This is a follow up to 10 Projects That Are Building The Future, published over six months ago, showcasing another 12 projects that could change the world in various ways. Some are potentially revolutionary, and others represent a logical, but significant, evolution. Some offer a promise of a better future, while others might be downright scary or dangerous. In a constantly changing world these kinds of projects and initiatives are the ones making it happen, for better or worse.
1. Bitcoin (and Other Cryptocurrencies)
Money is a part of the very infrastructure of society, so anything that could disrupt the way we think of and use money could very significantly change the way our society operates.
The most potent technologies with regards to their ability to change the world are those which can cause a major power shift, and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin promise exactly that. It could cause a shift of power from governments and central banks to the people at large. This decentralization would topple the ability of the few to manipulate the entire economies, a power that is bound to be abused, and has been abused.
Besides this power shift Bitcoin also changes the way we use money in a practical sense by simply making it easier, cheaper, more private, and more in line with the technological age we are living in, and it fixes some of the major shortcomings of fiat currencies, namely the issue of inflation (because the supply of bitcoin is programmatically limited), and the issue of trust.
You might think that the powers who are threatened by Bitcoin will try their best to stop it if its adoption gains critical mass, and you’d probably be right. However, the difficulty of stopping and controlling Bitcoin parallels the difficulty that the content industry has in stopping and controlling peer to peer file sharing. They may be able to regulate or even outlaw Bitcoin, but it could simply and easily be forked into a new cryptocurrency that they haven’t tackled yet. It is the same issue as with torrent sites. Shut down one, 10 others pop up. Those trying to stop it are playing an eternally losing game of whack a mole. They cannot win. It’s a paradigm shift, and they’re either gonna have to learn to play along, or move out of the way.
If you are new to Bitcoin please check out our introductory guide to Bitcoin to learn more.
2. Defense Distributed
We’ve already talked about the disruptive potential of 3D printing before, but this particular use of 3D printing deserves a special mention. Defense Distributed is just a small project, but what they are accomplishing could have severe repercussions. In short, Defense Distributed is printing guns, and sharing the designs of these guns freely with the world so that anyone with a 3D printer can produce their own guns. They keep on perfecting their designs to allow for greater performance, and those designs are open source and free.
This sort of thing will make gun control very difficult to accomplish, again for a similar reason why Bitcoin and P2P file sharing is difficult to control. Everything that is so decentralized quickly slips through the fingers of monolithical powers. Things that work from the bottom-up don’t mesh well with those who are pushing from the top-down, and they have a fundamental strength of numbers, nimbleness, and flexibility. This is why, historically, bottom-up ultimately wins.
So what does this mean? Well, it means everyone can own a gun. Does that mean we are facing the future of rampant crime and chaos? Not at all. While many still actively resist this notion, facts simply don’t support the belief that more people owning guns actually leads to more crime. And this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who thinks logically and rationally, and not just on the basis of emotional appeals. You might have already heard the arguments, but they are worth repeating, even if at this point it might sound corny to those who’ve been in the gun control debate for a while.
Guns don’t kill people by themselves. People kill people. If they didn’t have guns they’d use kitchen knives, and I doubt many would support outlawing those. Think killing with kitchen knives is simply less efficient? Well those intent on killing will certainly find a way. After all, you can easily make IEDs out of off-the-shelf materials. The problem aren’t the tools and materials, including guns themselves. The problem are the people, their intentions, and the culture which bred the mentality that spawned these evil intentions.
Another major point is the fact that in a heavily gun controlled society it is precisely the bad guys which will be most likely to get their hands on guns. Why does anyone assume they will obey the law, or that government’s enforcement of gun control laws will be so perfect that there wont be a black market for guns? Gun control cannot take away guns from those bent on both breaking the law and using guns to harm people. Yet they do disarm the good people who would’ve otherwise been able to confront those initiating such crimes. Furthermore, in a society where everyone owns guns, criminals will be psychologically pressured to think twice before going on a killing spree if they know that everyone can defend themselves. It’s easy to go killing unarmed civilians. Try facing up to armed civilians, and see how successful you are in your malicious intent then.
