US National Intelligence Council Publishes Outlook For 2030

Thursday, December 13, 2012

City of the Future
Political Futurism
The National Intelligence Council released a report documenting projected major geopolitical trends and technological developments for the next 20 years. The NIC foresees the end of U.S. global dominance, the rising power of individuals against states, a growing middle class that will increasingly challenge governments, and ongoing issues with water, food and energy. 
In a recently released report titled, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds the US National Intelligence
Council (NIC) presents the fifth installment in a series aimed at providing a framework for thinking about the future. The report mentions how implants, prosthetics and powered exoskeletons will become regular fixtures of our lives and could result in augmented improvements to our abilities.

The NIC was founded in 1979 as an intelligence body focused on the long term strategic thinking for American intelligence agencies.  The council reports to the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.

The report is intended to stimulate strategic thinking by identifying critical trends and potential issues for the future. It focuses on the mega-trends that are more likely to occur based on the authors' research. The introduction mentions that the diversity and complexity of various factors and disruptive technologies has increased, so the report has focused on scenario planning of potential alternative worlds of the future.
According to the authors:
We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures. It is our contention that the future is not set in stone, but is malleable, the result of an interplay among megatrends, game-changers and, above all, human agency. Our effort is to encourage decisionmakers—whether in government or outside—to think and plan for the long term so that negative futures do not occur and positive ones have a better chance of unfolding.
Of the many choices, the report focuses on four main megatrends: individual empowerment, diffusion of power, demographics and resource issues.  

According to the report:

Individual empowerment will accelerate substantially during the next 15-20 years owing to poverty reduction and a huge growth of the global middle class, greater educational attainment, better health care, and widespread exploitation of new communications and manufacturing technologies. Enabled by communications technologies, power will shift toward multifaceted and amorphous networks that will form to influence state and global actions.

Diffusion of power among countries will have a dramatic impact by 2030. Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, based upon GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment. China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030.

Demographic Patterns: in the world of 2030—a world in which a growing global population will have reached somewhere close to 8.3 billion people (up from 7.1 billion in 2012)—four key trends will be aging—a shrinking number of youthful societies and states; migration, which will increasingly be a cross-border issue; and growing urbanization, which will spur economic growth but could put new strains on food and water resources.

Growing Food, Water, and Energy Nexus: Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources.

The materials covered in the report on the key technologies of robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing are quite light and will probably be reviewed in twenty years as a major oversight.  Nevertheless, the report does cite these as important factors arising by 2030.

The report goes on to describe how body augmentation technologies like implants, prosthetics, and powered exoskeletons will become regular parts of our lives.  By 2030, the authors predict, prosthetic limbs should reach the point where they are superior to our own. 

Human augmentation could allow civilian and military people to work more effectively, and in environments that were previously inaccessible. Elderly people may benefit from powered exoskeletons that assist wearers with simple walking and lifting activities, improving the health and quality of life for aging populations. Successful prosthetics probably will be directly integrated with the user’s body. Brain-machine interfaces could provide “superhuman” abilities, enhancing strength and speed, as well as providing functions not previously available. p. 97
By this stage, the military will increasingly rely on robotic exoskeletons to help soldiers carry heavy equipment. The report also acknowledges soldiers will be given psychostimulants to help them remain focused and active for extended periods.  Issues of using advanced neuropharmacology and drug delivery was brought up earlier this year by The Royal Society in their paper, Neuroscience, conflict and security.
Brain implants will also allow for advanced neural interface devices and allow for brain-controlled robotic systems or avatars, some of which may be able to provide "superhuman" abilities like enhanced strength, speed and 'un-human' abilities like X-ray vision or sensing electric fields.

"Augmented reality systems can provide enhanced experiences of real-world situations," the report cites, "Combined with advances in robotics, avatars could provide feedback in the form of sensors providing touch and smell as well as aural and visual information to the operator."

The report also notes, many of these technologies will only be available to those who are able to afford them. The authors warn that it could result in a two-tiered society comprising enhanced and non-enhanced persons such as was explored in Daniel Wilson's Amped.

As for geopolitics, the Council does allow for the possibility of a “decisive re-assertion of U.S. power,” but the futurists seem pretty well convinced that America is on the decline and that China is on the rise relatively. In fact, the Council believes nation-states in general are losing their oomph, in favor of “megacities [that will] flourish and take the lead in confronting global challenges.”

The full report can be read here.

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