2035: Future A.I. Will Revolutionize Society, Economy

The threat of automation can be turned into an opportunity for augmentation.

Artificial intelligence research is being carried out on multiple fronts, by neuroscientists and computer engineers studying everything from stem cells to quantum physics.

Over the next 20 years, we'll likely see technological breakthroughs in hardware, software and wetware that will change everything in an instant, sending research on a totally new trajectory.

But experts contend we can still make some educated guesses about how AI will drive social and economic changes by the year 2035.

"Just as the Industrial Revolution changed every aspect of society, the A.I. Revolution will have the same impact," says Christopher Martinez, professor of electrical and computer engineering at University of New Haven. "The Industrial Revolution changed manufacturing and the A.I. Revolution will change the intellectual landscape."

Martinez cites the case of IBM's famous A.I. project Watson, which has evolved from a TV game show contestant to a sophisticated cognitive computing system now involved in complex cancer research. "Instead of playing a game of Jeopardy, computers similar to Watson will change health care, marketing, education, service industries -- almost every occupation will be using A.I.," Martinez says.

Tom Davenport, professor of information technology at Babson College and a research fellow at the MIT Center for Digital Business, recently co-authored a report for Harvard Business Review concerning the future of A.I. on jobs and economies. Davenport's take: A.I. will have a radical impact in the workplace by the year 2035 -- but we humans are notoriously good at adapting to new developments.

"I think there is cause for concern," Davenport says. "Increasing numbers of knowledge workers will have at least some substantial component of the their jobs taken over. Any particular narrow task, in the future, we can probably do it faster and better with machines. So these narrow tasks will be taken away, one by one, but there will still be things that humans do better."

In the article, Davenport and co-author Julia Kirby outline several different ways in which the threat of automation can be turned into an opportunity for augmentation -- A.I. and people working in collaboration.

"There will be jobs for big picture thinking, integrative thinking, tasks with emotional components or creative aspects," he says.

"When I look into the past and think about the future, there were periods where great numbers of workers were displaced. But the people who actually bothered to learn how the machines worked -- to find a role configuring them, fixing them, monitoring them -- they did quite well. I think the same thing is going to happen with our smart machines."

Of course, assuming we do have true A.I. by 2035 -- actual sentient, self-aware machines -- there are broader and weirder societal implications as well. Will artificial intelligences have citizenship? What will be their rights under the law?

Would they be allowed, as corporations currently are, to spend money in political campaigns? Will they vote, and maybe more importantly, how will they vote?

Jenny L. Davis teaches sociology at James Madison University and specializes in the intersections of technology and social theory. Davis says she believes we will have sentient machines by 2035, and that things are going to get complicated.

"Technology always traces back to its human creators and users, and therefore reflects the power hierarchies within which they were built," says Davis, who co-edits the wide-ranging Cyborgology blog.

"The concern is that artificial intelligence will reflect the logic of already advantaged groups -- white, upper-middle class, highly educated, from developed countries -- while excluding those who are already disadvantaged. As technologies develop under the auspices of objectivity, it's easy to lose sight of how those technologies are deeply value-laden."

Davis says she fully expects to be living and working alongside some incarnation of true artificial intelligence by the year 2035.

"What is less clear is if we will -- or even can -- have machines that are emotionally aware. Humans can program emotional responses, but will machines truly feel? If they can, are they still machines, or something else entirely, something more human?"

Good question.

In Disney's new film "Tomorrowland," our heroes discover a kind of alternate dimension where historical concepts of the future are jumbled together in a single sci-fi realm. Here we take a quick tour of some historical visions of the future.

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"Tomorrowland" Sees a Future Full of Our Fav Tech

"Tomorrowland" is inspired in part by the theme park of the same name, the first iteration of which opened at Disneyland in California in July, 1955. The Mark 1 monorail system originally circled Tomorrowland and was the first daily operating system in North America.

Of course, historical images of future technology go waaay back. Leonardo Da Vinci was fascinated with the idea of flying machines -- this photograph of one of his sketchbook pages depicts a kind of proto-helicopter called the Aerial Screw.

Early visions of the future often focused on modes of transportation. This photograph from the Library of Congress, dated circa 1885, gathers 45 concepts for future flying machines on a single engraving.

Taken from a series of postcards printed in France in 1899, this vision of a peculiar form of future transportation is among several predicting life in the year 2000.

Another postcard from the series suggests a more efficient form of education. Additional cards were issued in the early years of the 1900s.

Food is another popular subject in historical visions of the future. Clipped from a 1903 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), this automated restaurant is one cartoonist's vision of future "Dining and Lunch Parlors."

German director Fritz Lang was one of the first filmmakers to present visionary images of the future on the silver screen with his 1927 expressionist film "Metropolis."

At the 1939 New York World's Fair, General Motors assembled the largest scale model ever constructed -- a vision of a future city and countryside called "Futurama." Visitors viewed the exhibit by way of an 18-minute tour on an elevated conveyor system.

General Motors revisited the Futurama concept with the "Futurama II" expo at the 1964 World's Fair -- featured in the new Disney film -- including this updated scale model of a future American city.

Conceived as a counterpart to "The Flintstones," the animated comedy "The Jetsons" had fun playing with the iconography of 1960s visions of Space Age life. Only 24 episodes of the original series were produced. Seems like it should be more, doesn't it?