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Technological Innovation Has Only Just Begun 

If you think technology has vastly changed our lives, author Kevin Kelly says you haven’t seen anything yet. Kevin helped launch Wired magazine and is one of the most highly respected thinkers on the future of technological innovation. In his latest book, The Inevitable, he reveals 12 technological forces that he says are destined to shape our future. Among other things, he describes a world where virtual reality is as commonplace as cell phones. 

Some of these forces are already at work, thanks to devices that can track your every movement and take over mundane tasks. But Kevin contends that technology’s potential is still in its infancy. Indeed, he’s convinced that the most amazing inventions of all time are still to come. 

Kevin offers his thoughts on some of the biggest trends to come and provides a counterintuitive argument about why technology is actually making us all much more social creatures. 

You write that most of the important technologies that will dominate our lives in the next 30 years haven’t been invented yet. 

That’s absolutely true. If we were talking 30 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned anything about the web. The Internet wasn’t even anticipated by the brightest science fiction writers back then. Now the web dominates our lives. Some have called it the most important invention of the last 25 years. However, I would argue the most important invention of the next quarter century isn’t here yet.

In your book, you list 12 inevitable technological forces that will shape our future. If you had to single one out as potentially the most important, what would it be?

By far the most potent is artificial intelligence, or what I refer to as “cognification.” This refers to making everything smarter. Early-stage artificial intelligence, or AI, birthed the industrial revolution, which has transformed our lives in many ways. Everything we see in the city and in our homes uses some form of artificial power. We went from having 250 horses under our hood to having electricity and the ability to turn a knob with the power of 250 horses. In this next phase, AI will give us 250 minds on top of that power, all available to us cheaply 24 hours a day. These minds will guide us and anticipate what we need. It will be like having a GPS for your life.

It feels as if technological innovation has exploded in recent years. Is that just a perception, or are things really moving at warp speed?

It’s not your imagination. Technological innovation is snowballing. This early version of AI is largely responsible. What it means is that, no matter what your age, you’ll be a technological newbie for some time to come. You will perpetually have to learn a whole new set of commands, gestures and languages to adapt to all the technological change. You’ll also have to figure out how to do many new things. Once you have a self-driving car, for instance, you’ll have to come up with new ways to spend your time while driving.

Does that mean that robots are really going to start taking over everything?

They will definitely liberate us from repetitive and meticulous tasks. What’s great is that this will allow us to pursue endeavors where efficiency and productivity aren’t as central, such as art, science and developing human relationships. In fact, you’re already seeing the impact of this. While the cost of just about everything that can be automated is going down, authentic, experience-based activities keep going up. Look how much it costs to get a ticket to see Hamilton on Broadway. We’re also seeing strong demand for travel experiences, and people increasingly prefer chef-prepared meals over quick fast food. By contrast, if you simply want a quick answer, you can look it up in seconds on Google. 

Some may wonder whether relying on Google and other technologies to do all the work is bad for strengthening our intellectual skills.

I’d actually argue that Google makes us smarter. Now, if your job is to come up with answers, it’s not good. And granted, having calculators at your disposal makes your math skills a bit rusty. But as long as you know how to use the calculator, you actually become more efficient. It gives you the ability to come up with needed answers to often-complex questions very quickly and accurately. Granted, it makes you codependent on technology. But that’s all right as long as you keep up with it.

Most young people today are in constant communication with each other via text or social media. Doesn’t that make them less social, and might it have negative long-term implications? 

Interestingly, I’d argue young people today are very social. I lived in Afghanistan and in the hills of Nepal for a time. People there live exactly as they have for 200 years, with little change. So I know what it’s like to exist without having easy access to all types of technology. The interesting thing is that kids there spend their entire days with goats and sheep, never interacting with anyone. That’s how it used to be here, too. Because of technology, today’s young people are far more social. Instead of watching TV, they socialize with their friends online or by text. But they also hang out at the mall in person. Kids have far more interactions now than in the past.

Going back to AI, you write that from the moment we wake up to the time we go to bed, the web is trying to anticipate our every move, and that will only intensify. Some might find that to be a bit scary.

It’s true we are constantly being watched. For starters, we watch ourselves and track our movements through devices, posting pictures online and by communicating with friends. The government, of course, is watching us more and more all the time, as are companies of all types. Does this raise privacy concerns? Sure. But we are willing to surrender privacy to some degree because we’re getting benefits. Online tracking, for instance, creates a more personalized experience. The real surprise is that when people have a choice, they generally move the slider to allow for more personalization and transparency. I surmise that vanity trumps privacy for most.

But what about protecting important records and other confidential information from criminal activity?

Security and fraud are entirely different issues from privacy. Protecting your identity from thieves is very important. We’re increasingly going to do this through what is called biometrics. In essence, your body will become the password — from your heartbeat to your voice to the way you walk and various aspects of your face. There are hundreds of different biometrics features that serve as your unique signature. While it’s easy to spoof one of them, it’s hard to spoof two and basically impossible to spoof 20. So sensors using AI will be able to look at you just as another human does and immediately decipher whether you are an imposter. It’s exciting to think about where all of this is going.