5 Ideas That Will Change the World by 2025

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There are two directions to take when predicting the future. One is to say that something will never happen. Problems tend to crop up when you use the word "never," since it covers the full sweep of the future. A computer in every home? Impossible! The automobile? A passing fad! And who could ever imagine this "television" becoming commercially successful? Of course, people have said "never" to all of these developments and been horribly wrong, usually within their lifetimes.

You could also claim that something will happen. This has plenty of problems of its own, but positive predictions can at least be off by a few years and still be fundamentally true. My Foolish colleague Sean Williams took the "never" approach when he pointed out seven products, concepts, and ideas that wouldn't exist by 2025. I admire his willingness to place a firm deadline on the extinction of these things. At the same time, I'd rather say "yes" to the big ideas of the future.

With that in mind, I'd like to offer five big ideas that I think will exist in 2025. If I'm wrong, we won't know for at least 13 years. If I'm right, well, I'll leave you to imagine the implications.

1: A surveillance society: This touches on Sean's first prediction, which claims that digital cameras will be kaput in 13 years. We may not have digital cameras for aspiring photographers, but we will have a lot of other cameras -- on the walls, in the stores, embedded in devices of all sizes. The whole world will be watching when it discovers just how easy it is to watch. Some countries have already pushed hard in this direction. Britain has, by some accounts, 4.2 million surveillance cameras in action. The United States has more than 30 million. That doesn't account for the millions of cameras embedded in mobile phones around the world.

Not only will cameras be everywhere, but the data created by those cameras -- and all the other electronics you come in contact with -- will be under constant scrutiny. Facebook (Nasdaq: FB  ) could use your uploaded pictures to sell to you, or sell you out to the police if something's amiss. Your online communications, your phone conversations, and your shopping habits will all come under the gaze of ever-more-efficient software that can identify (or even predict) behavior with startling accuracy.

It sounds like I'm just stealing ideas from Minority Report, but I wouldn't be the first. The Department of Homeland Security is already testing predictive analytics for crime-fighting purposes. British researchers have developed software that can predict where you'll be a full day in advance. How much better will this technology be in 2025?

As the surveillance society develops, it may get an assist from another emerging trend...

2: An automated workforce: A multitude of robots already assembles things in factories, and complex software enables an array of tasks that would have been inconceivable just 10 years ago. Robots (sometimes piloted by humans) dominate the battlefield as the American military continues to seek out new ways to blow up the other side without risking ours. This is just the beginning.

Unmanned aerial vehicles should be cleared for commercial use by 2015. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) has seen great success with its self-driving car technology, which has traversed more than 300,000 miles and is now being used by some employees on their daily commutes. Software automation is always growing in ability, and is already well-established in positions ranging from sales and customer service to writing basic news articles. Give these technologies another 13 years, and it's all but certain that many more jobs will be automated away. Who needs drivers, pilots, builders, or typers, when a connected network of aware machinery can handle most routine tasks?

What will people do when they don't need to work? They might start getting serious about self-improvement...

3: Augmented humanity: The Borg aren't coming, but resistance to enhancing humans with technology may be futile anyway. "Biohackers" are already attempting rudimentary boosts to the human condition, such as the ability to sense magnetic fields, or to transmit feelings back and forth between a human hand and a far-flung robotic counterpart. Mainstream posthumans (that is, augmented humans) already boost themselves with chemical technology to get an athletic edge, or regain that which nature took away. Hundreds of millions of viewers watched double amputee Oscar Pistorius bound across the Olympic track this summer on lightweight carbon-fiber blades.

As the link between humans and technology grows more intimate, it becomes easier to imagine subsuming that link into your own body -- to enhance, not replace, as was Pistorius' case. Smartphones took half a decade to saturate the public's consciousness. Wearable computing will hit the scene by 2015. Once millions are walking around with computers strapped to their heads, it no longer seems like quite a leap to have these computers become a physical part of you.

Where will posthumans' loyalties lie? That's a good question...

4: Weakened nationalism and a rising global society: We still talk about the future in terms of the United States and China, or as it relates to European integration and Latin American growth rates. Many technologists and business leaders don't think this way, at least not unless the fortunes of one region threaten to undermine theirs elsewhere. Their future is global, open to any part of the world that offers them the freedom they demand and defends the prosperity they've accumulated. As more people take a posthuman leap, they're likely to join a growing class of elite global citizens whose ideologies veer toward libertarianism and who feel no particular loyalty to national borders.

Will posthumans become a cybernetic ruling class, or will they be persecuted as so many "abnormal" minorities have been in the past? That may depend on their willingness to offer high standards of living to the non-augmented. With all those robots running around, there might be a solution...

