“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” promised Alan Kay, the legendary programmer whose personal creations underpin much of modern computing. The coming year will be a case in point. As the western world reels from the pandemic’s second wave, a critical question from the first—could scientists create a vaccine, or would we just have to live with it?—has been definitively answered. The revolutionary mRNA technique employed by BioNTech and Moderna not only produced COVID-19 vaccines in record time, but promises equally rapid results against a host of future diseases.
The vaccines also demonstrate just how large our blind spots can be when it comes to seeing around corners. Biotech didn’t crack the list of the most promising new technologies in a survey of C-suite executives conducted by Fast Company in November. (And that’s in the same year the inventors of the CRISPR gene-editing tool won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.) What are they excited about? Augmented reality, 5G, renewable energy, and most of all, artificial intelligence—which excites and flummoxes them in equal measure.
“Revolutions happen when new technologies become accessible enough to put into the hands of entrepreneurs with shoestring budgets and not a lot of adult supervision,” said veteran Silicon Valley forecaster Paul Saffo, specifically referring to 2020’s breakthrough AI technology, the natural language processing system GPT-3. He was not alone in arguing this point during an online discussion amongst futurists, technologists, and computer scientists as part of Our Future in Focus, a virtual event series exploring the future of cities, travel, work—and the future itself.
STRAIGHT FROM SCI-FI
With more than 175 billion parameters—an order of magnitude larger than its nearest competitor—and an open API, GPT-3 is already in use as a writing and brainstorming partner, but other potential applications seem ripped straight from science fiction. For example, a Microsoft patent to build chatbots based on specific individuals evokes the ghostly “Dixie Flatline” from William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. “Looking to science fiction for AI’s directions is going to be important,” Saffo said.
But executives still struggle with how to use it in the here and now. “Where a lot of people make missteps is on the business side,” argued Usman Shuja, chief commercial officer for Honeywell connected enterprise. “AI solutions need to demonstrate value in a tangible way. That means moving forward from isolated pilots toward full-fledged solutions that can be operationalized and scaled,” whether for simple data analysis or fully autonomous systems.
While it’s a given AI will be built into the superstructure of computing moving forward, it’s less clear what the interface will be. We are now further removed in time from the introduction of Apple’s iPhone (2007) than smartphones were from the advent of the commercial internet (1995). So, what comes next? Microsoft is betting that the combination of 5G connectivity, a mature Internet of Things, and augmented reality devices such as its HoloLens will not only dominate the next decade, but also level the playing field for essential workers who have been left behind by virtualization.
“This is a breakthrough for the frontline workers in factories, fields services, and hospitals,” said Lorraine Bardeen, CTO of worldwide enterprise and commercial industries at Microsoft. “Looking through their eyes and bringing data and visuals to bear on their work will enable the two billion workers around the world who haven’t had the technological benefits of office workers. We need to put more of our energy into putting these tools into their hands.”
THE BIOTECH REVOLUTION
Layering increasingly rich information on the world and teaching machines to analyze it will require unprecedented amounts of energy. Fortunately, if there’s one prediction forecasters failed spectacularly at, it’s the plunging cost of solar electricity over the past decade. Will we be able to repeat that again in time to stave off the worst effects of climate change?
Luckily for us, the same technologies driving our exponential consumption of electricity will also boost production, Shuja argued. “AI and 5G will play a major role in driving down the costs of a wind farm or electric vehicles,” he said. “On top of that, a generational shift in sustainability will drive investment in these trends. It’s all coming together.”
But the real revolution may be the one we all took for granted until a deadly pandemic brought it to the fore. Nearly a generation after sequencing the human genome, and several waves of booms-and-busts since, is it finally biotech’s time to save—and then transform—our lives? “For me, as a forecaster, when something arrives faster than expected, that means you’re right at a take-off point on an exponential curve,” Saffo said. “The fact we got these vaccines earlier than anticipated is not only welcome news, it’s an indicator you’d better fasten your seatbelt because the biotech revolution is really here.”
Sometimes, even the future is ahead of schedule.