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My grandfather said that man would never fly, my father said that man would not reach the moon, but I wanted to be a part of both and far more. Only 100 years ago there were no electronic devices—everything was electromagnetic, but the scientists and engineers of that time seemed to sense that there was much more to come. And with the invention of the thermionic tube (audion) by De Forest in 1906 the stage was set for everything we now enjoy. So what stage are we setting, and what will my grandson enjoy?
I was born immediately after World War II just a few months after Winston Churchill made his famous Iron Curtain speech and Harry Truman proposed the setting up of the National Science Foundation (NSF). This was a momentous year for science and engineering with the first rockets venturing more than 100 miles into space, the flight of the rocket plane (XS-1), the first long-distance car-to-car mobile phone call, and the public showing of the ENIAC (Touring) machine. Just one year later the transistor emerged from Bell Labs, Claude Shannon published his information theory, and penicillin went into mass production. Anything and everything seemed possible. What was happening? The world was riding a wave of innovation powered by a war effort on a scale never before witnessed, with the fastest acceleration of technology ever experienced by our species.
In six short years, the electronics industry had made huge strides in design, devices, and practice with the emergence of sonar, radar, microwave technology, and analog and digital computers. But this was all “forklift technology”—radios weighing as much as a five-year-old child and computers heavier than today's fully loaded 18 wheelers. And no one was seriously predicting the pocket calculator, PC, mobile phone, iPod, iPad, and the Internet as we know them today. At that time, a transatlantic telephone call cost more than an average man's daily wage, domestic radios cost a month's pay, and most people could not afford a TV.
Not surprising then, the world was full of optimism and hope for a new era powered by technologies appearing to offer endless possibilities of a life free from toil and hardship, where machines would do everything and we would have endless free time. Movies, magazines, and comic books were full of visions depicting instant communications, space travel, levitating vehicles, intelligent robots, and more. And as a youngster I devoured it all; science fiction, science fact, movies, radio, and writings.
As a young man I even tried to build that “Dick Tracy” radio and the “Flash Gordon” death ray, but failed!
As we now know, the future did not exactly work out like that. We found new things to do with our technology and time, creating new industries and a myriad of new devices, which in turn leveraged our knowledge base and opened new doors to discovery. In the context of Galileo and the exploration of the heavens, it was as if we were inventing bigger and better telescopes everyday so we could see deeper into the past, and farther into the future. And the key element of discovery was electronics, computing power, and the associated advances in instrumentation. Today, that is still the case, but it is easy to forget the heritage. The space race was not about “nonstick frying pans,” but it was about electronics, materials science, the physiology of the human, and engineering at the extreme edge. The Cold War was not about guns and bombs, but it was about monitoring and observation technologies amplified by brute force computing.
Little by little, a step at a time, new devices and techniques emerged to enhance our abilities and understanding: the main frame computer, maser, laser, radio telescope, integrated circuit, optical fiber, (N)MRI scanner, electron scanning microscope, mini-computers, work station, PC, mobile phone, etc.; the list is endless. All of this led to an inversion of “need and lead” that was never predicted. The established defence and industrial technologies slowly migrating down to the toy/public use over decades suddenly flipped with amateurs, hobbiests, and gamers moving into the lead and defence/industry benefiting in new ways within months. The pro-sumer had arrived.
How come? Gordon Moore's law of exponentially growing capabilities at exponentially falling cost invoked a “gear change” in capability, productivity, and creativity that is still not fully comprehended today. Our thinking is largely predicated on slow (perceptibly) linear growth and quantities within our span, grasp, and time scale. But over the past three decades exponential change due to these creative feedback loops has very visibly taken over. The human race has never been so busy or so productive, or indeed capable.
For me the nature of the technology feedback loop was humorously epitomized by Seymour Cray (sometimes called the father of supercomputing) when he was interviewed one time by the media.
