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What's Next?: Jim Al-Khalili Predicts the Future in 2018

Posted on 29th December 2017 by Martha Greengrass

In his new book What's Next?, Jim Al-Khalili takes readers on a tour down the rabbit-hole of future technology and scientific discovery, considering everything from the possibilities of teleportation to the limits of AI. So, as we approach the end of 2017, who better to predict what we have in store in 2018? Here, exclusively for Waterstones, Al-Khalili gazes into his crystal ball to give us a glimpse of the year to come.

To prepare myself for the new Blade Runner  movie, I re-watched the original 1982 one. Yes, it’s still a classic, but it also highlights the difficulty of predicting how science will change our world in the future. The film, which imagined our world in 2019, opens with Harrison Ford reading a newspaper, and with flying cars whizzing overhead. Well, we won’t have flying cars in two years’ time, and where were all the iPhones? There’s a fun Danish proverb I like to quote – at least, I think it’s of Danish origin: Prediction is difficult, especially when dealing with the future.

Of course, the above statement rings true if we think for a moment who could have predicted Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016, let alone where and when the recent awful spate of hurricanes, forest fires and earthquakes would strike.  And yet…

Predictions about the way in which our lives will change thanks to advances in science and technology are spread across the wide expanse between the inevitable at one end and the completely unexpected at the other.  The most reliable, and imaginative, soothsayers when it comes to conjuring up the future are usually science fiction writers, but very few of them before 1990 predicted the internet and World Wide Web.

However, just as meteorologists can now reliably tell us if it is going to rain tomorrow, but wouldn’t dream of forecasting whether it will rain on this date next year, it is much easier to predict the technology of the next decade than that of a century from now.  This is because the technology of tomorrow relies on the science of today. Sometimes of course, scientific discoveries lead to completely unforeseen applications that transform our lives – the internet is one such example. And it is these unexpected benefits of fundamental research that can often be forgotten. Michael Faraday didn’t spend his life messing around with electric circuits and magnets because he could foresee the invention of the television.

It is important to remember that scientific knowledge itself is neither good nor evil – it’s the way we use it that matters. You can be sure that within a decade or two we will have AI controlled smart cities, driverless cars, augmented reality, genetically modified food, new and more efficient forms of energy, smart materials, and a myriad of gadgets and appliances all networked and talking to each other. It will be a world almost unrecognizable today, just as today would be to someone transported in a time machine here from the 1970s and 80s.

It is undeniably true that the implementation of new technologies, whether in AI, robotics, genetics, geoengineering or nanotechnology, to name but a few exciting current areas of rapid advancement, must be carefully considered and debated. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be propelled headlong into an unknown future without carefully exploring the implications, both ethical and practical, of our discoveries and their applications.  Many examples come to mind, such as the way robots are already beginning to replace humans in the workplace, how we can best guard against cyber terrorism, or the way we use antibiotics, or use up our natural resources while destroying habitats and threatening the ecosystem as the world’s population grows both in size and greed. But I am painting a bleak picture, and our future need not look like that.

But what about 2018? What is coming just around the corner? Well, I can name three areas we are going to be hearing a lot more about in the near future. The first is the incredibly rapid advances being made in gene editing. It will soon become possible to treat a whole range of fatal genetic disorders by manipulating our DNA at a molecular level. We are also going to hear about advances in AI far quicker than many predicted – mainly thanks to new ideas in machine learning – but don’t worry, Skynet will not be taking over the world just yet! And finally, I think we’re going to hear more about advances in energy, both due to continuing plummeting costs of renewables like solar and wind, but also because of advances in energy storage technologies – basically super-batteries that will be used in everything from our smart phones to our electric cars, and which will leave that annoying Eveready rabbit in the TV adverts for dead.

Oh, and then there’s virtual reality...

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