2050 is not far-off, after all (1/2)

Addendums to Erik Hoel’s must-read predictions for 2050

Last week, because the internet is brilliant, or more precisely because the team at Protein Journal does an incredible job curating their monthly newsletter, I happened across Hoel’s substack article “Futurists have their heads in the clouds.”

So that you’re well and good up to speed, I would suggest popping over to read his article before continuing with mine. (And also, of course, because I can be quoted saying, “If you only read one thing this year, let it be this article.”) Bold.

Should you have chosen to read two or more articles this year, even bolder, see the following as my contribution to the reading group for points 1–8, next week I will address points 9–18.

Predicting the Future

Hoel starts by perceptively noting that the rest of us have stopped being perceptive. Namely, 2050 is as far away as 1992. For those of us who were alive in 1992, his remark reminds us to wake up, and do the math. (Or “you do the math” for comedian Chris D’Elia fans). 2050 is just not that far away.

2050, that super futuristic year, is only 29 years out, so it is exactly the same as predicting what the world would look like today back in 1992. (Hoel, 2021)

And I should know, given I’ve been alive 29 (and only 29) of those years. Wherein, despite Moore’s Law, the inventions that have emerged in my (memoried) lifetime could have easily been predicted by following the trends.

What was most impactful from 1992 were technologies or trends already in their nascent phases, and it was simply a matter of choosing what to extrapolate. (Hoel, 2021)

When folks ask about my research, folks who are not as deeply entrenched in technology (read: the future) as I am, I often show them the 1998 work of filmmaker Frans Bromet. While it’s in Dutch, anyone who has lived through the 90s and has been told “heeft u een mobiele telefoon,” means “do you have a mobile phone,” will be able to extrapolate that folks are not so sure about the idea of being reachable at all times. Saying things like “I’m certainly not so important as to need to be reached at any time.”

In under two minutes, most of the nay-sayers, who are simply well-intentioned (and mostly under-informed) Luddites are disarmed for they know all too well what happened: we all got smartphones, are glad no one calls us on the landline, and for the most part, we like this change.

But I do not want to invalidate folks' concerns. In fact, we should all be more familiar with the history of the Luddites, for their concerns, should be our concerns.

In her book 12 Bytes, Jeanette Winterson reminds us of the true origin of the term Luddite:

The Luddites of the early 19th century were not against progress; they were against exploitation. The 1812 Frame-Breaking act made damage to a power loom punishable by death. Luddites were not risking their lives to return to some sentimental rural Arcadia, but to earn enough to feed their children. (p. 39)

And so while it is a matter of digital literacy to understand that new technology begets new technology, silencing the hope for improved circumstance over what Winterson calls “new world order, capital, and property” is as ill-advised as it gets, of course.

Instead, I center my projections for the future on the past, as does Hoel,

If you want to predict the future accurately, you should be an incrementalist and accept that human nature doesn’t change along most axes. Meaning that the future will look a lot like the past.

as does Winterson…

We need to learn from the past. That's what the past is for. (p.34)

Part One: Technological changes

Space Exploration.

Hoel’s Take: There will be a Martian colony. My Add: More people will be in Space.

Hoel is correct, “extrapolating the incredible progress in the private space sector over the last decade…there will be an established and growing civilian presence on Mars.” Where I would like to add some more resolution to the prediction is around whether society at large is excited about this. Especially when those likely to be enabling this reality are polarizing characters (welcome Musk and Bezos to the chat).

In addition to the science, construction, and/or tourism Hoel points to, there will also be discussions down on Earth about the mere act (and cost) of settling on a new habitat.

As construction in space turns to mining, temporary habitats turn to ostensibly permanent ones, and both governments and corporations begin vocally splitting hairs about land ownership (the 1967 Outer Space Treaty withstanding) folks on earth will begin taking sides. Not everyone will be excited.

There will be questions about terminology and the implication of concepts like “occupy,” “colonize,” even “settle. And realizations about the technical support on Earth needed to viably sustain such initiatives.

Material resources will also be a huge concern when it comes to space travel. Namely, the fact that getting to space is wildly taxing on the environment. Folks will be divided between those who think Mars exploration is in conflict with increasing environmental volatility on Earth and those who see Mars as a requisite backup plan deserving of Earth's limited natural resources.

Commercialization of (All) Data.

Hoel’s Take: The marketization of everything. My Add: The data-fication of everything.

So in case you haven’t heard, spatial computing is on its way. That means, more extended reality and more ambient intelligence. This means virtual reality gaming will become customary — which Facebook (now Meta) made a big claim on in their most recent annual conference, Connect. But another kind of extended reality, namely augmented reality, will be the true data aggregator. Augmented reality will be near-ubiquitous in 2050, in the form of glasses. (If you don’t believe me, I direct you again to the video from 1998 above).

Everything you look at (and I truly mean look at as there will be cameras looking directly at your eyes to contextualize where you are looking) will be captured, and because of the improvements in computer vision, what you look at will also be categorizable. Didn’t read the email, but you said you did, the AR glasses will know. (But not know in any sentient sense, intelligent artificial intelligence is still very much fiction in 2050).

And all of this data. Well someone will own it.

The early 2020’s will bring Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs) to the web. With this, came a conceivable way to own your data (and privacy)— and to choose to whom you would sell, lease, loan, etc. your data.

Frustration with OURA Ring’s subscription model in 2021

And yet, being the broker of all of your own data has brought new problems. Firstly, there is too much of it. You will be overwhelmed by the number of considerations you will be asked to make, and when you have the (financial) privilege to do so, will prioritize convenience over decision making (think of financial advisors advising you instead on who is trustworthy of using your data). Secondly, a clear inequity will arise, those who have no other means will sell their data (and attention) simply to survive.

Commercialization of (All) Data.