5: Distributed small-scale on-demand manufacturing: So most workers have been replaced by robots. How are they going to buy stuff? Maybe improvements in manufacturing will make most things quite inexpensive -- or maybe people won't be fed the urge to buy stuff all the time. A less consumer-based society (what a terrible thing for a finance writer to say) could support its needs with on-demand manufacturing, perhaps performed by a small army of high-quality 3-D printers.

Home-based 3-D printers are probably a dead end, but 3-D printing "manufacturing centers" stocked with top-of-the-line 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) and Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS  ) machines could readily support the demands of many people. Give these companies another 13 years, and it seems reasonable to assume much greater design fidelity (things will look sharper) and material variety (things will be made of more than just plastic) from quality machines. With an automated network, you might order a customized thing from a vast library, which would be assembled in the nearest 3-D warehouse and shipped to you by an unmanned delivery truck or helicopter.

The shape of the future
It's not hard to predict the future, but it's hard to be right. In some ways, I don't want to be right. Ray Bradbury was fond of saying, "I don't try to describe the future; I try to prevent it." Do you think these predictions will come to pass? Will their arrival change the future for better or worse? Let me know what you think with a comment.

For more information on the world-changing potential of 3-D printing, try the Fool's popular report on why "The Future is Made in America." It's free, but it won't be available forever, so click here to find out more today.

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Stratasys, Google, Facebook, and 3D Systems. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Read/Post Comments (20) | Recommend This Article (63)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 29, 2012, at 7:54 PM, Marksayre wrote:

    I'm glad to hear your thoughts about 3D printing being dead at home, my be chill the heat you put on DDD the last couple of days so I can buy it.

  • Report this Comment On August 29, 2012, at 10:08 PM, Kiffit wrote:

    You don't seem to have reckoned on a crumbling environment as too many of our species try to extract too much out of a global ecological system that is already severely stressed.

    Humans are currently using the equivalent of one and a half Earths to support our activities. This and other startling findings were revealed recently with the release of World Wildlife Fund's 2012 Living Planet Report.

    The report, a biennial survey of "the ecological state of the planet," combines an appraisal of "the health of 9,014 populations of more than 2,600 species" with ecological and water footprint data.

    Among other things, the report found that global biodiversity has declined globally by about 30 percent since 1970, with a 60 percent loss in the tropics. Global natural resource demand has doubled since 1966.

    Unless something dramatic happens by 2030, it is estimated we will be trying to live on two planets of bio-output.

    My take is that populations of every species, including ours, will crash, taking the modern era with them.

  • Report this Comment On August 30, 2012, at 7:45 AM, dividendgrowth wrote:

    Humanity's future could be:

    Best Case: Wall-E

    Middle Case: The Matrix

    Worst Case: The Skynet

  • Report this Comment On August 31, 2012, at 5:49 PM, TrojanFan wrote:


    Don't make the classic error of underestimating innovation and necessity as the mother of invention.

    Thomas Malthus made similar predictions as yours about 200 years ago in the early 1800s and yet here we are.

    The concerns of the day then were the food supply and energy sources and it's not hard to see how those seemed to be insurmountable hurdles at the time.

    But lo and behold, along comes the discovery of oil as a source of energy and mechanized farming and progress marches on.

    Allow your imagination to wander and it's not difficult to imagine how nuclear fussion and hydroponic farming or even introvenous feeding while we sleep across a vast network similar to the electric grid or plumbing system with synthetically mass produced and optimized nutrition is at least possible. When survival is at stake and the situation is life or death, the human mind has a remarkable ability of finding solutions to even the most complex problems.

    The classic modeling error is to project future outcomes based on presently available technology and resources and historical patterns of behaviour. The human being is a highly adaptive animal and the fact that we are even aware of our impact on the environment around us speaks volumes of our enlightenment relative to say, I don't know, a dolphin or chimpanzee.

    While we will face considerable challenges, proper stewardship of the world's vast arsenal of nuclear weapons during a period of growing international tension and economic strife not the least among them, I am confident in our ability to meet those challenges in ways that our difficult for us to even imagine today.

    The technology that is going to come hurlding toward us at rocket speed over the next 10 to 20 years is absolutely mind boggling if we just manage to find a way not to destroy ourselves in the meantime.

    Our nationalist political institutions that tend to promote clanishness and our economic systems that emphasize competitive behaviour are clearly beginning to undermine our progress in this regard. Competition is a healthy force until it devolves into something predatory where undermining the competition becomes the focus over better serving the end user and monopolies begin to coallesce as we're seeing all over the place right now.

    If we really want to achieve the noble ends this article describes, I think it is going to require a reorientation in how people view themselves in relation to their fellow human beings around the planet. Clannishness definitely needs to be suppressed and possibly even punished in order to achieve these goals.

