As we approach the end of the first decade of the new millennium, let’s consider what life will be like a decade hence. Changes in our lives from technology are moving faster and faster. The telephone took 50 years to reach a quarter of the U.S. population. Search engines, social networks and blogs have done that in just a few years time. Consider that Facebook started as a way for Harvard students to meet each other just six years ago; it now has 350 million users and counting.
Between now and 2020, the trend will continue, spreading cutting-edge technologies to every corner of the country and beginning to make innovations once consigned to the realm of science fiction real for millions of Americans. Specifically what can we expect? Solar power on steroids, longer lives, the chance to get rid of obesity once and for all, and portable computing devices that start becoming part of your body rather than being held in your hand.
What will drive all this accelerating change is precisely what has driven it this past half-century: the exponential growth in the power of information technology, which approximately doubles for the same cost every year. When I was an MIT undergraduate in 1965, we all shared a computer that took up half a building and cost tens of millions of dollars. The computer in my pocket today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful. That’s a billion-fold increase in the amount of computation per dollar since I was a student.
That incredible force — information technology that moves faster, then faster, then faster still — will power changes in every imaginable realm over the next decade.
Start with the basics. You’ve no doubt noticed that electronic gadgets are getting smaller and smaller; the iPod Shuffle holds 1,000 songs and weighs 0.38 ounces. Your phone is smaller than it was a few years ago and can do much more. By 2020, memory devices will be integrated into our clothing. And the very idea of a “smart phone” will begin to change. Rather than looking at a tiny screen, our glasses will beam images directly to our retinas, creating a high resolution virtual display that hovers in air.
That virtual display will be able to take over our entire visual field of view, putting us in a three-dimensional full immersion virtual reality environment. We’ll watch movies virtually and read virtual books. A lot of our personal and business meetings will take place in these 3D virtual worlds. The design of new virtual environments will be an art form. We’ll even have ways to touch one another virtually.
There are already beginning to be apps available for your iPhone or Android phone that allow you to look at a building and have the display superimpose what stores are inside it; Google Goggles, released last week, is the first free, widely-available version of such software. By 2020 we’ll routinely have pop ups in our visual field of view that give us background about the people and places that we’re looking at.
In other words, your memory will be constantly, instantaneously aided by the information available on the Internet. The two will begin to become indistinguishable.
How about energy? That doesn’t sound like an information technology. Fossil fuels, after all, are an early first industrial revolution, 19th century technology. But we are now applying nanotechnology — the science of essentially reprogramming matter at the level of molecules to create new materials and devices—to the design of renewable energy technologies such as solar energy. As a result, the cost per watt of solar energy is coming down rapidly and the total amount of solar energy is growing exponentially. It has in fact been doubling every two years for the past 20 years and is now only eight doublings away from meeting all of the world’s energy needs.
When I shared this fact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few weeks ago, he asked, “but is there enough sunlight to double solar energy eight more times?” I responded that we have 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to do this. The prime minister announced an Israeli energy initiative the next day at the Israeli Presidential Conference based on our conversation, setting a 10-year goal to create the technologies to completely replace fossil fuels.
It’s not just the gadgets we carry around and the power we use to fuel our lives that are subject to what I call “the law of accelerating returns.” Health and medicine, which used to be a hit or miss process, has now become an information technology.
We now have the software of life (our genes) and the means of upgrading that software. How long do you go without updating the software on your cell phone? Not long: it does it itself every few days or weeks. Yet we are walking around with obsolete software in our bodies that evolved thousands of years ago. Within 10 years, that will change.
Already today, there are over a thousand projects to change our genes away from disease and toward health, not just in newborns but in mature individuals. The Human Genome Project, which has catalogued our genetic material, was itself a very good example of the law of accelerating returns; the amount of genetic data that is sequenced has doubled every year and the cost has come down by half every year. We can now design health interventions on computers and test them out on biological simulators. These technologies are doubling in power every year and will be a thousand times more powerful in a decade.
By 2020, we will have the means to program our biology away from disease and aging, and toward significant advances in our ability to treat major diseases such as heart disease and cancer — an approach that will be fully mature by 2030.
We won’t just be able to lengthen our lives; we’ll be able to improve our lifestyles. By 2020, we will be testing drugs that will turn off the fat insulin receptor gene that tells our fat cells to hold on to every calorie. Holding on to every calorie was a good idea thousands of years ago when our genes evolved in the first place. Today it underlies an epidemic of obesity. By 2030, we will have made major strides in our ability to remain alive and healthy – and young – for very long periods of time. At that time, we’ll be adding more than a year every year to our remaining life expectancy, so the sands of time will start running in instead of running out.
No, it’s not going to be an entirely brave new world. Some things will look pretty similar in 2020. We’ll still drive cars — although they will have the intelligence to avoid many accidents and self-driving cars will at least be experimented with. All-electric cars will be popular. And in cities, don’t expect subways or buses to go away.
But in more and more ways big and small, hang in there and we’ll all get to see the remarkable century ahead.
Kurzweil is former recipient of the MIT-Lemelson prize, the world’s largest for innovation, and in 1999 was awarded the National Medal of Technology. He is the author of the books “The Singularity is Near” and “The Age of Spiritual Machines.”