From quantum mechanics to psychedelics, the six major forces that will impact our lives over the coming decades
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Innovations and disruptions are becoming increasingly common as they occur at never before seen rates. Many of the technologies that we expect to shape the future have already started making an impact on our lives. Yet, recent developments in these areas are pointing to significant repercussions that these technologies will have on our everyday lives in the future, often in unexpected ways.
Here are six key trends in technology that will impact our lives over the next decade.
1. Quantum mechanics and its impact on living processes.
The use of quantum mechanics in computing has led to significant progress in the creation of larger and more powerful machines that can solve complex problems that are outside the realm of capability for today’s classical computers. IBM, Google and Intel are among the tech conglomerates making giant strides in the race to create truly functional quantum computers. Presently, IBM has a 50-qubit computer, accessible for use over a cloud platform which falls behind Google’s 72-qubit chip. However, Google’s version is yet to have practical applications to test it while IBM already has researchers working with it.
While scientists are looking into the mysterious forces of quantum mechanics that will deliver the next major computing breakthrough, quantum forces have been helping scientists unravel the mysteries of life itself.
In recent years, there have been some significant breakthroughs in the exciting field of Quantum Biology, a fast emerging discipline that examines whether quantum mechanics plays a fundamental part in biology and the living processes of organisms. In their landmark 2014 paper, a team at University College London found evidence that quantum mechanical forces play a crucial role in supporting energy transfer during photosynthesis in plants, or the fundamental process that ultimately powers most life on earth.
In the field of quantum computing, one of the barriers hampering the development of quantum computers is the high instability of qubits (the quantum equivalent of classical bits used in our present day computers). For quantum computing to work, the physical objects such as chips, which implement qubits, need to be in a supercooled energy state for qubits to remain stable. Even at that low temperature, qubits retain stability for an extremely short time; a challenge scientists are fighting to overcome.
As it turns out, though, living things including humans, have been relying on quantum mechanics at room temperature inside the wet and messy world of biology for a very long time. For instance, scientists are baffled by the manner in which enzymes accelerate processes. At times this acceleration is more than a trillion-fold. In recent decades, experiments have revealed a trick known as quantum tunneling. This is the process through which electrons vanish from one position inside a molecule and appear instantly in another. Evidence of the crucial role played by these quantum mechanical forces in many biological processes is fast emerging. This includes in respiration, vision, in shaping our sense of smell and even in affecting DNA mutations that are fundamental to the existence of all life.
As this emerging field develops in the coming decade, could these mysterious and confusing quantum forces that seem to defy all reality, help shed light on the ultimate question of what it means to be alive?
2: CRISPR and the DIY gene editing movement.
CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) refers to a technology that allows scientists to edit the DNA within genes to make precise changes to cells. An ability to alter the genetic blueprint of life essentially makes it possible to modify the traits of living things. It allows for high specificity, effectively knocking out specific genes, making precision edits to DNA, stimulating activation or repressing genes.
The technology has been around for the past decade or so and has been used to change the DNA of plants and animals in beneficial ways. It works by isolating a specific DNA strand and replacing it with the desired one. It has been used with success to create insect-resistant crop varieties and hardier livestock. However, it also offers great potential in healthcare. Cell modeling offers prospects of curing genetic diseases.
Some of the recent research projects in the field include efforts to wipe out malaria by introducing malaria-resistant mosquitoes and fixing defective bone marrow cells to cure sickle cell anemia. There is unlimited potential for CRISPR, but the science world is still in the early stages of figuring out practical applications for this technology. When a technique as powerful as CRISPR is born into the radically connected and open-source world of the internet, some interesting things (good and bad) tend to happen.
On the positive side, knowledge tends to flow away from being trapped behind the monolithic research labs of large corporations to being accessible and available in open communities. Similar to the counterculture movement that happened during the personal computer revolution in the 80s, there is a wave of citizen-driven, DIY research being powered by a new breed of amateur biohackers. But unlike during the PC era, the stakes are much higher now with CRISPR — the hackers from the 80s couldn’t mess with DNA, the blueprint for life.
Understandably, strong ethical concerns have been raised around the application of CRISPR technology. For instance, a year ago, a biotech CEO publicly injected himself with an untested treatment for herpes. This is, by no means, an exception in biohacking stunts. But, if harnessed correctly, the principles of openness and knowledge sharing that underpins these DIY biohacker movements will seed interest amongst a new breed of talent who otherwise might not have been exposed to the CRISPR technology at all.
It is important to encourage these open source biohacking movements, while also implementing strong ethical rules around them. Such movements will help seed interest in the next generation of Steve Jobs and Linus Torvald who might be biohacking away in their parent’s garage right now!
3. Digital wealth, freelancing and non-traditional jobs.
The rich get richer by owning good appreciating assets. As such, an individual who only has a high income but does not invest in good assets cannot create long-term generational wealth. This is especially true in this age of disruption and career uncertainties. Gone are our parents’ times of being a loyal employee to a company that would take care of you well into your retirement. Such career stability is a thing of the past. Flexible, short-term assignments and freelancing is the fastest growing job trend right now. According to a 2018 study conducted by Edelman Intelligence and Upwork, nearly half (46 percent) of Generation Z college graduates (born between 1997-2000) are opting to be freelancers rather than taking up traditional jobs. This number is only expected to grow in the next five years.
