Article by Daniel Jeffries

I Show You How to See the Future More Clearly, and I Make Predictions on the Next Twenty Years in Four Major Areas: AI, Biotech, the Future of Work and Decentralization Tech

How To See the Future

Can we see the future?

Most people would say no. There’s too many variables, too many moving parts.

As Yoda said, “Difficult to see, always in motion is the future.”

I’ve got a decent track record of successfully predicting future trends. I predicted AI chips spawning from graphics cards about a decade before it happened, and I went to work on Linux in the dot com boom. A recruiter told me I was nuts because all the jobs were in Solaris and I told him, “In ten years Solaris won’t exist” and he looked at me like I had two heads.

But nobody gets it 100% right. I once told my father in the 1990s that we didn’t have to worry about the rise of public surveillance cameras everywhere because we didn’t have enough people to watch them. Little did I know how good AI would get at facial recognition only thirty years later.

Arthur C. Clarke, one of the greatest sci-fi writers of all time, saw the coming of satellites and GPS, as well as the cloud, the Internet and telecommuting but he admitted he’d dramatically overestimated the importance of rockets and failed to see the importance of a prototype laptop a company gifted to him to write his next novel.

Chaos theory tells us it’s impossible to predict the future because even small changes in the present lead to massive changes in the future.

But that’s not entirely true. The future is both deterministic and unpredictable.

We can never see black swan events or completely unexpected technology. Once that printing press gets invented, or the Internet, it changes the trajectory of everything else because its impact is so massive that it affects every other aspect of our lives.

But we can do a kind of Monte Carlo analysis of tomorrow and see the major movements of how things will play out in a chaotic system. We can spin out lots of scenarios and see which branches are strongest as we simulate through all the possible ways a highly dynamic system can go.

A strong Monte Carlo branch in the chaos

We can analyze fledgling technologies and see where they’re going and how they’ll affect society as they bounce around like superheated particles in a primordial soup.

To do it well we need a few key skills to help us un-fog our crystal ball.

Categories, Not Iterations

The first is we need to focus on categories of technology, not iterations of technology.

Home video recording is a category of technology and Betamax, VHS, Laserdisc, BlueRay, and DVRs are all iterations of technology.

Way too often people mistake the iteration of the technology for the category. They take a look at the current iteration of and they project the weaknesses, features and characteristics of that technology out into the future indefinitely.

They look at Betamax and say “well it can’t record two hours so it can’t record movies so home video is a worthless flash in the pan and it will always be worthless.” They don’t realize there are always engineers and visionaries out there working to fix those weaknesses and it isn’t long before you have VHS and it can record more than two hours. Suddenly, the home video recording revolution is underway.

Categories of technology almost never fail, but iterations do. From steam engines to airplanes to cars, categories survive and iterations get replaced as engineers work out the problems of the last generation and push the technology forward faster and faster.

Every time there’s a new technology we see the same pattern. People come out of the woodwork to say why it will fail miserably with tremendous confidence, only to look like utter fools later. They said it about the cameras, Internet, streaming video, digital cameras, and every other technology we’ve ever had.

In 1903, the Chairman of the Bank of Michigan told Henry Ford he wouldn’t invest in Ford Motor Company because: “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad“.

Take a look at something like Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies now. People point to all their current characteristics, which are nothing but an iteration of cryptocurrency technology, and say that’s why the entire category is bound to fail. They use a lot of energy. Blockchains are too slow. Their prices fluctuate wildly.

All of these are characteristics of the current iteration. Already we’re seeing alternative consensus models that use a lot less energy and blockchains like Radix and Solana that can process transactions faster than Visa. It’s only a matter of time before all the weaknesses of cryptocurrencies will fall as newer and better iterations emerge.

Don’t mistake the iteration for the category or your chances of predicting the future are basically zero.

Step Out of Your Bubble

The second big thing you need to do if you want to see the future clearly is step out of your belief bubble.

Too often our beliefs limit our ability to see beyond our noses. We have to step out of the little bubble in our heads to see the bigger picture.

Imagine the sum totality of knowledge as a giant sphere. Each of us is just a tiny point on that ball of knowledge. It’s impossible to see the whole sphere. And yet too often people mistake their little dot for the entire world.

To see the future you have to see things from other people’s perspectives, including, and especially, people you disagree with. We can’t hope to see the whole sphere but we can see the outline of the sphere.

The biggest reason is that most people won’t, don’t or can’t step out of their own heads is because they mistake their beliefs for reality.

Our beliefs come from all our experiences but just like an AI learning from bad data, they’re often way off base. They don’t match objective reality in the least. That’s because they’re heavily influenced by where we grew up, our cultures, our society, our parents and teachers and a million other factors. Much of our personalities are a construct of random events and experiences at a specific point in time. If our society or teachers got it wrong they pass the wrong knowledge onto us. It’s like getting a dataset of dogs labeled as cats and now we think every dog is a cat.

The folks at Kodak believed that digital cameras were a flash in the pan until way too late. They thought they had a moat because analog film had dominated for a 100 years and it’s hard to argue against a 100 years of success.

And just like that, they were gone.

Kodak also didn’t want to cannibalize their existing business, which was selling lots of film to lots of people. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a new technology does, it destroys old business models, making them obsolete, so a company can either fight that new business model and lose or pivot and adapt, which is incredibly rare.

It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. Get the future wrong and your empire crumbles in an instant before your very eyes.

Kodak shows the power of broken models of reality, aka broken or outmoded beliefs. They believed because their business worked for 100 years it was proof that it would last for a 100 more but new technology can smash an old business model like a lightning strike. They didn’t see digital coming and by the time they moved into the market it was too late. They were outflanked by smaller, more agile competitors and other big businesses that saw the light before they did.

