Emerging Technologies and the Global Crisis of Maturity: As Technological Development Surges, the Ability of Institutions to Handle Change Is Stifled by Outmoded Social Systems. to Survive the Technological Revolution in the Midst of Global Crisis, a Social Revolution Is Also Needed That Will Bring Institutions and Civilization to a Higher Stage of Maturity

Article excerpt

It's clear now that a technology revolution is under way as ever more sophisticated information systems create unprecedented gains in knowledge, leading to breakthroughs every-where. The latest forecasts from the TechCast Project are presented here to show that modern societies can realistically envision renewable energy replacing oil, medical control over the genetic process of life, computer power becoming cheap and infinite, mobile communications at lightning speeds, robots serving as helpers and caregivers, and much more to come. Forecasters and futurists are especially excited over the accelerating pace of this progress; the unique power of the infotech, biotech, and nanotech fields; and artificial intelligence becoming good enough to spread smart machines throughout the nooks and crannies of life.

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The buzz over this wave of breakthroughs is growing at such a fevered pace, however, that it also presents the normal extravagant claims and the inevitable unforeseen consequences. Corn-based ethanol looked so promising that the U.S. Congress supported the industry with tax breaks--only to create a global food crisis while harming the environment and raising energy costs.

Some claims are so grandiose that they seem reminiscent of the dotcom boom. The Singularity and transhumanist movements, for instance, expect to achieve immortality through nanotech medicine, to upload and download the mind, and to see humans eclipsed by intelligent machines. Pioneering computer scientist Vernor Vinge has said that intelligent machines "would use [people] the way we've used oxen and donkeys." Is it possible to sort out exaggerations from realistic forecasts? Previous claims of the "paperless office," "nuclear energy too cheap to meter," and "excessive leisure with nothing to do" come to mind.

This article presents an authoritative forecast of technology break-throughs, showing that relentless advances are driving a creative transformation of business, society, the global order, and even what it means to be human. First I briefly outline the TechCast research method, which pools the knowledge of 100 experts online. Then I integrate the forecasts into longitudinal scenarios that "macro-forecast" the most likely path civilization will follow over the next 20 years--a virtual trip through time.

The major conclusion from this analysis is that the world is facing a global crisis of maturity, the most salient example being the near-collapse of the global banking system in October 2008. Warnings of massive transformations have been anticipated for decades by the Club of Rome and many others. Today, however, the acceleration of change seems to be producing a mounting series of severe global disruptions--energy shortages as oil supplies peak, impending climate change and environmental decline in general, spreading of weapons of mass destruction, continuing terrorism, and other yet unforeseen threats as globalization inexorably strains old systems to the breaking point.

Threats of this magnitude are hard to grasp within existing worldviews, so I draw on previous studies to suggest that the crisis of maturity can be best understood as part of a "life cycle of evolution." The path of global development has been driven by successive waves of increasingly powerful technology frontiers--agriculture, mass production, services, information, and now knowledge. This broader analysis reveals a life cycle of the entire planet, similar to but vastly larger than the life cycle of all organisms, culminating in a phase of maturity that transcends early stages.

From this perspective, the world seems poised at the cusp of a great discontinuity, much like the life of a teenager when thrust into the passage to adulthood. As with a teen, common sense is not very useful because the world is likely to change abruptly and dramatically. As I hope to show, the tantalizing prospect of global maturity offers bold ideas and thought-provoking policies for making a historic passage to a world that works. …