In December 2009, we had iPhones, Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and most of the other technological props on which we now rely. Uber and WhatsApp were new. Netflix was mostly a DVD rental business. The connected home was new. Podcasts, so big today, were insignificant. 4G, the backbone of almost everything in today’s “mobile-first” world, had just been launched in Stockholm and Oslo but was years away elsewhere. The iPad was still five months off.
Behaviourally, our heads were not yet as buried in our phones as they are now (blame 4G for that), and social media was still in its age of innocence. It was fun and engaging, with none of the plaque of opprobrium that now sticks to it. Cash, now on its way out, was still a thing. Buying online as a first choice was still new. But life felt largely the same as now.
The ends of decades have a habit of being disproportionately important in personal technology. Things that will be big tend to bubble under in a decade’s eighth and ninth year, then seep into our lives. The internet and satnav were emerging in 1989. In 1999, Google, broadband and WiFi were embryonic. 2008 saw the sale of the first Tesla all-electric car. Today we have lab-grown meat, which began to trend in 2018 and looks a near certainty to go mainstream.
While technology adoption seems to be a whirlwind, it’s actually a slow process, with wholly new products surprisingly rare. The only really new devices introduced between 2009 and today have been the iPad, which came in April 2010; the smart speaker, debuted by Amazon in 2014; and the consumer drone, which is probably doomed by safety concerns. Nothing else available now would surprise the me of 2009, and it is highly unlikely that the products of December 2029 will greatly shock any of us.
Had I been asked in 2009 what I was looking forward to having by 2020, I would have said all the music and movies in the world on a hard drive (no longer necessary), quality video calling (now a done deal), not having to be terrified of roaming charges when travelling (largely solved), and cleaner air thanks to electric cars (we have a few, but the air still leaves much to be desired).
What was being predicted for 2020 10 years ago? Just Google “2010 predictions for 2020” to discover how, for example, serious futurists were expecting “a Manhattan-scale global project to curb harmful climate change”, “supermarkets restocking your internet-connected fridge automatically”, “nutritionally enhanced foods flourishing and obesity declining”, “disposable fashion going the way of the battery chicken”, and “people under 25 wanting to talk to their friends face-to-face, not via a digital machine”.
It brings to mind Sam Goldwyn’s famous maxim: “Never predict anything, especially the future”. So this time around, to find out what those actually building the future think, I went to spend a few days in Portland, Oregon, also known as Silicon Forest, where, unlike San Francisco or New York, young technologists can actually afford to live.
My first window into what smart young people are cooking up for 2030 is a meeting with some startups at Portland Seed Fund, one of many incubators in town. I speak to the founders of The Wild, which is involved in the business of immersive online collaboration (that is, not flying to meetings), using AR and VR. Meanwhile, the team behind Streem aims to enable “millennials who don’t like to talk to people” to mend home appliances remotely without a serviceman visiting. “Today people still want to talk to someone, but by 2030 that will be fading out,” says Streem’s Ty Frackiewicz. Another startup, Goodwell, makes sustainable toothbrushes that will one day be 3D-printable, so no planet-polluting shipping. Its forthcoming product is a clockwork-powered brush. Some way off the flying car people still think of as “the future”.
Want a big buzzword for the next decade? Try “nematode”. The nematode worm is a primitive creature that likes to live in rotting vegetation. Its power is being harnessed by NemaMetrix, a personalised medicine venture that started at the University of Oregon. NemaMetrix’s scientists take a human gene for a disease such as, say, breast cancer, epilepsy or Alzheimer’s and insert it into a nematode’s genome. The worm can then be used as a human proxy for testing drugs or new treatments. NemaMetrix was recognised by the Obama administration in 2014 for developing “revolutionary life science platform technologies”. “In 10 years,” says Portland Seed Fund’s MD, Jenn Lynch, “doctors won’t hand you a bottle of 100mg pills and say ‘take one a day’. They will be able to use your nematode proxy to give precise individualised dosages just for you.”
Meanwhile, at Intel’s 20,000-engineer campus outside Portland, Richard Uhlig, director of Intel Labs, is most hopeful for something I had not heard of: probabilistic computing, or next-gen artificial intelligence – but actually intelligent, which, ironically, AI isn’t very at the moment. Current AI learns laboriously what things are. Show it 5,000 cat photos and it will finally, dimly, recognise cats. Probabilistic computing works more like a child’s brain; show a probabilistic computer a cat once or twice, and it works out that other cat-like things are probably cats.”
What benefits might probabilistic computing bring by 2030? One thing would be much more natural prosthetic limbs. Uhlig explains how teaching a robot to shake hands can be tricky. “Teaching it to apply the right pressure to a fragile hand is not easy,” he says. “It is computationally very intensive and needs to be done more naturally. So we borrow from nature, observing how brains work, and build computing systems that look like that.” Also on the cards if probabilistic computing takes off? Things like self-driving cars with the sense to know that if a ball rolls out into a residential street, there may be a child chasing it.