The interviewer asked:
“Dr. Cray have you heard that Apple are buying your latest computer to help them design the next generation of laptops?”
Seymour then replied:
“That's interesting because I just bought one of their laptops to help me design my next generation of super computers!”
This cyclic and creative feedback continues today with the world wide web (WWW), cloud computing, personal technologies, and social networking pushing innovation further to the edge, while at the same time making it a global activity. Bright individuals are now augmented by powerful machines and networked teams, with creative activities migrating from singular to multidisciplinary activities. The simplicity afforded by linear independence of the past has been overtaken by the complexity of networking and the dull realization that the universe and everything in it is nonlinear, complex, and governed by chaotic action. Without our computing power, without our networked information and data, we stand no hope of being able to understand the world we now live in, and worse, no chance of managing the migration into an ever uncertain future.
So looking back, where did the expertise come from that leveraged the “crude electronics” of World War II rapidly giving rise to Gordon Moore's law and a manufacturing capacity that can now see over 500 million new mobile devices manufactured and deployed each year? As I talk with my contemporaries I find very similar stories of getting into electronics at an early age, working on the bench, attending night school, going to college and university, and entering an expanding industry that could see no limits. In my own case, I first entered into electronics at 11 years old after surviving a “near death illness” that would be regarded as trivial today—negated by the efficacy of today's antibiotics.
Once my interest was triggered I took a job delivering newspapers, washed windows, and did odd jobs so I could purchase army surplus radios by the crate. I then got into HiFi, remote control models, amateur radio, and all kinds of experimental circuit design. However, it was the phone company I have to thank for my first employment and a lot of my basic education. So, by the time I entered R&D, higher education, and manufacturing, the analog world of the “thermionic tube” and discrete circuit had been displaced by the transistor and integration.
Digital “everything” was rapidly taking over in the home, office, and workplace, and the rest, as they say, is history. But what of the future? What is the equivalent story today? Ten years ago I would have said it was those building computers, creating games, and supplying open software, but that leading edge is giving way to a new breed: the amateur microbiologists doing genetic engineering on the kitchen table. Then, of course, there are the builders of 3-D printers in home workshops, talented robotics explorers, and those venturing into nanotech and materials science by whatever route they can access. These people parallel the amateur electronic enthusiasts of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and will most likely be a similar source of “green fingered inspiration” for the emerging industries in the nanosciences and biosciences.
When I was recently asked by a group of students where I would focus my education, training, and reading if I could relive my life again starting today, I replied without hesitation:
“I would go to the intersection of bio, nano, IT, and artificial intelligence (AI).”
It is in the field of materials science that we are most likely going to find the solution to mankind's problems of sustainable living, equitable resources for all peoples, while achieving a symbiotic relationship with nature. We know for sure the technologies stemming from the last Industrial Revolution cannot achieve such a future, but they were necessary to get us to this point in our history. We now have to step on from the bulk machining and the destruction of materials and resources to the programming and natural cycling of resources. After all we have an existence theorem in “Mother Nature” as she builds bottom-up: atom to molecule, entities to ecosystem. She optimizes nothing, seeks only “fit for purpose capabilities,” and is completely ambivalent about the survival of any species. She uses diversity and death as tools of survivability. On the other hand, we are now penetrating her secrets by building top-down: bulk materials, machining, assembly, instruments, and machines.
“Even our transistors are now smaller than a flu virus.”
Probably the biggest threat to mankind is not the new technologies and the associated potential for serious errors, but our inability to change, to let go of the past, to adopt the new. Our politicians still talk about getting back to economic growth on the basis of old industries and their “food to waste” cycles, as opposed to migrating to sustainable futures based upon “food to waste to food.” And in the business and technology world, we persist in optimizing where we should not, we invoke mono-cultures that promote/ensure collapse and failure, and we avoid death instead of using it as a means to create space for the new. Today, we remain “unnatural engineers of technology and systems,” but there is hope as we are rapidly unpicking and learning the secrets of nature and how to achieve survivability, resilience, and longevity.