Too often people form a belief and then they actively look to destroy any information that challenges that belief or they twist and warp any incoming information to fit that belief.

Don’t mistake your beliefs and opinions for reality.

There’s what you think about the world and there’s actual reality and they’re often not the same thing. One is the map and one is the territory.

Don’t mistake the map for the territory.

Heuristics for a Better Tomorrow

Now that I’ve shown you what blinds people to the future now I can show you some ways to level-up your future visions.

Probability thinking is the first essential of future thinking.

Most people think in binary terms: Yes or no, right or wrong, black or white. They look at a technology and think, no this will never work or yes it will absolutely work, 100%.

Instead try to figure out all the different ways it can go. Assign probabilities to how likely something is to happen. 10%. 50% 75%. But never assign 0% or 100% because life is too uncertain to be 100% about almost anything. Probabilities get you thinking in possibilities and shades of gray, not absolutes.

Absolutist thinking is for idiots, dictators and religious zealots. There’s a trope for it in writing called “black and white insanity” and it’s a great way to craft an evil character in a story. Just make them see the whole world in black and white with no flexibility whatsoever and you have a recipe for making everyone’s life miserable. But you don’t need to be the extreme version of a black and white thinker to miss the forest for the trees. We all do it to one level or another but you’ve got to root it out if you want to see life and the future more clearly.

To get better at figuring out those possibilities you’ve also got to “game it out.”

Imagine the world as a massive real time strategy game. Everything in life is a system, with a trillion parts all interacting and moving at the same time. Culture is a system, so is religion, knowledge, opinions, beliefs, and technological development itself are all systems, as well as many other things in life. Visualize how they all interact and battle with each other.

Now, picture the technology starting small and then growing, adopted by more and more people, weaving its way into the culture, getting more and more widespread with every exponential leap on the adoption curve. That’s the diffusion of innovation curve that seems to hold true again and again and again throughout history.

Ask questions:

How will it change the way we live? Who will embrace it and who’ll fight it at every step? What if it partially works out? What would it look like if it failed badly? What would it look like if it were a roaring success? What if it fails early but succeeds later?

Think of every new societal development, idea and technology as a titanic tug of war, a constant battle between counterbalancing forces. For every action an equal and opposite reaction. It’s not just physics, it’s all of life. Don’t think of those forces as just good and evil, but as a war of fear and desires, understanding and ignorance, progress and the status quo. On all sides you have different cultures, beliefs and intelligence levels struggling mightily to influence the world at every step. Into that battle a new technology or idea is born.

Some technologies are simple and those counterbalancing forces are simple too. The forces might be nothing but inertia and habit versus innovation. One day people are using paper spreadsheets and doubt anyone will use digital spreadsheets until eventually they’re overwhelmed as the technology advances, inertia is overcome, and nobody uses a paper spreadsheet anymore.

But some technologies and ideas, like socialism, cryptocurrency and genetic engineering are dramatic and divisive. They ignite deep seated hopes and fears and a massive battle erupts. When emotions run high, those battles can turn dark, sparking waves of legal and cultural backlash as well as violence in a desperate struggle to hold back the tides of time.

As a futurist you have to understand all those forces, visualize them and game them out to see how each battle is won and lost, how one force gains ground for a time only to give it up later. Don’t see it as a single battle but as a series of battles over time where one side may gain the upper hand only to lose it later. And you have to see how those battles add up to a war that eventually sees one side victorious.

Lastly, no matter what you think or believe right now, always be willing to change your mind as new information comes in. When things change, so should your predictions.

In this article, written early in the pandemic, an economic theorist predicted that a COVID vaccine would take a decade and that we’d have to redesign cities to deal with a long slog of social distancing and remote work. But the unexpected, black swan breakthrough of the mRNA vaccines rewrote the rules and made those early predictions look ridiculous. At that point a futurist would have no choice but to update their predictions to reflect the new reality.

Don’t cling to old ideas. Be willing to discard them as soon as you have new, better information.

As Dan Levy writes in the brilliant book, Maxims for Thinking Analytically, “Assign probabilities to the various events that could occur, and then update those probabilities as new information arrives.”

Always be willing to update your ideas. New information should take you in new directions. Don’t stay stuck on a previous theory even as it crumbles under the weight of new, unexpected developments. The mark of brilliant thinking is not rigidly clinging to what you already believe, but updating again and again.

If you can learn to think differently, you can learn to see the future more and more clearly.

Now that we know how to think about the future, let’s take a giant leap into the next twenty years to see where it’s all going.

Four Predictions for the Next Twenty Years

The Pandemic and Its Aftermath

If we’re going to talk about the future we have to start with right now and if we start right now there’s only one place to start:

The pandemic.

Wars, plagues, and environmental upheavals are titanic societal shifts that change the very course of history again and again. While we should never mistake the past for the future, we can and should abstract out the big patterns of history and apply them to tomorrow. A pandemic is a chaotic, whirling system. It puts pressure on everything, accelerating some trends and sending others hurling into a death spiral.

Necessity is the mother of invention and nothing creates more necessity than the desperation of war and disease. The first and second World War delivered an explosive array of new technologies that would have taken decades longer, including atomic bombs, nuclear energy, jet engines, flu vaccines, penicillin, blood transfusions, encryption and electronic computers. It also crushed fascism and sent democracy and capitalism into dramatic assent all across the world, even if democracy is now facing a decline, like a wave cresting and crashing on a distant shore.

The coronavirus is the single most society-warping event since World War II and if you want to see the future you simply can’t overlook it. It’s set in motion a number of powerful forces that will play out over the rest of our lives.

If you’re like most people, you’re probably thinking that we’re at the tail end of the pandemic. Societies are opening back up and vaccines are rolling out across the world at record speed.

