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Predictions for the next 10, 20, 30 years

7 January 2015

The New Year is a good time for reflection. Here are some of my predictions for the next few decades — a longer-than-usual timeline! Meanwhile, we’ll get back to our day jobs of changing the landscape of consumer-facing Internet business in Africa!
– Paul Cook

2025 (10 years time)

  • Physical signatures on paper will start becoming less common, replaced with electronic signatures and third-party document management systems. Over the next few years, security breaches or failures of some of these companies will lead to greater regulation of the industry. The result will eventually look similar to the credit rating agency or stock exchange industries of 2014 – several private companies running businesses in an industry heavily shapen by and working alongside regulatory agencies.
  • Hipster becomes accepted mainstream, as the desire for possession of mass-produced physical items is increasingly replaced with the quest for experience and “story” via artisanal and niche products. An increasing share of these products are virtual. Provision of these products and services will avoid massive unemployment, despite continuing decline in jobs in many of the careers that provided employment in 2014.
  • The global call-centre industry will finally peak (at a massive size), as new generations prefer to interact with computers and search for answers online. Content writing for helpdesks and forums will be the new outsourced growth industry, though it will not create as many jobs as the call centre industry.

2035 (20 years time)

  • As had happened to chess by 2014, computers will be unmistakably better than humans at “hard” AI problems from early 2000s, e.g., face recognition, speech recognition, “discovery” (reading and finding relevant content in huge troves of documents), medical diagnosis. However, AI will not be much closer to human-level consciousness, as we increasingly discover consciousness is not a single brain system, but rather an emergent property of many finely-balanced subsystems in our brains, built by our evolutionary past, that are very hard to abstract away from our brain structure. That is, computers won’t be “conscious” because we discover our “consciousness” is an increasingly slippery and less-generalisable concept than we had imagined.
  • More than 75% percent of seafood will be farmed rather than wild-caught. The exceptions will be either very high-end (and the target of growing environmentalist critiscism) or low-end. Farmed fish breeds will look and behave increasingly different to their wild ancestors.
  • The car industry will be in trouble as individual car ownership becomes less common. In advanced economies, shared self-driving cars summoned by smartphone are the default for many people. The only healthy parts of the industry are high-end luxury cars, low-end cars for emerging markets (though massive congestion is pushing public opinion away from car ownership here too), and self-driving electric cars designed for sharing.
  • Road congestion in advanced economy cities will be much reduced compared to 2014 (as happened to air pollution in these cities in a previous era, e.g., London after 1800s and LA after 1960s). This will be due to reduced private car use, but more so to self-driving cars and much better traffic management (traffic lights, automatic car re-routing).

2045 (30 years time)

  • CO2 emissions will be steadily falling, with global temperatures on track for a 3.5 degree rise. Agriculture will be steady, thanks to most of the world’s famers using genetically modified crops. Widespread but localised wars and revolutions will have happened, all with political proximate causes but with incidence strongly correlated with areas of greatest climate disruption. Large movements of people will also have occurred, leading to dramatic pro- and anti-immigrant upheavals, but these migrants will be largely described as economic- rather than climate-driven.
  • The dominant socio-economic issue will no longer be poverty and financial inequality as measued by Gini coefficient and similar, as this will be superseded by inequality in duration and quality of life. Improved medical technology will leave the top 1% with an expected lifetime almost double that of the bottom 50%, and much better quality of life in the meantime. The advantages of expensive biotech will threaten the assumption that all are born equal, as the offspring of the wealthiest gain developmental advantages, and society faces the danger of a biologically entrenched upper class.
  • The tertiary or “services” sector will employ nearly all workers, with industry following agriculture to become virtually irrelevant in formal employment. Production of physical goods will have followed energy use, to be largely uncorrelated with GDP, as non-physical goods become the bulk of GDP by value. Economists will split services into subsectors, such as traded services (finance, media and content) and non-traded services (hospitality, experiences, personal services).
  • First steps will be taken to in some countries to ban human drivers on certain roads (e.g., long distance highways), for safety reasons. These will be very controversial, pitting clear evidence of massive reductions in death toll due to self-driving cars, versus people’s right to drive themselves, and the rights of those who don’t yet own self-driving cars.

Black swans (that could make the above invalid)

  • Global pandemic of an easy to catch, slow to incubate but deadly virus. Might be caused by rogue biotech labs
  • War between super-powers