The following incisive and informative responses to our questions about the positive and negative impacts of digital change by 2035 represent some of the big ideas shared by several of the hundreds of thought leaders who participated in this canvassing.
Working to meet the challenges raised by digital technologies will inspire humanity to grow and benefit as a species
Stephan Adelson, president of Adelson Consulting Services and an expert on the internet and public health, said, “The recent release of several AI tools in their various categories begins a significant shift in the creative and predictive spaces. Creative writing, predictive algorithms, image creation, computations, even the process and products of thought itself are being challenged. I predict that the greatest potential for benefit to mankind by 2035 from digital technologies will come through the challenges their existence creates. We, as a species, are creators of technologies that are learning and growing their productive capabilities and creative capacities. As these tools grow, learn and become integrated into our everyday lives, both personal and professional, they will become major competitors for resources, financial, social and entertainment. I feel it is in this competition that they will provide our greatest growth and benefits as a species. As we compete with our digital creations we will be forced to grow or become dependent on what we have created and can no longer exceed.”
Our ability to touch, to rest, to choose and to be human will continue to erode; we are more anxious, tired and emotionally disconnected; we need new tech to get us off the tech
Mark Surman, president of the Mozilla Foundation, commented, “The most harmful thing I can think of isn’t a change as much as a trend: The ability for us to disconnect will increasingly disappear. We’re building more and more reasons to be always on and instantly responsive into our jobs, our social lives, our public spaces, our everything. The combination of immersive technologies and social pressure will make this worse. Opting out isn’t an option. Or, if it is, the social and economic consequences are severe. The result: We’re more anxious, tired and emotionally disconnected. Our ability to touch, to rest, to choose and to be human will continue to erode. My biggest prediction is that people will get fed up. Fed up with the constant barrage of always on. The nudging. The selling. The treadmill. Companies that see this coming – and that can build tech products that help people turn down the volume and disconnect while staying connected – will win the day. Clever, humane use of AI will be a key part of this.”
Equitable access to essential human services, to online opportunities, must be achieved
Cathy Cavanaugh, chief experience officer at the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning, said, “Inequitable access to technology and services exacerbates existing social and economic gaps. Too few governments balance capitalism and social services in ways that serve the greatest needs. These imbalances look likely to continue rather than to change because of increasing power imbalances in many countries. Equitable access to essential human services is crucial. Technology now exists in most locations that is affordable, available in most languages and for people of many physical abilities and is easy to learn. The most beneficial use of this personal technology is to connect individuals, families and communities to necessary and life-changing services using secure technology that can streamline and automate these services, making them more accessible. We have seen numerous examples including microfinance, apps that help unhoused people find shelter, online education, telehealth and a range of government services. Too many people still experience poverty, bias and lack of access to serve their needs and create opportunities for them to fully participate in and contribute to their communities.”
AI-driven health care may include home air-quality and waste stream assessments, but the U.S. will lag behind other regions of the world while China will lead
Mark Schaefer, a business professor at Rutgers University and author of “Marketing Rebellion,” wrote, “In America, health care progress will come from startups and boutique clinics that offer wealthy individuals environmental screening devices and pharmaceutical solutions customized for precise genetic optimization. The smart home of the future will analyze air quality, samples from the bathroom waste stream and food consumption to suggest daily health routines and make automatic environmental and pharmaceutical adjustments.
“Overall, an AI-driven health care system will be radically streamlined to be highly personal, effective and efficient in many developed regions of the world – excluding the United States. While the U.S. will remain the leader in developing new health care technology, the country will lag most of the world in this tech adoption due to powerful lobbyists in the health care industry and a dysfunctional government unable to legislate reform. However, progress will take off rapidly in China, a country with a rapidly-aging population and a government that will dictate speedy reform. Dramatic improvements will also occur in countries with socialized health care, since efficiency means a dramatic improvement in direct government spending. Expected lifespan will increase by 10% in these nations by 2035. China’s population will have declined dramatically by 2035, a symptom of the one-child policy, rapid urbanization and social changes. China will attract immigrant workers to boost its population by offering free AI-driven health care.”