Perhaps we need cocky projects like Defense Distributed to bypass the entire largely dubious gun control debate and simply show us, in plain sight, the reality. Guns aren’t the problem. Specific people are. In a contrary, guns can be a way to stop those people, and crimes they would commit. If this project is successful, and the idea behind it, perhaps we can one day soon finally put to rest the myths that surround the entire issue of gun control. It would be about time.
While I’m on about things that change the world to the core perhaps it is time to mention Anonymous. It is not a single project per say, or a single organization, or any kind of monolithic entity. It is very amorphous, with no real credo, no consistent goals or principles, no true leadership. It is best to think of Anonymous much like we think of anonymity itself. It is not so much a thing as it is a power.
However, the difference between mere anonymity and Anonymous is in that Anonymous represents the power of anonymity combined with the power of digital networking, encryption, and decentralization in general. You need all of these components to really describe the power of Anonymous. Just anonymity wouldn’t be enough. A person or a group can be anonymous without access to technology, and it wouldn’t be able to do the things that Anonymous can do.
And that’s what describes the world changing potential of Anonymous. This power is on the table for anyone who wishes to use it, and it wasn’t available before. How one wishes to use it, and for what purposes, is another matter entirely. Some may use it to actually harm society, and others may use it to help it. The point is that it gives people the kind of power they haven’t had before, and that in itself, at least, ought to be taken as a positive development.
We simply must not fall into a trap of trying to assign a fixed moral judgment to Anonymous. It is neither good nor bad as a whole. We have to judge each specific action that is undertaken in the name of Anonymous on a case by case basis. Some will be bad, and others will be good. We can only assign a judgment with regards to whether Anonymous should exist at all; whether this power should be available to the people. I say yes. Much like with guns above, the real problem isn’t power in the hands of the people, but the people themselves and their culture. Instead of trying to disempower people out of fear they might do bad things, we should strive to improve the people themselves, that is, our culture.
Anonymous is unlikely to be eliminated any time soon, and that is again for the same reasons as Bitcoin, Bittorrent, and 3D printed guns. It’s next to impossible to destroy something decentralized.
4. Silent Circle
Widespread adoption of encryption is the most reliable way of preserving privacy on the internet in the face of growing surveillance, and the powerful thing about it is that once something is properly encrypted it should be impossible to read and track. The key to such widespread adoption is making encryption easy to use for the masses, and Silent Circle is the kind of project which is making this a reality.
Silent Circle offers a complete suite of encrypted communication tools that can ensure the privacy of phone conversations, text messages, video conversations, and email. It’s designed to be easy for anyone to set up and use, and make communications between members of the Silent Circle completely private.
Perhaps Silent Circle alone wont cause encryption to go fully mainstream, but it represents an example that others may follow, and demonstrates how it can be done. The ideal is for all communication on the internet that is intended as private to be encrypted. The more encryption proliferates the harder it will be to turn the internet into a surveillance medium, which is what some governments apparently desire. It turns a kind of dystopian vision of the future, in which the internet helps “Big Brother” establish an ultimate surveillance society, on its head.
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds a wide variety of projects many of which turn military related science fiction into reality. The things DARPA spawned range from fantastic and amazing to downright scary. They were largely responsible for the ongoing proliferation of drone warfare, and other projects include sophisticated robots in various form factors and for various military purposes which seem to fulfill the worst science fiction nightmares.
DARPA was founded in response to the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik, which surprised americans. Its mission, fittingly, is “prevent technological surprise for us and to create technological surprise for our adversaries”.
This mission has so far spawned a wide variety of crazy developments from remote controlled cyborg insects to a slew of animal-like and human-like robots that can walk across rough terrains, carry cargo, follow soldiers, jump around etc., to such things as research into antimatter weapons, hypersonic UAV, laser weapons, microwave weapons, and so on.
These developments are already changing the face of warfare, and seem to assume an endless supply of wars far into the future, but some of these technologies can very conceivably be deployed on the home front as well, and some already have, against rioting citizens or for surveillance. They certainly give the government some eery powers simultaneously as the same government is trying to disarm the people of the most basic types of weapons.
