Look back to the year 2001 and it’s hard to imagine how different the world was. Global Internet penetration was just 5% then, compared to 50% today, and connection speeds were frustratingly slow. Mobile phones were fairly common, but were capable of little more than voice or text. Google was still just a startup.
Even if you could get online, there wasn’t much to do, besides email and some very basic information services. YouTube was still five years away and people weren’t sure if e-commerce was a viable business model. Many didn’t think Amazon would survive. Social media, of course, wasn’t even on anybody’s radar screen yet.
If the progress since then seems incredible, strap yourself in, because the change over the next 15 years will be far more fundamental and pervasive. Probably the biggest shift will be in how we use technology. While the advancements of the last 15 years have been mainly confined to the virtual world, by 2031 we are going to see the physical world transformed.
1. New Computing Architectures
Ever since 1965, when Gordon Moore made his famous prediction about the doubling of transistors every 18 months or so, technology has advanced at an orderly pace. Engineers have been able to predict, with a high degree of certainty, what would be possible in the years to come.
Now, however, Moore’s famous law is coming to an end and is unlikely to advance past the year 2020. Researchers are working hard to squeeze more life out of the old technology by coming up with new designs, like 3D stacking andFPGA chips, but that will only take us so far. We need to develop fundamentally new computing architectures.
Two such architectures are in advanced stages of development. The first, quantum computing, uses quantum effects, such as superpositioning and entanglement, to create computers that have the potential to be millions of times more powerful than those of today. The second, neuromorphic chips, mimics the design of the human brain, which is a billion times more efficient than current computing technology.
Commercial deployment of these new architectures is still a few years off, but there are already working prototypes for them. Within ten years, we can expect them to completely transform what computer technology can do.
When the human genome was first decoded in 2003, it cost $3 billion. By 2031, we can expect sequencing of a full human genome to cost under $100. That exponential reduction in cost, in turn, will create new worlds of possibility.
We’ve already seen enormous impacts from genomics in medicine, especially cancer treatment, where we’ve started to treat tumors based on their genetic makeup rather than the organ in which they are found, like the breast or the prostate. By 2031, these techniques, along with other new treatments, like immunotherapies which help the body’s own defense to fight tumors, will make cancer a highly treatable disease.
A related technology, called CRISPR, allows the precise editing of genes and will allow us to engineer synthetic organisms that will act as cellular factories. By inserting the right genes in microorganisms like bacteria and algae, we will be able to create a variety products, including those now made from petroleum, like plastics.
Back in 1959, when the physicist Richard Feynman came up with the idea of nanotechnology—engineering at the atomic level—it seemed like science fiction. Today, it has become a reality, with new atomic scale materials likegraphene and quantum dots unlocking completely new possibilities.
The future applications for nanotechnology are too numerous to list here. One particularly exciting area, however, is materials that are programmable at the molecular level. This is still a field in its infancy, but by 2031 we may be able to download new designs for physical products in very much the same way we download software today.
Another transformative application, which Feynman envisioned in his original talk, is nanoscale medicine. By working with devices smaller than the width of a human hair, doctors will be able to target individual cells for treatment, making procedures far more effective and less invasive.
By 2031, we can expect nanorobots to be injected into our bloodstream and seek out cancer cells, pathogens and even specific cells for repair.
4. Energy Storage
One of the most overlooked trends over the past 40 years has been the advancements in energy storage. Lithium-ion batteries, first developed in 1970, have continuously improved in both energy density and cost. To understand the impact of these advances, consider the fact that the battery takes up 90% of a laptop’s weight and volume.
Now imagine that battery six times larger. Clearly, the mobile revolution would be impossible without the smaller and cheaper batteries we have today. Renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, will also need to be paired with more efficient batteries, to power us through the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
Yet like Moore’s law, Lithium-ion batteries are nearing their theoretical limits and researchers are working hard to identify a replacement technology. The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory is working to create next generation battery technologies that are five times more powerful and one fifth the cost.
Another area of rapid advancement is robotics. In the past, robots were almost exclusively used in heavy industrial applications, where they were kept far away from humans for safety purposes. Today, however, robots are beginning to work alongside humans, especially on the battlefield, but in factories as well.
By 2031, we can expect robots to take a much larger role in daily life. Made of lighter, stronger materials made possible by nanotechnology and powered by neuromorphic chips running advanced deep learning algorithms, they will interact with us in a very natural, almost humanlike way.
What will be most interesting about the next 15 years is that unlike the last 15, which was largely defined by digital technology, the advancements to come will arise from the confluence of a number of fields.
Exponentially more powerful computing architectures will make it possible for us to work at the genomic and molecular levels and create intelligent machines. New sources of energy, as well as the ability to store that energy far more efficiently, will allow these technologies to be practical, safe and affordable.
Today, in 2016, we have largely mastered the virtual world of information. By 2031, we will have begun to master the physical world as well.