Advancing federation and decentralization, mandating interoperability and an emphasis on subsidiarity in platform governance are key to the future
Cory Doctorow, activist journalist and author of “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism,” wrote, “I hope to see an increased understanding of the benefits of federation and decentralization; interoperability mandates, such as the Digital Markets Act, and a renewed emphasis on interoperability as a means of lowering switching costs and disciplining firms; a decoupling of decentralization from blockchain (which is nonsense); and an emphasis on subsidiarity in platform governance. Among the challenges are new compliance duties for intermediaries – new rules that increase surveillance and algorithmic filtering while creating barriers to entry for small players – and ‘link taxes’ and other pseudo-copyrights that control who can take action to link to, quote and discuss the news.”
Digital life offers opportunities to enhance longevity, health and access to resources
Micah Altman, social and information scientist at the Center for Research in Equitable and Open Scholarship at MIT, said, “Whether digital or analog, there are five dimensions to individual well-being: longevity, health, access to resources, subjective well-being and agency over making meaningful life choices. Within the last decade the increasing digitalization of human activities has contributed substantially in each of these areas, providing benefits in four of the five areas. Digital life is greatly expanding access to online education (especially through open online courses and increasingly through online degree and certification programs); health information and health treatment (especially through telehealth in the area of behavioral wellness); the opportunity to work from remote locations (which is particularly beneficial for people with disabilities); and the ability to engage with government through online services, access to records, and modes of online participate in (e.g., through online public hearings). Expansion in most of these areas is likely to continue over the next dozen years.”
The intelligence and effectiveness of AI systems operating alone will be overestimated, creating catastrophic failure points
Jon Lebkowsky, writer and co-wrangler of Plutopia News Network, previously CEO, founder and digital strategist at Polycot Associates, commented, “Relying too much on AI and failing to factor in human judgment could have potentially disastrous consequences. I’m not concerned that we’ll have a malignant omnipotent AI like ‘Skynet,’ but that the intelligence and effectiveness of AI systems operating alone will be overestimated, creating catastrophic failure points. AI also has the potential to be leveraged for surveillance and control systems by autocratic governments and organizations to the detriment of freedom and privacy. The misuse of technology is especially likely to the extent that those responsible for governance and regulation misunderstand relevant technologies.”
Lebkowsky offered three specific potential issue areas for the future:
- “If we fail to shift from fossil fuels to cleaner, more efficient technologies, we may fail to manage our response to climate change effectively and leverage innovations that could support adaptation and/or mitigation of global warming.
- “If we fail to address the monopolistic power of Big Tech and social manipulation via centralized social media, we may see increasing uses of propaganda and online influence to gain power for its own sake, potentially evolving dystopian autocracies and losing the democratic and egalitarian intentions that are so challenging to sustain.
- “Medical and scientific ignorance and suspicion, as we see in the current anti-vaccine movement, could offset medical advances. We must restore trust in scientific and medical expertise through education, and through ensuring that scientific and medical communities adhere to standards that will make them inherently trustworthy.”
It is likely that a highly visible abuse or scandal with clearly identifiable victims will be needed to galvanize the public against digital excesses
Richard Barke, associate professor of public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, responded, “The shift from real to digital life probably will not decelerate. The use of digital technologies for shopping, medical diagnosis and interpersonal relations will continue. The use of data analytics by businesses and governments also will continue to grow. And the number and severity of harmful consequences of these changes will also grow. New technologies, market tools or social changes never come without some harmful consequences. Concerns about privacy and discrimination will increase, with the result that demands for transparency about business practices, targeting of subpopulations and government policies will grow at least as fast as digital life.
“Those demands are not likely to be answered in the absence of significant harmful or menacing events that catch the attention of the public, the media and eventually, policymakers. The environmental movement needed a Rachel Carson and a Love Canal in the 1960s and 1970s as policy entrepreneurs and focusing events. The same is true for many other significant changes in business and government decision-making.
“Unfortunately, it is likely that by 2035 some highly visible abuse or scandal with clearly identifiable victims and culprits will be needed to provide an inflection point that puts an aggrieved public in the streets and on social media, in courtrooms and in legislative hallways, resulting in a new regime of law and regulation to constrain the worst excesses of the digital world. But, even then, is it likely – or even possible – that the speed of reforms will be able to keep up with the speed of technological and business innovations?”