Layer by layer, our sensors, robots, and instruments, aided by our computers, are revealing the complexities and subtleties of the genome, protein, and life itself, all of which is way beyond the combined mental and physical capabilities of the entire (7 billion) human race—it is definitely a job for our machines. Perhaps more importantly, our AI systems are unraveling the complexities and helping us understand the subtleties of the biological world, and this may well be the cornerstone of the next Industrial Revolution beyond the straightforward exploitation of new materials and atomic/bio structures.
All of the above, and more, has happened during the past 65 years, with the biggest changes occurring during my professional life spanning some 40 years. Was all of it predicted? Certainly not! Many things considered imminently possible or likely in 1950 turned out not to be so, in part, or in the round. For example, nuclear fission and fusion would supply all of our energy needs, natural language conversational AI in the HAL9000 sense, domestic robots and robotic construction workers, hover cars, bio-stasis for humans, wireless power over long distances, a cure for the common cold, indestructible clothing, entirely synthetic foods, micro-climate control, supersonic transport, underwater cities, colonizing and mining the moon, manned interplanetary missions, etc. Again the list is endless, but it is now interesting to look back and ask why they did not happen, and failure seems to fall into three categories: We were optimistic to beyond our ignorance level; economics/politics/public opinion subverted the opportunity; the fundamental laws of physics would not accommodate us, or could not be circumvented in the time frame with the materials and techniques available.
On the plus side, there were far more discoveries and inventions than anticipated. The microprocessor has without doubt changed everything from agriculture to industry, telecommunications, computing, medicine and care, to entertainment and commerce. Computer chips in everything turned out to be a “stage-left” event along with the WWW and social networking. While almost in the realm of “almost science fiction” bioengineering has seen the creation of spare parts for the human body, and cloaking devices can hide people and vehicles in the visible and microwave spectrum.
So if we look into our crystal ball today can we say what will be 100 years hence? Not in detail for sure! But we can map some interesting trends and make some educated guesses based on what we know about the advancement of science, technology, and our engineering ability. It is possible to extrapolate the visible technology trends with reasonable confidence as our past experience has been that we are always pessimistic and mostly achieve far more than we imagined. However, we have little or no visibility of those unseen and unthought of things that will emerge from the numerous technology, innovation feedback, and scientific discovery loops. And we have even less of an idea of how people and societies will change—what will be acceptable, what will not. In this realm, we can only make an educated guess as we are bordering on science fiction.
What technologists and engineers can realize is almost entirely dictated by the fundamental laws of physics and the discoveries of science at a particular epoch. Two fundamental discoveries and understandings that we are likely to see before 2112 will transform every aspect of the technology future: a grand unified theory (GUT) of all the forces and the relationship between them, and a full understanding of genomics and proteomics, including their interaction and the detailed role of stem cells in the marshaling and organization of proteins.
Detailed knowledge of these two aspects of physics and biology alone would open the door to the creation of smaller and finer structures at all levels, and programmable materials in a hybrid materials world where the interface between nano and bio would be blurred to the point where it is all part of a continuum. The “designed” and the “evolved” would then become as one—and there would be no “top-down” and “bottom-up” engineering—both would be employed as standard tools in the creation of artefacts and systems. In fact, we would most likely be able to choose any point of entry along this continuum in order to effect change. At this point, we will have become the masters of matter and causality; only the emergent outcomes that follow would be beyond us.
Other “engineering luxuries” would include the understanding, control, and stabilization of plasmas, the unraveling of the implication for symmetry and antisymmetry at a molecular, and the impact on chemistry and the physiology of living organisms. Quantifications and categorizations of life, intelligence, complexity, and scalability would be powerful as well, and would answer many of today's mysteries and problems. And finally, if we could remove the disabling “stove pipes” of an education system designed for the last Industrial Revolution and not this one—we would see that:
“There is no mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology—there is only science.”
