Take a deep breath! 2023 is going to be a roller coaster ride when it comes to new technologies - a true blend of the exhilarating and the unsettling.
Technology should never define us. The future is not a product of the technologies we use but of how we, as moral agents decide to use them.
That said, technology is important. As the media education pioneer John Culkin famously observed, “We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.”
For futurists like me, this is a season of being quizzed by media, leaders and friends alike about what we might expect in the year ahead.
Tech trends and, much more importantly, underlying shifts in human attitudes, reveal themselves only after months of consistent study.
So, let’s take a deep dive to explore some of the most consequential technologies we’ll see in 2023. Hold on tight.
Brain Chip Implants: Age of the Cyborgs?
Transhumanism is a school of philosophy which advocates that human beings will, through technology, evolve beyond their current physical and mental limitations. Some adherents believe that we will someday transcend death itself, using advanced prosthetics, implants and the like.
Whether this is achievable - or even desirable - is open to debate. However, one thing is certain: we are getting closer to significantly improving human capabilities through technology.
Neural implants will be a hot news feature in 2023. The goal is to produce brain chip implants that are non-invasive and capable of connecting computers and other devices directly to the brain. Why bother with a wearable on your wrist when you can fit one into your brain?
These devices will eventually be used to enhance cognitive abilities, improve general mental health, and help people with certain neurological disorders.
They are designed to detect abnormal activity in the brain and send electrical signals to the affected area in order to help regulate it.
This approach has already been used to treat conditions such as depression and anxiety. There is evidence that it can be used to treat addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The use of brain implants is also being explored for other applications, such as improving memory and focus. They might be used to help people learn new skills more quickly or even to enhance their creativity.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink group, whilst currently battling charges of animal cruelty, is breaking ground here and is worth watching in the year ahead.
Meanwhile, new ethics debates will come to the fore, as concerns grow about the emergence, alongside the technology, of a cybernetic mindset. This holds that all of life, including human behaviour, can be expressed as a system - and therefore digitised.
Many people will understandably react to this form of human reductionism. Collectively, we should insist that the pace of technological change does not outstrip our capacity to deal with the ethical issues it raises.
In the age of cyborgs, the line between human and machine will still be important. We should not allow a total redefinition of what it means to be human.
We must be vigilant against technological ultra-pragmatism, which says, if a thing can be done through technology, it should be done.
Metaverse and Immersive Education
The term “metaverse” refers to a virtual world that exists beyond the physical world. It is a simulated environment that is accessible to users via virtual and/or augmented reality headsets or other devices.
Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of his company from Facebook to Meta, as if to suggest that it had come up with the concept and name. Actually, both were featured in a 1990s sci-fi novel. Even then, the metaverse was imagined to be a more immersive form of the internet, which would unify all things digital.
Potentially, one of the most exciting applications of the metaverse is in the field of education. We will hear a lot more about this in 2023, especially as Meta and other groups seek to boost low levels of public interest in the technology.
The metaverse has the potential to revolutionise the way we think about teaching. Educators will use the metaverse to create highly sensory, interactive learning experiences for their students. This could include everything from virtual classrooms to interactive simulations and games.
It will also open up new opportunities for collaboration, as students from different parts of the world join together and learn from each other in a fully haptic virtual world.
The metaverse could also be used to create virtual museums, allowing people to explore and learn about different cultures and historical events in an immersive way. It will eventually help create entirely new industries, including virtual, zero-carbon travel.
"Data Architect" Apps to Protect Personal Data
Data privacy and security will become more newsworthy this year, especially as the UK and other nations legislate to hold big tech companies to account for their use of consumers’ data.
Our engagement with new digital platforms such as the metaverse, plus a growing use of cashless payments, will boost exponentially the amount of data we generate.
We can expect to see the launch of a plethora of apps designed to protect our data. Makers of these apps will promise to keep our data safe from malicious actors or hackers, using more and more sophisticated encryption, giving us control over who knows what about us in the surveillance economy.