Once trust is lost, it is difficult to reclaim, and digital ‘reality’ is dangerously amenable to distortion and manipulation that can lead to the erosion of it at all levels of society
Larry Lannom, vice president at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, observed, “In thinking about the potential harm that exponentially improved digital technologies could wreck by 2035, I find that I have two levels of concern. The first is the fairly obvious worry that advanced technologies could be used by malevolent actors, at the state, small-group or individual level, to cause damage beyond what they could achieve with today’s tools. AI-based autonomous weapons, new pathogens, torrents of misinformation precision-crafted to appeal to the recipients and total state-level intrusion into the private lives of the citizenry are just some of the worrying possibilities that are all too easy to imagine evolving by 2035. A more insidious worry, however, is the potential erosion of trust at all levels of society and government. More and more of our lives are affected by or even lived in the digital realm and as that environment increases in size and sophistication, it seems likely that the impact will increase. But digital ‘reality’ is much more amenable to distortion and manipulation than even the worst human-level deception. The ability of advanced computing systems of all kinds to convincingly generate fake audio and video representations of any public figures, to generate overwhelming amounts of reasonable sounding misinformation, and to use detailed personal information, gathered legally or illegally, to craft precision messaging for manipulation beyond what can be done today could contribute to a complete lack of trust at all levels of society. Once trust is lost it is difficult to reclaim.”
‘We are rewriting childhood for youngsters ages 0 to 5, and it is not in healthy ways’
Jane Gould, founder of DearSmartphone, responded, “We have been rewriting the concept of screen time and exposure. This trend began in the 2000s but the introduction of mobility and iPhones and mobile apps in 2007 accelerated the change. We are rewriting childhood for youngsters ages 0 to 5, and it is not in healthy ways. All infants must go through discrete stages of cognitive and physical growth. There is nothing that we can do to speed these up, nor should we. Yet from their earliest moments we put young babies in front of digital devices and use them to entertain, educate and babysit them. These devices use artifices like bright lights and colors to hold their attention, but they do not educate them in the way that thoughtful, watchful parents can. More than anything else, these electronics keep children from playing with the traditional handheld toys and games that use all five senses to keep babies busy and engaged with play, and in two-way exchanges. Meanwhile, parents are distracted and pay less attention to their infants because they stay engaged with their own personal phones and touchscreens.”
Digital access will grow and programs will become more user-friendly
Henning Schulzrinne, Internet Hall of Fame member, Columbia University professor of computer science and co-chair of the Internet Technical Committee of the IEEE, predicted, “Amplified by machine learning and APIs, low-code and no-code systems will make it easier for small businesses and governments to develop user-facing systems to increase productivity and ease the transition to e-government. Government programs and consumer demand will make high-speed (100 Mb/s and higher) home access, mostly fiber, near-universal in the United States and large parts of Europe, including rural areas, supplemented by low-Earth orbiting satellites for covering the most remote areas. We will finally move beyond passwords as the most common means of consumer authentication, making systems easier to use and eliminating many security vulnerabilities that endanger systems today. On the ‘worst’ side of change, the concentration of ad revenue and the lack of a viable alternative source of income will further diminish the reach and capabilities of local news media in many countries, degrading the information ecosystem. This will increase polarization, facilitate government corruption and reduce citizen engagement.”
From lentil soup recipes, pizza and Bollywood music to scan-reading, customer service and newswriting, tech has upended how we give and get information, for good and bad
Alan D. Mutter, consultant and former Silicon Valley CEO, said, “The magic of technology enables me to Google lentil soup recipes, trade stocks in the park, stream Bollywood music and Zoom with friends in Germany. Without question, tech has solved the eternally vexing P2P problem – the rapid, friction-free delivery of hot-ish pizza to pepperoni-craving persons. Techno thingies like software calibration and hardware calibration networks will get faster and somewhat better (albeit more complex), but probably not cheaper. Here’s what I mean: For no additional charge, the latest Apple Watches will call 911 if they think you fell. It’s a good idea and the feature actually has saved some lives. But it also is producing an overwhelming number of false alarms. So, it is a good thing that sometimes is a bad thing.”
Mutter offered these thoughts on future AI applications:
- “AI probably will do a better job of reading routine scans than radiologists and might do a better job than human air traffic controllers who sometimes vector two planes to the same runway.
- “AI undoubtedly will answer all phones everywhere, cutting costs but also further compromising the quality of customer service at medical offices, insurance companies, tech-support lines and all the rest.
- “AI will produce all forms of media content, but likely without the elan and judgment formerly contributed by humans.
- “AI probably will be more accurate than humans at doing math but less savvy at sorting fact from fiction and nuance from nuisance.
“Technology has upended forever the ways we get and give information. We now live in a Tower of Babel where yadda-yadda moves unchecked, unmoderated and unhinged at the speed of light, polluting and corrupting the public discourse. This is perilous for a democracy like the United States. I am afraid for our republic.”
