“The street finds its own use for things”, William Gibson, famed science fiction author, once wrote. Whatever a technology is designed for, the people who use it, and the environment it’s used in, will adapt it to suit other needs.
How might his insight come to life in the year 2100? The advent of advanced machine intelligence, automation technologies, urbanisation and the increasing connectivity between human and machine offer interesting prospects.
By 2100, as much as 84% of the Earth’s 10.8bn people will live in cities, according to the UN. Potentially dozens more megacities—cities with populations of 10m or more, 28 of which exist today, will pepper the planet—with developing countries accounting for almost 89% of the growth.
Coupled with a world rocked by climate change, however, these megacities may not be the shimmering and delightful Emerald City traditionally envisioned by futurists and science fiction. Some, notably coastal ones like New York or Shanghai, will have to adapt their structure to account for and protect themselves from rising sea levels as well as extreme weather events—be they hurricanes like Sandy or heat waves like those recently blanketing parts of India.
Humans won’t be the only inhabitants of these megacities of the 2100, however. Machines—and robots—will be integral to their ecosystems. According to Cisco, some 50bn machines are already projected to be connected to the Internet by 2020 alone, dwarfing the number of connected humans almost 10:1. While estimates for the year 2100 do not yet exist, the trend is likely to continue.
Combined with the continued rise of machine intelligence, this network of—perhaps trillions?—of connected machines will help cities make sense of any activity within their boundaries. “These machines won’t just be external objects in the world, but will be embedded in both us and our environment, seamlessly connecting us and immersing us in the cities we live in,” says Alessandro Voto, a researcher at the Institute for the Future, a think tank based in Silicon Valley.
An obvious application, currently in development, will be coordination of transportation and logistics though drone networks or driverless vehicles, both of which—thanks to AI—would require limited human intervention by 2100.
Health sensors, similar to Proteus Digital Health’s patch although probably implanted into the body by then, will connect with physical environments and healthcare systems, notifying users of changes in vital signs or potential danger, such as a heart attack or hypoglycemia.
With advances in bionics and human augmentation technologies like neural prosthetics, humanity’s connection with machines will likely feel as natural as we now feel with one another. Already today, bionic limbs allow for amputees and paraplegics to control physical systems telepathically. Tomorrow, we may find ourselves controlling the life unfolding in cities with our minds and vice versa. “This deeply complex web of intention and influence will adapt the world to the needs of its diverse participants, reprogramming the material, machine and biological systems that make up daily life,” Mr Voto continues.
Despite its advantages, not everyone is likely to go for this fully integrated life, however, and many will remain “unplugged”—by choice or for economic reasons.
Still, invoking William Gibson, we’ll always find our own uses for things. And as we grow increasingly synchronous with our technologies, the streets of tomorrow may equally find their own use for us, too.
Originally published June 9, 2015. This is republished as part of GE Look ahead’s “Best of 2015” selection. Follow @GELookahead on Twitter to join the conversation.