Founded by Elon Musk, who also founded PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SolarCity, SpaceX is making significant strides bringing space closer to everyone. A slew of innovations allowed them to significantly bring down the cost of launching rockets, and they are now making major progress in creating a reusable rocket, one which would be able to launch stuff into space, come back to land on Earth, and be ready for another launch within mere hours. Something like this was never possible before.
Because of this SpaceX can be considered as one of the leaders of the private space industry, which is playing an ever increasing role in the business of space exploration, previously monopolized by governments. This process results in more rapid innovations that increase our space exploration capabilities while bringing down costs to a point where an increasing number of people can get involved.
The ultimate goal is to make humanity a space faring race capable of colonizing other planets instead of being stuck forever on this one. It is a long term goal, of course, but that’s why the work has to start early, and companies like SpaceX are doing it. They are the reason why we can hope for a future in which space will no longer be out of most people’s reach, but rather our new home away from home.
Another venture started by Elon Musk, Solar City is striving to eventually bring solar power and its many benefits to everyone. SolarCity is offering a compelling deal; get a solar system installed for your home with no down payment, and reduce your utility bills immediately. Instead of paying your traditional power company for electricity you would pay SolarCity for a period of 20 years the amount that is lower than you are currently paying.
Since solar systems can produce electricity for decades with minimal maintenance, after this 20 year contract expires you would essentially have free electricity, but at that point solar systems may become orders of magnitude more efficient thanks to innovations by companies like NanoSolar.
The goal is to make the sun the number one source of electricity in the future, producing electricity in an environmentally friendly way, cheaply, and in abundance, covering all of our electricity needs, and solving the looming energy crisis.
How about changing the world one life at a time? Kiva is a non-profit organization founded in 2005 which allows those with money to lend some to those who are ready and willing to actively work to bring themselves out of poverty or wish to prevent themselves slipping back into poverty, but lack the funds to do so. A loan can be as small as $25 dollars, and as big as you want it to be, and it is repaid once the project’s goal is met, at which point you can lend the same money to someone else for another project or withdraw your money and not lose a dime.
When you join the site you are able to choose from a variety of stories by people looking for funds have to tell about why they need it, and what they wish to accomplish with it. So you know exactly whom you are helping out, and what will be done with the money. Yet since these are loans they aren’t considered charity. A lot of the projects involved are of entrepreneurial nature, designed to bolster the person or family’s business so they can earn more for themselves, and by that also be able to repay the loan. Over 99% of loans on Kiva are indeed repaid.
Over one million people in 67 countries have been funded through this process so far, with over $425 million dollars in total amount of loans, and an average loan of about $400.
9. Adapteva’s Parallella
Imagine owning a supercomputer the size of a credit card, one which has a 66-core processor, 1GB of RAM, a MicroSD card slot, 2 USB ports, HDMI port, Ethernet, and 4 general purpose expansion connectors – and all of this for just $99.
This is what Adapteva’s Parallella project is about to deliver, but how is this even possible, and what’s the catch? The key is in parallel computing, which the Parallella project is aiming to make affordable to everyone. Parallel computing has, in a limited fashion, been around for a while given that most of the modern CPUs running in our PCs, notebooks, smartphones and tablets contain at least two processing cores, and often as much as 8 processing cores.
However, parallel computing can offer so much more, and Parallela’s Epiphany chip contains 64 cores that can work in tandem to bring over 90 gigaflops of processing power, comparable to thousands of dollars worth of server machines.
The catch is that most programs we use today are written to take advantage of only few cores, and cannot tap into the immense power of Parallella’s Epiphany unless reprogrammed. This is why the Parallella’s computer includes a dual core ARM A9 CPU that these applications can run on. The officially supported platform is Ubuntu Linux, with support for other operating systems depending on community involvement.
The entire project is open source, with open hardware specifications, and focus on open access for everyone. With the hardware being there the key will be in bringing as many developers onboard as possible to write new and rewrite existing applications that will take advantage of those 64 cores. Parallella project itself will be involved in writing software as well, as well as teaching people how to do parallel programming. They believe parallel computing is the future, and a way to gain huge performance increases at a low cost, available to everyone.
If you have $99 to spare you’ll soon be able to get your own Parallella kit to play with. It will run Ubuntu Linux just fine with those two ARM cores on board, and if you’re a programmer or inclined to learn, you’ll have a powerful machine to play and learn parallel programming with.
