John Thornhill, Innovation Editor at the Financial Times, spoke at the P3 Future Trends conference about the ways in which innovation will change our lives in the next few years. The world may be abuzz with talk of Brexit, the refugee crisis or the US presidential elections, but Thornhill believes that it will be technology, rather than politics, that will shake the foundations of society as we know it and turn our world upside down.
"Let's face it, innovation is not what it used to be. Electricity, aircraft, nuclear weapons, computers – these inventions all shook the world at the time. But which would you rather give up first today? The latest model of the iPhone or the flush toilet?" Thornhill asked the audience. According to him, we live in a stagnating world whose governments no longer give priority to investments into new technologies.
However, innovation in the 21st century requires a more nuanced discussion. "The agenda will revolve around three things – godlike powers, immortality and bliss. Humans will create new life in the form of robots, they will almost double their own lifespan, and a large number of them will pop happiness pills to feel good."
Technically up to 10% of the population is already part-cyborg (thanks to pacemakers and artificial limbs) and artificial intelligence will clearly play a key role in determining the future direction of humankind. Thornhill confirmed: "During recent discussions, I asked the CEOs of four large corporations two straightforward questions – 'what technology do you believe will change the world?', and 'what technology are you most afraid of?'. They all gave the same answer to both questions – artificial intelligence."
Thornhill and the other speakers at the Conference agree that we are still some way away from a scenario in which robots walk among us. AI has become excellent in solving problems over which we've been wracking our brains forever, but is still hopeless when it comes to other tasks that we humans master without even really thinking about them.
"To this day, the Roomba vacuum cleaner – one of the most widespread manifestations of artificial intelligence on the market – is incapable of recognizing certain things which it should ideally avoid at all costs, such as dog poo. This leads to some very unpleasant results," Thornhill told an amused audience, though he hastened to add that many industries, from transportation to healthcare and education, to energy generation and distribution, will be profoundly transformed by artificial intelligence. "There'll be only two types jobs in the future: one group of people will tell robots what to do, and the other group do what robots' tell them to do," he said.
One intriguing chapter in the book of current innovations is virtual and enhanced reality. "You put on the VR goggles, stretch out your arms, and hey presto, off you fly, like Superman. But VR headgear also has its place outside entertainment, in the business world and particularly logistics. For instance, you can take a look around a warehouse or collaborate with people on another continent," he concluded.