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Year 2020: Back to the Future

Updated: May 4




The 2020s were supposed to herald a much-anticipated new era of technological evolution. Instead, we find ourselves confined to our homes, only venturing outside to stock up on toilet roll and pasta. What happened?


We were imagining being chauffeured by all-electric self-driving cars. As well as communicate with each other and their surroundings, they would be able to talk back to us, and even make dinner and theatre reservations on our behalf. We wouldn’t actually own these cars ourselves, but would instead rent them from the major car manufacturers, or from today’s tech giants. This new mobility as a service (MaaS) model was touted as the next logical step for the automotive industry, in the new sharing economy. Think Tesla meets Uber. Rather than sitting idle on our drives and in parking spaces, when we weren’t using them, cars were imagined driving themselves somewhere else and picking up other passengers.


This revolution in mobility promised to transform the food industry, too. We would be able to have any hot food delivered straight to our doors, cooked on the move in mobile kitchens, by robot chefs. What’s more, the vehicles that we and our food were being driven in, would be electrically charged whilst driving. This would be either via induction from electric chargers beneath the road system, or from charging boards running alongside roads.


Vehicle to grid technology would facilitate a more efficient use of electricity, enabling the electricity system to cope with increased demand. Appliances requiring electricity would charge up at the most efficient times of the day, allowing the national grid to easily deal with the dreaded ‘peak demand’. This mass electrification would be supported by a whole new electrical infrastructure, from Gigafactories producing batteries on a huge scale, to super-charging hubs enabling many vehicles to simultaneously fully charge in just minutes.


The development of larger and more powerful electric batteries would in turn electrify the skies. Electrically powered aircraft would allow for a huge reduction in dangerous pollutants and support a new boom in air travel. More efficient aircraft would be able to travel from one side of the world to another in one flight, without stopping.


Not content with merely electrifying roads and air corridors, Hydrogen would also become a more mainstream fuel source. Hydrogen fuel cells would be used instead of batteries to create electric power, with users benefiting from quicker refuelling and extended range.


Space travel was supposed to move from being the domain of cold war adversaries, to becoming a leisure activity for celebrities and billionaires. Commercial rockets would be launched into space to deliver satellites and even food, only to be recovered and reused time and again, like a taxi service.


Drones would start to deliver our online shopping and business supplies. More importantly, they would be used to directly deliver essential international aid to those most in need, from poverty-ridden communities in Africa to hurricane-stricken villages in the Caribbean.


Hyperloops promised to replace train and car travel between cities, transporting passengers at supersonic speeds, drastically reducing congestion and travel time. Cities themselves were set to become more connected than ever, with transport systems, parking spaces, energy systems, hospitals and shopping centres, all communicating with each other.


Meanwhile, industry would find innovative applications for new composite materials, that allow us to do things more quickly, using less energy. Materials like Graphene would increasingly be adopted for its high strength but lightweight characteristics, becoming common components in everything from aircraft to batteries.


Blockchain promised to revolutionise the way that we track information, from physical goods to services and transactional histories. Supply chains would be upended as customers become more aware of where their products are coming from and where they presently are. Bitcoin would become a mainstream currency, no longer being consigned to criminal activity and financial speculation.


3D printers would be used to produce components, tools, shoes and even housing, on demand. It would completely change the way that we manufacture standardised products on a mass scale, providing far-reaching benefits to both the public and private sectors.


The continued development of virtual reality would increasingly allow us to do, see and experience things in a virtual world. Rather than just being confined to gaming, it would be used to prospectively view new homes, try on new clothes while shopping through a virtual mall, and for the training of manual tasks. Augmented reality would enable us to perform tasks to a higher level, by providing additional information. AR headsets would allow surgeons to perform complex surgery and receive key vital data, at the same time, improving their decision making and the efficacy of surgery.


The internet of things would connect everything together and create a new digital ecosystem. Our wardrobes would talk to our phones, which would in turn talk to our cars, our fridges and our thermostats. Sensors on every machine would instantly tell us how well machines are performing and enable swift corrections, leading to exponential gains in efficiency.


Instead of being performed by human workers, complex manual tasks would increasingly be performed by next generation robots. As well as improving accuracy and reducing defects, this should free up human workers to focus on the things that machines can’t do, like dealing with people, thinking laterally, and showing compassion.


Artificial intelligence would be able to solve complex problems and predict the future. AI would be used to recruit new employees, book holidays and business travel, and calculate insurance risks. Digital assistants would replace secretaries, providing accurate information and performing tasks, on demand. Big data would allow analysis of colossal datasets, in order to establish patterns and linkages, and to extrapolate to the future.


Software programmes would be able to comb through multiple layers of digital information, to provide detailed intelligence, at the click of a mouse, replacing manual research that previously took hours. All this would be enhanced by quantum computing, able to solve the most complex of problems at much faster speeds. Eventually, our brains would be connected to computers, allowing us to upload our thoughts and download information.


The new digital world was to be supported by 5G connectivity, boosting internet speeds and download capacity. Films, software and datasets would now be able to be sent and downloaded in milliseconds, facilitating the usage and development of transformative new technologies.


The circular economy would evolve to make human life more sustainable. Homes and factories would increasingly be powered by renewable energy, producing enough energy to be self-sustaining, without damaging the environment for future generations. Large scale solar power and wind plants would replace more traditional and more dangerous power plants.


Gene therapy would allow DNA to be altered, to pre-emptively reduce the likelihood of life-changing diseases, or to treat diseases after onset. DNA could be trained to destroy cancer cells. New parents would be able to choose the height and hair colour of their future children, and more importantly determine their future health. Medical innovation would find new ways to extend human life, by delaying the ageing process, or even reversing it. Dementia could become a thing of the past, with people still working into their 100s. One day, computers could rewrite our genetic coding and even our thoughts.


But what use is any of this now, in a world of lockdown, when the highlight of the day is queuing outside a supermarket? If anything, it feels like lockdown has taken us back in time, to a time when people enjoyed the simple things, like walking, reading and baking.


Inevitably, the pandemic has affected the general rate of technological development, with many research activities slowed down or even put on hold. Still, for most of these technologies, it remains a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ they come to fruition. The pandemic is a bump in the road, and quite a big bump at that, but it does not alter the long-term path of technological evolution. There is something hardwired in human DNA that causes humans to strive for improvements. This is what separates us from other species, and ultimately, it’s what ensures our continued evolution and improving prosperity.


The pandemic could even lead to quicker developments in some areas, particularly in health tech. It could act as a catalyst for new technologies that diagnose and track cases, facilitate the safe movement of people, and even predict future outbreaks. Necessity really is the mother of all invention.

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