Apps will also allow us to monitor our online activity, alerting us if our data has been compromised. Operating as personal "data architects" they will help us limit the amount of data that we share with third parties.
A huge market share awaits tech developers who can make all this possible in the most user-friendly and seamless ways.
Centrally Governed Digital Currencies
The trend toward cashless payment systems is already well entrenched in the developed world - and increasingly in poorer regions. The convenience of cashlessness is clear, though this may also be its greatest weakness.
Cash is messy, but it has weight. You can feel it leaving your pocket as your spend. Digital payment systems including contactless cards and smartphone wallets divorce spending from forethought. Studies have shown that consumers are likely to spend up to thirty per cent more when using cashless as opposed to hard currencies.
In the year ahead, we will hear about experiments with biometric payments. These use facial recognition and even your smile to authenticate accounts and provide security for large transactions.
The Chinese government has invested heavily in cutting-edge fintech and is now moving toward a centrally governed digital currency. This borrows blockchain technology developed by private crypto companies, bringing it under the control of the government. While blockchain evangelists promise more open means of accountability, the reality is that once government bureaucracies become involved, transparency usually suffers.
The downside of a central digital currency is that governments will directly collect all data generated by personal purchases. They can use this information to evaluate human choices and even reshape behaviour. (China’s citizen point system, which awards citizens for behaving in government-approved ways, will be linked to the ability to buy and sell through its centralised cyber currency.)
I have advocated elsewhere against a fully cashless economy, on several grounds, not least its implications for privacy and personal autonomy. In the next five years, we will need to be more vigilant than ever to ensure that large banks and corporations - who arguably benefit most from cashless systems - are required to keep cash as a realistic and accessible option.
Breakthrough Medical Techs
The next year or two will bring exciting developments on the medical technology front.
Among the most notable will be a move toward biological additive manufacturing - that is, 3D-printed human organs and body parts for transplant purposes. Research on this has continued for a decade or more, but we are moving closer to realisation.
Medical technologists are exploring the development of 3D printers that use cellular material similar to that found in the human body.
Meanwhile, some technologists have suggested these organs might be produced in space. This would prevent them from collapsing under their own weight whilst being printed.
Another potentially exciting development is the advent of synthetic biology, a branch of science dedicated to creating artificial life forms. This could include anything from new vaccines and genetic medicines to plants that can produce food with minimal human intervention.
The development of exoskeletons and other wearable technologies will also make waves in the next year or so. Exoskeletons are designed to augment the user’s physical capabilities, allowing them to lift heavier objects or move faster. They could also be used to give people with disabilities more freedom of movement.
Finally, virtual reality technology, which underpins the nascent metaverse, will find new uses within the field of mental health. Psychologists have discovered that VR is a valuable tool for the treatment of anxiety, for example.
By exposing clients to carefully moderated threatening situations, in an imaginary VR space, counsellors can teach people the coping skills they need to master anxiety.
Clients can be exposed to pseudo-realistic role-playing exercises in a controlled, safe environment.
Virtual reality is also helping people to adjust to the use of new prosthetic devices. Along with holographic projection, it also helps in the design process, ensuring that prosthetics are more accurately fitted to their intended wearers.
When it comes to technology, the future has already arrived. Many of the tools that will most define our human experience in the coming years are already with us, albeit often in experimental form.
Alongside the above, 2023 will bring news on new forms of social media - particularly those using virtual and augmented reality and those that offer experiences more tailored to individual users.
We’ll hear a lot more about fully automated weapons of war, especially as Russia's incursion in Ukraine reaches its climax and Western concerns grow about China’s ambitions. Experiments with fully automated killer drones and self-regulating clusters of killer bots will feature in the news.
So will exciting developments with space exploration and alternative fuels. The year ahead will hold its share of surprises, but one thing is certain: 2023 will not be dull!