But I put it at a 65% probability that we’re really just at the beginning of something that will reshape our world for decades to come.

To start with, it’s not over because we’re seeing a deadly combination of forces that point to a long and painful grind for people the world over. We’ve got everything from anti-vaccination and anti-mask true believers, to nasty mutations that make the virus a moving target for vaccines, to a two-track pandemic, where it’s largely contained in the first world but rages nearly unchecked in poor, third world countries, mutating at every step.

In many ways, the pandemic is the ultimate test of a nation’s intelligence, resourcefulness and adaptability. It’s a global experiment, with every country on Earth participating whether they like it or not.

It’s also a catalyst to four titanic technological and societal changes:

  • The genetics revolution
  • A remaking of work
  • The rapid ascent of AI
  • The battle for privacy vs centralized control

Let’s start with the genetics revolution.

The Coming Age of Genetic Engineering

Perhaps the biggest change of the pandemic is the nearly inevitable rise of big biotech.

The vaccines are the biggest blockbuster drugs of all time as they’ll reach as much as 70% of the world population within the next few years. When your market is “everyone on the planet” then you’ve got a recipe for big profits. Those profits will get funneled back into R&D and that should lead to some major breakthroughs in medical tech over the next twenty years.

When you realize that the coronavirus is not going away, it’s just going to mutate and likely require annual shots, that makes for a steady stream of income for a decade that few other companies can count on.

Corona was the coming out party for mRNA technology. DNA and RNA are the software of life, as broken down in an incredibly famous article by Bert Hubert.

The vaccine was the culmination of many different developments over many decades, from HP inkjet printers evolving into gene printers, to innovations like altering one of the chemicals in the standard gene chemicals of A, C, G and U to Ψ.

Kilobaser DNA Printer

Our body runs the oldest anti-virus system in the world and it doesn’t like rogue mRNA getting into our system because viruses are made of mRNA so it does everything possible to kill that foreign code. But after many years of experimentation scientists discovered that if they swapped the U with 1-methyl-3'-pseudouridylyl, denoted by Ψ, they could slip past the immune systems defenses and deliver the payload to our cells. Once inside, the mRNA uses our cells’ own machinery to crank out the spike protein of the virus, which teaches our body to recognize the corona invader.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CRZftdnlpt6/

It does all that without having to get samples of the virus, kill them and deliver them to the body, a slow, painful and error prone process that doesn’t work nearly as effectively, as we’re seeing with the weaker efficacy of traditional vaccines. Before that vaccines hadn’t changed all that much in over two centuries.

Now we can highjack and very weapons of viruses themselves and use them to heal the world.

Think of it as the third wave in genetics engineering. It takes the very essence of a disease and turns it into a cure.

Since we can now use our genes to execute almost any code we can start attacking a number of intractable diseases and it will give rise to the immunotherapy revolution, where we continually upgrade our own firewalls to crush everything from cancer to AIDs to genetic mutations. Cancer cells have all kinds of breaking systems that tell the immune system to stop their attack but mRNA holds the promise of unleashing a storm of antibodies to destroy those breaks and teach the body to attack the invader.

Already Moderna has drugs in trial for Zika, HIV and cancer.

But it won’t just be the big diseases that fall to the power of the genetics revolution. As we get better and better at manipulating the software of life, we’ll get more custom tailored drugs too. That’s because mRNA vaccines are relatively easy and cheap to produce, even in small batches. That opens up possibilities that we can treat diseases that don’t have big paydays behind them.

Look, we don’t like to admit it but nobody develops a new drug out of pure altruism. It’s absurdly expensive to research and develop new drugs with a horribly high failure rate. Most biotech companies fail.

“Investment: $1 billion. Anticipated returns: multiple billions. Chance of success: 15%. These are the key stats any pharma company looking to develop and commercialize a drug candidate faces,” writes the Harvard Business Review.

The profit motive has also influenced the kinds of problems we tackle. We tend to go after big, widely spread diseases like corona, AIDs, cancer and the flu. But we avoid small diseases or genetic deformities that only affect a small group of people.

There are more than 6,000 rare diseases and many of them could fall to the power of mRNA and the power of CRISPR, the genetic editing power tool that gives us the ability to edit any DNA more precisely than ever before, correcting mistakes that can make life nasty, short and brutal.

Take Crigler-Najjer disease, which leaves people unable to process red blood cells properly. The only therapy is sitting under a sun lamp for 12 hours a day and you die by age 18 anyway, but there aren’t enough people who have it so no drugs get developed because they won’t deliver a big enough payday to justify the R&D.

That could all change as we get better and better at using genetics and the immune system as medicine.

We’ll also likely see personalized medicine machines in hospitals over the next 20–50 years. It won’t matter whether a disease is widespread or not, we’ll be able to detect and correct it, with the hospital printer spit out drugs tuned to the individual, correcting the genome or revving up the body’s immune system to fight everything from heart disease to cancer.

We can also expect the trifecta of AI, mRNA and CRISPR to deliver the first big breakthroughs in age extension drugs. The early ones will be crude and have side effects but they’ll lead to better and better iterations over time.

Again, think categories, not iterations.

Even CRISPR itself has undergone iterations, with the original breakthrough CRISPR-Cas9, leading to other techniques and discoveries of different variants of CRISPR that do everything from “recording genetic changes in a cell over time, identifying specific virus strains, testing for infections, spatially reorganizing the genome, and a host of other functions,” according to the book Hacking Darwin.

And CRISPR won’t be the last genetics editing technology we discover or invent. Scientists will get better and better at reengineering our DNA and speeding up evolution.

