Dr. Samuel Sia wasn’t the first scientist to imagine a future in which patients could test themselves for various diseases, without doctors, hospitals, and expensive labs. He was, however, the first to actually make these tests possible using an unexpected medical device: the iPhone.
“People always thought that at some point, instead of drawing blood [and] sending it back to a lab, you could just do it very easily, in this case a finger prick, and you could get something done that was equivalent to lab quality,” Sia says. “I was one of the researchers working on that.”
- Scientific Progress and the Future of Mom and Dad
- Your Health in a Pill
- What Will Happen to America’s Coast Lines?
- The Data-ization of our Feelings
- What Comes After Oil?
- Futurenet: What Lies Beyond the Clouds?
- A Self-Driving America
- The Promise or Danger of Virtual Reality
Researchers, entrepreneurs and engineers—generally, the people we think of as innovators—don’t wait for the future to arrive; they anticipate it. In Great Expectations, a series that explores our long-term future, we wanted to learn where the imaginations of innovators like Sia would guide us next.
We gathered ideas from leading thinkers in areas such transportation, energy, the environment, commerce, and health care about what they hoped and expected to see in the coming decades. The ideas are provocative: What will Google bring us first—nationwide Internet, self-driving cars, or cancer-detecting pills? Will our ATMs know when we’re in the mood to spend money and respond accordingly? Will our grandkids have DNA from three parents?
In the future, anything is possible—and our predictions are as likely to shape what’s to come as they are to fall completely flat. But in exploring the question, however practical or over-the-moon our hypotheses may be, our predictions are likely to inspire the next generation of innovators who can make them a reality.
An instructive lesson: A decade ago, Sia’s team began research on what it now calls “the dongle,” a smartphone accessory that can diagnose HIV or syphilis in about 15 minutes from a finger prick of blood. Plugged into an iPhone’s headphone jack, the dongle puts disease testing into the hands of patients, bypassing the tried and true—but often invasive and time consuming—method of lab-testing blood samples taken at a doctor’s office.
In today’s digital world, where we imagine we can do anything from our smartphones, the innovation might seem almost commonplace. But a decade ago, the smartphone didn’t exist. “Once the smartphones started being used, we really had a new capability that wasn’t around before—a device that has a very powerful user interface, very powerful computing, that’s connected to the cloud,” he says. “At some point we realized maybe we should just leverage these very powerful platforms that people already have.”
In other words, technology had finally caught up to Sia’s and the health care community’s imaginations, presenting a new world of possibilities.
A product like Dr. Sia’s dongle, for example, could be the first step toward a paradigm shift in how we deliver health care worldwide and make basic medical tests as simple as swiping a credit card. Scientists like Sia are now also looking at how we can use ingestible nanoparticles to detect tumorous cells, an idea we explore in “Your Health in a Pill.”
Whether these futures will arrive depends on everything from cultural norms to economic forces far out of the control of these innovators’ labs and offices, but if history’s any indication, the innovations we see tomorrow will not only be what we imagine, but go far beyond it.
Michael Rogers, a journalist and author who spent two years as “futurist-in-residence” at The New York Times and who consults as a “practical futurist” for Fortune 500 companies, says that in the past we have been able to successfully predict what’s coming down the pike. Rogers cites H.G. Wells, a British intellectual, and early futurist, who looked at the rise of automobiles, and, in 1901, predicted that the parallel emergence of the rubber industry would give way to low-cost tires and, eventually, result in the suburban communities that came to define America half a century later.
Rogers also points out that ideas currently percolating among innovators are a good indicator of where industries are headed. He notes that 30 years ago, there were already designs for cellphones and early rumblings of the Internet. But, naturally, there will still be surprises.
“Will we have fusion power?” Rogers wonders out loud. “I would guess that we will, and that will really be a significant game changer, but it is a very difficult technology. We’ve been working on it for decades, but it will probably happen. Genetic engineering could really throw us some surprises. It is another technology that has also been around since the ‘80s but is just now really picking up. Then finally there are the wild cards like, could we control gravity or could we control time?”
