In the past century, our global civilization has created a world that is almost entirely reliant on technology for everything from transportation and agriculture, to healthcare and supply-chain economics.
Writers, scientists and politicians often worry about this over-reliance when they discuss the future. In their rhetoric, poorly understood buzzwords like AI, machine learning and big data become dangerous tools for the ‘next generation’. Although these technologies are likely decades or centuries away from seriously impacting us, they take the spotlight in our conversations, art and media about future challenges humanity will face. One of the reasons we prefer to speculate on the world of 2050 or 2100 is that it feels safer to talk about, because it lacks the concreteness of the near and now. With 2020 just around the corner, I wanted to use this space to think critically about the impact that emerging technologies will have on our societies, quality of life, and responses to our changing environment in the next five to fifteen years.
Caring for an aging population:
As lifespans in the developed world increase and birthrates fall, our senior citizen population will continue expanding. Japan, with an average life expectancy of 84.6 is near the top of the pack, and is an early indication of the merger of technology and care for aged citizens. Israel, too, will experience this challenge in the near future; our average life expectancy is currently estimated at 83 years of age. To deal with an aging population, we can expect to see the adaptation of remote monitoring devices, computerized assisted living companions, and assisted mobility devices. Technologies like ElliQ, an AI driven companion for seniors, was created with input from families, seniors and researchers including Professor Guy Hoffman of Cornell University and Professor Gal Kaminka of Bar Ilan University, with the goal of keeping older adults motivated and healthy while living alone.
These assisted living devices are still a few years off, but in the very short term the mechanization of food preparation, serving and physical care, which are some of the most taxing aspects of the healthcare industry, will increasingly become the domain of robots. Today’s healthcare workers, excluding doctors, are mainly women and minorities, and while the day-to-day tasks of our overburdened healthcare system have been left to these burnout-vulnerable caregivers, mechanized assistance from food processing robots and patient-assistance systems will reduce workload, costs and streamline efficiency. Take one of the more monotonous tasks in most hospitals and healthcare facilities: mopping the floor. Computerized floor-cleaning robots will soon be doing that job. Seems ridiculous? At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, researchers recently created a robot that cleans the floor of the popular Life Sciences Institute, taking about 3 times as long but with no human supervision, cutting down on costs and manual labor significantly.
Our online world is becoming increasingly devoid of personal connection. Its no wonder that millennials are reporting rates of depression and loss of social connection at higher percentages than ever before. Senior citizens, many of whom may now outlive their social circles and spouses, are also in need of human contact as they often live alone. With such an open market for companionship, we will probably see more autonomous companionship devices become available in the next ten to fifteen years. A recent Black Mirror episode, Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, touched on this topic where a lonely teenage girl buys an Ashlee, a semi-autonomous friend that can interact with her, give advice, and play music. Similar devices may not be too far away: researchers at the MIT Media lab are working on a range of sociable robots for uses in the healthcare and companionship industries.
These new inventions are surprisingly similar to the sci-fi drone-like companions of heroes from popular media from the past 10 years – think BB-8 from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, EVE from WALL-E or (my personal favorite), Moggle, a hovercam robot from the novel Extras by Scott Westerfeld. With the advances in lightweight, kid-safe drone technology, its quite possible that in the next decade, school kids wont be toting around their new best friends in their backpacks, but will have them hovering at attention above their heads at all times. Think people will not buy into these concepts once they come on the market? Think again: imagine how reassuring it will be for parents when they can check in on their 7-year old though live video feed as he plays in the front yard without direct supervision. Gone, too, will be the era of frantic missed calls after a 9pm curfew is missed – parents will be able to sync with their teenager’s personal companion unit and feel at ease – or override the unit to open a videochat channel and see what is going on.
The rise of online metrics:
Our society has always been ruled by metrics to some degree: credit scores, income records and taxation predate the online revolution and are seen as necessary to evaluate competition in a capitalist economy. In the last ten years, many of these metrics have migrated to the online sphere and have joined a host of social media metrics including Instagram likes, Twitter followers and Linkden networks. Even the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are not immune to this sea-change: ResearchGate, Google Scholar and BioRXiv each host some kind of metric to evaluate the reach, citation history and interest generated from publications and authors. Will we see a society like the one in the Black Mirror episode Nosedive where a social-approval based personal rating determines whether you can buy an airline ticket, rent a car or hitch a ride? Although this scenario is disturbingly similar to China’s new social credit system, which likely started out as a stand-in for credit scores, and has now taken on more sinister overtones, the short answer is: probably not in the next ten to fifteen years.
However, we should expect to see more online metrics impacting our real-world decisions. Tenure-track hiring for STEM professionals is already somewhat predicated on Google Scholar and ResearchGate metrics, while in the near future, web-crawling algorithms will search through scientific papers for keywords, cross-reference with authors’ previous citation metrics and ResearchGate scores, and present the highest-ranked papers to audiences. These papers will then receive interest from other scientists and more citations, creating an upwards cycle of online interest for the most popular or highest-raked researchers, rather than those with the most ground-breaking or solid science, which cannot be evaluated by an algorithm. This could prove problematic for innovative or novel STEM research, which often start in lower-impact or field-specific journals.
On a more personal level, consider all the ratings you give and receive everyday: Uber stars from your driver, Yelp ratings to your favorite restaurant. Someday soon, companies will begin using algorithms to mine that data, and suggest or predict for you the best place to hang out with your friends, eat lunch or take a date. More worryingly, companies may eventually figure out how to combine all the ratings you receive everyday, and create a metric to rate you! One would hope that in this extreme case, government regulation would be able to limit the potential abuses of such technologies. Politicians and government officials are ideally placed and strongly motivated to approve robust regulations to these metric-based technologies, as the potential for mass open-source rating of elected officials might actually force them to be accountable for their campaign promises at the ballot box.
As climate disasters become more prevalent, first-responders will integrate novel technologies into rescue efforts. Already, airborne drones are used to find survivors of hurricanes and tsunamis, to detect thermal signatures under earthquake rubble, and a number of companies have commercialized these microdrones for widespread cost-effective use. In the future, larger drones may be used to drop emergency packages to isolated survivors of flooding or in more remote areas. We may also see microdrones included in disaster survival kits for the home, ready to be released into the sky like a high-tech flare gun to encourage the owner’s speedy rescue.
Globally, Israel is known as a powerhouse in the field of disaster response technology. Its innovative water purifiers from companies like Water-Gen are able to turn atmospheric water into drinking water using electricity, and new advances will likely result in even further miniaturization, providing sustainable clean drinking water for thousands after emergencies. Direct rescue technologies like advanced imagine tech company Camero-Tech enable rescuers to find survivors trapped under earthquake rubble, while Israeli-designed communications systems like eVigilio allow for the mass communication of information to citizens before and after sudden disasters, such as the 2014 magnitude 8.3 earthquake in Chile .
This is the near future, and although modern media like Brave New World, Blade Runner and Ex Machina make them seem further off than we imagine, we are already living in a world where technology integrates almost seamlessly with our daily lives. This is the Deux Ex Machina future, where humans possess the ability to reshape the world in our image using technology. Thus, the most important questions we need to ask ourselves are not about how much the world will have changed by 2100, but what the world will look like in fifteen years from now, in five years, and in 2020. Only then will we be best placed to begin using our technology to ensure the safety and stability of our life on Planet Earth.
This is the first article in a series, Science & Technology in the Holy Land, a regular column on innovations in science, tech, start-ups and futurism by Jamie Magrill, an MSc, Biomedical Sciences Candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.