Gattaca: A Great and Underrated Movie

Of course, we won’t just cure disease. Once we can edit out diseases we’ll also start to understand what genes create higher intelligence or bigger muscles or resistance to heart disease and more. That means we’ll start to see the first designer babies, with Gattaca style genetics tweaks that give us longer lives and more resistance to common genetic failures. Of course, that will set forth a tidal wave of societal forces, haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor, ethics panels and a thousand other permutations of rage and fear. Expect every religion and moralist to weigh in on it too, standing for or against and thwarting or accelerating progress. A nasty fight will ensure over the next two decades and beyond but in the long run the temptation to give our kids the best possible genes will prove too strong and eventually the genengineered baby revolution will take hold and likely become the standard in the next 30–50 years.

If you’re a woman you won’t go to the IVF clinic, you’ll just get some blood drawn and then wait. A geneticist will induce your blood cells back to pluripotent stem cells, and grow eggs from them, thousands of them, versus the 5–12 you get from IVF today. As a man, you’ll get the same blood draw and they’ll flip those blood cells to sperm and you’ll have a few thousand blastocysts to choose from, with a matrix of potential characteristics, from super smart, to super fast, to outgoing or introverted, and more. It won’t be a perfect, deterministic choice, because both nature and nurture play hugely in our development but the probability will be high that we have very smart, very long lived kids, who are more resistant to disease, more and more often, accelerating our evolution.

The ability to tweak our genes will prove too tempting in the long run and eventually babies will have standard DNA screenings and interventions, with in-vitro DNA treatments rooting out diseases before they ever take place, so that nobody ever gets Crigler-Najjer disease or thousands of other preventable illnesses. People who don’t do it will fall further and further behind and a kind of Darwinism on fast-forward will play out that leaves unaugmented children in the dust.

Fear and religion and backwards thinking politicians will try to stop it for a time but in the long run they’ll fail miserably. On a long enough timeline genetic engineering will prove inevitable as anti-genetics activists fall behind and their children wind up hating their parents because they got utterly preventable diseases, while they vow never to let that happen to their own children.

Soon, what new parent won’t want to prevent a fatal disease before it happens instead of dooming their child to a lifetime of UV lamps and pain?

Cities and Remote Work

But the pandemic is changing a lot more than the biotech industry.

In 2020, as the pandemic shuttered borders and sent societies into a panic, we embarked on a global work experiment.

Overnight, we went from a world where 1% of people work from home to 42% of the US workforce working remotely.

We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

A number of companies will try but in the long run the trend is against them.

Of course, not every kind of job can be remoted. You can’t remote wait-staff, mining, building houses or flying planes (yet). But for knowledge workers who can do 95% of their job from their computer screen the cat is out of the bag.

People working from home have more flexibility, less distractions and they end up working longer, because they avoid a wasteful thirty minute to one hour commute in both directions. Instead of sitting on a train, most people go right to work after breakfast and they’re spending 30–40% of that former commute time working, which adds up to more productivity, which is something no business will be able to ignore in the coming years.

We’re already seeing a dramatic split in who wants to return to the office and who doesn’t. Highly skilled, knowledge workers have very little desire to go back to the 9–5 grind while young people who haven’t had a chance to build a network of contacts and level up their skills want to go back to the social construct of the working world.

There’s also a massive split in who wants their workers back under the fluorescent lights and who doesn’t. The short version is that big, traditional companies who’ve “always done it that way” will try to force everyone back to the office and smaller, more agile startups and small business will default to remote first, with smaller, pop-up offices for people who want to get together or work from an office some of the time.

As time goes by, those startups will become the big companies and remote work will become the default way of doing business as they overtake the old masters of industry. While big companies debate whether having an office in Miami or San Diego or San Antonio is the best way to attract talent, startups just pick off the best talent all over the country and the world because they don’t have to think about it, which gives them the richest talent pool.

Eventually, it will become an economic war too. Big offices are a big expense. Real estate is one of the largest drags on the bottom line of a business, as much as 20% of expenses or more. Companies that don’t have that expense will have less drag and more money to spend on talent and marketing. Giant companies will realize they can slash 5–15% off their bottom line by dumping big office spaces and replacing them with small offices and they won’t have much of a choice if they want to compete with the new titans of industry.

What does all that mean for the world and for cities?

An article from the excellent uncharted territories sums up what that means for society in a single paragraph:

“The ramifications in the economy and society will be dramatic, from crumbling business real estate costs while suburban and rural real estate goes up in price, to a tax war between countries to attract nomad talent. From a massive hollowing out of the middle class of knowledge workers in developed economies to an increase in inequality. And much more.”

The author misses some strong positives in there though too.

Countries have struggled to find ways to revitalize declining communities outside of major cities, even offering incentives to attract people who promise to start businesses in small towns. Japan, Italy and many other countries all have incentives programs to get folks back to the edges. As more people get out of heavily crowded city centers and realize they can live anywhere they want to live, people will move back to the countryside or city outskirts naturally, bringing those once dying communities back to life.

Countries will compete to have the best tax structure to attract workers who can live anywhere and smaller, under-developed countries will likely benefit the most because they’ll gain an army of people working for higher pay from foreign companies, who spend their money locally. Italy and other countries are already looking to attract nomad talent with special incentives.

Of course, not everyone wants to live in the countryside, and cities won’t die. People love cities because of all the possibilities clustered together, from nightlife, to restaurants, and museums, but downtown office spaces will start to break up and decline.

All those businesses that cluster around offices, selling $9 coffees and fast, low-quality food will die a long, slow death and people will push back to areas where they can live around good restaurants and communities with families or nightlight and fun.

Commercial real estate prices will plummet because nobody is buying big office parks anymore and suburban and urban area apartments will continue to rise because more and more people will live and work in the same place.

And nobody will miss those 400 calorie, $9 coffees anyway.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Of all the technologies of tomorrow, no technology will change the world more radically than AI in the next twenty years.

