Thanks to ever-growing computing power, technology is evolving more rapidly today than ever before across virtually all disciplines. The results are varied. Tech that used to be available only to the very rich is trickling down to the rest of society. Newer technologies are changing the way people eat and socialize. And of course, new breakthroughs in all sorts of fields are being leveraged by those who would weaponize every advance humanity makes.
The development of 3D printing is full of promise. Research laboratories can reduce their costs by printing lab equipment themselves, speeding up the research and development process. Doctors can use 3D printers to save lives by printing new body parts, as two from the University of Michigan did in 2012 with an infant whose trachea had collapsed. There’s also potential danger from 3D printing, as demonstrated by the progress made in a single year by the burgeoning community of online 3D-printer gunsmiths.
One of the technologies actively shaping the 21st century is a miniaturized version of early 20th century tech. Unmanned aerial vehicles—known to everyday people as drones—are the smaller cousins of airplanes and helicopters, and they’re already a fact of life in many ways. Drones have been the key tool of warfare and diplomacy for the U.S. government in countries like Yemen and Pakistan. The same government deploys drones to spy on Mexican drug cartels. The cartels themselves use drones to fly drugs over the American border, where they can be worth nearly four times as much as they are in Mexico. Drones have replaced some helicopters in Israeli army now, too.
Not all drones are used in the service of violence abroad. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently considering allowing movie makers to use drones within the United States, and if it grants exceptions to its drone restrictions for the film industry, other industries are sure to clamor for similar exceptions. Amazon made some waves recently by suggesting that it might use drones to deliver packages. And if you’re willing to drop $20,000 in Las Vegas, you can get bottle service at the Marquee Dayclub.
Agriculture could benefit from drone use, but it’s one of the major contributors to the climate change issues humanity faces at the moment. That has some scientists tackling the very nature of food itself. Soylent is a meal-replacement product that’s already on the market after a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. It already has people pondering how food fits into modern lives, especially when it is the cause of so many problems for people unable to control themselves in its presence.
Just a little further out into the future, but still within reach, is virtual reality technology. The earliest waves of it that came along in the 1990s and early 2000s attracted attention but not much in the way of investment. That’s all changed within the last year, particularly after Facebook bought Oculus VR. That prompted Sony to begin designing its own VR headset from scratch, for use with the PlayStation 4 consoles. Things are moving so fast in the VR space that author Ernest Cline, who wrote the science fiction novel Ready Player One about a vast virtual world in the future, says Hollywood needs to hurry up and exercise the film rights it bought to his novel while it’s still science fiction.
“This is really a new communication platform,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote after Facebook acquired Oculus earlier this year. “By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures. These are just some of the potential uses.” Among the other uses are hacking into another country’s computer systems, which the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on as it creates ways to use Oculus for cyberwar.
Another DARPA project that’s only just beginning to make its way from prototype to commercial product is the driverless car. Google is the number one proponent of eliminating human drivers, having logged seven hundred thousand miles and just one accident in five years with its initial fleet, and the accident were caused when a human driver took the wheel. Google’s newest iteration of the driverless car takes the concept to a new level by completely doing away with the steering wheel and brake and accelerator pedals completely, making them technically illegal under California law. Google is building 100 of the push-button cars for its pilot program.
All of the technologies mentioned above have pretty clear positive and negative effects, along with other effects that won’t be known until they go into wide use. Technologies that are only now beginning to have the experimental foundations laid down, like memory engineering and brain hacking, are scarier because their direct positive applications are harder to imagine.
So are we headed toward utopia with all our technological progress? Or are we more likely to live under in a dystopia? Neither seems likely. Humanity has always enjoyed benefits and suffered downsides as it has advanced forward technologically. What we make of it ultimately depends on what we ask of it. If we can find a way to make solving the world’s biggest problems profitable as bottle service, virtual reality games and ways to blow up our enemies without actually having to see them ourselves; we’ll be in great shape.