How Technology Will Solve the Planet's Hardest Problems

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Google’s self-driving car is just one of many examples of how AI is going to make our lives safer, easier, cheaper and cleaner. Tony Avela/AP

As you’re choking down your latest serving of Trump Clinton Brexit Racism Terrorism Wealth Gap Climate Change Casserole, you could use some good news.

Let’s start with The Inevitable, the new best-seller by Kevin Kelly, one of our wisest technological prognosticators. “This is the moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, ‘Oh to have been alive and well back then!’” Kelly writes. “There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute.”

In the mid-2010s, we’re getting the first sneak peeks at a bouquet of technologies that can vastly improve the lives of most people on the planet and solve some of our hardest problems—even climate change.

Just consider for a moment how much everyday life has been transformed since 2007, when smartphones, social networks and cloud computing took off at about the same time. What we’re going to experience in the next decade, from 2017 to 2027, will make that stuff seem as ho-hum as a wall socket.

Artificial intelligence gets a lot of bad press. Yes, it’s probably going to wipe out certain jobs and professions, as always happens with progress. (Know any darkroom technicians? How about a cooper?) The other side of AI is that it’s going to take civilization on a great leap forward.

Companies and researchers are collecting unimaginable amounts of data. They’ve got data from every Google search or Facebook like, every action on every cellphone, every online transaction, every motion of every factory machine, plus input from sensors being placed in streetlights and in buoys and on whales and in our bodies. AI is how we’ll learn from that data—in fact, it’s the only way we can lasso and make sense of so much data.

The result of applying AI to all that data will be much more profound than, like, a Nest smart thermostat. AI is how we’re going to find a cure for cancer in the next decade. It’s how we’re going to build livable cities even as gobs more people move to them. It’s how we’ll stop terrorists before they strike. AI will help figure out mysteries of the human condition, like why Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer can strike out 20 batters in one game and then get hammered in the next—and then help us all understand how to perform more consistently in our work or play.

AI will likely take driving away from humans, and that’s a very good thing. Human drivers kill 32,000 people a year in the U.S. because our brains get distracted or make bad choices. Despite headlines about a recent self-driving fatality, AI driving should eventually nearly eliminate accidents.

“It is hard to imagine anything that would ‘change everything’ as much as cheap, powerful, ubiquitous artificial intelligence,” Kelly writes. “It is the ur-force in our future.”

07_20_AI_01 The hand of humanoid robot AILA (artificial intelligence lightweight android) operates a switchboard during a demonstration by the German research centre for artificial intelligence at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover March, 5, 2013. Applying AI to all the data we collect will be much more profound than we can imagine. Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

The energy industry is similarly about to go through mind-bending change. Gas cars are all but doomed. Tesla showed the way, and now most major car companies believe the industry’s future is electric. At the same time, the cost of solar energy technology is plummeting. “There’s over five thousand times more solar energy falling on the planet’s surface than we use in a year,” Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler wrote in their 2012 book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. Add together electric cars and cheap solar, and we move into an age when burning carbon will seem archaic. That won’t reverse climate change, but it sure makes for a more optimistic outlook.

Technology is deeply affecting work and jobs, stirring up political turmoil. But maybe technology will help us get a better outcome.

Today, only about 7 percent of the global population has a college degree. Education for many is too expensive or not even available. Khan Academy and other online learning companies will in the next decade make education cheap and available to anyone with a smartphone, which should give more people more ways to make a living. At the same time, technology is driving down the cost and difficulty of creating almost any product or service. As Kelly points out, starting a company, building a product, making a movie or publishing a book is 100 times easier now than just a couple of decades ago—and will be another 100 times easier in another decade. This combination of education and easy entrepreneurship is why Kelly says there has never been a time of more opportunity—the opposite message of so many political rants.

So much life-altering technology is coming, it’s hard to imagine how it will all play out. AI-driven health care will be like having a doctor in your pocket 24/7, helping you feel better and live longer—and what’s more valuable than that? A pocket doc, in turn, will push down demand for expensive procedures and make being healthy more affordable.

Blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, could help open up the financial system to more people across the economic spectrum. Blockchain has so many still-to-be-explored uses, according to author Don Tapscott, that the technology today is as exciting as the internet circa 1995.

All of these technologies—AI, solar, blockchain, personal medicine, online education—will pile on top of mobile, social and cloud technologies, which aren’t finished changing our lives. Some experts, like Diamandis, the guy behind the XPrize contests, believe it all adds up to a coming era of “abundance.” Technology relentlessly drives down costs, they point out, and is making a lot of stuff free. Photography used to cost quite a bit; now it’s free on your phone. College courses cost a near fortune; Khan is free. If you look at your phone screen right now, you can probably see 20 free or cheap things that would’ve cost significant money 20 years ago—if they even existed 20 years ago. Shazam would’ve seemed like a miracle in 1996.

“Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman and child on the planet,” according to Diamandis and Kotler.

Of course, a Pollyannaish view isn’t warranted or helpful. Technology has its dark sides. It always has. But in this moment of global tension, it stinks that our politicians don’t see what’s coming and are failing to rally us to embrace it, build on it and shape it for the better. It’s hard to imagine Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump figuring out how to send a Dropbox folder much less lead us into a new era of AI, solar energy and tech-driven abundance.

At least Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a stab at explaining quantum computing. In the U.S., we just get fulminations about building walls or scandals about that antediluvian technology called email.

“Future people will envy us, wishing they could have witnessed the birth we saw,” Kelly concludes about 2016’s technology. It will be nice if he’s right, since we too often feel as if future people are more likely to blame us for the collapse we started.