Fiction writers, knowingly or unknowingly, are better at predicting trends than technological gurus. So while it was impossible for any technologist in the 1970s to predict what the next 20 years would look like, fiction writers—or even James Bond—presented a more accurate (sometimes gaudy) version of things to come. But as technology has changed, so has predictability. Technologists are, hence, getting better at prophesying, especially the broader trends. The way technology has changed over the last decade, however, makes one wonder if any prophecy made today will actually come true 30 years down the lane. Take, for instance, the case of smartphones. Not many would have predicted two decades back that the handheld mobile device would one day become a powerful computer. Similarly, it’s difficult to predict today what form the smartphone will take in the future. Although wearables do provide an insight into what computing will look like in the coming years, it’s difficult to say what will survive and what won’t eventually.
And it’s here that Mega Tech: Technology in 2050 becomes an important work on the subject. A compilation of articles from various tech writers who have worked or are working with The Economist magazine, Mega Tech follows the broader trends that technology is expected to exhibit in the future without prophesying. While this might come across as mundane to some, what’s true is that because of this, the work becomes more accurate.
Edited by Daniel Franklin, the executive editor of the magazine, Mega Tech gives a peek into what all technology would do in the future and how we will interact with it. The book follows its predecessor, Mega Change: The World in 2050, which talked about the broader trends in religion, politics and environment.
Divided into three sections, the book starts with a discussion of the fundamentals of technology, elucidating the physical foundations of future technology. Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek gives an overview of how computing, augmented reality and artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to change the world. He discusses not only the benefits accruing from these advancements, but also stresses on their demerits and how these technologies are open for use in military applications, which is bound to have disastrous effects. “Many proposed applications of AI are meant to serve humanity in straightforward, benign ways… Much more problematic, however, is the use of advanced AI for military purposes: think of robot armies or, more generally, highly capable weapon systems like Strangelove’s Doomsday Machine, set to perceive or act upon threats without human intervention,” he says. Other chapters in the first section discuss the possibilities that biotechnology presents and the innovation conundrum the world will find itself in regarding that.
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The second section is focused primarily on technology’s impact on sectors like agriculture, health, energy, manufacturing, military and personal tech. While some chapters concentrate on the ill effects, others take a more optimistic view of things.
But it’s the third section that most will find fascinating, given that this is where contributors talk in great detail about how tech is expected to upend society. None of the arguments are new—take, for instance, the inequalities of a data-driven world or the ethics of AI—but they still lend a perspective to the change coming to society.
By now, you must have noticed that I never once mentioned the year 2050, which is what the subtitle of the book is all about. The reason is that none of the writers mention it in the book either. Although the book ought to be concentrated on what technology is expected to look like in 2050, it’s more a reflection of what’s happening today. It’s true that the authors provide a more balanced view than other books on the subject, but the long-drawn articles read more like essays from The Economist. A well-balanced collection, it lacks the punch you would expect from a book subtitled Technology in 2050. Sadly, fiction writers still offer a better view of what technology might look like in 2050.