So let these “cornerstones and luxuries” set the scene for what we might expect in 2112, and the basic launch point and the context for all the contributors and their recorded predictions in this Centennial Special Issue of the PROCEEDINGS OF THE IEEE.
In a similar way that the first Industrial Revolution was triggered by global exploration and the coexistence of need, demand, wood, clay, coal, and metal oars in one location, the new revolution that will power us through to 2112 is founded on the needs of a global civilization that is approaching a point of no return. Pollution, energy production, climate change, and the exhaustion of natural occurring materials are complemented with political and financial instabilities that necessitate major changes in our industrial models and social order.
The dollar, pound, euros, and yen, are far too crude a measure by which we can manage markets, companies, economies, societies, our global future, and that of the planet. It is vital that we add at least two further parameters: the impact on society and the ecology. In addition, it is also clear that world peace and economic harmony will not be achieved by the models and thinking of the past:
“We have to move on from producing more and more for the few to a model that sees sufficient made available for the many.”
We might confidently project that the second Industrial Revolution has started with the commoditization of all the supporting tools, technologies, and information centered around and embedded in the WWW. Open software, networks, and access are now being augmented by open hardware produced of the crudest of 3-D printers and the efforts of amateur biologists operating out of makeshift laboratories. This coalescence of nano, bio, ITC, and AI looks to be the initial “cauldron of the new” with open access to shared resources and results.
My personal predictions for 2112 are formulated from two key components. First, I list flights of fact—logical extensions and extrapolations of what we know and what we can already do. These might well be categorized as more of the same but smaller, lighter, better, and cheaper. The second component follows these extrapolations to their logical limit and augments them with “flights of imagination” based upon likely scientific and technology outcomes and impending discoveries.
Implants and tagging humans: Millions of us now enjoy the benefits of implants and outplants such as the cochlea, pancreas, pacemakers, respiratory stimulators, etc. By 2112, most of these will have been replaced by biological repairs including full artificial organs, but we will be subsuming even more electronic devices into our bodies including: mobile communicators (iPhone++ if you like), location tags, passports and ID, medical records. In addition, we may have enhancements on offer for eyes, ears, and other senses plus the ability to record our lives by the second aka “my life bits.” The big question is: do we get to choose or do we get tagged at birth?
DIY healthcare and medicine: This will be a big step up from the pregnancy, glucose, and blood pressure testing today. Many countries are already deploying diagnostic toilets, while nano- and bio-based sensors can now detect single molecules of a substance. The human genome can be decoded at modest cost in less than 6 h, and several teams are vying for the $10 million price to produce the first working “tri-corder” aka Star Trek. So, beyond self-diagnosis, we will most likely also be benefiting from designer drugs/solutions also produced locally to our individual body specification.
Institutional healthcare and medicine: Today's medical techniques are going to look barbaric. Greater precision and efficacy will be affected through human telepresence—used to transport “best of the best” expertise across the planet to the point of need. Robotic surgery and automated procedures will afford greater precision than ever before, while improved scanners and sensors will greatly amplify diagnostic and treatment activities. AI will augment, guide/overrule/steer human knowledge/wisdom in the diagnosis process, ongoing treatment, and aftercare.
Possibly the biggest breakthrough with the decode of the genome and protein will be a whole body simulator that will identify a range of tendencies to specific diseases and a range of minor ailments to come. This will facilitate preemptive action and “body-specific designer drugs” and treatments. One big outcome is likely to be a cure for viral infections and cancer—one being an infection by imbibing a foreign body, and the other most likely a communication problem between proteins and the genome that can be reprogrammed.
