Futurologist Gerd Leonhard predicts a boom in technological change over the next 30 years

Juliana Elias, special for LogicalisNow


Since the industrial revolution, humanity has taken a huge leap in development and technology that does not compare to any other moment in six millenniums of civilization history. If we entered the 20th century practically without electricity and having to go through manually-controlled centers to make a phone call, we left it had exploded a nuclear bomb, mapped out space, and exchanging instant information through the Web. Still, for Gerd Leonhard, the biggest changes are yet to come. “Humanity will change more in the next 30 years than it has in the last 300 years,” affirmed the German futurist in his latest book “Technology x Humanity: The coming clash between man and machine,” published in 2016.

Hyperfast computers, augmented reality devices that interact with what we see, and the manipulation of genes are some of the incoming things or things that are already amongst us that the expert attributes to this super-revolution that is about to happen. “Technology hasn’t reached the point where it could change human beings,” explained Leonhard in a phone interview to Logicalis Now. “It’s not outside anymore, and this is the great change.” Leonhard, 57, initiated his career far from technology, working as a music producer and guitarist in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In the rising days of the Internet, he ventured in music and digital media-related startups, gaining knowledge and slowly becoming an expert in the revolutions that technology could cause. Now he’s easily found among the main names related to the subject – he ranked in Wired 100 most influential individuals in Europe in 2015 – and, between lectures and consultancies, he built quite a diverse client portfolio that includes Google, Mastercard, Siemens, WWF, the Financial Times, and the European Commission.

Here are some ideas that Leonhard has on the future of technologies in our lives and the challenges they should bring.

“In 20 years, we can be superhuman; and this is completely different from having a car or a phone”

LogicalisNow – You affirm in your book that the humanity will change more in the next 30 years than it did in the previous 300. Why do you believe that?

Gerd Leonhard – The last 300 years had some very important changes, such as the industrial society, the steam engine, or, before that, the printed press. But technology hadn’t reached the point of changing human beings. It can now enter our heads, use augmented reality, and manipulate genes to change our bodies. I mean, it’s not only outside anymore, and this is a great difference. We can now change what we think, what we see, and, soon enough, who we are. In 20 years, with a smart machine with 5000 IQ, we can be super-humans, and this is completely different from having a car or a telephone.

LN – What makes you believe that this change should come faster than the ones we saw last century?

GL – These things are already happening. There is, for instance, the quantum computing with qubits (quantum bits) computers that are one million times faster than anything we’ve had thus far. Another fast-advancing feature is natural language processing. In two or three years, computers will be able to comprehend 100% of what we say, which is something they already do, in fact, just not perfectly. We are at a turning point when many science-fiction technologies are indeed becoming real.

LN – How will technology be capable of changing people? What technologies are these?

GL – One example is the systems that can prevent diseases such as diabetes. While monitoring the patient, they learn to make an improved diagnosis or can administrate automated insulin injections. Another possibility is making chip implants connected to security features, like opening doors and things like that. There is also augmented reality, such as Google Glass or Intel’s new gadget, and the so-called mixed reality, which inserts information into reality. Soon enough it will be possible to reprogram genes to avoid cancer. I mean, we are moving way beyond our humanity, we’re doing superhuman things. And we are not talking about far- away- into-the-future technologies, we are talking about the coming 20 or 30 years.

LN – What is already available or currently under development?

GL – One the most riveting things currently under development is the possibility of machines learning very complex things, such as making a disease or a cancer diagnostic. And they should do it a lot better than humans. One smart system can read five million skin cancer images and learn all its characteristics. For us humans that is impossible, as no one can look at 5 million photos at once. The possibilities are endless with such powerful computers, and we are left only with our human abilities, like talking with cancer patients.

“The more connected we are and the more benefits we have, the more exposed we are to side effects”

LN – Beyond healthcare, what is another sector that can expect changes?

GL – All sectors, overall. We have smart cities, smart agriculture, smart gardening, smart nutrition, improved logistic solutions, and more. Some estimate that logistic costs could drop more than 60% once all is connected. In the energy sector, it is expected an electric car battery to last one thousand miles (1,600 kilometers), in a few years, which would completely change our transportation notion. I mean, we can find examples all over. Most of them are positive, but it doesn’t mean that there are no problems. Once everything in a smart city is connected– the traffic, the people, the environment, and the energy -, everything also becomes more vulnerable. That is, the more connected we are and the more benefits we have, the more exposed we also are to collateral effects.

LN – What are the side effects, and how can they be avoided?

GL – Cybersecurity is a major point of worry, as well as the use of available data. They aren’t currently that big of a problem because these technologies are not completely working and not that many people have access to robots or artificial intelligence. But in the future, they will be so efficient that certainly should be used for all sorts of ends, including with bad intentions. Therefore, we must develop what I call digital ethics: consensus and rules that define those responsible for each element and that delineate what is good and what is not in the digital world, exactly as it was done with nuclear energy or in the oil industry, for example. If limits are not defined, chances are there will be big abuses. Facebook is a great example of that, in the abusive way they use our data, as there is no active regulation nor supervision on this type of activity.

LN – How should this “digital ethics” be created?

GL – Governments must find a way to balance business, science, and technology opportunities with the interests of the citizens as a whole. Personally, I’m not an advocate for regulations, but there doesn’t seem to be another way. We are talking about very powerful tools and very big corporations. Suffice it to say that the four major ones – Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon – have more money than France’s entire GDP. They are bigger than countries. Institutions such as these can become so powerful that capitalism rules alone won’t be enough to supervise them. In the free market, any initiative that generates profit is good, but we could reach a scenario where technology benefits would end up concentrated in a select group, generating money to few, while we get lost amid technologies, and automation cuts off half of the job positions. The common good must be brought back into the equation. We would have to migrate to a sort of sustainable capitalism, where people’s and the environment’s benefits come before the profit.