The hit Amazon Prime television series “The Peripheral,” based on the novel of the same name by William Gibson, depicts an ominous planet Earth in the year 2099, when a greatly reduced human population relies on artificially intelligent robot servants and virtual reality headsets allow people to time travel. (There are also invisible cars).
Some of the technologies featured in the series exist today in embryonic form, such as Amazon’s Alexa bot or Meta’s virtual reality headsets. But if you think the show’s Armageddon prophecy is just science fiction, think again.
There are many real breakthroughs currently in development that could shake up our world as we know it. Here are five big ones. . .
Experts warn that a new kind of computer could literally ‘break the internet’ – leaving everything from state secrets to bank accounts at the mercy of criminals.
Quantum computers, currently under development at Google, IBM and other institutions around the world, could become the most powerful computers on the planet, speeding up processes such as drug discovery and possibly even preventing certain cancers.
Rather than using “bits” of ones and zeros to calculate, quantum computers have “qubits” where numbers can be ones, zeros, or both at the same time, freeing up unprecedented processing power.
But that power comes with its dangers, warns David Mahdi, CSO and CISO adviser at cybersecurity firm Sectigo.
Quantum computers, Mahdi said, “have so much processing power that they will render the encryption we have today unusable in an instant. That means all the data in the world will no longer be secure – think to everything from bank details to medical records to state secrets.
All encryption systems are based on what is called public key infrastructure (PKI). Normal computers need about 300 trillion years to crack the ICP, but a quantum computer would be able to do it in a week, Mahdi says. This would mean that every piece of data on Earth is vulnerable, potentially triggering a “quantum apocalypse” or Q-Day where encryption on the internet suddenly becomes vulnerable to anyone with a quantum computer. Today’s quantum computers are still in their infancy, with the most powerful in the world, IBM’s Osprey, having only 400 qubits. (Millions, if not billions, of qubits are needed to crack bank encryption.)
Mahdi says organizations can protect themselves by switching to new “quantum safe” encryption, but companies must start planning for this now, or be caught up in the Q-Day meltdown. Sectigo said “Q-Day” could happen in 10 or 15 years.
Normally, drones are “piloted” remotely by pilots, and the decision to attack or kill is always made by a human being. But the cost of highly trained combat pilots could tempt military leaders to switch to cheaper autonomous weapons.
In fact, it is already happening.
In 2020, Libya’s interim government launched an autonomous Turkish Kargu-2 drone that attacked retreating rebel soldiers in the African country, according to a UN report.
The lethal autonomous system was programmed to act on its own “without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true ‘shoot, forget and find’ capability”, the report states.
“From a warfare perspective, autonomous drones are an interesting proposition,” said robotics expert, British Professor Kevin Warwick. “Low-intelligence, low-tech, low-cost, but high-payload autonomous drones are perhaps the most popular right now.”
In 2017, tech leaders including Elon Musk wrote to the UN calling for autonomous weapons to be banned the same way chemical weapons are banned today. Musk dubbed them a “Pandora’s box”, marking a “third revolution” in warfare after gunpowder and nuclear weapons.
“Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will allow armed conflict to be fought on a larger scale than ever before and on faster time scales than humans can comprehend,” Musk and his fellow authors warned.
But international agreements to limit their use will be difficult to enforce, Warwick said.
“We could possibly envision an AI drone network with very different tasks,” he said. “Each individual drone may be relatively simple/dumb, but when networked, the overall system is an extremely powerful military machine.”
Nanotechnology, which manipulates atoms and molecules to perform tiny miracles, could one day lead to small machines that will revolutionize the way we live.
Hospitals are already using magnetic nanoparticles to deliver drugs into the human body and silver nanoparticles to help fight infections.
But, as the technology evolves, some believe it could be used to create devastating weapons. A 2008 study from the University of Oxford ranked nanoweapons as having a one in 20 chance of exterminating mankind by the end of the 21st century.
As the novel “Prey” by prolific science fiction author Michael Crichton shows, these weapons could take the form of artificially intelligent “swarms” of tiny robots that devour people like a swarm of grasshoppers.
In his book “Nanoweapons: A Growing Threat to Humanity”, physicist Louis Del Monte describes the threat of artificially intelligent nanobots that can self-replicate by searching for the right atoms and assemble new clones of themselves, capable of surveillance and assassination.
“Once released, their mission would be twofold,” he wrote, “Killing humans and reproducing . . . 90% of the human race could fall victim to their attacks within weeks.
In the fight against climate change, ideas don’t come much further than “solar geo-engineering” or solar radiation management (SRM), where particles are sprayed into the atmosphere to mimic the frightening effects of huge volcanic eruptions.
The idea is backed by tech billionaire Bill Gates, who funded a major Harvard study on the feasibility of flying jets more than 10 miles to release carbonate dust, which cools the planet.
But scientists warn that solar geoengineering could trigger a ‘termination shock’ where temperatures rebound rapidly, causing runaway climate change and unpredictable extreme weather effects.
Earlier this year, 60 scientists signed an open letter published in the journal WIREs Climate Change calling for an international agreement to avoid solar geoengineering technology.
“Governments and the United Nations must take effective political control and restrict the development of solar geoengineering technologies before it is too late,” he said.
For years, wealthy investors – from PayPal’s Peter Thiel to Google’s Sergei Brin – have poured money into technology to extend human life, leading to some exciting recent breakthroughs.
Mice’s bodies have been successfully “rejuvenated”, reversing the signs of aging in their tissues and allowing them to live 30% longer.
Earlier this year, life extension company Altos Labs celebrated the biggest biotech launch in history, backed by a $3 billion investment that reportedly included money from Jeff Bezos. Altos would poach scientists around the world and pay them $1 million a year.
Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte of Altos Laboratories said he believes human lifespans could be extended up to 50 years, either by using genetic therapies or by using chemical drugs.
Anti-aging medicine will be a breakthrough comparable to antibiotics, says Dr. Andrew Steele, author of “Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old.”
“Aging is responsible for more disease and death than anything else on the planet, accounting for two-thirds of all deaths worldwide. If we could develop drugs that could slow and perhaps even partially reverse the aging process , people would not only live longer, they would be healthier and happier,” Steele said.
But experts also warn that the technology could lead to overpopulation that is hurting global economies.
By 2030, one in six people worldwide will be 60 or older, according to the World Health Organization, leading countries to grapple with the cost of caring for their elderly population.
Already in Japan, there is a shortage of young people to care for its elderly citizens, so the country has developed “care robots” to care for its aging population.
An older population also means we need to fundamentally rethink how retirement and pensions work, experts said.
“These are actually issues that we desperately need to address anyway, like the retirement age needs to rise because we are already seeing an unsustainable burden of older people in many countries around the world,” Steele said.
Technology could also fuel social division. With much of the research funded by Silicon Valley billionaires, experts warn of a world where the rich survive and the poor are doomed to die.
This year, Elon Musk also said he disapproved of the technology, saying, “It would suffocate society, because the truth is most people don’t change their minds. They simply die. So if they don’t die, we’ll be stuck with old ideas and society won’t move forward.
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