    That's why #4 in the author's list is actually vitally important. Without that, we'll just continue waging resource wars on one another and building social structures of hierarchical power, subjegation and servitude which are all about acquiring power and control and using them to manipulate your fellow human beings in pursuit of elevation of self. Those are the very impulses that both promote and undermine our own progress every day and we need to find ways of better harnessing and channeling them then we have up until now.

    The stakes are definitely much higher today then they have ever been.

  • Report this Comment On August 31, 2012, at 9:49 PM, tyfoidhana wrote:

    the at home 3d printer is about as dead as the telephone, television, or personal computer, ohhhh excuse me now I carry all three around town in my hand in one device ! Yeah the big screen part is just a matter of projection and im sure that aint but and apple away.

  • Report this Comment On August 31, 2012, at 10:32 PM, NickD wrote:

    MCD will make you rich

    WMT will make you rich

    YUM will make you rich

    3-d printing stocks r gonna get you burned

    apple is gonna crash i said it

  • Report this Comment On September 01, 2012, at 1:09 AM, TerryHogan wrote:

    I for one welcome our robot overlords. I think Colossus will do a fine job of keeping the world safe. He also makes a mean martini.

  • Report this Comment On September 01, 2012, at 4:32 AM, maniladad wrote:

    Based on present trends I envision a world in which the wealthy live in large enclaves, probably well-fortified, attended to by robots and other machinery, all capable of manufacturing and repairing itself. The rest of humanity will exist outside, perhaps in something like 19th century conditions, a largely agrarian society ,but more probably in something like a vast welfare state, with automated machinery providing most of the labor and individuals free to engage in whatever activity pleases them. Many may be addicted to the use of implanted pleasure-inducing devices. Those with talent may find extraordinary new ways of artistic expression. Undoubtedly some will direct their aggressive tendencies and ingenuity toward the enclaves. Some will adopt a lifestyle and culture modeled on that of the American Indian tribes. I think it likely that population control will be a major emphasis and I suspect it will come in the form of financial rewards for those who voluntarily undergo permanent sterilization, with the largest rewards going to those just entering their reproductive years, probably around age 10-12. You can probably find most of these ideas, and many others, in science fiction literature, which is best regarded as a history of the future.

  • Report this Comment On September 01, 2012, at 12:58 PM, materialsman92 wrote:

    ^ sounds like Avatar to me

  • Report this Comment On September 01, 2012, at 4:12 PM, 48ozhalfgallons wrote:

    Nearly all of today's 2,000,000 incarcerated will be released by 2025

  • Report this Comment On September 02, 2012, at 4:48 AM, hbofbyu wrote:

    The thing about the future is that you never will be there. It's always now.

  • Report this Comment On September 02, 2012, at 8:40 AM, Windsurfing1 wrote:

    I do agree with your article and I do believe the themes you picked up will manifest themselves. However, knowing that.... it will not help us with todays investment decisions, since pretty certainly, DDD, striker, google, etc, one might derive being the once to profit, will for certain not be around anymore, and long time overtagen by other names. So ... all you can do is, watch out for future multibaggers... which are most probably not even public companies by today..... but owning some Facebokk, linkedin and the above mentioned will not hurt, since some will survive, but none of them will be the real big thing, since nobody knows yet it will be making it's IPO in 2020, and maybe it's CEO hasn't finished high school yet :-)

  • Report this Comment On September 02, 2012, at 8:43 PM, firemachine69 wrote:

    I've watched 'i, Robot' far too many times to trust cyborgs. :)

  • Report this Comment On September 03, 2012, at 2:17 PM, kellogg9 wrote:

    One obvious thing that will happen in the next few years is NFC for payments in stores.

  • Report this Comment On September 03, 2012, at 10:10 PM, ezfast wrote:

    I remember the movies they showed in school about what we could expect in the future. The automation and robots were accurate, but it was concluded that humans displaced by machinery would live lives of ease and leisure to pursue less mundane interests. It seems the owners of production didn't get the memo on that. Not only has that part of the prediction failed to occur, but the problem grows worse by the day.

    As a percentage of the human population, the permanently unemployed could continue to grow for the foreseeable future. An easy solution to this problem may prove as fleeting as my promised flying car.

  • Report this Comment On September 04, 2012, at 5:18 AM, TempoAllegro wrote:

    Chilling article - and I thought I was ahead of the curve some 20 years ago coming to Asia as an educator. Even teachers will end up being can fill in the blank by what!

