An Optimistic Look 20 Years Into The Future

Here’s something funny about life. When you’re young and have your entire life ahead of you, you only think short term; the next school year, the next girlfriend, the next job. When you get on in years, and especially, when there are more years behind you than in front of you, you think more of the future. You think about what might be coming.

Recently, I’ve been thinking back 20 years and about what might be coming in the next 20. Remember 20 years ago? No Facebook, no Uber, no Yelp, no YouTube, and no driving apps. We ate in restaurants, walked along crowded beaches, and attended sporting events, concerts, and museums, all without taking selfies.

Twenty years ago, in manufacturing: EtherNet/IP was barely born. DeviceNet was still new. No AWS, Azure, OPC UA, or PROFINET IO.  Vociferous plant managers declared that Ethernet would NEVER be used on their factory floor. Robots were big, heavy, and expensive with little functionality. Manufacturing security meant looking through briefcases and purses looking for pilfered hammers, wrenches, and staplers.

Our world today was totally unpredictable 20 years ago. No one predicted cloud computing, Cobots, or factory IoT. Futurists talked about Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence but no one predicted how far and how fast it would advance by  2020. No one knows where it might go by the 2040s.

The optimists and idealists see nothing but benefits to AI. More jobs. More interesting jobs. 3-day work weeks. Better health care and longer lives as AI systems master our genes, our environment, and our lifestyles. Ubiquitous AI will drive us to work, manage our calendars, assign projects, and write reports. At home, AI will manage the house, our entertainment, and plan meals. It’ll help with homework and mediate disputes with your spouse.

Others have more ominous concerns. Privacy will end as AI will know everything about your finances, health, work-life, pleasures, and transgressions. Every other technology turn in the last 100 years has led to massive gains in employment. That doesn’t appear to be happening with AI. Lawyers, doctors, professors, and engineers – anyone where face to face compassion and empathy isn’t required – can be replaced by AI. Empathetic jobs may likely remain like grade school teacher, nurse, therapist, and others. The real worry some have is AI entities that can rebuild themselves, but better, and better until in pursuit of their objectives they decide that humans are unnecessary.

That sounds farfetched but who’s to say how far this goes? We know that the future is unpredictable.

For me, I am optimistic. Twenty years from now, the writer that replaces me will look back at all the events of the last 20 years. He or she will wonder how back in those 2020s we got along without personal air transportation, direct brain learning, robotic personal assistants, and universally configurable manufacturing machines.

I’m looking forward to reading that article.