by Dennis M. Bushnell
The tech-related futures literature primarily concerns specific technologies and their societal impacts. This discussion is an attempt to provide a precis of the major emerging technologies and their impacts upon societal lifestyles and upon the increasing numbers of serious to existential societal issues. The discussion is based upon Bostrom’s Technological Completion Conjecture,1 wherein technologies are carried forward to produce useful capabilities.
The technology changing society the most is information and communications technology, including communications, computing, and now artificial intelligence (AI). This is the enabling technology for the developing tele-everything society, including telecommuting, telework, teletravel, tele-education, telemedicine, telecommerce, tele-socialization, teleshopping, and now, with on-site printing, telemanufacturing. This tele-everything shift is reducing physical presence in favor of ever improving immersive/virtual presence, including multisensory (up to five senses) virtual reality.
These shifts are disrupting and replacing many traditional, pre-IT commercial and industrial activities and altering econometrics. AI is developing rapidly, progressing toward autonomous robotics and systems, and is increasingly capable of ideation, which before now was the avowed unique province of humans. The ongoing development of direct brain communications and brain chips will accelerate the extant human shift to cyborgism, including artificial eyes, hearts, limbs, and organs.
The above, including the IT-related operation of nearly everything, has resulted in a truly existential societal vulnerability due to the utter reliance upon electrons. There are both natural (e.g., solar storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.) and human deployed (e.g., electromagnetic pulse, cyber attack, jamming) approaches to attrite electrons, with possibly dire results. As AI and associated autonomous robotics develop, machines are increasingly replacing humans in the workplace.
A second major technology changing society is power and energy, with massive changes underway that are driven by ever decreasing costs for renewable generation, storage, and concerns about climate change.
Renewables generation and storage are now replacing coal and nuclear due to cost, and, as their costs continue dropping, gas generation as well. Iron-air batteries have a much lower cost and are being deployed for the grid. As a result, storage has dropped 70% in cost over three years.
Climate-altering CO2 is released into the atmosphere via human activities by energy generation, transportation, manufacturing, and buildings. With the advent of ever less costly renewable electricity, the CO2 from generation will decrease. For cost as well as climate reasons, transportation, manufacturing, and buildings are shifting to electrification. The development of renewable, on-site/distributed generation and storage, as well as the large improvements in energy conservation and resilience to solar and other storms, are enabling buildings to be energy sources, producing more energy than they use.
This shift to cleaner, less costly electrification is again altering much of traditional transportation and manufacturing. In the case of transportation, IT and electrification are enabling the development of a mass market in personal air vehicles to ultimately replace automobiles. This in turn will greatly reduce the costs and environmental impacts of ground auto-related infrastructures (including roads and bridges) and enable folks to live anywhere with no need for roads and wires. As these personal air vehicles improve, they could also replace an increasing percentage of scheduled airline service. Lithium air batteries, along with good aircraft design, could provide personal aircraft with long ranges.
Less expensive energy could increase desalinization and mineral extraction from seawater, which is important as mining on land is a major ecosystem degradation issue.
Another major ongoing technology area increasingly affecting society is biologics (e.g., genomics, synthetic biology, CRISPR gene editing, etc.), which are extending and altering human life. Industrially, the biotech revolution is proffering both bioproduction (utilization of bio processes in manufacturing) and bio-enabled product capabilities/functionalism.
Then there are halophytes (the other part of the plant kingdom), which are salt plants grown on deserts and wastelands utilizing saline and seawater. Deserts and wastelands are some 44% of the land, and saline/seawater is some 97% of the planet’s water. These heretofore largely unexploited and massive resources constitute the last human play regarding major utilization (in a good way) of the ecosystem. Halophytes could, rapidly and affordably, solve issues with land, water (halophytes are food plants, replace freshwater agriculture with saline/salt water), food, energy (massive capacity, low-cost biofuels), and climate (they sequester some 18% of their CO2 uptake in deep roots). Also, halophyte biomass could replace petrochemical feedstock for chemicals. Biotech will alter many traditional commercial and industrial activities and econometrics.
Overall, the societal/technology trends are toward increasing autonomy, electrics, AI, tele, cyborgism, smaller/lighter/cheaper, Do-It-Yourself (DIY), a global sensor grid, and a global mind.