It helped power the Moderna vaccine pipeline at every step, from the drug’s development, to the testing cycle, to the clinical analysis. Moderna used a digital first approach, using machine learning to tweak the design of the vaccine and outline the best path to success in the trials and more.

As these trends accelerate, we’ll see a deeply entwined co-creative process with AI and biotech. It’s already happening, with DeepMind smashing the 50 year grand challenge of protein folding with AlphaFold, then open sourcing the code and then releasing a massive database of predicted protein folds for every protein in the human body and much, much more, delivering a major contribution to science that will have ripple effects for years to come.

Beyond that, AI is already driving cars, beating people at ancient board games like Go, pummeling people in complex tournament video games like DOTA 2, and detecting diabetes.

Israel already fought the first “AI war” this year but it won’t be the last.

Taylor Swift used facial recognition to track predators at concerts. She’s not the only one. Facial recognition is rolling out to airports everywhere all over the world and it’s coming to a street corner near you.

And it’s just getting started. Right now AI is a mustard seed.

But from those seeds will grow a wild forest that touches every aspect of our lives.

There are two kinds of jobs in the future, ones done by artificial intelligence and ones assisted by artificial intelligence.

AI will live in your cameras, your phone, your computer, your glasses and places public and private.

It will power marketing, manufacturing, materials science and both preventative and palliative health care. It will level up surveillance and weapons technology. It will change the way we work, how we work with each other and how the world works.

It will become our friend, our co-worker, and our enemy.

As Francois Chollet said, “AI will become our interface to the world.”

Right now we’re in the early phases of the AI and ML revolution. It’s mostly the province of the big tech companies, with every cutting-edge company, like Google, Lyft, Baidu, Alibaba, Microsoft, and Amazon rolling their own AI/ML tech stack from scratch.

But big tech companies and governments won’t be the only ones to harness the power of AI.

In the next 5–10 years we’ll see the rapid evolution of the canonical stack for machine learning that makes it easier for non-tech companies, small businesses and individuals to build cutting edge machine learning applications, which will unleash a Cambrian explosion of apps that we’re only beginning to imagine and realize now.

But where people imagine AI as an all powerful force, seperate from us, in the near future it’s better to see AI as a co-creative process.

As Moderna’s Chief of AI said, “Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed. What we find [to be] the most successful projects are where we kind of put the two together — have the machine do the parts of the job that it’s good at [and] let the humans take over for the rest of that.”

It’s the same principle Google discovered decades earlier to make their search engine beat out everyone else’s, using their PageRank algorithm. It let humans do what they do best, giving meaning to information, and let machines do what they do best, repetitive counting of an endless array of links.

More than anything it will be a centaur world, with AI assisting us in everything. The word centaur comes to us from Gary Kasperov, from Kasperov’s early experiments with chess tournaments, where a team of three chess experts and an AI bested pure AI and pure human teams, proving that a team of moderately good humans with AI augmentation could beat a pure AI or a grandmaster alone. The tournament’s name came from the mythical beast of Greek legend that’s half horse and half man, symbolizing how man and machine work together.

My Gmail at work already suggests ways to complete sentences and it works surprisingly smoothly. It’s not always right but it often saves time during the day doing the grunt work of business email, finishing sentences like “It was nice to meet you the other day” or “let’s find a time that works for everyone.”

Soon it will cut people out of a background in Photoshop 99% of the time perfectly without you ever having to master the pen tool.

We’ll also see centaur systems helping us with city infrastructures. Drones and satellites will monitor crops for the spread of disease and soar over city streets hunting for pot holes and filling them in. That knowledge will better inform public policy. Right now, which roads get fixed next has absolutely nothing to do with where the money is needed most. It’s usually the result of politicians horse trading or outright guessing.

Armed with knowledge, the general public can demand better roads and bridges because they’ll actually know which ones are broken and engineers will know what roads to schedule for repaving next.

Centaurs will be everywhere in the next ten years to twenty years, spreading slowly and then quickly in classic exponential curve style.

They’re already correcting your crappy photography, changing lighting and steadying pictures. Tomorrow they’ll help you learn a language faster, by talking to you conversationally and understanding that you didn’t get that diphthong right when you tried to pick up Mandarin for that trip to see the Great Wall in China.

Machine learning is coming to the film industry too. Check out the new dubbing technology from Flawless AI, where they can create perfect lip syncing in any language by altering the actors lip movements to match the spoken word.

But it’s more than that too. They can also use style transfer to transfer the nuance and intonation of the actor’s voice so language dub sounds exactly like the original actor. That’s why it sounds like Tom Hanks can actually speak Japanese, French and Dutch flawlessly, even if he can’t speak a word in real life.

We’ll also see the Remake scenario, from Connie Willis, who predicted it will be hard for new actors to break into Hollywood because studios will increasingly license the likenesses of big celebrity actors of yesterday, today and tomorrow and then simply digitally insert them into every film. Right now actors are happy when their younger likenesses appear in film, as we’ve seen with Mark Hamill’s reaction to seeing his younger self in the Mandalorian.

But in the near future expect to see people want to get paid for it even if they’re not recording their voice, as Mark Hamill did in the episode. We’ll see IP extend to what people can do with our likeness because machine learning and real time photorealistic engines will make it incredibly easy to insert anyone into any film, and make them say whatever someone wants them to say. Influencers and actors will have strict rights control on what people can and can’t do with their image, even more than they do now.

Beyond influencers, film and TV, the earbuds in your favorite wireless headphones will double as a rapid translator when you touch down in Korea and realize that no cab drivers speak a word of your native language. Your phone will translate your words back to the cab driver and in no time you’ll be on your way in an extraordinarily overpriced ride from the airport!

