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The day after tomorrow: Synthetic existence!


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 12 September 2013 00:00


The world is fast changing and in both directions of bad and good. We may be entering into unfamiliar terrain through our own activities. Some are in the driving seats of this change while we wait without even knowing some of these changes and thinking that is taking place. The bad is the crisis that we are heading towards with respect to the environment. The good is the potential that is created by emerging scientific and technology developments that can add to a significantly higher quality of life. If the higher quality of life takes us away from what we today may consider to be more natural and organic it is left to the reader to the decide, hence the follow-up comment – synthetic existence! Of course in the human value set the scenario is not quite rosy as violence appears to be the popular option in conflict resolution, be it between few individuals or between nation states. Even though we speak of dialogue and conflict resolution through sensible discussions, becoming trigger happy is the preferred option with ample demonstrations from all over the world. The developments predicted no way offer solace in this regard though some futurists believe that the religion is dead and the spirituality will be back.   Oblivious society Our society is largely oblivious to many of the changes being created through science and technology. When we try to implement solutions to our issues we sit down and discuss really basic options. Without a grounding in scenario planning, futuring and foresight, some technical areas with abilities to really impact decision making, the decision making is handled in an overly simplistic way. We do have the example of hedging against oil price volatilities and only thought prices will rise all the time. We embrace wholeheartedly the first solution that comes to the mind and walk into a myriad of complications thereafter. A recent compilation of future scenarios to materialise around the year 2030 – 17 years away and not much of a time period anyway – has been recently listed by a group of futurists in the current issue of The Futurist and the list is fascinating. A select list is given in this column to sensitise the reader that the world out there is not about status quo!     Immigrants across languages The first on the list is the disappearance of endangered languages and the teachers themselves. This will be brought in by the ubiquity of the wearable smartphone something Nokia came out with a flashy bit of advertising clip – Morph. The fact that Nokia will be with Microsoft is an industry churn statistic for innovation studies is not relevant but the concept they articulated is what matters. Children will learn from a language that is coming from a developed economy and the local lingo will go out of favour. There will be immigrants across languages as the emerging tools will offer no choice and with the added attraction of education at will and on the go. As devices deliver online content, the traditional teacher is made really irrelevant. Now who will aspire to be a teacher and what chances do they have in realising their dreams as such? The new economy will make one noble profession irrelevant. Hard to digest? Yes!   Home-based diagnosis An adult visiting a doctor for annual physical, blood cholesterol, cancer screening and other non emergency consultations will be a thing of the past. This can be a chilling scenario for many but not for those who needs these services and that set will not disappear. The situation will materialise with technology enabling accurate and personalised diagnosis at your own home. Smart sensors coupled to smart phones and the clouds having our own personalised databases will lead this revolution. Of course if scavenged data is way off from what it should be for you then a doctor would be connected online! Surgery may not be the most preferred vocation and as such robots will come in and operations without surgeons will be the norm. These are not fiction; even today as one can cite many examples to indicate these emerging developments such as robot-assisted da Vinci surgical systems in US, tele medicine, etc.   No more waiting Human beings may not need to wait anymore. No more waiting will mean a huge difference to individuals. As you will be enabled in multiple devices and means, transactions and purchases, etc., will be 24x7. Stable internet means 24x7 access, which is indeed a reality and not an issue any longer. The cloud can become more intelligent and having algorithms analysing your trends real time may even prompt you to behave in a certain way based on your location and time-of-day, ahead of your thought process, thus removing even the decision making process and making it redundant to some extent.   Autonomous driving With driverless cars, car crashes will disappear by 2030 – an exciting future scenario. However, getting into a road today with three-wheelers, two-wheelers, stream of quality Japanese vehicles and the occasional Lamborghini and a few cattle, we perhaps can be excused for not having the ability to imagine such an emerging scenario. Autonomous driving is being rigorously researched today and Google’s self-driving project is an example. Even in cars with drivers, there will be connected vehicle technology ‘speaking’ to vehicles and preventing collisions. Imagine the collapsing business model for drivers, vehicle repair workshops, paint and part producers, traffic police, orthopaedics, etc.   End of theft Another positive scenario is the end of theft! Not because values have escalated but due to smart embedded mechanisms ensuring that no theft would go undetected and in that context, why bother to steal? It has been said that in India a car is stolen every six minutes, a statistic beaten by the US state of Texas which apparently records a stolen car incident every 5.5 minutes. All things manufactured will have smart dust particles with sensors and transmitters and all our assets will have a link to a personal ownership network and it is perhaps easy to figure out how thefts can then be detected. What will happen to the insurance guy next door?   Paperless, cashless Paperless, cashless will finally be realised by 2030. As this has been a prediction for a long time yet not really seen it happening for a long time we may have gone sceptical on this event. Yet today I can sell my waste coconut shells and receive mobile cash and why not close all purchasing and earning loops without having the need to feel the crisp bank notes? Currency printers would be out, along with them some special supply chains in service today. E-books already having converted real die-hard book readers to switch to devices due to the thousands that it can offer on the go will go many steps further and wearable electronics will then even let my hands go free as I would be reading from my glasses. With virtual shopping coming into the fore the real shops will be putting up ‘closed’ signs ever more frequently. No hang-ups for such experiences with the new generation coming up with the mind already attuned to such experiences having done more downloading than shopping. Of course the hangout experience may too need to be provided and that is a challenge to be resolved.   Disappearing jobs With increasing population harder is to hear the prophecy of two billions jobs may disappear by 2030. This is significant when this amounts to about 50% of jobs on the planet. Of course millions of cars may need not have drivers as per an emerging scenario and associated jobs thus must vanish. The concept is, do not hang on to old ideas and old skill sets if you want to survive the future. One needs to be up and about retooling oneself with different skill sets. Disruptive technologies means there would be the need for different set of professionals and the message is do not set the curricula for the past but seek out the future. 3-D printing for example will revolutionise manufacturing, retail, art and perhaps everything. Imagine printed clothes replacing garment factories around the world.   Transformational behaviour These are few of the scenarios published. As you can digest some of the above we are indeed heading for a future that will take some getting used to. The comprehension will be quite difficult if we shut ourselves out from the processes taking place externally which is responsible for such developments. Being an islander is not going to help in an era of globalisation. That however does not mean subscribing to all such thinking and deeds but minus any understanding and knowledge we will be irrelevant in the process and that is not a healthy position to be in. Next time you sit down to decide on what course of action to take, hope your mind will consider whether to allow the usual tinkering on the edges or to push for transformational behaviour, which I believe we need anyway irrespective of these groundbreaking scenarios. [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]

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