Future Focus

The following article was supplied by Transforming Yorkshire (Research)

In thinking about where we will be in a few years time it is worth considering what some aspects of the overall environment might look like. This is not a detailed assessment of everything. It is more a snapshot of some key happenings that are already in progress and which might come to pass in the period in question (up to 2050). We would not presume to second guess the future but much of what is stated here is already in train.

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The advance of rule based computer systems is expected to continue apace. This provides huge opportunities though there are also drawbacks. Autonomous vehicles could become a reality rather than just experiments. It would be much easier for the vehicles to operate if we decluttered the streets. Electric shuttle buses and “Uber” style taxis would replace most urban passenger traffic. Autonomous delivery vehicles would replace most urban goods traffic with heavier goods vehicles (manned or unmanned) delivering to key points within the urban area. Car ownership for most urban dwellers could become a thing of the past. Why own a car when you can just hitch a ride or hire a vehicle which turns up in just a few minutes. This will do wonders for on street parking and save those who take advantage of the new car/ride hire schemes a considerable amount of money but it could have a significant negative effect on the car industry. It may be that some urban housing will have to be tailored to cope with automatic delivery systems but there are different ways to achieve this so, though we might see some changes to the urban landscape, there are unlikely to be any major housing clearances.

Changes are unlikely to be restricted to urban areas. Country dwellers may also see autonomous vehicles which could help people living in more isolated areas who have mobility problems. Superfast broadband should be within reach of all users which should further help work/life options. We are likely to see the further rollout of semi-automated urban farms which could change the way we see some aspects of food production.

There is no “one size fits all” transport solution with the forthcoming transport revolution but what it does give us is a huge range of options to choose from to increase connectivity. Moreover, most of these options are not that expensive.
Rule based computer systems could have a significant effect on many professional jobs such as lawyers and accountants. They could also have a considerable effect on data gathering which is currently notoriously flawed. By embedding collection systems within point of sale and enterprise resource planning systems, accurate economic data could be available to government bodies and others. This will, of course, come at a cost and there are data protection considerations but a similar process is already taking place in the energy industry with the roll-out of smart meters.

Rule based computer systems could have a profound effect on the political landscape. Why have legislators and thousands of civil servants toiling away in support of them when you can use machines to do most of the work. We are constantly being told that automation cuts down errors and this is one area where we have more than our fair share of errors. This could take years, it could be very expensive and it may not even be desirable but, once the systems are in place and are operating satisfactorily, the implications for cost saving could be considerable. Even if we have human override and people make the crucial decisions, the tools will be there to streamline the process of government in much the same way as they have been streamlining administrative tasks over the last few decades. Within a short period we may come to ask, “how did we ever do without them”. Let’s not forget that this is all before the advent of true “artificial intelligence” which cannot be that far away from widespread application.

All this reliance on automated systems has huge implications for computer security. Systems will have to be self-protecting and extremely robust. The computer security industry will have to take a quantum leap forward. In fact, they are doing pretty much just that. The first to create a truly “quantum computer” could have significant advantages though whether they will be able to get around the problem of decoherence is another matter. Current banking system failures do not engender huge amounts of confidence. Developers must ensure that systems do what they are supposed to. Rigorous testing and protection of systems is essential now and will be even more important in the future.

Cyber security is already a key area of defence but it will become more mainstream. Defence systems themselves may become even more automated. Many drones currently have manual operators but these could be replaced by automated systems. Automated systems will have to be able to protect themselves in hostile environments. Some high risk tasks currently done by service personnel could be automated. The risks to service personnel could be considerably reduced if more dangerous roles could be undertaken by automated systems but, if anything, costs would be likely to increase.

Technical advances are also likely to have a considerable impact on defence systems. The successor to the nuclear age is probably just around the corner. This is likely to come as a byproduct of current NASA projects. In fact, NASA has probably already done much of the heavy lifting. This is profound in many aspects. It may not be on the immediate horizon but these discoveries and the application of them could be imminent. Whoever has them first and manages to translate theory into practical applications could have a huge advantage. Is this something that should be shared globally or will it provoke another technical “race” by the super powers?

More down to earth and back home here in Yorkshire, we are faced with several problems. Huge numbers of jobs could be automated but do we want to do this? What happens if we don’t? Will our economy fall further behind? Is it even up to us or will multinationals make the decisions for us? Who will benefit from all these efficiencies? Who will benefit from all this new technology and all the jobs that it will create? Will it be utopia for all or for just those that can afford it? Are there any downsides? (Oh yes! You bet!)

The issues arising from control, ownership and cost are things that will be picked up later.

The key factor we need to take into consideration when formulating policies and trying to find solutions to problems, is that the pace of change is not slackening, if anything, it is increasing and will continue to do so. Another important factor is that we cannot rely on future technology to solve current problems. We should take it into consideration but we cannot just assume that the technology that we require will be available for our new systems. Some scientific and technical problems take a lot of solving and, if we can only use new technology to provide a solution to a particular problem, then we should expect to be saddled with all the development costs and delays required to bring that technology to maturity.

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