Andrew D Atkin
There are 2 world-changing technologies that we can bet on for future predictions, because we can know that they are inevitable and will be deployed within our society soon.
1. High-powered network computing.
2. Fully automated transportation infrastructure.
High-powered network computing will give everyone access to powerful computer simulators for the virtual-prototyping of products. This can and will accelerate product-development, especially for high-tech products. With product-development being online-based, it facilitates extremely efficient collaboration amongst various technicians and enthusiasts.
We will also see an acceleration of the development and implementation of robotics, for where robots do much more than rigid production-line type functions. With the development of the high-speed internet we can design robots that are part-automated/part-remote controlled, so that humans can cut-in and over-ride automated operation when and as required. This, critically, allows robots of many different types to do just about anything that humans can do. Because humans only cut-in where required, one human may be all that is required to assist many productive robots. Internet-integrated part remote-controlled robotics can support a new wave in the development of automation. With high-speed internet, humans can now efficiently bridge the gap between what full-automation can and cannot do.
Fully automated transport will give us the physical internet and ultra-efficient transportation in general. A physical internet will mainly be provided by "micro cars" no bigger than a rubbish bin. [see my Automated Transportation Network in the June index].
The truth is that with automation, robotics, remote control, automated transport networks and the developing internet, there will be little functional need for most people to leave their homes for our society to function; not even for jobs that would otherwise require flexible mechanistic actuation. The fact that we will not need to physically attend a workplace (or other) will in itself radically reduce even the original need to produce. (Not to suggest that people would not leave their homes for recreation, of course).
The social trend that we should see in response to all this is a radical decentralisation of living/working location. Basically, we should see an amplification of the trend already created by the automobile and now telecommuting. We should see a society better and more efficiently connected, yet more private and spread-out than ever before. This will lead to the creation of true 'eco' or garden cities [basically, very large and well developed 'lifestyle' developments], of which support abundant replantation as opposed to our somewhat tedious "concrete jungles" of today.
We can be confident with this prediction, simply because with our developing technologies we can know that we can achieve the best of both worlds: efficient access to people, work and products, yet with 'lifestyle' privacy and tranquility combined. And, most critically of all, we can have it for cheap.
Tip: Don't listen to futurists who do not think first in terms of costs. With today's technology base just about anything is possible, so it's the economic factors that control what technological movements will and will not [foreseeably] eventuate, and to what degree.
Note: We have all been brainwashed into the belief that "sprawl" is bad, so I will clarify a key fact for the reader: Covering significant distances does not need to require much energy at all. If you travel at half the speed you consume only a quarter of the energy for a given distance travelled. So, if you create an aerodynamic car, get rid of the stop-and-go operation, keep the top speeds down to, say, a conservative 80km/h, then you can run your transport system on solar power if you wanted to and you would still laugh at the transport energy bill! This fact (along with many others: Please see my Smart Growth in my June index) render the environmental argument for forced-intensification over "Garden Sprawl" a proven nonsense, and indeed Smart Growth policies are failing today because of this. My point is that without gross and irrational political distortion, there should be nothing stopping the progress of this trend towards geographical decentralisation, a trend of which should soon be radically amplified.
We should soon see a world where people work much less overall, work more from home, consume less (for a given material living standard achieved), migrate to the beauty-bound 'hot spots' of the world, import nearly everything they need via a 'physical internet' (providing a new age of convenience), live in a climate and atmosphere of far greater security and ease (rather than the noisy "rat race" atmosphere of today), and also achieve notably superior health as nearly every aspect of their lives is lowered in both stress and toxicity. Again, the only thing that should stop this great progression is irrational governmental distortion (so please beware of it!).
A thought: Maybe this is where the heart of much of the "Smart growth" policies have come from? An aggressive attempt by the administrative status quo to fight the developing [technological and infrastructural] forces of decentralisation? I really don't know, but I must say that the type of decentralisation I am envisioning is a big-government control freaks worst nightmare.
