What we can expect from 2023 – The continuation of the great technological trends
The year 2023 is a very special year – for mathematicians: the prime factorization of the year’s number is 7*17*17, which, if you want to recognize „7“ as a lucky number, makes 2023 a promising year. The last year with a prime factorization with three times the 7 (though it seems far less elegant) was 1813 (7*7*37). After all, Europe freed itself from Napoleon in that year, so it was not a bad year (even if a lot of people died for it, about 100,000 at the Battle of Leipzig alone). The next comparable year will be 2401 (7*7*7*7).
But let us take a more sober look at the prospects for 2023. The best and for the long term most decisive topics we can look at here are firstly climate developments and secondly technological developments. In the case of the first, it takes a lot to remain optimistic; in the case of the second, nothing less dramatic is developing. And perhaps the second allows us to be a little more optimistic about the first. In view of the dramatic changes in the world due to the various developments of new technologies in the last just 30 years, and that the speed of change will probably increase considerably in the next 30 years, the period from 2023 to 2053 will be the most important phase in the history of mankind that will shape humanity. And it is precisely in this period that an increasingly rapid race will take place, in which precisely the two points above will collide. On the one hand, climate change, which is due to mankind changing the composition of our atmosphere by emitting CO2 and other gases that are harmful to the climate; on the other hand, new energy technologies with the aim of having a sufficient supply of energy on earth without CO2 emissions – and this with an even increasing total global energy demand.
While there is much discussion about climate change, we hear less about the emerging developments in technologies that are as exciting as they are frightening and that will emerge from the sciences and shape the future of humanity like nothing else.
I. Artificial intelligence – improving or controlling our lives?
While strong AI (which can recognize and define tasks independently and acquires and builds up knowledge of the corresponding application areas itself) is still far away from us, weak AI (without explicit abilities to learn independently in the universal sense) has now reached a high level. The learning and optimization methods that underlie today’s AI, so-called „deep learning“, enable a massive increase in machine intelligence in all areas. It is sometimes no longer even limited to the specific purpose for which it was created, such as playing chess, searching databases or recognizing faces. Its capabilities also affect more and more areas that most people today still consider to be unchallengeable domains of human abilities: Intuition, creativity or recognizing other people’s emotions. Will machines soon be able to recognize our emotions even better than other humans?
II. Quantum computers – calculations millions of times faster or just a physicists’ dream?
For a long time, quantum computers were considered science fiction. The term alone still strikes most people today as both eerily bizarre and excitingly futuristic, combining as it does the technological omnipotence of digital computing with the awe-inspiring complexity and abstractness of the most important physical theory of the 20th century, quantum theory. In today’s reality, the development of quantum computers is progressing quite rapidly. It promises a new technological revolution that could shape the 21st century in much the same way that the development of digital circuits shaped the 20th. In autumn 2019 Google announced that its engineers had succeeded in building a quantum computer that, for the first time, can solve a problem that any conventional computer would cut its teeth on.
III. CO2 neutrality – Can we create enough alternative energy in the next few years to prevent a climate catastrophe?
We can see that even the most optimistic forecasts about the emergence of new CO2-neutral technologies are caught up with and often surpassed year after year by actual developments (even if their implementation is then not always as fast). So there is no shortage of ideas, technological possibilities and concrete initiatives to tackle and reduce CO2 emissions. Driven by amazing advances in photovoltaics, wind energy, geothermal energy generation and battery storage (and perhaps the most amazing: nuclear fusion energy, see next item), as well as in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence for optimal energy use, we are on the threshold of the fastest and most profound change in the energy sector in the last 150 years.
IV. Nuclear fusion – the solution to our energy problems or just a topic of the dreams of the century?
Without much publicity, scientists today are making significant progress in an area that could solve the problems of global energy supply once and for all: the peaceful use of nuclear fusion. At stake is nothing less than the dream of generating unlimited, clean and safe energy from the thermonuclear fusion of atomic nuclei, the same energy that powers our sun and stars.
V. Genetics – victory over cancer or manipulation of man?
The rapid success in developing the vaccine against the Corona virus was based on the immense advances in genetic engineering in recent years. „Genetically engineered vaccines“ contain the genetic information of the pathogen, which after administration is translated by the body’s own cells into corresponding proteins, whereupon a defense reaction of the immune system is triggered as in a real viral infection. However, genetic engineering processes are not only being developed for vaccines against infectious diseases, but also in the fight against cancer, for optimizing harvests and many other important areas.
VI. Internet of Things – New Industrial Technologies and Smart Fabrications or a Comprehensive Invasion of Privacy?
With increasing computing power, faster networking through ultra-fast mobile internet and increasingly intelligent data processing, the development of „smart things“ will continue at a rapid pace. As early as 2019, 5G was switched on, enabling breathtaking speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second on our mobile phones. This network will continue to expand around the world. We will no longer need a computer to achieve what we want; everyday things will take care of themselves without our direct intervention. But do we really want this immense influence on our privacy (see also point IX below)?
VII. Neuro-enhancements – improving our thinking and acting or turning away from today’s reality?
In the last twenty years, knowledge about the structure and dynamics of our brain has multiplied. The more we understand how it works, the more precisely our feelings, thoughts and experiences can be influenced. Scientists are even working on microchips that can be implanted in the brain and permanently improve our state of mind, enhance our well-being, increase our intelligence, memory and ability to concentrate, or even ensure lasting happiness. But is the massive manipulation of our mind really desired?