Gravity-control aside (we did say we wanted to explore the imaginations of today’s leading innovators, after all), we look at experiments with new energy alternatives from solar power to, curiously, jellyfish in “What Comes After Oil?” Meanwhile scientific innovation meets progressive policy in England, where the first generation of humans is being born with three parents in “Scientific Progress and the Future of Mom and Dad.”
But while energy and biology are experiencing their own disruptions, Rogers believes the biggest social and economic change will be the rise of the virtual world. He predicts that in five years everyone will be connected 24 hours a day, and we’ll have to explain to our grandkids what it means to be “offline.”
In “The Promise or Danger of Virtual Reality,” we explore why Mark Zuckerberg would agree with him. We present his vision for a connected future alongside an MIT psychologist who fears we’ve sacrificed human connection for connection to the Internet.
And in this digitally driven world, new facial recognition software may provide the key to our emotions, and as we examine in “The Data-ization of our Feelings,” it could usher in an evermore personalized world, for better or for worse. But for that to happen, we’ll likely need an even more expansive digital infrastructure to make this image of the future possible. “Futurenet: What Lies Beyond the Clouds” looks closely at the experiments that are popping up from Chattanooga to San Antonio, which are rethinking the delivery of the Internet.
“We are effectively building a thin layer of intelligence on top of the physical world, and we are going to spend more and more time living in that virtual world,” Rogers says of the future. “My guess is, by 2040 we’ll be spending a lot of time in the virtual world, and the transition from now to then is a little like those early days of urbanization when we first created cities.”
But however our digital world evolves, it will never eliminate the need for the real one. So in “What Will Happen to America’s Coastlines?” we look at the effects of climate change on our ocean borders and how we’re adapting the design of our cities.
These same radical changes in the infrastructure that we live and work in will extend to the infrastructure that gets us from place to place.
Rogers expects that our roads will soon be talking to our cars. “The purely autonomous car that fully drives itself is still a ways out. But before we get there we are going to see networked cars, car-to-car, and car-to-infrastructure, and that will change everything,” Rogers says. “You end up going onto the freeway, and if you have a smart car, you can enter in the smart car lane and you become the equivalent of the freight train. You push a button, you take your hands off the wheel, and this whole line of cars can move faster and closer together, and the cars drive themselves until you are approaching your off ramp. And that’s late 20s and early 30s, and that will set the ground for seeing autonomous vehicles that are truly autonomous.”
It’s that vision that drives Google, and the traditional auto industry alongside it, to remain committed to their progress on self-driving cars in “A Self-Driving America.” But if Back to the Future’s flying vehicles have taught us anything, it’s that our visions of the coming years rarely work out as expected—though imagination alone is often enough to reshape a culture.
“I think to be a futurist you pretty much have to be an optimist, otherwise you couldn’t stand to think about it that much,” Rogers says. “My sense is that we have the biggest challenges ahead of us in the next three decades as a species, but we are very close to winning the evolution game—getting to a point where we can self-sustain as a species in a peaceful way, with all members of our species well-fed and well-educated.”
But on the path to achieving world peace and eliminating global hunger, Rogers predicts everything will soon have a smart chip, as many inanimate objects already do. What the future holds for a world where everything is connected to everything else is anybody’s best guess, but Rogers sees the process underway already. And what the process proves is that the present is never as exciting as the future.
“Smart dumpsters are popular enough in Europe that there are four companies competing in the smart dumpster space,” he says. “One of them recently connected all of their dumpsters to Twitter, and gave all of their dumpsters a Twitter feed. So now you can log onto to the Twitter feed of a dumpster in Copenhagen and it says, ‘I’m 20 degrees centigrade and one-third full.’ Turns out that’s all dumpsters really have to say.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable step in the right direction.
Next: Scientific Progress and the Future of Mom and Dad