Hoel’s Take: AI will be the most futuristic impactful change in day-to-day life. My Add: The line between automation and artificial intelligence will remain blurry.

Despite the calls of folks in the computer sciences to please stop calling AI, AI (they preferred the technical term machine learning) as it implies a level of intelligence that is incredibly misleading. The term Artificial Intelligence will stick. And much like how few in 2020 knew why restarting a router made the internet work again, few will understand what AI truly entails. Therefore, simple automation will continue to be perceived as AI (a light turning on when someone enters the room, for example), while true machine learning will grow leaps and bounds out of the eyes of the consumer marketplace.

Whatever it is called, it will be ubiquitous. And the mundane, routine tasks of the early 21st century will be largely automated. Indeed, Hoel forecasts correctly many jobs will be lost:

White-collar workers, like tax attorneys, lawyers, and programmers. (Hoel, 2021)

But perhaps this is not such a loss,

Getting rid of what the great econimist and anthropologist David Graeber called ‘bullshit jobs’ is nothing to mourn. What we need is economic fairness. (Winterson, p. 51)

Hoel suggests, “the worst hit will be artists like writers, painters, poets, and musicians, who will have to deal with a total saturation of artistic content by AI.” I don’t disagree, but want to add some depth. Namely, creativity is challenging to quantify. And in 2050, we will still be bound to what Ada Lovelace knew to be true in 1840 (though folks will be actively working to unbound this limitation).

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. (Lovelace, 1840)

Essentially, knowing how to order machines to perform creativity is still hard.

We can, and should, learn how a poem works, because that increases our pleasure in it, but emotional hit is odd and harder to pin down. The hit is like the ghost in the machine — we can see how the poem is made, but the elusive sprite-like thing refuses to get in the bottle and, well, be bottled. (Winterson p. 29)

Esalen in the 1960s. A private no-tech retreat by 2050.

Stimuli Economy.

Hoel’s Take: The supersensorium will grow in power. My Add: Calm and the un-augmented will increasingly be for the rich.

Hoel could not have said it more precisely,

VR addiction will be much more impactful than the ill-defined notions of “internet addiction.” (Hoel, 2021)

What was missed is that that predicament will not befall the rich who understand that plugging into the metaverse rarely to come out is some kind of hell on earth. The multiple private attempts to purchase Esalen and the myriad of no-tech private schools in the Valley, for example, show a clear trend to guarding oneself and one’s children from too much stimuli.

[The metaverse] takes us away from what fundamentally makes us happy as human beings. We’re biologically evolved to be present in our bodies and to be out in the world. — John Hanke, Niantic CEO

Instead, those with the resources will opt for a minimalist AR or fully ambient intelligent levels of technology. Those who can not afford such a lavish lack of technology will rely on digital worlds increasingly for calm.

Anticipated Needs Alters Shopping.

Hoel’s Take: A mostly storeless society. My Take: Sensors radically change shopping patterns.

You want a burrito for lunch? There’s an app for that, and you’ll receive it tin-foil wrapped and still warm via drone or human carrier in ten minutes. (Hoel, 2021)

But the question is, will you really purchase based on your wants, or will it be more likely that your whole meal plan is coordinated for the week based on analysis of data from your wearables, smart fridge, and bank account. In aggregate, your data will be able to increasingly predict and plan your need to purchase anything. Running out of toilet paper, thing of the past. Wondering what foods cause an afternoon dip, a thing of the past.

But yes, when you are craving literally anything a drone can carry, it can likely be to you in under 10 minutes. Want something from your favorite bakery on the other side of the country, you’ve got it! (Though maybe not in under ten minutes).

In-Person Learning for the Elite and Kids Under 5.

Hoel’s Take: Education will take place mostly online. My Add: Sensors radically change shopping patterns.

While the understanding of the importance of in-person interaction for the socialization of young children, development of fine motor skills, and lifetime performance outcomes only increase, the notion of post-secondary education being in person will be wildly reevaluated.

The notion of spending 18–22 at living on campus will be considered an anachronism or a wasteful indulgence of the rich. (Hoel, 2021)

And indeed, the institutions that do remain for in-person learning, will be the tenured-prestigious ones, and will be as much a social club as a learning institution. They will be able to do this based on a long legacy of hiring one another.

Gene Editing is Prominent.

Hoel’s Take: Genetic engineering of embryos to avoid disease will have become common. My Add: Medical ethics will transform to accommodate these changes.

Superficial genetic upgrades for babies (heterochromatic eyes, for instance) will be a trend among the super rich or pop stars. However, there will be no genetic engineering that improves the fundamentals of human traits like intelligence or athleticism or even anything like attractiveness above and beyond all-natural humans — the available technology will still be focused solely on avoiding downsides, like genetic diseases or disabilities. (Hoel, 2021)

Like any science, there will be folks who push past the established ethical boundaries of the time “in the name of science.” Gene-editing will make it challenging to resist experimentation.

Unfortunately, the Cherry Pit I have always dreamed of having as a pet will still not be available for purchase.

Youthful Glow.

Hoel’s Take: Anti-aging technology will extend the health-spans of the rich. My Add: Social media breaks down gatekeeping and tricks of the rich are shared.

(Baby) Botox has become standard (especially given its proven correlation with decreased rates of depression and tension headaches from squinting at screens). Social media has democratized access to the beauty rituals of the rich. The ability to look young, formerly had only by those with celebrity facialists, is common knowledge across the general public.

Already it is quite obvious that people at the top are not aging in the way they used to. Jennifer Lopez, Paul Rudd, and The Rock are classic examples of celebrities over 50 — even our president, Joe Biden, is unimaginably old for a president in the 19th century. (Hoel, 2021)

Next week I will address points 9–18.

Spatial Computing @ TU Delft