In my all-time favourite movie scene, Dr Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, is touring Jurassic Park and questions the wisdom of its founders, who are sure that they can contain their prehistoric creations: "If there’s one thing that the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously... life finds a way.” Of course, this essential truth sparks fears of rogue-dinosaur scenarios, but it also demonstrates that we should be intelligent enough to acknowledge that technology – like life – can’t be contained or controlled. It’s a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle.
Yet every day I hear pundits protesting the need to stop or slow down technological progress. Apparently, we face eradication at the hand of Artificial Intelligence (AI) or, at the very least, mass unemployment due to robots. Such simple-minded thinking is dangerous because it ignores the very nature of human progress and our inextricable dependence on science and technology, but we seem to be living in a new age of growing ignorance and antitechnology sentiment.
The point of no return
So, I ask, which technologies could we live without? Could we get rid of X-ray and MRI scanners? How about DNA analysis, antibiotics, modern farming and automated production lines? Then there’s electricity, the internet, mobile phones. The reality is that these are all necessary to support a global population of 7.6 billion.
Almost everything in our supply chains and supporting industries is already powered by AI and robotics, but more critically everything is networked and interdependent. There is no stopping or going back: technology is like a ratchet; it invokes a one-way change and any move to go into reverse comes at a terrible price.
Our primary need today is the creation of sustainable and equitable futures. But this is demonstrably impossible using the industries, processes and materials of the past because it demands we do more with less material and energy with far more effective reuse, repurposing and recovery.
New technologies are helping us to do this – and a good starting point is to think local. We already see vertical farming in some cities, with produce grown and delivered to order over very short distances. In health, self-care is the emerging model, enabled by low-cost sensors and AI diagnostic aids. Then there is 3D printing, which can dramatically reduce logistics, material and energy costs and is already used widely by the automotive and aviation industries.
New materials can be used in 3D printers and realise new benefits in products by storing energy, self-repairing and repelling moisture and dirt. And this is only the start. Embedded electronics and intelligence in new materials can change the properties of our devices, clothing, body monitoring and health.
Not available yet but in the research phase are smart materials – systems and objects that can actually morph. In an ideal world, aircraft would continually change shape to optimise their efficiency in flight, our vehicles would adapt to our day-by-day needs, our clothing would repel dirt and bacteria and adjust for day, night and season, while our food and medicines would adapt to our DNA.
Given that industry is already using autonomous robotics, we might reasonably expect them in our homes to go beyond washing machines and dishwashers by subsuming even more routine domestic chores. The biggest change here will be interfaces. Talking to machines infused with AI is now a reality; gesture control might work but more likely direct mind control will be favoured. Direct human brain to AI/machine control is not a fantasy; trials and experiments have been on the go for decades.
All this technology may become consumer ready in the next decade, but ultimately, we are talking ‘symbiosis’ as we become of our technology and our technology becomes of us. So think it and the machines do it are the likely outcome, while food, exercise and health alerts might just be the biggest benefit.
For those fearing such prospects, I suggest looking back to find some "golden age" when things were better for all humanity. You’ll find it just doesn’t exist. Technology-driven progress has created the space for us to think, discuss, create, live and prosper in ways that were unimaginable 100 years ago. Best of all, it has given us the ability to understand our situation and react to shape human societies to be planet-friendly. Who would wish to deny humanity that?