I have been speaking with Marc Demarest, a brilliant Portland-based future thinker, since 1995. Back then he accurately predicted, for instance, everything Amazon now does. I ask him what he sees for 2030? Interestingly, Demarest is more “futuristic” than the younger technologists I met. “The hardware we have now is dead,” he says. “I see the meat/silicon interface – device implants – as the future as early as 2030. The two of us may not get them, but we will see other people get them. The boundary between the biological sciences and the technical sciences is going to collapse.”
What does Demarest mean by this? Nothing less than internet-connected devices being hardwired into our brain. The idea of the 2030 you starting, effectively, to be a cyborg sounds far-fetched, but Demarest points to examples already tested of installing tech directly into our nervous system. As early as 2013, scientists in Gothenburg, Sweden, wired a prosthetic lower arm to an amputee’s nerves, muscle and bone, allowing him to experience sensations and to move the arm using his mind. He returned to his job as a truck driver. Scientists from Stanford and Seoul National universities last year reported developing artificial nerve fibre from polymers. There are many more experiments.
It will not just be a case of manipulating actions in Demarest’s 2030 scenario. “We will also simply ‘know’ things,” he says. “We will ‘know’ the whole internet. Information will just present itself. The experience will feel like a pure meat moment. But your 5G implant-assisted brain will be searching the entire database of human knowledge to do so.”
It may indeed come to pass. But what, back in the real world, are my hunches for 2030, aside from cow-free burgers? I’m convinced that our core device, the quaintly named mobile phone, is now solved, so the 2030 iPhone 16 won’t be unrecognisable from today’s. It will improve; you will, for example, be able to ask your phone to use its AI to find a specific photo from among the million you have accumulated over 20 years. So not just “find photos of cats” but “find that hilarious cat I saw in Rome, can’t remember when”. The iPhone 16 will also have some interesting, but not great, augmented reality functions. And although it will still have that Victorian hangover, a keyboard, you will mostly address it by voice. Ditto the iPad, which will have continued its slow but relentless attack on the laptop.
Electric cars will be more common, but the number of charge points required for full adoption will be far off. Self-driving cars, which I long for, will not have come to much even given the promise of probabilistic computing. The brutal truth is that for them to take off requires an attrition rate in the form of hundreds of people dying or being injured due to software glitches. That – we humans learning from mistakes and getting things right slowly – is what made today’s jet aircraft safe, but our un-brave new world will not stand for it. Millions will still, sadly, make a living steering a vehicle. Sorry.
Space exploration could advance, but neither Nasa nor private trailblazers such as Musk and Bezos will get humans to Mars. Ten years is not time enough for that, even if Branson’s Virgin Galactic does finally make it into earth suborbit.
If all this sounds disappointing to those who still harbour 20th-century visions of flying cars and Mars bases, well no, the 2020s aren’t going to roar like the 1920s. It’s going to be a time of retrenchment and refinement – partly because a lot of our tech is fully formed – but chiefly, it’s going to be a period of radically changed priorities.
And that – which will be exciting in a different way – is because the wildcard in all this is Generation Z, the demographic cohort after the millennials, now aged 10-20 and which has never known a world without technology. For all its shortcomings – the calling out on social media, the binary thinking – Gen Z is very different from anything before, and will be adult by 2030. These cycle-loving tech natives with added spending power, who may become known more as Gen Greta Thunberg, will call the shots. For them, sustainability is all, as much a siren call as sexual liberation was to my generation. Whether they will turn out to walk the walk and, say, cut back on flying, remains to be seen, but there’s already a marked reluctance to use cars or even to learn to drive.
Back in Portland, I catch up with Caterina Paun, head of computer science at Portland State University. I want to know about Gen Z, the oldest of whom are her students – the future leaders, as she says, of the tech industry. Paun gets no sense at all from students who have never known a world without connectivity that they care about privacy. “People are looking for convenience, and you just can’t have convenience and privacy at the same time,” she explains. “They still have a rosy outlook on what the world is going to be. They are positive and enthusiastic. They trust the world.”
She is positive, too, about what some, including former president Obama recently, refer to as “callout culture”. As someone in daily contact with Gen Z, she sees a flip side to this. “Now the world feels more connected, there’s a lot more empathy,” she says. “I think it’s helping people learn a lot about their behaviour. It’s just easier to be made aware of how you make other people feel and I think that can help you become a better person.”
The world of 2030, then, will be similar to today’s, but run more seamlessly. The air might be a little cleaner. What things will look like is, as always, unknown – fashion and aesthetics are the least predictable of variables. But above all, it will be a world where we are more thoughtful about provenance, supply chains and the ethics behind the things we buy. But we will want them quickly. Really quickly.