    Here's my interpretation of the results of the above:

    1. Less freedom will result from more surveillance.

    2. Fewer jobs and greater polarization of wealth

    3. Lazy human minds, bodies & wills

    4. (if true) more powerful international corporations and weaker national governments (if false) increased tension over diminishing resources, more nationalism and protectionism

    5. reduced control of centralized manufacturing will possibly be the only true positive, but at the expense of intellectual property rights

    So I disagree with the author's assessment of numbers 4 and 5, with 5 being easier to explain - even if we have "3D printing manufacturing centers" there will be many more of them than current factory capacity, more cheaply set up. The fact that some inroads have already been made into the home front indicates it will explode beyond what we can see now. However, people will be sharing design plans online or "borrowing" things they see or like and who will stop them? IP lawyers can shut down a rogue factory, but a rogue printer in your living room?

    About number 4, you are describing it from a western viewpoint. I believe nationalism in places such as China is growing, and there are plenty of countries who will want a bigger piece of the global pie than they now have. While I agree with TrojanFan's comments on innovation and his singling out of number four as vital, I do not see his conclusions as a done deal. And as to the author's points, internationalism can only be taken so far - people love their own countries, and even their hometowns, not to mention their own languages and local cuisine. It may be cool to learn a foreign language or even live abroad, but it does get old after a while. You don't see people learning Esperanto or using chopsticks in Mexican restaurants do you? For me, I'm looking forward to seeing home and eating mom's cooking again!

  • Report this Comment On September 04, 2012, at 10:21 AM, Gyre07 wrote:

    I've got a question. Under scenario #2 who, or what is going to pay Americans for not working? I mean, at that point: we don't manufacture anything, and we don't sell anything. We don't need to know anything since we've got no skills anybody needs other than making a latte, maybe.

  • Report this Comment On September 04, 2012, at 12:54 PM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    I'll try to give a few basic answers now.

    @ Kiffit -

    I would hope that a combination of these trends will help reduce the resource overuse, possibly in conjunction with more renewable energy. Augmented humans might spend more time in virtual reality environments and require less food. That's one possible way to reduce each person's eco-footprint. Kinda Matrix-y though, isn't it?

    @ dividendgrowth -

    If machines become self-aware, there won't be any humans left to fight them after too long. One of the biggest flaws with the Terminator films, in my opinion, was that humanity survived at all. Very sloppy work for a bunch of machines.

    @ TrojanFan -

    I have nothing to add. I thought yours was an excellent response.

    @ tyfoidhana -

    There's a bit of a difference between the logical miniaturization of electronic components (smartphone) and the functionality of what is, for all intents and purposes, a Star Trek replicator.

    You use the functions of a smart phone every day. What physical object would you frequently need that could (or might one day) be created more cost-efficiently in a consumer-focused 3D printer than in a warehouse of industrial-strength 3D printers rigged up to the network of autonomous delivery bots I came up with in the article? Economies of scale should continue to matter for a long, long time, whether that scale is distributed (as in Amazon fulfillment centers) or centralized (as in a Foxconn factory).

    @ maniladad -

    That does seem like the sort of logical conclusion a sci-fi writer would make. It's grim, but the Ray Bradbury quote from the article certainly applies.

    @ windsurfing1 -

    I agree that some of the best investments in these trends may not exist for a few more years. It doesn't hurt to think ahead, though.

    @ firemachine69 -

    You've actually watched that movie more than once? You've got a stronger tolerance for Will Smith than I.

    @ kellogg9 -

    I keep waiting for that. I think NFC is a classic example of the hype getting ahead of the reality.

    @ TempoAllegro -

    I actually covered your concerns regarding intellectual property theft and 3D printing here:

    There's a risk for piracy whenever there's digital transfer of copyrighted/trademarked work. But there's also plenty of opportunity for a fairly-priced marketplace with strong legal protections.

    @ Gyre07 -

    That's a question for the politicians and the plutocrats, I suppose.

    Sorry if I missed your question. If you still want an answer, feel free to say so and I'll get back as soon as possible.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On September 07, 2012, at 2:25 PM, thidmark wrote:

    kahuna doesn't always drink beer, but when he does, he prefers Dos Equis.

  • Report this Comment On July 10, 2013, at 3:10 PM, CMFStan8331 wrote:

    Agree with all the main points here. Primary difference of opinion would revolve around the issue of home 3D printing. Even though home printing may seem inefficient in terms of resource utilization, I believe it will continue expanding indefinitely and become near-ubiquitous. One of the most relevant factors will be the surveillance state - anything printed at a printing center will vulnerable to logging and surveillance, plus printing centers are likely to have some variety of built-in copyright-related restrictions. The issue of instant availability is likely to be significant as well. I suspect many people will be likely to use both a home printer and a printing center, depending on the nature of what's being printed and the immediacy of their need.

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