Trend-spotting: The humanoid condition

Prepare yourself for the next big thing

Minds on the future

I’ve made predictions before that concern, upset, even enrage people. But this time, the forecast I’m most passionate about has triggered a different reaction: it’s terrifying people.

For four decades, my speciality has been to spot trends which can be troubling to our clients. (In 1988, for example, we told Kodak, forget film, digital is the future; they fired us.) We “braille the culture” and sense where deep changes in the consumer landscape are emerging. We have a global network of 127 trend-spotters and we go on “TrendTreks”—walkabouts in which we explore places where the future is bleeding into the present. Once you know how to tune in to the signals, the shape of tomorrow is easy to discern.

Now, here’s the prediction that no one seems to want to believe: the robots are coming. And we will be merging, mating and morphing with them.

Think about it; we’re already becoming mechanised. Knee and hip replacements: no big deal. A Google contact lens that measures your blood sugar: all good. The Swedish fingertip chip that lets employees unlock the office and fire up the copier: easy, breezy. But look deeper:

– A Spanish cancer survivor has received the first 3D printed titanium chest prosthetic. In a few years we’ll have people walking among us who are partially—perhaps mostly 3D printed.

– Pioneering scientists are developing prosthetics controlled by mind, not muscle. At Johns Hopkins, a double arm-amputee can think, “I’d like a sip of that coffee,” and his augmented body responds. Beautiful. Now imagine those with bone and muscle diseases benefiting from those lab-made limbs. Think of the day we tell our body: “Fly!”

– At the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, researchers have created the world’s first electronic memory cell. The bionic brain will soon be here, and who wouldn’t want a boost, something to amp up our memory? And someday pass it on to our children.

– And how about the wireless brain implant, the size of a grain of rice, which Stanford researchers say can obliterate a bad mood? Imagine being able to sign up for a jolt of optimism. What happens to the multi-billion-dollar pharma industry that manufactures the serotonin re-uptake-inhibitor drugs Lexapro, Paxil, Zoloft and Prozac? Gone as fast as a mood swing.

Here’s where the fear factor kicks in: we’re no longer merely dealing with mechanised body parts. We’re re-engineering our minds, our spirit, our souls. Our species is racing from “robot knees” to “robot brain”: a brain smarter and more able than the kind you were born with, one that doesn’t have to learn but simply uploads knowledge in a millisecond. Either embrace it, or be left seriously in the dust.

It’s not just we humans who are evolving. Our automatons are, too. Early indicators of what’s to come are already here to see:

– Adorable bots—Echo, Jibo, NAO and Pepper—are marching into our homes to help our kids with homework and bedtime stories.

– In Japan, robotic caregivers tend to the elderly and play concierge at deluxe hotels. I don’t think I need to describe how this tech develops into sex robots. Let your imagination take you to a perfectly matched partner who knows your every desire.

– In Swiss labs, robots developed both altruism and deceitfulness on their own.

So back to my prediction. There’s a huge merge/morph/meld ahead: humans enhanced by technology; robots infused with humanity. And then: breeding with each other—their “DNA”, our DNA, new DNA. A transformation of our species awaits, and 2016 is when the average human slowly, sleepily awakens to the new dawn of RoboHumanity.

You are reading a small selection of content from The World in 2018.
To read all the articles in this year’s edition download The Economist app.
Download 'The World In 2018 iOS app'
Download 'The World In 2018 Android app'