What makes this potentially world changing is simply the sheer jump in computing power, and dip in costs, associated with making parallel computing widespread. So far we owned computers, albeit ones with superbly increasing performance year over year. Parallella, and parallel computing in general, would ensure that this process of rapidly increasing computing power in the hands of everyone can continue. In fact, it seems it could enable a pretty major spike in affordable computing power while actually reducing its cost.
10. Google Glass
If you’re following the tech world you’ve without a doubt heard of the Google Glass by now. It’s a controversial project, but Google is pushing it as the future, something that will become as acceptable as today’s shiny and big touchscreen smartphones or even talking via bluetooth headpieces.
For the uninitiated, Google Glass is glasses kit with a little transparent screen just above the eye which you can interact with via voice commands, and which can also display real time information about whatever you are looking at. It is probably the smoothest implementation of augmented reality yet. Most touted features of it so far are its ability to instantly take a picture or a video of whatever you are looking at, navigate you to desired locations, show you places of interests nearby, and allow you to search the internet for stuff of interest on the spot.
Compared to similar experiments from the past Google Glass actually sports a fairly attractive design, and Google has done a fairly decent job in flashing them around their conferences as well as presenting them in videos to make them actually look cool rather than awkward. However, detractors are concerned less about the aesthetics of it and more about the whole idea of people constantly being able to record everything and everywhere they go, albeit the device actually isn’t recording unless you actually instruct it to record.
On the other hand, being able to get instant information about everything literally right before your eyes is appealing to some, and needless to say techies who’ve been watching this sort of stuff in science fiction also find it very cool.
My guess is that Google Glass will see some adoption, but in a limited sense. There will be situations when it is fine to wear it, and others when it is considered inappropriate. But if it does proliferates nearly as much as smartphones have, it could quite significantly change the way we expect to interact with the digital world, while living in the “real world”, and might fulfill the Google’s promise of being able to use technology anywhere without it actually getting in the way of living life.
While the proliferation of IPTV has technically already brought us into an era of television over the internet, and given us a few extra features, it is still a fairly similar experience to traditional television, and most of all still quite limited to the living room or wherever your main television screen resides.
Meanwhile a lot of new and professional content became available on the internet, some from new media and others from old media companies including television stations bringing some of their media content online. You can watch movies and episodes on Hulu, bits of content from a web site of almost every major TV house, and a whole slew of video podcasts over YouTube, Vimeo and others (Revision3 being a good example of a new media company offering such content).
But none of this was “good old TV” the way we are used to brought in its full onto the internet and combined with all of the flexibility and features we’ve become used to online. If you wanted that, constantly streaming traditional TV channels, you had to have an antenna plugged into your TV, and that’s just about the only way you could watch it.
Aereo is aiming to change that. Since these channels are “Free to Air” and therefore available for all they developed a super tiny antenna that still had as good reception as standard home antennas, put hundreds of thousands of them into a data center, captured all of the over the air programming and broadcast it over the internet to their customers. In other words, Aereo acts as a conduit between over the air television broadcasts and the internet, finally bringing the complete television experience to the internet, making it possible to watch all of those TV channels anywhere, on any device, and any screen.
Perhaps this isn’t quite as worthy of an advancement as some of the other projects featured in this article, but it does mean two fairly significant things. First, it finally makes television as we know it obsolete; where it was something separate and standalone and limited to your home and typically one particular TV screen at a time. Secondly, it poses a major disruption to the existing TV broadcasting and cable TV businesses, and they haven’t exactly been quiet about it.
Some threatened to drop over the air broadcasting altogether to cut out Aereo. Others, like CBS, filed law suits claiming theft of their signal. And others scrambled to compete by offering their broadcasting through their own streaming service. In any case, Aereo is making a splash, and disrupting the industry. They have announced to expand into 22 new cities in 2013.
As for the rest of the world, it is probably just a matter of time before companies in other countries follow their example and do something similar, joining the process of finally bringing all of television, not just bits and pieces, onto the internet.
12. 2045 Initiative
What would you think if I told you that by 2045 you could be immortal, living in a superhuman body capable of living both in space and on Earth, in a world filled with robots doing just about all of the work while we (super)humans (or transhumans) pursued spiritual enlightenment?
