At the end of last year, I was asked to write a few thoughts on the most important, most disruptive technological milestones for each year of the last decade that will continue to have an impact in the future of the decade to come. Here follows the original version of that article, before it was edited down for space in its final incarnation.
2009 : Magic internet money
On the third of January 2009, the developer known only as Satoshi Nakamoto mined block 0 of the Bitcoin blockchain and officially started what would become the 100 billion dollar global crypto currency phenomenon and the beginnings of the, now ubiquitous, blockchain industry. Magic internet money was born. Bitcoin described a way to create scarcity (and therefor value) out of digital abundance, and showed the way forward to a decentralised future, where trade, voting and other transactions could be competed without the need of a central authority. Now, although the Bitcoin bull-run of 2017 is behind us; we are yet to fully realise the full effects of this radical new way of organising consensus and currency will have on politics, society and economics.
2010 : New hieroglyphics
Although, thanks to Brexit and that wall, the utopian globalist agenda may be showing strain at the moment, we can find comfort in the emergence of our new favourite international language – the emoji. In 2010, the first emoji character library was accepted into Unicode, thereby recognising the little symbols we are all so familiar with today as an official universal “Internet language”. Our contemporary hieroglyphics unite generations and nations in a common visual tongue. They could also, however, mark the beginning of the end of the age of literacy as we know it today – after all, who needs to text letters when a picture says a thousand words?
2011 : Who needs a car anyway?
In 2011, the first Uber drivers took to the streets, accelerating both the on-demand and the sharing economy. Commuters could catch a ride at the touch of a button on their smartphone – and they no longer needed to own their own vehicle to benefit from the convenience of having their own car. Today, the e-economy has evened to allows us to share anything from housing to handbags; thanks to companies such as AirBnB and Rent the runway we no longer need to own an object to enjoy it. Also worth considering is how Uber and its fellow gig-economy firms are changing the future of work and law. Society is still grappling with how to deal with gig-workers who report to an app, rather than a human boss, and are not covered by traditional labour law.
2012 : To the left, to the left
The world is currently in the midst of a “sex recession”. Teenagers and young adults today are more likely to be virgins than their parents and grandparents were at their same ages. This phenomenon may or may not be linked to the way our human interactions are increasingly taking place online, rather than in person. Tinder, the infamous dating app, which launched in 2012 is just one example of how people are turning to technology to help them connect with each other, with varying degrees of success. Clearly, though, we are missing something from our fellow humans in our digitally connected world; since more and more people turning to artificially intelligent chat bots, such as Microsoft’s Xiaoice, which has over 100 million “friends” for companionship.
2013 : Hold the beef
The move towards veganism and vegetarianism is a growing global trend. (In America, for example, one in four 25 to 34 year olds do not eat meat.) Then 2013, science gave us a way to have our cow and eat it too – in the form of synthetic, cruelty-free lab-grown burger patties that look and taste just like the real deal. Looking ahead, as start-ups such as Future Meat Technologies make these high-tech foods become more accessible, acceptable, and affordable, it is likely future generations will view killing animals for food to be a barbaric, embarrassing relic of human history. Other faux food companies, such as Perfect Day and Clara Foods are replacing milk and eggs with artificial imitations indistinguishable from “real” dairy.
2014 : What’s your number?
In 2014 the People’s Republic of China started piloting its ambitious, ubiquitous “social credit score” system to track and rank every citizen based on their online and offline behaviour. Built around a national surveillance network, the system rewards “good” citizens and punishes offenders. Individuals with low scores are denied access to services and freedoms such as using public transport or attending top schools. Similar human quantification systems can be found in capitalist countries across the world, where consumers are tracked, rated and rewarded for their behaviour by the companies who serve and sell to them. South Africans are familiar with behavioural rewards (and punishment) systems employed by medical and vehicle insurers. Rule by behavioural economics, or “nudge” is set to become even more commonplace.
2015 : Hello computer
In October 2015, Alphabet’s artificially intelligent computer programme, AlphaGo became the first computer program to beat a professional human Go player. This impressive feat of computing prowess re-ignited the global conversation around the future of artificial intelligence, and the possibility of the so-called Singularity (that is when an artificial intelligence becomes smarter than the entirety of human intelligence) coming to pass. It also re-awakened concerns about artificially intelligent machines and algorithms replacing human jobs and perhaps leading to a global post-work economy. Since then, artificial intelligence and machine learning have progressed to the point that the world’s top Go player, Lee Se-dol, has retired in defeat, stating that AI “cannot be defeated”
2016 : Fake news
In 2016, the website Buzzfeed coined the term “fake news” in response to a spate of plainly inaccurate (yet intriguingly titled) web articles originating from Macedonia. Since then, the lies have continued to run around the world, influencing elections from the US to the UK to SA, while the truth limps along behind trying to clean up the fallout. Fake news, spread via viral click-bait articles shared over social media has become a global phenomenon with wide-reaching consequences. The real-world impact of fake news can be felt everywhere from the growing anti-vax movement responsible for the re-emergence of once-eradicated measles outbreaks, to the spread of dangerous populist political ideas and extremist political parties gaining power across the world.
2017 : Deepfake
If fake news was problematic, it was only the start. In 2017 a Reddit user came up with the term deepfake to describe a series of videos he had edited, using a machine learning algorithm, to transpose famous people’s faces – onto porn footage – to create convincingly realistic fake movies. Enter the age of the deepfake where we can no longer trust our eyes or our ears, as sitting presidents and corporate leaders have discovered to their detriment. Unscrupulous agents can now literally place fake words into real people’s mouthes, and put real people into really compromising situations. Seeing is no longer believing.
2018 : Supermen
In 2018, the first genetically engineered human babies, twin girls, were born in China, ushering in the age of intelligent designed designer babies. The girls had been edited using CRISPR Cas-9 technology while still embryos. As the technology progresses, and as more and more governments allow genetic engineering of humans and human embryos, we are sitting on the precise between natural selection (evolution) and intelligent design. The ethics of what should be allowed (for example, the eradication of genetic illnesses) and what should be restricted (such as selecting and editing human embryos for good looks or superior intelligence) will be some of the most important questions the human race needs to decide on in the years ahead.
2019 : Real weird, real fast
If you thought the last decade was disruptive, just wait until you see what comes next. In 2019, Google announced that it had achieved quantum supremacy, in other words that the company had managed to demonstrate a successful application of quantum computing. Should the technology continue to progress from this early sign of success, quantum computing could dramatically increase the processing power and speed of computers as we know them today. Then add 5G speed internet (which is set to roll out in China in early 2020) to the mix and we can look forward to another decade of super-speed disruption ahead…
(In case you are wondering, the cover image is of me, from around 10 years ago…)