‘Wanna get scary about the other edge of the AI sword? What will 4chan do with it?’
Howard Rheingold, pioneering internet sociologist and author of “The Virtual Community,” wrote, “If we are honestly looking back at the last decades of rapid technological change for hints about decades to come, we’re in for a world of hurt along with some really miraculous stuff. I sense that we are at an inflection point in the conduct of science as significant as the introduction of computers: the use of machine learning techniques as scientific thinking and knowledge tools. Proteins, for just one example, are topologically complex and can fold into a large number of possible shapes. Much of immune system and anti-cancer therapies rely on matching the shape of proteins on the surface of a cell. Now, AI can propose previously unknown proteins of medical significance.
“Machine Learning (oversimplified) uses iterative computations modeled on the way neurons work. It can be applied to datasets other than the omni-versal ones sought by large learning models, or LLMs. LLMs don’t ‘know,’ but the way significant knowledge can be parsed out of it is, in my opinion, impressive, although the technology is in its infancy. Yes, it swallows all the bull along with the good info, and yes, it is unreliable and makes stuff up, and no, the models are tools, they are not General Intelligence. They don’t understand. They do statistics. Think of them as thinking-knowledge tools. As mathematics and computers come to enable human minds to go places they were previously unable to explore, I see a lot of change coming from this symbiosis of machine learning and human production of words, images, sounds and code. Computational biology is a good example of this two-edged miracle.
“Wanna get scary about the other edge of the AI sword? Generative AI once suggested 40,000 chemical weapons in just six hours. I recall that Bill Joy wrote a Wired magazine essay (23 years ago!) titled ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.’ In that essay he mentioned affordable desktop wetlabs, capable of creating malicious organisms. A good way to think about a proposed technology is to ask: What would 4chan do with it? Connecting computational biology to wetlab synthesizers is just a matter of money and expertise. What will 4chan do with LLM tools?”
‘Copyright and technology to manage microtransactions will create huge gaps in knowledge between the haves and have nots’
Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, predicted, “Reliable, affordable high-speed broadband will become as ubiquitous in the world (including the developing world) as telephone service was in the United States in the late 20th Century. The actual technology will vary greatly depending on country, and we will still see speed differences and other quality of service differences that will maintain a digital divide. But the combination of available communications technology and solar operated systems will enable a wide range of benefits. These will include:
- “Far more efficient resource tracking and allocation and far more efficient environmental monitoring will enable dramatic increases in food and clean water distribution where needed and will help to predict potential environmental disasters with greater accuracy and certainty.
- “Greater communication potential will enable vast improvements in distance learning and telemedicine. In countries where health professionals are scarce, or where travel is difficult, a wealth of diagnostic tools and a broadband connection will allow a handful of trained first responders to treat people locally under the guidance of experienced and more highly trained medical professionals. Necessary resources such as antibiotics will be delivered by drones, and local personnel guided in how to administer and provide follow-up care. As a last resort, doctors can order medical evacuations.
- “Children will have access to education in their native language. Artificial expenses such as uniforms will be eliminated as a requirement. Girls will be able to access equal education without fear of assault.
“Yet, here’s the thing, widespread ubiquitous broadband could easily broaden ubiquitous surveillance for corporate reasons and to aid repressive governments. Big data systems will be able to sort the noise from the signal and allow corporate or government interests to predict with incredible accuracy human behavior and how to shape it in ways that best serve their interests. Widespread access to others will create pockets of intense culture shock as communities find their basic assumptions about how to organize society undermined. Basic trust in institutions will be replaced not with healthy skepticism for engagement, but either complete and fanatical belief in a trusted source or complete disbelief in any source. To slightly paraphrase William Butler Yeats, ‘Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … The ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best will lack all conviction, while the worst will be filled with passionate intensity.’ Societies may become entirely paralyzed, caught between an inability to rely on facts for basic cooperation, or trapped between warring factions, or both.
“Copyright and technology to manage microtransactions will create huge gaps in knowledge between the haves and have nots, as even basic educational material becomes subject to limitations on sharing and requirements for access fees. Ownership of books or other educational media will become a thing of the past, as every digital source of knowledge will be licensed rather than owned. Book printing will wither away, so that modern educational materials will be inaccessible to those who cannot afford them.
“For the same reason, innovation will slow and become the province of a privileged few able to negotiate access to the needed software tools. Even basic mechanical inventions will have digital locks and software to prevent any tinkering.”