AI will transform law too. Machines will get better at analyzing contracts for flaws and loopholes than most lawyers and it will get better at generating most of those contracts. Increasingly, we’ll see lawyers as centaurs, working with whatever the machine learning system generates and correcting it or subtly altering it to fit their needs.

And in the next ten years, Court reporting is dead. We already have Verbit, a transcription AI that can do much of the work of the best and fastest court reporters, who train hard to learn to type faster than the average person so they can capture the rapid flow of conversation in real time but who won’t be faster than a machine.

Beyond the law, if you’re a cardiologist, you’ll turn to AI to help with diagnosis and with doing the surgery, as the machine guides a surgeon’s hand or does the entire surgery solo.

We’ll point our smart phones at a worrying spot on our arm and the AI that lives in our phone will tell us to call the doctor. When we send the report it generated to the doctor’s office, the triage nurse will know to put us at the head of the line because the app found evidence of skin cancer, rather than treating every patient. Today it’s first come, first serve and you could be waiting two months to get your arm looked at, while a hysterical hypochondriac and an old lady who just likes talking to doctors gets in next week.

A million dollar prize on Kaggle in 2017 already produced some breakthroughs that are having real world effects on detecting lung cancer, a disease with a notorious false positive and false negative rate.

False positives and negatives mean patients get the wrong care or get care too late or worse don’t get care at all. Big improvements mean cheaper health care and people living a lot longer because they get the care they need when they need it.

That’s just the beginning. AI will get better at detecting and diagnosing diseases than our best doctors and make specializing in radiology a lost art.

We’re already seeing better and better sensors in our smart watches and that will accelerate over the next decade. A company called Rockley Photonics has a prototype of a spectrometer-on-a-chip that can diagnose blood pressure, glucose levels, hydration and alcohol levels non-invasively.

Your watch will increasingly become your heart and health monitor. In ten to fifteen years it may even be able to predict a heart attack coming before you go face down in your oatmeal. That will mean you get to the hospital in time to live a lot longer.

AI will affect every single nation, industry and person on Earth.

In twenty years, most of the biggest companies on the planet will be AI companies, replacing the old energy companies and today’s big tech companies, unless they evolve to AI first companies.

Nobody will know how to drive and in 25 to 50 years it will likely be illegal for humans to drive without a special permit because they’ll be so much worse at it. Today you have a 1 in 103 chance of dying in a car in your lifetime and millions of people die every year from just one little mistake and 50 million people are injured. The machines will do it better and eventually we won’t want the risk of driving next to the girl doing her makeup in the mirror or the young idiot amped up on testosterone and weaving through the cars in a delusional F1 fantasy.

It will be both good and evil. That’s because AI is an inherently neutral technology. It can be whatever we want it to be, a killer or a savior or anything in between.

We can and will do whatever we can imagine with it and nothing will stop it from taking center stage in every single one of our lives whether we’re living far off the grid on an organic farm or deep in the heart of the city, with our AR contact lens pointing out where to eat next and translating someone’s words in real time.

The Evolution of Power and Money

The last force the pandemic unleashed is the evolution of power.

Over the last 200 years we’ve seen the inexorable rise of the nation state. Everyone today is used to living with a stable border, with a set flag and a patriotic song but that is an anomaly in history, where borders and governments often shifted many times over the course of someone’s life.

Now we’re seeing the centralized power of governments reach deeper and deeper into all our lives. During the pandemic, governments exercised tremendous control, shutting down entire economies and enforcing lock-downs and emergency border controls.

But a counterbalancing force is developing, a reaction to the rise of hard, central power.

Decentralization.

The coming decades will be a near constant battle between the forces of control and openness, freedom and fear, centralization and decentralization.

And no place is that war more prominently reflected than in the evolution of money.

During the early crisis of Corona, Bitcoin skyrocketed. While regulators were focused on battling an invisible enemy, decentralized money surged forward without the watchful eyes of preoccupied power brokers to stop it.

But as the power players started to get the pandemic under control, increasingly we saw regulators lashing out at crypto. Senator Warren and others screamed that “we have to crack down on crypto because it’s environmentally damaging,” and China booted Bitcoin miners out of the country in an escalating fight against decentralization.

A lot of crypto enthusiasts try to convince everyone that crypto isn’t a threat to the old way of life but that’s exactly what it is. It looks to replace centralization with decentralization, widespread surveillance with privacy, choke points with fluidity.

The power to print money is the power of the Gods. It’s the power of control and no government will let go of that control without a nasty fight. In the end though, they’re on the losing end of history.

Violence and law can only hold back a technology for so long, just as the Japanese discovered with the banning of guns during the days of samurai and shogun. Eventually gun beats sword and the katana disappears into the dusty pages of yesterday.

Cryptocurrencies and blockchains are a breakthrough whether today’s short sighted regulators can see it or not. They’re the first iterations of triple-entry accounting. We’ve only had two other revolutions in accounting in the entire history of the world, and both of them proceeding a massive uptick in societal complexity and productivity. Now we have the third revolution and another massive surge is sure to follow, not just in the next twenty years but in the next several hundred.

Eventually, nothing will be able to stop the evolution of money from nation state money to global currencies and private currencies, but in the next twenty years it will be a war between central bank digital currencies that have surveillance baked into every step, and decentralized money bound to no nation state.

Central banks are more than a decade behind private money, and they’re scrambling. Almost every major nation-state in the world is now racing to develop a CBDC, from Norway, to the European Union, to the U.S. The British have dubbed theirs Britcoin. But of all the nations, China is moving fastest and it has first mover advantage in the arms race of nation-states.

The rise of CBDCs will mean one thing:

The death of cash.

Physical, paper-based money will die. The release of bitcoin marked the inevitable death of physical cash even if it won’t cause that death itself. By making digital money truly workable at a global scale, it signaled the end of paper and metal money for good.

