Fewer than 75% of students in the United States physically attend a school on a daily basis.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Update on Driverless Cars

A few months ago, I wrote about self-driving cars. At the time, the last information publicly available came from 2007, in which the DARPA Urban Challenge demonstrated the possibility of cars that could safely navigate through a city without human interference. At the time, only 6 of the 11 autonomous cars that competed in the challenge were able to complete a course in a makeshift "city" on an unused military base. The vehicles traveled extremely slowly (about 13 miles per hour) and the course was only 50 miles long. There were no tricks, surprises, or unusual circumstances...the vehicles just had to drive themselves and react to normal traffic.

I was excited at even this rudimentary amount of progress in 2007, so I was even more delighted when the New York Times provided an update on self-driving cars yesterday. The technology has progressed immensely in the last three years, much more quickly than I would have guessed. Google has secretly been testing autonomous vehicles, working with none other than Sebastian Thrun, the lead engineer of the Stanford Racing Team, which took second place in the DARPA Urban Challenge, and first place in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. The cars have been driving on actual highways, city streets, and rural roads in California, navigating their way through real traffic. There is always a human sitting behind the wheel who has the power to override the self-driving computer, just in case something goes wrong. In the last year, the Google Cars have driven over 1,000 miles on the streets of California without any assistance, and 140,000 miles with only minimal human assistance. They no longer travel at crawling speeds; Google has programmed the speed limits of all the relevant streets into the system and the vehicles are capable of traveling at the speed limit. In the Google Car fleet, there has only been one minor mishap in the last year: when another driver rear-ended a Google Car at a stoplight.

The New York Times article implies that it will be about eight years before self-driving cars are publicly available. Given the unpredictable nature of technological roadblocks and legislative paralysis, I'm opting to be a little more conservative, standing by my previous estimate: they'll be on the roads no later than 2020.

The NYT is quite bullish on their prospects, implying (via technologists and futurists) that "they can transform society as profoundly as the Internet has." That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but only because the Internet has transformed so much of our society. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that self-driving cars will fundamentally alter the way in which we design cities, will reduce the annual automobile fatalities nationwide from approximately 40,000 to approximately zero, will greatly reduce traffic and pollution, will help alleviate poverty by eliminating the need for most people to own a personal car (instead you could summon one to pick you up like a taxi, but available in non-urban areas and without the high fees), and will allow us to enjoy our commutes more by freeing up our time to do things other than watch the road.

By 2020 - Driverless cars are commercially-available and street-legal somewhere in the United States.
By 2027 - New driverless cars outnumber new cars requiring at least some human control, in the US market.
By 2035 - Driverless cars are widely perceived as safer than human drivers. Somewhere in the United States, it is illegal for humans to drive.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Economics of Happiness

The underlying assumption of modern economics has always been the notion that having more things makes people better off. Economists of all ideologies - from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, from John Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman - have implicitly accepted this assumption, even while arguing with one another over the best way to optimize the production or distribution of things. In the last few years, an emerging field of economic theory, Happiness Economics, is finally challenging that assumption. By asking people in many different nations, economic conditions, and social groups if they are happy with their lives, economists are yielding some very interesting results.

Can money buy happiness? It turns out that it can, but only up to a point. In the United States, the poor are far less happy than everyone else, but there is no significant difference in self-reported happiness between the middle-class and the wealthy. Although the American economy is vastly larger today than it was immediately after World War II, self-reported happiness levels have remained stagnant. This pattern is observed on a global scale as well. The least happy places on earth are typically impoverished, war-torn nations, but the wealthiest nations are not necessarily any happier than middle-income nations. Once a nation is economically developed enough to meet the basic needs of its citizens, the relationship between national income and national happiness ceases to exist. (EDIT: Some researchers disagree, claiming that more income does indeed tend to result in more happiness.)

The happiest nation in the world is Costa Rica, which has a GDP per capita that is less than one-fourth that of the United States, and an average life expectancy that is roughly the same as the United States’. This pattern is widespread in Latin America. Although most Latin American nations are middle-income nations, the region as a whole is extremely happy. The opposite pattern manifests itself in Eastern Europe and Russia. These nations are upper-middle income, but report extremely low levels of subjective happiness.

So if money can’t buy happiness, what causes people to be happy or unhappy? Research indicates that married people are happier than single people, religious people are happier than non-religious people, and those with more leisure time are happier than workaholics. People who donate their time and money to charity are happier than those who don’t.

On the national level, there does not appear to be any relationship between political freedom and happiness, once income is controlled for. Some of the happiest nations – such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia – are hardly poster children for democracy and human rights. National happiness seems to be driven primarily by the same factors that drive individual happiness: Happy marriages, active religions, workers who have leisure time, a culture of charity, and enough income to avoid poverty.

