Experts Optimistic About the Next 50 Years of Digital Life

Fifty years after the first computer network was connected, a canvassing of experts shows most say digital life will primarily change humans’ existence for the better over the next 50 years


Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct. 28, 2019) – Experts say digital life will mostly bring positive changes over the next 50 years, but they warn these benefits will only happen if people embrace reforms allowing better cooperation, security, basic rights and economic fairness, according to a new report by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.

This report, part of a long-running series about the future of the internet, is based on an extensive, non-scientific canvassing conducted from July 4 to Aug. 6, 2018, in which 530 technology pioneers, innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists responded to questions asking how individuals’ lives might be affected by the evolution of the internet over the next 50 years. 

The survey asked respondents to explain their answers in open-ended responses. The results are not projectable to any population other than the individuals in this sample. Overall, 72% of expert respondents say there would be change for the better; 25% say there would be change for the worse; and 3% believe there would be no significant change.

“The optimists expressed hope that in the next 50 years digital advances will lead to longer life spans, greater leisure, more equitable distributions of wealth and power and other possibilities to enhance human well-being,” said Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center. “At the same time, nearly all of these experts’ written predictions included warnings about the possibilities of greater surveillance and data-abuse practices by corporations and governments, porous security for digitally connected systems and the prospect of greater economic inequality and digital divides unless policy solutions push societies in different directions.”

Leonard Kleinrock, the UCLA professor who networked the first computers in the ARPANET, the early packet-switching network that is the precursor of the internet, participated in this canvassing and made this prediction about digital life in 50 years:

“I predict that the internet will evolve into a pervasive global nervous system. The internet will be everywhere, available on a continuous basis, and will be invisible in the sense that it will disappear into the infrastructure, just as electricity is, in many ways, invisible. The Internet of Things will be an embedded world of the Internet of Invisible Things. We will be able to interact with its capabilities via human-friendly interfaces such as speech, gestures, haptics, holograms, displays and so on. No more will we be forced to interface with tiny, incompatible, awkward keyboards, icons and clumsy handheld and desktop devices. These interfaces will be highly customized to each individual and matched to their profile, preferences, privileges and specifications in an adaptable fashion. My hope is that life will calm down and provide a more balanced physical/digital presence. Screens will diminish considerably, bringing us back to enriched human-human interaction, notwithstanding that a significant fraction of our interaction will be enhanced with software agents, avatars and AI devices (robots, embedded devices, etc.). We will no longer be adjusting to the awkward software and hardware interfaces we currently endure, but the customization of these interfaces will be better matched to what we desire and expect as individuals. Such interactions will enable humans and AI devices to participate in a joint exchange far more easily than is the case today where it is either human or AI device, but not easily both.”

“In just 50 years the internet grew from a handful of interlinked computers to a worldwide network connecting billions of active users across all corners of the globe,” noted Kathleen Stansberry of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. “This vast experiment in human collaboration has not been without cost, but these experts believe that by enacting thoughtful reform today the vision of the internet as a tool of equality and enlightenment can still be realized.”

Following is a sample of thoughts shared by experts through this survey:

Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and author of “Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future” wrote, “I don’t think the right framing is ‘will the outcome be good, or bad?’ but rather it must be ‘how will we shape the outcome, which is currently indeterminate?’ I’m hopeful that we will make the right choices, but only if we realize that the good outcomes are not at all inevitable.”

Esther Dyson, entrepreneur, former journalist, founding chair at ICANN and founder of Wellville, wrote, “The impact of the internet is not entirely inherent in the technology; it depends on what we do with it. It’s so powerful that it has given us the opportunity to satisfy many of our short-term desires instantly; we need to learn how to think longer-term. So far we have mostly done a bad job of that.... Do we have the collective wisdom to educate the next generation to do better despite our own poor example?”

Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst for Altimeter Group and expert in data, analytics and digital strategy, commented, “In 50 years, what we know as our internet will be largely obsolete. Rather than organizing information in the form of URLs, apps and websites, our digital interactions will be conversational, haptic and embedded in the world we live in (even, to some extent, in ourselves). As a result, the distinction between the physical and digital worlds will largely fall away. Prosthetics, imaging, disease and pathogen detection, and brain science (identifying, understanding and perhaps even modifying the workings of the brain) will all see advances far beyond what we can imagine today. Our ability to understand weather and the natural world at scale will be immensely powerful, driven by advances in machine intelligence and networking. Yet all of these innovations will mean little if the algorithms and technology used to develop them are not applied with the same attention to human consequences as they are to innovation.”