Well, whatever your reaction to such a prediction may be, it is something that the 2045 initiative not only predicts, but is actively working on bringing about. If you think this is some sort of a joke, or a hoax, think again. This organization, regardless of its amazingly outlandish predictions and goals, actually has some credence. It is about to host its second Global Future 2045 conference in New York in June, and it’s already got some support from such high profile individuals as Raymond Kurzweil (perhaps unsurprisingly given that he is pretty much the lead figure in making such predictions), Nick Bostrom, Peter Diamandis, even religious leaders such as Dalai Lama, and others.
Suffice it to say that the initiative is gaining some clout, which gives its otherwise seemingly kooky mission an aura of legitimacy and seriousness.
Another part of the reason why it could actually end up not as crazy as it first appears is that a lot of what it predicts is tied to technological developments which are already under way or of general interest. Indeed the first milestones of the project don’t appear all so out of reach at all; namely the Avatar A, to be built around 2015 to 2020, which is a robotic copy of a human body that can be remotely controlled by a human through a Brain Computer Interface.
Brain Computer Interfaces exist, even as a commercially available gadget (see Emotiv, costing $300), and as we can see from DARPA funded projects and others robotic machines are becoming more and more capable and comparable to the abilities of the human body. On another front, scientists and technologists have been making great strides in literally duplicating human organs. With all of these developments under our belt it doesn’t appear at all outlandish that we may soon be able to replicate a human like body that can be controlled remotely through a more advanced Brain Computer Interface.
Avatar B goes a bit further, however, in that instead of remotely controlling the body it would be possible to actually transplant a human brain into it so it can control the body directly. The brain transplant would occur after the human being in question dies, thereby increasing the persons’s life span. This too, at least after a second thought, seems plausible upon the advancements made to make Avatar A possible, and I’m guessing there will be plenty of people who will find the idea of extending their life when they would already be dead anyway to be a low risk proposition. If it doesn’t work, well, you’re already dead anyway. And if it does; voila, you’ve got yourself a new life in a new body that is built with all of the same senses of your old body, but may actually be superior in some ways.
Avatar C and Avatar D are a little harder to imagine, and there are still unanswered questions as to whether they are actually possible. In Avatar C we are departing from the human brain altogether in creating an entirely artificial brain and transferring our conscious and personality into it. Avatar D is a hologram-like avatar, which can theoretically then take many shapes or forms, and live anywhere. The only limits would be in our imagination.
So there are a couple of primary issues with the 2045 initiative that I see. First is that the later stages of their timeline are really hard to predict reliably, and may be a little too optimistic or outlandish, simply because they assume certain truths which we do not yet know for sure to be actual truths (such as about whether it is in fact possible to replicate true consciousness in a differently formed brain). But given the seeming plausibility of Avatar A and Avatar B, which already offer amazing advancements to the human race (which you might herald as a positive thing if you agree with the transhumanist view, or find downright scary if you think of it as dangerous), I wouldn’t be too harsh on the project over this.
The second issue, which is perhaps a little more problematic, is the attitude it takes towards market based or spontaneous development, as you can see in the video below. It seems to dismiss decentralized bottom up approaches to human evolution as somehow flawed and trivial, and suggest something that looks more like a top down approach as a preferable and even the only way to achieve this. So we have them engaging with the UN, the politicians, and setting up a conference which, while indeed engaging with diverse groups, reminds a lot of existing elitist globalist type of meetups. They do promise a social network in which everybody can engage and contribute their ideas and innovations, but so does the US Government offer managed crowdsourcing platforms. That doesn’t make the US Government any less of a top down organization in its character.
In any case, it’s a very interesting initiative, and at the very least brings some attention to what might become possible in the future, and what many may be interested in. Even if it is flawed in some ways, I think most will agree that these technological developments and possibilities should at least be discussed, because when a technology makes something possible that a significant number of people want to take advantage of (even when they are in a relative minority), it will happen. We don’t want to be caught by surprise when it does.
Note: Due to a very weird slip up I’ve mixed up the numbers, and we actually have 12 projects here. I edited the title and numbers to reflect. I suppose the more the merrier!