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.