Just as Gen Z is coming of age and starting to enter the workforce, other technological developments like the advent of the blockchain technology and the creation of cryptocurrencies are starting to redefine the notion of what it means to own assets in a digital world.
A quick primer for the uninitiated, blockchain is a record-keeping technology that makes use of a distributed, decentralized, public ledger system. Simply put, it consists of a chain of blocks whereby a block contains digital information, and the chain is a public database. Blockchains form the foundation for the creation of digital assets which operate without the need for a central authority.
As challenging as it is to wrap our heads around some of these concepts, for the digital native generation the idea of owning property that exists only in the digital world will be second nature. Thanks to a ton of experimentation and innovation in the area of asset tokenization, a new generation of “easy to own,” lightweight digital assets will be made available to the next generation. The next decade will showcase new types of digital asset types and hybrid asset ownership models that are unfamiliar to us today. However, like any new and emerging technology, a host of current growing pains will have to be addressed by entrepreneurs before the digital assets ecosystem can reach its full potential.
Over the next decade, these technologies will lay the foundation for democratizing access to assets for the next generation. In the same manner that the internet democratized access to information for our generation, digital assets will make new forms of wealth accessible for the digital native generation in the coming decade.
4. The legalization of marijuana and the study of psychedelic drugs.
In 1970, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. Schedule I drugs are said to have high risk and no counterbalancing benefit. Many theories have been proposed to explain the criminalization of marijuana at that time when their wide-ranging medicinal use was well known. But recent decades have shown a marked difference in the societal attitude towards these plants, including renewed interest from academia with calls for more research into their potential health benefits.
In a first for the industry, the US Food and Drug Administration in June 2018 approved a drug derived from the marijuana plant for the treatment of severe pediatric epilepsy. Additionally, 33 US states (and counting) have given medical marijuana legal status for treating a wide variety of illnesses.
In line with this trend, there has also been a resurgence in academic research into psychedelic drugs for treating “untreatable” mental disorders. They too are following more or less the same path as their close cousin, marijuana, after being made illegal as Schedule I drugs in 1977. Notably, such bans have mostly been due to pressure from big pharmaceuticals companies which are virtually uninvolved in the ongoing research.
Psychedelic drugs are chemical substances capable of inducing hallucinations as well as sensory disturbances. Some of the most well-known psychedelics include lysergic acid (LSD), psilocybin which naturally occurs in “magic mushrooms” and mescaline, found in the peyote cactus. In the recent past, institutions such as John Hopkins, New York University, UCLA and others have been researching the use of these drugs for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety resulting from cancer, alcoholism and depression.
A recent study published by researchers at the John Hopkins University showed that psilocybin produced substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer. Quoting the results of the study, “… mystical-type experiences on session days mediated the effect of psilocybin dose on therapeutic outcomes. Participants, staff, and community observers rated participant moods, attitudes, and behaviors throughout the study. High-dose psilocybin produced large decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism, and decreases in death anxiety. At 6-month follow-up, these changes were sustained, with about 80% of participants continuing to show clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety. Study participants attributed improvements in attitudes about life/self, mood, relationships, and spirituality to the high-dose experience, with >80% endorsing moderately or greater increased well-being/life satisfaction, which was further supported by community observer ratings showing corresponding changes. “
Healing mental conditions like depression is complex and intricate due to the wide range of triggers, including the non-physiological factors that might be involved. Recent studies are showing a sharp rise in depression amongst our general population, especially amongst teens. These numbers are reaching never-before-seen epidemic proportions.
A noteworthy development took place in October 2018 when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted psilocybin therapy for depression treatment, which is a Breakthrough Therapy designation. This designation presents a fast pathway for approval of drugs that display significant advantages over existing treatment methods. It even allows the FDA to assist and speed up the process.
Denver is the first US jurisdiction to relax regulations on psilocybin when voters approved a referendum to decriminalize the drug. More recently, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, psychedelics researcher Robin Cahart-Harris said that the drugs are edging closer to gaining regulatory approval. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that investments into the field are also coming in. In the summer of 2018, a startup backed by Peter Thiel, a renowned Silicon Valley tech investor, made enough profits from psilocybin to afford to send 20,000 people on a psychedelic trip. After that, in November, an entrepreneur from Germany launched Atai Life Sciences, a $25 million startup whose objective is to back up research studies into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for treating psychiatric diseases.
By virtue of the advancements taking place in this area, the coming decade will see tremendous progress in fighting mental disorders that were previously elusive to treatment. Current research in this area might even provide a window into understanding the nature of our consciousness itself.
5: A new space race and asteroid mining.
While 2018 was a great year for space travel, 2019 promises to be extraordinary with 25 various launches planned around the globe. As NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary since man’s first lunar landing, its astronauts could go back to space from the Florida Space Coast for the first time in seven years. At the same time, NASA is pushing to return to the moon and even carry out a Mars exploration.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is currently working on commercial flights to the moon. SpaceX also has a busy year ahead after having flown a record 21 times in 2018.
