Many of the themes of "Business Unusual" relate to the potential implications that flow from the increasing influence of cyber-physical systems, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They typically refer to artificial intelligences that are able to perform actions in the real world.
A quick recap of how we got here.
The use of hydrocarbon fuel, such as coal, allowed us to harness the power of water using steam. Steam power drove new forms of machines for transport and manufacturing, they are far more productive than manpower and also allows for increased production of chemicals. This massive social and commercial shift we called the First Industrial Revolution.
Further improvements to steam power allowed for the generation and harnessing of electricity. New machines allowed for more sophisticated processes and the division of labour, synthesis of fertilisers, the creation of fuels, like petrol and diesel, and more efficient vehicles and weapons - a Second Industrial Revolution.
Electrical advances and miniaturisation of logic gates made machine computing possible. The PC transformed the real world by turning it digital. The world is quantified, services surpassed the wealth creation of products as global finance transformed economies - the Third Industrial Revolution.
The culmination of data processing efficiency and highly accurate and cheap sensors driven by the adoption of the mobile phone allowed vast amounts of data to be collected, processed and used to train computers to do human level work. The integration of high-end processing to widespread physical machines allowed for many human tasks to be automated. The impact from the scale and pace of change threatens to transform or destroy some societies while setting up significant potential for conflict for those societies that can’t keep up. This what we face in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
What would be next?
So assuming we do not destroy us ourselves, a laudable achievement by some potential scenarios, here is a possible future.
Advances in the monitoring of our medical conditions will extend lives, personal assistants would allow us to remain independent longer and body augmentation should keep us mobile. The innovation will be in the integration of computational and biological systems. The neural connection will supercharge our cognitive skills while also extending our cognitive lives.
There will be a limit though and, initially, that may be to allow us to spend more of the terminal part of our lives reliving the memorable and lucid parts. We may opt for an advanced form of euthanasia to effectively allow us to not know what is happening as we approach our death.
The advances will push further though and seek to try to replicate the brain processes in computer form. It may be that we can replicate biological processes using an alternative energy supply. Our brain cells don’t need new chemicals as much as the replenishment of the ones used in the brain's chemical processing. By synthesising the required chemicals and recycling the byproducts, we could replicate brain function on a chip or even reproduce it using more energy efficient means.
The principal reason for biological processing is the nature of the processing and the scale of the components. For many complex algorithmic applications, the biological mimicry may perform best. For other uses, quantum computing may be better suited; its potential impact is not considered in this scenario though.
Assuming only the implication for our mortality a machine that was able to replicate our neural processes would also potentially be able to replicate our learned and evolved personal algorithms or personalities and processing behaviours.
As we reach the maximum of our biological life limits, the opportunity would exist to transfer the collective memory and personality to a chip. It may be a process over a period, a new type of retirement, or it may be quicker.
The outcome would be a form of immortality with your processing ability retained either allowing you to live on just not realising that you are frozen in time with your memories.
Or that you can still interact with the real world via simulation using constructs that are still known to you.
Could this even happen?
Technologically, it might become possible. But, culturally the idea of us living beyond this life in heaven is not new. Even older is the idea that those that came before us may still be accessible in certain rituals to access our ancestors.
This raises the even more bizarre potential in that it has or is happening but described in ways that were easier for us to comprehend in a pre-digital age.
Philosophy aside, the value of being able to maintain a cognitive processing ability but reduce the significant energy requirements our biological versions require, may see us sending envoys with basic terraforming tools to seed the stars. We may create cyborg versions of ourselves to colonise the new worlds better. We may employ the evolved cognitive processing abilities to tasks they had excelled at while still alive. A corporation's founder may continue to provide insight and counsel for future leaders.
The primary challenge for this far-fetched scenario is the real world one that requires us to balance the need to sustain our current selves while needing to devote a growing proportion of our resources to developing an ever more complex technology.
All the while managing the part of us that would not only resist change but declare the research taboo and willing to use force to prevent it.
How likely is this?
The good news is, it will not be a concern for us now or for a long time to come. Hopefully, these thoughts on the distant future add some context to the current complexities.
It should make them seem almost modest by comparison.