Automobiles and transport: Unless a GUT reveals something really stunning about the laws of physics, our aircraft will still be burning some kind of fuel in a jet or a rocket powered by synthesized fuels that are far less damaging to the ecology. New materials might, however, allow continual aerodynamic tuning of the fuselage to minimize drag while maximizing lift. Trains will be the dominant form of mass transport with levitation the norm and transit speeds just below the sound barrier. On the other hand, cars will most likely see the most dramatic changes: ultralight electric vehicles with composite high-efficiency batteries built into the plastic shell; programmable skins to give any color scheme on demand; self-repairing meta material that self-repairs all minor scrapes, dents, and damage; mostly driverless with programmable destination, but with radar for clear vision in fog during self drive; and short-range vehicle-to-vehicle communication for all traffic management, routing, and maintenance data.
Telecommunications: All futile debate about FTTH will have ceased and optical fiber will be installed to every node—office, home, building facia, and lamp standard in order to deliver 10 Gb/s mobile to anything on the move, and to cope with the clustering of people, devices, vehicles, and “things.” All TDMA formats will have been replaced by WDMA solutions that afford ever more simplicity and overall reductions in maintenance and power consumption. At the same time, the old radio “bands aka the analog era” will have also gone and services, and devices will be awarded a choice of “spread spectrum codes” as the whole radio spectrum is now one big (open access) band without any segregation other than by intended use and demand. We can also anticipate sporadic networks of intelligent devices acting as “repeaters” with messages handed one to another to facilitate connections to the main network and the circumvention of congestion points.
Extensions to the spectrum in use will span 30–300 GHz with code choice being made dynamically on distance and bandwidth available to specific devices and entities. This region between 100 and 300 GHz will also become “fully open” and unregulated as it will prove impossible to police. Perhaps the biggest conceptual leap that will arrive in just one generation is “the (singular) network” as opposed to fixed and mobile today—and the hybrid use of facilities with signals in an analog and digital form. Transporting radio signals in raw form on optical fiber with orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) and optical amplifiers is another manifestation of a trend toward a mixed mode of operation.
Education: A system forged in the heat of an industrial revolution to serve the needs of a new machine with a ready supply people who could read, write, do basic arithmetic, understand something of geography, make measurements, and operate machines—it is all now so very destitute and unfit for purpose.
“Hopefully this ‘sausage machine for minds’ will soon be sidelined along with a priesthood that perpetuates a moribund model.”
Demanding the remembering of facts, the use of well-understood algorithms, and demonstrating an ability to regurgitate and apply under examination conditions presents a limited entree into a world that is not simple and linear, but complex and chaotic. In the new schemes, we will see a migration away from “the sage on the stage” to “the guide at the side” with all materials online and electronic teaching the norm—and a breakdown of the stove-piped disciplines an absolute necessity.
The “guide at the side” may not always be human. In fact, the embodiment of people like Richard Feynman, Steven Hawking, Maxwell, and Edison into the “mind of a machine” might give us a much better steer and inspiration. Open education has to free up the human mind to think differently and engage with others in solving the complex.
Design: Fifty years ago there was no computer-aided design (CAD) of anything. Today, CAD is being augmented by AI systems deeply embedded in the processes for the design and production of everything from oil rigs, buildings, and aircraft, to integrated circuits. Machines have now taken over in many areas of great detail and complexity to largely, if not totally, displace the human hand and mind. Casting into the future we can look forward to new regimes of machine design—and specifically machines that design machines. Within a 100-year span, simple self-replication will be overtaken by evolved improvements in design based on practical experience and the assessed efficacy of solutions. This will automatically lead to the creation of new human–robotic ecosystems, which will raise a new set of ethical tensions and problems.
Perhaps the most problematic of these will be the blurring of “life, intelligence, and culpability,” more especially, as our machines and products are hybridized with the inclusion of biological elements and components of “living” tissue.
Energy: In this first decade of a new millennium, there has been a focus on energy production, but that is not the real problem. Storage is the key to our progress. We have no shortage of energy or the means to produce it, but we do have to focus on those solutions that minimize ecological damage. The biggest challenge is that of storage. Our battery technologies belong to the previous century, and our big energy storage schemes (on a town and city level) require geographies and civil engineering on massive scales that are not always feasible.