The move to cashless societies started years ago. In late 2016, Prime Minister Narenda Modi suddenly banned most of the country’s currency with the stroke of a pen. It was supposed to cut down on corruption and get people paying their taxes. The government backtracked a year later but that’s only because it moved too fast. China is already a largely cashless society, a massive and swift change from only seven years ago when I visited in 2014 and cash was still king. A mere eight years later, 86% of all people in China use mobile payments, skipping the ancient Visa and Mastercard PoS system in favor of ubiquitous QR codes. China’s CBDC is explicitly designed to kill cash and China’s digital yuan is the spark that will light the fuse that speeds us to the explosive and sudden death of cash worldwide, not laws or bitcoin.

With those new CBDCs, countries will have full surveillance right in your pocket at all times at all times. Every transaction you ever make. Everywhere you ever go. All of it tied to your identity and history and geolocation data.

A decade after that you won’t file your taxes, they’ll get yanked out automatically every time you buy a second-hand toaster at a garage sale. If there’s a mistake, you’ll call to fight it or have an accountant try to get you a refund while the government takes a free loan from you for a year. The money won’t even pass from central banks to private banking institutions, it will go right into your pocket and those panopticoins will know everything you ever did from cradle to grave.

But the death of cash will be a bridge too far. It will have tremendous, unintended side effects that governments can’t yet see, that will unleash the true tug of war in the system.

Governments that crush their citizens with a punishing tax burden may find themselves pushed to the brink when whole industries that relied on cash to avoid suffocating bureaucracies collapse under increased scrutiny. Central banks may cheer their ability to smash industries that run on the back of illegal immigrants, like picking crops or cleaning houses, but they may quickly find there are no citizens to do those jobs and that the price of asparagus skyrockets.

And humans are remarkably innovative creatures. The “war on drugs” cost the U.S. over a trillion dollars over the last 40 years for a net 0% decrease in drug use, because people still found a way to get drugs. When people don’t get what they want, they get very creative and that creativity will increasingly spawn innovation in private money to get around surveillance coins.

Centralized powers may also find how hard it is to build a CBDC without decentralization. IT security is a house of cards because hackers are drawn to centralized databases like flies to honey. They’ll be prone to the same attacks hackers use today to steal identities and steal a fortune every year.

With CBDCs hackers will have an even bigger incentive:

The power to print money itself.

While decentralized coins like Bitcoin have proven impossible to take over and print money at will, CBDCs will have none of the protections of trustless systems. Hackers will know right where to go to turn on the “official” money printing press. And they will. Don’t think they’ll succeed? Then check out the visualization on Data is Beautiful and you’ll be hard pressed to find a single major institution that hasn’t suffered a big breach in the last decade and those are just ones we know about.

And every time hackers hit the central bank and make off with a few billion, it will spark a crisis of faith in the central power’s ability to keep money safe and push people to alternatives and central banks will be forced to adopt more and more of the techniques of decentralization.

In the end, crypto’s killer app won’t come from a central bank, as they try to warp and bend decentralized tech back through centralized choke points, it will come from the world of private, decentralized money.

Monero sticker in Berlin

In the next decade’s advances in privacy will come out of privacy focused coins like Zcash and Monero and they’ll transform everything from the military to e-commerce, to identity and social media. If Bitcoin was the cave man’s sling-shot of crypto, zero-knowledge proofs are the warp drive.

We’ll also see the rapid rise of zero knowledge architectures, where everything is peer-to-peer and everything is encrypted by design. We’ll have peer to peer encrypted, zero-knowledge forums, messaging and video that prove nearly unstoppable as they let people talk freely in even the most authoritarian regimes. That will spark new revolutions in thought and expose people to a richer diversity of information. It will have its dark sides too, giving fringe groups and hate groups safe harbor to spread lies, fear and new waves of ultranationalism.

Zero-knowledge can revolutionize something as simple as logging into a website. Today’s websites force you to transmit your username and password across the network, even if it’s obscured in some way or protected by transit layer security. But zero-knowledge proofs do away with that danger and allow websites to prove you know your password without you ever sending that password across the web, where it can get picked off by hackers with man-in-the-middle attacks. We’ll stop having to create usernames and passwords that get lost in yet another gigantic data leak.

We’ll identify ourselves to digital networks not through a centralized ID and our address but through verified transactions over time that come to form a digital footprint of our actions in life. Think of decentralized identities as a Turing test for being human. As we take actions in the real world and the digital world, we leave a footprint and that footprint will become our identity itself. Machine learning (ML) algorithms that do anomaly detection will study the signature of those actions and realize when someone steals your traditional ID and starts ordering potato chips and to a weird address you’ve never used. The AI watchers will do that faster than you do.

DecIDs will help revolutionize everything from logins to border crossings to fraud detection and missing person cases. We’ll stop needing a new credit card number every other month because yet another site got hacked.

We’ll also see crypto weave its way into audio and video to help us solve the deep fake problem. Soon AI will get so good at manufacturing imaginary audio and video realities that court rooms will need sophisticated distributed blockchain based systems that record the signature of the audio and video to make a provable, immutable records allowing legal teams to go back and verify nothing got altered along the way.

We’ll also see smart contracts increasingly embedded in legal contracts or replacing them entirely. Smart contracts are a bit of a misnomer. They’re really just little scripts. They might escrow money and distribute it after a trigger gets tripped. Those smart contracts will grow increasingly sophisticated as more reliable oracle services spring up. Oracles allow smart contracts to interact with the real world, verifying something happened or didn’t happen, like a marriage or a divorce.

Smart contracts won’t replace legal contracts, but expect more smart contracts embedded in legal contracts. Imagine a will that pays out money to relatives after someone dies. The money can self-escrow and have predefined rules that can’t be beaten or gamed.

