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Speculative Futurism 101

I'm not entirely sure why, but I get asked surprisingly often by my colleagues at the college about my thoughts on the future of technology. (It's probably because I'm such an obvious geekette). I think there are technologies in development that could lead to a very optimistic future which I think of as a "World of Abundance": where basic human needs are met and we use technology to optimize human endeavors for creative and social ventures. Or it could be a very bleak future, depending on how we use and manage (or fail to manage) these technologies.

We have already achieved so much with technology that enables creative and inventive work. I've gone from writing my first novels on a manual typewriter to where I can create an entirely digital graphic novel that I can self-publish. My daughter Maxine recently designed her first printed circuit board on her computer at home, which was sent to a local small "makerspace" fabricator for manufacturing. The accessible and inexpensive technology that enables these kinds of creative projects is amazing.

Three technologies that I think of as likely world-changers are: 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles.

3D printing is still in its infancy, but Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age" really explores where this technology could go. Imagine a world where you can print ANYTHING, from food to clothing to buildings. A world where all basic needs are inexpensively provided.

Artificial intelligence is both fascinating and terrifying in its possibilities. We already live in a world where nearly all human information is at our fingertips, where applied (narrow) artificial intelligence is embedded in so much of our lives. But there's a potential dark side to this as well. As Elon Musk posted, "Hope we're not just the biological boot loader for digital super-intelligence." This article on Wait But Why is a great read as to why he is concerned about that:

Autonomous vehicles are another potential game-changer, changing the rules of transportation of people and goods. This article (hat tip to my friend Bryce) about Tesla's autonomous cars is just amazing. The technology is already basically here, it just needs refinement and we have to get through the legal issues to adopting it. (Volvo's recent "we will assume all liability" statement about self-driving cars is a fantastic first step.) But, while this technology will be great in many ways, it is also going to have a huge negative impact the lives of many people whose current livelihood depends on a job that a robot will soon be able to do better.

Ultimately, the "World of Abundance" is a world where jobs look very different than they do today. I recommend this well-researched article on post-work society, and both the positives and negatives:

There may be a lot of social upheaval between here and a "World of Abundance". I'm an optimist, but I recognize that our world is changing very fast, and our social systems aren't ready for that. But I'm very hopeful for the future overall, and especially optimistic for the future of makers and creators.

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