We have a limited number of base problems here. First, consumption in all its forms has huge peaks and troughs, whether it be a city, a town, an industrial plant, an automobile, a train, or IT devices and installations. Second, many of our ecofriendly sources of power (wind, solar, wave, tidal) are also sporadic, inconsistent, and/or unreliable. Some form of demand and supply “smoothing” is therefore necessary.
Advances in battery technologies, super-capacitors, and liquid metal storage facility design will no doubt continue, but we need an order of magnitude improvement in energy density storage, charge times, and discharge rates. Fundamentally, this is a “surface area to volume problem” that might only be solved through a combination of nanostructures of combined biological and nonbiological form. At a device, human body, and automobile level, we will likely see super batteries/capacitors distributed to the points where variable energy loading exists, while domestic appliance, office equipment, and industrial plants will cooperate with supply systems to even out demand and supply.
At a village, town, and city levels, we can expect to see “subsurface” liquid metal storage “batteries” and mini nuclear generators augmenting solar and other ecofriendly energy supplies including algae-based systems. But the biggest storage facility will most likely remain electric automobiles and other electrified transport systems being charged and returning charge in an orchestrated manner in sympathy with overall energy demand.
Human Interface: There is only one big question here: Will we be able to input and output directly to and from the human brain, and will we be able to augment our natural abilities by directly linking to others and a global network of machines? Undoubtedly the answer has to be yes, but to what degree we can only guess. For sure “wire tapping the brain” is contentious and not for everyone. But we as a species are grossly asymmetric in that our information input rate far exceeds our output, and given that this asymmetry is a feature of high intelligence, it is unlikely that we will see input/output (I/O) parity no matter what technology we employ.
External taps and faster input through our visual cortex are possible using direct laser and electronic interfaces, but how do we get more out verbally and “digitally” through our hands? This is the real information bottleneck. For certain, we cannot significantly boost the “clock speed” of the human brain, and the only logical connection without “wire tapping” deep in the cortex lies in the direction of scanning technologies able to probe down to a neuron level.
At this time, no such scanners exist, and to create them will demand new understandings of electromagnetic fields and the biology/chemistry of thinking. This knowledge may become available in the next 100 years through the efforts of those working on the LHD @ CERN; the teams trying to formulate a GUT; and those investing time in the research of the biological/biochemistry/electrochemistry and topological organization of the human brain. Most of all, it will depend upon the advancement of AI and our partnership with it.
My guess is that it will indeed happen.
The purpose of this paper has not only been to introduce and set the scene for this Centennial Special Issue, but also to try and open the readers' minds to the possibilities and likelihoods of the next 100 years which are revealed herein. Of necessity our profession is both conservative and ethical, for we hold many futures in our hands and our influence and work can make or break individuals, companies, industries, and countries. But as the rate of technological progress accelerates, we need to keep a weather eye on the “radar screen of the future,” monitor the progress of other disciplines, gauge the mood and opinions of industry, governments, and populations, and make sure we are delivering all the benefits that science technology and engineering can muster.
So far, the progress of our species has been governed by our ability to subsume new ideas and facilities, but we are entering a new phase when ecological matters and the complexity of our world are becoming all too apparent. Our job is not only to “engineer” the best systems and outcomes we can, but also to guide our managers, politicians, and society to the best workable solutions. Increasingly that process will see our machines having a part to play in the debate, and our partnership with them will be all important.
We as a profession, and as individuals, will have to embrace our own technology as we form new partnerships to leverage human abilities along with those provided by independent networks of ever smarter machines. In this context, our history and progression is impressive: logarithm tables, slide rule, comptometer, mainframe, PC, pad, cloud. In my view, the future will be even more so with heritage epitomized by Deep Blue, Watson, Siri, and more. Enjoy the read!
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