My mother has a provision in her will where my sister and I have to agree if one of us wants to take out more than a certain amount. Theoretically we could game the system by paying a trustee to overlook it after she passes. But with a smart contract, we’d both have to turn our digital keys before the smart contract disperses the money and no amount of bribery would change it.

Beyond the law, we’ll see the rise of micro-baking, with increasingly sophisticated family wallets and banking pools that span communities. Picture a pool of locally controlled money with different role-based access controls and rules for that money.

Imagine a company that stores its funds in a powerful set of smart contracts, instead of a bank. The contract easily let’s an office manager make small transactions, like buying office supplies, but not run off with next month’s salaries. A salesperson might have access to a supply of expense money as long as the sales person puts in their receipts that get verified by an Oracle.

This will also work with families. A family might pool their money with a contract that manages spending and keeps track of that spending across a fantastic dashboard. The young boy who managed to buy 51 cases of Sponge Bob pops for $2,168 on his mom’s Amazon Prime account won’t have access to that much money because mom will set a spending limit that he can’t get around.

Then again, kids are creative and will always find a way to keep watching YouTube or get Sponge Bob if they really want it.

And lastly, blockchains will revolutionize supply chain tracking. Why do we care? Because we really want to know where our shrimp came from and today we can’t be sure. You probably think you can just check the package but the food supply chain is rampant with fraud and other industries too.

Instead of coming from Thailand, your shrimp might have come to you from a pig farm in China, with the pig’s run off waste feeding the shrimp. The rogue farmer then harvests the fish and sends them through a third world country with an overwhelmed and underpaid local inspector who got bribed to swap the seal so it looks like it came from Thailand.

Without complex forensics, nobody ever figures it out. Digital tracking systems that use cryptographic hashes to prove where things came from and where they’re going, with the ledger held in trust by companies and countries all over the world will start to change all that in the next ten years. Eventually we’ll have a globally distributed supply chain tracking system allowing us to go back in time and see where things went wrong. That will also let us fight outbreaks and tainted food like never before.

It won’t happen overnight. The shipping industry is on the long tail of the adoption curve and lots of groups profit from the corruption along the way, from the mob, to corrupt governments, to everyday farmers and chain stores. Of course, people will still find a way to game the system. Humans are masters at finding exploits. But it will get much more challenging when you can’t easily hide the lineage of shrimp.

Lastly, We’ll start to see global property ledgers for everything from houses and cars to your Playstation and jewelry. Right now, property ledgers are local and only cover big purchases like houses. They’re a tangled mess and don’t track the lineage of that property over time as it passes down the generations.

It will get harder for thieves to snatch a bike and put it up on eBay or sell it locally. When the cops pick up the bike thieves a few months later they’ll know who the bike belonged to and have a way to get it back to the rightful owner.

In the end, anyone who looks at crypto as nothing but a series of price swings on a little screen is missing forest for the trees.

They’re fixated on the iteration and missing the category of massive disruption that decentralized trust will bring to the world and to the nature of power.

In the end, the power of the nation state has likely peaked and society will get more global, more distributed and more decentralized once more.

Metapatterns and the Wheel of Time

We live in a superheated primordial soup of unimaginable complexity.

If we could somehow simulate all the variables of life we might be able to see the smooth, clockwork determinism unfolding predictably in every direction. We could predict the weather years in advance and see every major event before it happened, a psychohistory made real, ripped from the pages of Asimov’s Foundation series.

But how boring would life be? And how dry.

Better that we live in this wild and chaotic system, full of fun and adventure and unexpected twists and turns. And better for me, because I have a job as a futurist.

Sometimes the future is hard to see. We can’t see those black swan events and what’s coming just around the corner. We can predict the weather tomorrow but struggle to predict it a week or a month in advance because of the complex interplay of trillions and trillions of variables all influencing each other at once.

But we can do what humans do best, see big, abstracted patterns.

The AIs have a long way to go to catch us on that little trick. You can train an AI to recognize knives by showing it millions of knives and yet an AI today doesn’t understand the concept of sharpness. But I get cut one time by a sharp knife and I get it fast. I abstract out the idea of sharpness and danger, and I don’t need to see a sharp rock to know it will hurt me too.

We can use that power to simplify the world down to the metapatterns that are constantly at work in the world, playing out again and again. If we look close we can see the diffusion of innovation arc and the way it plays out over and over with everything from the telegraph to the cell phone. Technology starts off slow, facing huge obstacles and then gains a foothold with early adopters and then explodes into an early majority and eventually diffuses out to everyone and becomes the default way of living and working and playing.

Metapatterns

There are metapatterns everywhere.

We can look back in time and see how war and famine and disease acted as catalyzing events so when a new catalyzing event strikes, like the corona pandemic, we can see it easily. We can zoom out and see the never-ending battle between opposing forces, pushing and pulling every idea and technology as it struggles to flourish and how it almost inevitably finds a way and changes our way of life.

If we can do all that, we can see the future better than any machine and that gives us a tremendous advantage.

When you embrace the future you can learn to work with it and you can make better decisions.

You can figure out where to invest and how to see your competition coming before they see you coming. You can look deeply at a technology you’re working on and understand where it has to go to really breakthrough to the next level of adoption. You learn to think better and more clearly and with greater insight.

And when you understand where everything is going, it makes it easier to understand what’s happening today.

Always in motion is the future.

But if you look closely, you can catch a glimpse of the fantastic world of tomorrow.

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Daniel Jeffries

author, futurist, systems architect, and thinker.

Article originally published at: https://medium.com/@dan.jeffries/the-pathways-of-tomorrow-four-big-predictions-for-the-next-twenty-years-e9221d00dd91