Baratunde Thurston, futurist, former director of digital at The Onion and co-founder of the comedy/technology startup Cultivated Wit, wrote, “It’s the year 2069, and it’s been 20 years since the conclusion of the Platform Wars and 30 years since Amazon bailed out and acquired the United States of America. Shareholders were initially dumbfounded by Chairman Jeff Bezos’s strategy, but it soon became clear that physical territory gave Amazon a significant competitive advantage over its one-time rivals, Alphabet, The People’s Republic of Baidu and 4Chan.... Once it was proven in 2045 that a hybrid human-networked intelligence could manage and draft legislation far better than inconsistent and infinitely corruptible humans, the U.S. Congress was replaced with a dynamic network model accounting for the concerns of citizens yet bound by resource constraints and established laws.”

Betsy Williams, a researcher at the Center for Digital Society and Data Studies at the University of Arizona, wrote, “Privacy will be largely a luxury of the rich, who will pay extra for internet service providers, services and perhaps separate networks that protect privacy and security.”

Jerry Michalski, founder of the Relationship Economy eXpedition, said, “Half a century is a long time. Many futures seem possible; I’ll describe one. Software has ‘personhood.’ It has rights, personality and limited responsibility. Cryptocurrencies and distributed systems have helped one-third of Earth’s population separate from nation states and join ‘nations of choice,’ ranging from Burning Man to racially segregated enclaves. The digital platforms these nations use are larger and more powerful than the old nation-states. Few people have privacy or full-time jobs. Facts hardly exist: Everything is easy to fake, so everything is in doubt. Digital platforms still haven’t figured out how to stop stalking us and use their presence and power to help us govern together better.”

Jamais Cascio, research fellow at the Institute for the Future, wrote, “I imagine three broad scenarios for AI in 50 years. No. 1, EVERYWARE, is a crisis-management world trying to head off climate catastrophe. Autonomous systems under the direction of governance institutions (which may not be actual governments) will be adapting our physical spaces and behaviors to be able to deal with persistent heat waves, droughts, wildland fires, Category 6 hurricanes, etc.... No. 2, ABANDONWARE, is also crisis-driven, but here various environmental, economic and political crises greatly limit the role of AI in our lives. There will be mistrust of AI-based systems, and strong pushback against any kinds of human displacement. This likely results from political and economic disasters in the 2040s-ish linked to giving too much control to AI-based systems.... The dominant design language for AI here is submissive. AI is still around, but generally whimpering in the corner. No. 3, SUPERWARE, is the world described in the first answer (AI common but largely invisible) turned up to 11. In this scenario, AI systems focus on helping people live well and with minimal harm to others. By 2069, the only jobs performed by humans in the postindustrial, post-information world require significant emotional labor, unique creative gifts or are simply done out of the pleasure of doing them.”

Judith Donath, author of “The Social Machine, Designs for Living Online” and faculty fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, commented, “Western civilization, pinnacle of individual liberty, has culminated in the reckless and wasteful consumption of the Earth’s natural resources.... [N]ow imagine an artificially intelligent government, programmed to rebalance humans and the natural world as painlessly as possible. Though there would be no privacy from the machine government’s ceaseless sensing, it would be a pleasant world. We would enjoy an apparent wealth of choice – the illusion of liberty. In reality, personal agency would be quite minimal, our desires redirected and our behavior shaped by subtle, powerful nudges. It may be the only hope we have left.”

Read the full report: https://www.pewinternet.org/2019/10/28/experts-optimistic-about-the-next-50-years-of-digital-life/ 

See the methodology: https://www.pewinternet.org/2019/10/28/the-next-50-years-of-digital-life-about-this-canvassing-of-experts/

For more information or to arrange an interview, please call 202.419.4372 or email Shawnee Cohn at scohn@pewresearch.org

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. Subscribe to our daily and weekly email newsletters or follow us on our Fact Tank blog.

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