Other 'big' (wild card) technologies:
There are other possible and maybe-possible technologies that we can contemplate, that could fundamentally change the direction (or intensity) of human progress, namely:
-(virtual) Free energy.
Of these, only Nanotechnology can be considered in a serious light because anti-gravity and free energy cannot yet be confirmed as possible.
Nanotechnology can give us the power to fabricate anything we wish, from whatever is possible with the elements, and with the far-reaching potential of creating a whole new level of 'high-tech' society. One if its most profound [first] effects will be to give us atomic computing which in itself would have remarkable far-reaching effects on our technological development. (though I would not go as far as suggesting that atomic computers could produce Artificial Intelligence, at least not the kind of intelligence we associate with human-type thinking).
Nanotechnology will, amongst other things, realistically give us the power to colonise other planets in our solar system and beyond. However, Nanotechnology advanced enough to allow us to explicitly fabricate materials and high-tech structures so as to realise its ultimate capacity for man must still very much be considered a "futuristic" state of affairs, because nanotechnology cannot yet be determined in terms of time-lines: we don't know when it will or could develop so as to give us super machines, and at a reasonable cost. At this stage in time, it is not worth taking seriously. But although Nanotechnology should be considered futuristic, it is still a realistic futuristic. We know that it is possible. Nanotechnology is still only an issue of time.
Anti-gravity would obviously be an extraordinary technology if it exists or could exist.
It is true that during WW2 the Nazi's were working on some kind of device associated with anti-gravity. This is interesting, because they surely would not have been investigating the possibility (at great cost) if they did not first have anything concrete to go on? So who knows what might exist. If any of those flying saucers we hear about are real, then my best bet would be that they are our own products developed from the/a military. I consider this to be a substantial possibility.
Regardless, anti-gravity must still be considered a science-fiction type possibility. It can only be considered spurious because it may or may not eventuate. Like with Nanotechnology, you cannot base any future prediction on it relative to any reasonable time-line, or at all: Anti-gravity could be now, soon or never.
(Virtual) Free energy:
My intuitive bet is that we will end up with "free energy" [free = virtually costless to extract + no substantial environmental fallout] probably this century. It has always seemed a bit strange to me that, with all our modern technology and science and all the abundant energy around us, that we should still have so much of a challenge extracting it.
Free energy would be incredibly disruptive to so much of industry. It would redefine to optimum form/system for just about everything. This means that incumbent property holders would become in possession of properties that are basically obsolete. They will not be able to compete with start-ups who have fabricated their products and services on the basis of costless energy. But this is a happy problem because it would, of course, only enhance universal prosperity and amplify the speed of progress overall, even though there would be a dramatic economic turbulence of winners and losers for a considerable period of time.
One of the distinct features of free-energy would be with the tunnelling for underground buildings and transport infrastructure; the latter of which will support super-sonic vacuum-tube trains (5x the speed of sound?). It would achieve this because tunnelling technologies based on free-energy should be radically cheaper (and provide faster production times) than current tunnelling methods. Amongst other things, they will use water-jets to cut through rock and then melt the rock walls so as to largely (if not entirely?) substitute traditional tunnel linings - an extremely energy-intensive but otherwise highly economic method of tunneling.
But again, free energy is uncertain. It is another "wild card" that may or may not come to be. You can't base a reliable future prediction on it.
The included video is about the possibility of "cold fusion"; or, a supposed nuclear process providing free energy. It is quite interesting, and relevant to the topic. I also write along this area in my article Developing a theory of matter, in the June index.
"Technology rules the world"
A final note. Looking at the broad trends of history and human development, I get the impression that the real 'definer' of our societies is science and technology. Though politics can and does produce drastic ups and downs, it is technology that defines the ages. And in turn it defines our lifestyles, the essence of our cultures, and even the general human mentality of the time.
So, I think technology is the first thing to pay attention to if you want to (try to) predict the future. Culture follows technology - not the other way around.