VIII. Understanding our mind – Do we find our Ego or is it undetectable to scientists?
Until now, our perception and the way we see and experience ourselves (our „self-model“, as philosophers call it , or „ego-consciousness“) depended exclusively on our connection with the reality around us. What we experience from the outside and how we experience ourselves in the process was directly given by the stimuli of the outside world. With new technologies that relate directly to our consciousness, our connection to this reality is shaken. By playing new realities to our brains, our perception and self-model are altered almost arbitrarily. Virtual reality (VR) technologies are thus no longer only transforming our external living world, but increasingly also our subjective „inner space“.
IX. Digital Algorithms and Big Data – New Profiles for our Lives or Control of Human Thought and Action?
With all the collection and sharing of data about ourselves and our possessions on the internet, we have long since moved information far beyond our contacts to computers or phones. The objects of our everyday life regulate their needs directly with each other in the Internet of Things already described above. How simple this makes our lives! But there is a catch. The data we leave behind everywhere, like bacteria after a sneezing fit, is collected, processed with ever more powerful algorithms and ever more intelligent AI, and used for ever more comprehensive purposes. From them, our behaviors, preferences and character traits can be targeted and the patterns of our lives calculated – and then manipulated.
X. Nanotechnology – creating things from „nothing“ or just a dream?
Researchers are already succeeding in specifically manipulating structures at the atomic level and even producing basic building blocks for nanomachines: Rolling nano-wheels, nano-gears that turn along a jagged edge of atoms, propellers, hinges, grippers, switches and much more. Small motors and vehicles can already be developed – and they are all about one ten-thousandth of a millimeter in size, close to molecular structures. The „second generation of quantum technologies“ behind this, which also includes quantum computers, will therefore change our lives at least as much as the first generation with computers, lasers, atomic energy and imaging processes in medicine.
XI. Stem cells – cells that can do everything, including for our entire body and mind?
The next revolution in reproductive medicine – after the first in vitro fertilization in 1978 – is already just around the corner. In future, we can take hundreds of embryos to be conceived from parental cells in a Petri dish. After the predispositions of each individual embryo have been determined in detail by DNA analyses, the parents will be able to choose their desired child. This and much more will be possible through the use of stem cells.
XII. Biotechnology – Medical Dream or Future Reality?
In biotechnology, more and more work is being done with nanorobots. They are already being used to transport drugs specifically into diseased tissue so that pathogens or mutated cells can be attacked directly with active substances. In this context, one speaks of „medical miracle bullets“. However, the future prospects for the use of nanomachines in medicine are even more exciting. They range from ultra-small nanorobots (so-called „nanobots“) that constantly move through our bodies in search of pathogens, from automatic nano-checks every morning when brushing our teeth, to biomarkers that indicate serious diseases in their early stages, to the replacement of defective body parts with implants made of corresponding nanoparticles.
XIII. New food technologies – How we will feed 10 billion people or just a scientific dream story?
The 20th century is rich in significant technological achievements and formative technologies. However, if one had to name the most significant technical invention of the last century for mankind, the choice would probably go to the Haber-Bosch process of 1908, which made the large-scale production of ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen possible. Without the Haber-Bosch process, it would be impossible to feed even half of today’s world population. But even artificial fertilizers and modern agricultural technology will not be able to cope with the task of feeding 10 billion people. In addition to the (controversial) use of genetic engineering, more food will inevitably have to be produced industrially. And it is precisely here that technological progress could soon lead to massive changes, namely meat that looks like it comes from a 3D printer. Such „printers“ use muscle stem cells from cattle that are artificially bred and multiplied and then mixed with nutrients, salts, pH buffers, etc. The result most likely tastes more delicious and is at the same time healthier than any previous animal meat, and … with virtually no CO2 emissions!
XIV. Synthetic Life – When Man Plays God: Part I
In addition to gene optimization, life extension through cancer treatments, improved plant breeding and stem cell therapy, genetic engineering opens up yet another exciting as well as no less sinister possibility of human technological intervention: the creation of entirely artificial life tailored to specific purposes. Creating life from scratch is what genetic researchers now call „synthetic biology“. This new field of research in biology aims to create life forms that have never existed on our planet.
XV. Life Extension – When Man Plays God: Part II
Why do we actually grow older – and eventually die? Science still cannot answer this question precisely. None of the various theories of ageing is generally accepted. Simplified, one could say that our cells and organs simply lose their ability to function over time. But most genetic researchers today assume that this process could be stopped or even reversed. Will this make a primeval human dream come true: the fountain of youth of eternal life?
As exciting these developments are: Are most of them really desirable? Do we really want to live in a society where people are getting older and older or where they are all being watched at with everything they do? Do we want our minds completely altered or artificial intelligence that is superior to us in everything? Do we want the genetic manipulation of us or even create entirely new life? The particularly scary thing is that these developments are occurring all at once, whereas in the past the technological revolutions always came one after the other.
 The list of future technologies is taken from: Lars Jaeger, Michel Dacorogna, Presence and Future of Sciences and Technologies, still in draft form.
 See also: Lars Jaeger, An Old Promise of Physics – Are We Moving Closer Toward Controlled Nuclear Fusion?, atw International Journal for Nuclear Power (December 2020)