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Change has never been this fast. It will never be this slow again

by Calum Chace

The 2010s were an ironic decade. Most metrics show that human welfare improved at an extraordinary rate, but many of us seem to be fearful or resentful, or both. The world is far richer in 2020 than it was in 2010, and global inequality is declining. There is still plenty of poverty, egregious inequality, and injustice, and there are still brutal wars and civil unrest. But overall, life expectancy is sharply up, and child mortality and deaths during childbirth are sharply down. Despite global warming, the number of deaths and injuries from climate-related disasters has fallen significantly, and many rich countries have passed the point of “peak stuff”: they are using fewer resources, polluting less, and the world has actually increased its forest cover.

And yet, the most potent political force in many countries is populism. Some populists are sincere people motivated by genuine conviction, but many more are obvious opportunists. Their claims are consistent: the world used to be a better place; the people’s birthright has been stolen by outsiders, enabled by an established elite, and only the populist can rectify the situation. Oh, and anybody who opposes them is an enemy of the people, and should be vilified, and barred from the media.

Populism is rampant on both sides of the political divide. Today’s right-wing populism is often explained as a reaction against economic disadvantage – the resentment of people who feel left behind by globalism and technological change. There is something in this, but in truth it is much more a cultural phenomenon: a reaction against the decades-long triumphal march of social liberalism, which has overturned what people believed to be the natural order of things. The worst insult a right-wing populist can level is “politically correct”.

Populism of the left claims that modern capitalism is a conspiracy by an elite which is dedicated to (or at least indifferent to) the immiseration of the majority. Contrary to what the data shows, it claims that inequality is at an historical extreme, and getting worse. 

Much of the improvement in the quality of human lives which populists don’t want you to know about was produced by the exponential improvements in technology, so it was perhaps inevitable that the ironic 2010s would see a backlash against technology – the techlash. Social media is accused of enslaving everyone to the dopamine rush of a Facebook like or a Twitter reply, and these accusations are often expressed most forcefully by the most avid users of the technologies they rail against. The tech giants are hoovering up our personal data for nefarious purposes, and recklessly deploying algorithms that are opaque, riddled with bias, and diluting the agency and humanity of a population that is increasingly dumbed down – incapable of paying attention to anything for more than ten seconds, unless it is a video game or a blockbuster movie.

Techlash encompasses artificial intelligence too, which is either feared or ridiculed – or both. Either it is about to take over all human jobs and then destroy the species in a robot apocalypse, or it is an over-hyped fad: a mere conjuring trick using statistics and human slave labour.

In fact, the 2010s were AI’s decade of wonders. In 2011, IBM’s Watson beat the best human players of the US TV quiz show “Jeopardy” – an amazing achievement, and the gracious human loser gave us the memorable phrase “I for one welcome our new robot overlords.” The next year saw the Big Bang in AI, when Geoff Hinton and others figured out how to get machine learning to work in AI – and in particular deep learning, which is (to over-simplify) a rehabilitation of neural networks. What made this possible was the huge increases in the available compute power and data, and what it made possible was superhuman facial recognition, and seriously impressive search, mapping, and translation services. (The often lauded recommendation services are still a bit crap, though.)

Two things which will have huge impact during the 2020s showed signs of their promise during the 2010s. Self-driving cars went from being rubbish, to being deployed in a pilot service carrying members of the public in self-driving taxis with nobody in the front seats. Smartphones went from rare in 2010 to globally ubiquitous in 2019. The digital assistants in these phones and other devices (Siri, Cortana, Alexa and co) are basic today, but Google Duplex offers a glimpse of how powerful they will become, and some of this promise will be realised in the 2020s.

In the next few days you will probably read many predictions about what AI will and will not be able to do by 2030. Here are a few contributions. 

  • There will be another major breakthrough in AI, similar in impact to 2012’s Big Bang. 
  • Researchers will work out how to combine symbolic AI, or good old-fashioned AI with machine learning. 
  • Machines will start to display signs of common sense. 
  • We will still be a long way off artificial general intelligence, or AGI – a machine with all the cognitive abilities of an adult human.
  • The business world will move beyond pilots to large-scale implementation, and start catching up with the tech giants. 
  • Europe will try harder, and might even start to crack the current US-China AI duopoly. 
  • By 2030, self-driving cars will be a common sight in most cities, but in taxis rather than privately-owned cars. 
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  • Many taxi drivers, van drivers and lorry drivers will be looking for new careers. 
  • You will have conversations with your phone, and send your digital assistant off into the net to do errands for you. 
  • 5G will make the internet of things a reality, so predictive maintenance will mean that things will break down and collapse less often, and there will be less waste. 
  • Virtual and augmented reality will work quite well, and it will be interesting to see whether lots of people spend much of their lives in simulated worlds. 
  • AI simulations will enable better decisions to be made in business, science, and government.
  • We may finally be able to turn sick care into health care. There’s a decent chance we will cure many types of cancer, and the idea of ending ageing may well be in the mainstream. 
  • And yes, we will have flying cars.

Some of this may seem fanciful, and predicting the future is, of course, impossible. But here’s the thing which most people still miss. When you read the forecasts elsewhere in the coming days, ask yourself whether they appear to be taking exponential growth into account. 

Moore’s Law is the observation that computers get twice as powerful every 18 months or so. People often say it is dead or dying, but really it is evolving – which is what it has done since the phenomenon was first observed in 1965. Moore’s Law gives us exponential growth, and exponential growth is astonishingly powerful. If you had one unit of computing power in 2010, you will have 128 units in 2020. How many will you have in 2030? Believe it or not, you will have 8,000 units.

Change has never been this fast. And it will never be this slow again. Hang onto your hat: the 2020s are going to be astonishing.

Find out more about our TFA Speaker and network collaborator Calum Chace

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