In 1972, the King of Bhutan coined the term “Gross National Happiness” as his preferred metric for judging his nation’s progress. Although it was ridiculed at the time, tiny Bhutan is now one of the happiest nations on earth: an enclave of happiness nestled between much less happy nations like China, India, and Bangladesh. Many other nations are now investigating “Gross National Happiness” metrics of their own, including Brazil, Italy, and Canada. Maybe the economics of happiness is an idea whose time has finally come. Perhaps future economists can focus less on what maximizes our wealth, and more on what maximizes our well-being.

The Satisfaction with Life Index. Blue countries are the happiest, red countries are the least happy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Church of the Singularity

A new religion has taken hold of the digerati of the world. According to believers in the Singularity, technology is on an ever-accelerating trajectory, with new advances happening in shorter and shorter intervals of time. Within a few more decades, they claim, the world will be changing so quickly that society will not be able to keep up. According to this theory, as soon as we develop a machine that is more intelligent than we are, it will develop even smarter machines, which will develop even smarter machines, which will solve all of our problems and endow us all with godlike powers.

As strange as it sounds, this is an accurate description of the beliefs of Singularity enthusiasts. If this sounds goofy to you, you are certainly not alone. Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier describes it as “the tech world’s new religion.” Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Software (now a part of IBM), describes it as “intelligent design for the IQ 140 people.” I completely agree with them. The Singularity has all of the elements of a religious rapture: If we as a society behave ourselves, there will be one instant at some point in the next few decades that will transform the world and we will live forever in paradise. As Lanier notes, “books on the Singularity are at least as common in computer science departments as books on the rapture are in Christian bookstores.” The Singularity has many prominent adherents, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

If this religion has a high priest, it is futurist Ray Kurzweil. Its bible is Kurzweil’s 2005 tome, The Singularity Is Near. Kurzweil claims that the concept of the Singularity can be extrapolated from current technological trends. He completely rejects the idea that the ideas of the Singularity are motivated by any religious impulse, claiming that this is a veiled criticism to make it seem unscientific. He observes that computers have become much more powerful in recent decades, extrapolates that trend out a few more decades, and concludes that computers will soon leave us in the dust intellectually. He predicts the Singularity will occur around 2045.

Color me skeptical. While Kurzweil is quite right that merely labeling it a religion is insufficient to show that it’s inaccurate, I can see a number of very substantial problems with this belief. First of all, it is not reasonable to extrapolate current computing trends into the distant future. As Kurzweil himself notes, we are nearing the point in time (probably around 2019) when it will be impossible to shrink transistors anymore, and Moore’s Law will come to an end. Kurzweil then assumes (based on absolutely no evidence) that we will continue to double our computing power at approximately the same rate as before, by using three-dimensional computing chips. While this is possible, it is by no means guaranteed. The rapid increase in computing power that we’ve grown to expect could slow dramatically in the 2020s. If this happens, we almost certainly will not have truly intelligent artificial intelligence as soon as Kurzweil predicts.

Second, there is a very large difference between having the raw computing hardware to emulate a human brain, and actually having the software to create a program as complex as the human brain. This is not a minor problem. One rule of computer science is that as computer programs become more complex, it becomes evermore difficult to increase their complexity further. To make a program twice as smart requires drastically more than a twofold increase in the program’s complexity. It could be many, many decades (or longer) before we have any programs able to compete with humans intellectually.

Finally, Kurzweil makes a huge leap of faith by assuming to know the motives of beings more intelligent than we. If we create true artificial intelligence, what is to stop them from killing us all, or worse? Kurzweil claims that this will not happen because we will program them to respect us…but if they are more intelligent than we are, they could easily reprogram themselves if they wanted to. Or even if artificial intelligence is benign and wants nothing but to shower us with free goodies, there is absolutely no reason to think that they would want to create intelligence smarter than themselves, leading to a technological Singularity. Maybe their increased intelligence would allow them to see what Kurzweil apparently cannot: Creating entities smarter than themselves could pose a threat to their continued existence.

I think my previous entries have made clear that I am mostly a technological optimist. I share Ray Kurzweil’s belief that we will overcome many of the problems facing the world in the coming decades, including hunger, extreme poverty, naturally-occurring disease, environmental degradation, and aging. I will even grant that at some point in the future, we will probably create artificial intelligence that is smarter than we are and radically redefine our concept of what a human is. Despite all of this, the concept of a technological Singularity remains a completely irrational idea. It cloaks itself in the language of science and uses elegant graphs of past technological development to rationalize its predictions of future technological development, but ultimately it requires the same leaps of faith that are more characteristic of apocalyptic religious raptures than of science.