The following is a list of serious-to-existential societal issues/threats and potential mitigations.2
Climate. There is a huge literature, going back many years, on climate issues. There is, however, less discussion of the many positive feedbacks now becoming apparent and increasing the rate of climate change.
A basic climate issue is CO2 release into the atmosphere. The decreasing costs of renewable generation, storage, and the increasing electrification of other major CO2 sources are the best bet to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. An almost equally major mitigation approach is serious energy conservation, with 30% to 60% potential reductions in energy utilization. The Rocky Mountain Institute terms these savings “negawatts.”
The now very apparent climate change impacts have provoked increasing calls for geoengineering mitigation approaches, the issue with these being the inability to determine potential side effects and associated unknown unknowns. Geoengineering approaches with perhaps fewer side effects include white roofs and white roads, and halophytes to sequester CO2. Halophytes grown using saline/seawater could literally and rapidly and affordably “green the planet.” Then there is biochar and ocean fertilization, the spreading of iron rich dust on the oceans to incite algae blooms, with subsequent ocean sequestration of a significant portion of the algae CO2 uptake.
Ecosystem. The developing technologies are providing cost-effective to wealth-generating approaches for remediation of the ecosystem.3
Employment: 1% and 99% wealth accretion and machines taking the jobs. The development of serious DIY, on-site/distributed energy generation, tele-med and tele-ed, on-site printing (especially from hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen sourced on site for plastics with molecular manufacturing in the future), local food production, prevention for health, etc., reduces the need for an income and would alter econometrics and the dynamics of concentrated wealth generation. This is essentially a high-tech, “back to the future” revisit of the employment situation before the industrial age when most were farmers, few had employment per se.
AI smarter than humans. This is definitely a work in progress with very diverse views expressed. Some opine this will never happen and some want to ensure the machines are friendly to humans. The increasing observations of machines independently developing solution spaces and approaches suggests that this issue will be difficult.
Asteroids. There are efforts underway focused on protecting Earth from asteroids, including ensuring we can identify the ones that might impact and are large enough to be a serious planetary threat. There are also approaches being considered using various means to divert them. Simply trying to blow them up or fragment them has produced concerns regarding the effects of the resultant piece parts.
Biohacking in the large, epidemics. When genomics was in its beginning stages, there was an Asilomar conference where serious concerns were discussed and strictures put in place to ensure that life forms adverse to humans would not be produced and let loose. Now, with synthetic biology, home biohacking and widespread web access to piece parts, the possibilities for adverse effects are greater, with demonstrated morphing of pathogens into forms that are much more worrisome.
Solar storms. The Carrington Event solar storm of the mid 1800s and a nuclear detonation in the Pacific in the 1960s demonstrated the seriousness of what is termed EMP or electromagnetic pulse regarding electrics/electronics. In its last report, the congressional EMP commission indicated the potential huge loss of lives and treasure from such EMP sources due to our total dependence upon electrons. Distributed generation would greatly reduce such vulnerabilities, as would utilizing Faraday cages and decouplers.
Brain vulnerabilities. There is a sizable literature that modulated non-thermal microwaves can adversely affect the brain. Also, the developing direct brain–machine communications technologies could be worrisome, including possibly mind reading. The implications of the evolving global brain are a work in progress.
Food and water. As noted herein, halophytes would, rapidly and at low cost, solve food and water concerns.
Super volcanoes. Yellowstone is a prime example of a super volcano. The most serious warming event in the geological ages, the Permian Extinction, which was termed the “great dying,” was due to CO2 from the Siberian Traps Volcanoes. Volcanoes can emit particles that block the Sun for extended periods, generate massive tidal waves depending upon position, and put serious amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Overall, technology developments are rapidly altering econometrics and lifestyles and are capable of mitigating many of the serious societal issues. There is a need to address these issues concomitantly rather than individually to ensure overall effectiveness. Some say we are due for a serious solar storm that suggests prompt attention to distributed generation and “caging.” Biohacking going forward is worrisome, as is AI that is smarter than humans, and even “decision by algorithm” could develop as a serious concern faster perhaps than some think.
1. Nick Bostrom, “The Future of Humanity,” Geopolitics, History, and International Relations, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2009): 41-78
2. Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Ćirković, eds., Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford University Press (2008).
3. Dennis M. Bushnell, “Financially Advantageous Approaches to Sustain the Ecosystem,” AAI Foresight Report (Winter-Spring 2020).
About the Author
Dennis M. Bushnell is chief scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
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