China has laid out plans to dominate space, in spite of being a latecomer to the race. After NASA rejected the idea of landing on the far side of the moon, China landed its spacecraft Chang’e-4 there on January 3, 2019. The move was widely considered a remarkable achievement. They went where no man had gone before.
As the next space age heats up, one unexpected area that’s poised for significant disruption is the precious metals industry. Asteroid mining, which was once science fiction, seems set to become one of the significant emerging areas related to space travel. There has been a lot of interest based on the revelation that the asteroid belt is positively brimming with mineral elements which are running low on earth. These include iron, nickel, water, gold, tungsten cobalt, ammonia, hydrogen, and nitrogen among others.
NASA is at the forefront of the initiative, as it plans to probe 16 Psyche, an asteroid that is entirely made out of metal. Located in the asteroid belt area between Mars and Jupiter, the 16 Psyche could potentially yield iron worth $10,000 quadrillion. According to NASA estimates, the entire asteroid belt could be worth nearly $700 quintillion ($100 billion for everyone on earth).
A significant benefit of asteroid mining is the potential to rid planet earth of damage resulting from mining exploits. It would also alleviate the current environmental crisis resulting from depletion of rare minerals. Mining on earth mostly occurs under highly unethical and toxic conditions. Taking it to outer space opens up the possibility of using robots, which cannot be exploited.
In a bid to harness the economic benefits of the initiative, organizations are already positioning themselves in readiness for future efforts. For instance, Luxembourg is already working on becoming the European haven for asteroid mining. Deep Space Industries is also developing technology to make asteroid mining feasible. Asteroid Touring Nanosatellite Fleet, which was proposed in 2018, could probably inform the first step in the initiative.
Asteroid mining is bound to impact the current precious metal industry significantly. Over the past century, gold has remarkably retained its high purchasing power for over a century. In 1913, an ounce of gold bought 157 gallons of gas. Today, more than a hundred years later, an ounce of gold buys over 546 gallons of gas. That’s a 248 percent increase in purchasing power. But, with the advent of new deposits that become accessible through space mining, it will be interesting to see how well something like gold will hold up its purchasing power over the next 100 years.
According to John Zarnecki, the Royal Astronomical Society president and professor of Space Sciences at the Open University, getting a proof-of-concept could take 25 years. It might be another 50 years before the initiative gets a commercial start.
6: The decade of the distracted mind and the rise of meditation.
Life in the digital world has made this the decade of the distracted mind. We witnessed a year of algorithms, content changes in 2018 (Snapchat, Insta, Tumblr) and social media backlash via altered images, fake news and Cambridge Analytica.
High accessibility to social media has had significant impacts on users. More than 210 million people globally are estimated to suffer from addiction to social media and the internet. Unfortunately, this has led to an increase in depressive symptoms for teens who spend five hours every day on their phones. As a result of the addiction, the number of young adults suffering negative effects on the quality of sleep increased from 26 percent in 2015 to 41 percent in 2017.
According to Professor Gabrielle Egan from the UK University of Montfort, “The problem with social networks is that they generate addiction… Nobody wants to spend hours every day updating their status and observing what other people think about them, nobody wants to do that consciously, but those behaviors are addictive… Once you get stuck in that loop, it’s very hard to break it.”
Notably, the average adult’s attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to about 8 seconds today. Compared to the pre-digital era, people living in the current age have to simultaneously deal with multiple stimuli rather than concentrating on a single one. The high competition for attention is, in turn, sparking renewed interest in age-old spiritual practices such as meditation and mindfulness.
Subsequently, the age of social media will inadvertently spawn an era of spiritual resurgence as people strive to find themselves amongst the chaos. In fact, in the rising quest for quietness, silent retreats and other mindfulness concepts are already becoming a trend. In 2017, books that offer a path to spiritual growth experienced a sales surge of 13 percent according to a global sales monitor. Similarly, in the US, over 14 percent of adults said they had practiced yoga in 2017, from a mere 9.5 percent in 2012. At the same time, recent studies have shown that the overall trend towards traditional religion has also been falling, especially among young adults.
Given these trends, as people continually strive to achieve that elusive work-life balance, mindfulness and wellness initiatives in various forms will take center stage, and new forms of digital spiritualism will gain momentum in the coming decades.
To me, the most exciting aspect of examining future trends is the butterfly effect. This effect is the tendency of a single trend or technology to cause a snowball effect in seemingly unrelated areas. We can’t pinpoint which of these butterfly effects will be dominant in the future. The key is to keep a close eye on each of these areas and recalibrate our thinking based on how each of these areas evolves over time.
Throwing rocks into a lake is an excellent analogy to demonstrate this process. You can reasonably predict that a number of these rocks are going to hit the water surface and that a bunch of waves are going to be created. However, trying to predict how exactly these waves will emerge and interact with other waves is a losing game. The first and most important step is to be watching in the right direction when these rocks hit the water’s surface!
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