To be key, technologies must ease and improve human actions

In the first part of this series we found that solely making laundry lists of new technologies was insufficient to identify the key technologies of the future. Use of inadequate classifications made matters worse. We needed more: a system explaining the logic behind the success of technologies. Thus, we developed a schematic model depicting the reasons for the use of technology, at individual and collective level.

In this article, we apply our schematic model progressively to identify more precisely key technologies of the future. Using the logic we highlighted, we start with making the link between technology and human actions implemented to meet the needs of individuals and of society. Then we check that our model indeed allows us to look at evolution and dynamics as these are crucial if one wants to look at the future. This gives us first conditions or rules technologies must meet to be key in the future.

Key technologies enable actions and their conditions

As a reminder, we have a model that makes explicit the logic underlying why we need and use technologies (see part 1 for an explanation).

Now, we look again at this model from the perspective of the types of tasks and actions we need to carry out to make sure individual and social needs are met.

The individual and social needs (on the left hand side) are satisfied thanks to “tasks and actions” (the hand in the middle) enabled by technologies that will also help meet the conditions for successful action.

Key technologies are thus these technologies that participate in:

  • Enabling three types of actions
    • motion, load transport, as well as related force;
    • craftsmanship and various types of implementation, as well as related force;
    • all the tasks related to calculation, memory, knowledge, understanding, transmission, etc.
  • Helping meet the conditions for action
    • Energy: a sine qua non condition for action – and life. Indeed, without energy nothing is possible, as shown by Thomas Homer Dixon (The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, Random House Canada, 2006).
    • “Defence and attack”: compared with energy, the “defence and attack” capabilities need not to be all exerted permanently. The willingness to exert it, however, must be permanent. It is the awareness that there is an unwavering willingness to exert defence and attack that will make this very exertion discontinuous and temporary.
      An example of this phenomenon is nuclear deterrence (e.g. Alexey Arbatov, “Nuclear Deterrence: A Guarantee or Threat to Strategic Stability?“, Carnegie Moscow Centre, 22 March 2019). Another example is the internalisation of norms and the related moral system that allows a society to function (e.g. Boyd & Richerson, “Culture and the Evolution of the Human Social Instincts“, in Roots of Human Sociality, 2006). A third key example is the legitimate monopoly of violence, where rational authorities and legitimacy allows for the monopoly of violence to be truly used as little as possible (e.g. Moore, Injustice: The Social Basis of Obedience and Revolt, 1978, 440-449)

Technologies that help meet one or many of these actions and the conditions of these actions also become fundamental to meet individual and social needs. As a result they become key technologies.

Key technologies evolve with time: Towards a phylogeny of technologies?

Let us now look at these enabling technologies from a dynamic point of view. Does our schematic model allow for evolution along time?

What we seek to establish here is the evolutionary relationships between the meeting of individual and social needs and actions helped by technologies. Thus, borrowing from natural sciences, where Phylogeny is the science/study of evolutionary relationships between organisms, we are setting the first stones for a phylogeny of technologies (“Taxonomy and Phylogeny,” Biology Library, LibreTexts project, 2019).

Example of a phylogeny, here for the SARS-CoV2 (GISAID). Such approach could be adapted to follow the evolution of technologies and detect future key technologies.

In this article, as test and first steps, we shall remain at a schematic level, as our aim is to create a framework model that can then be applied to specific technologies. Obviously, a developed phylogeny would need to precisely detail the historical evolution of each enabling technologies we use as examples below. Right now, a sketch, however imperfect, is sufficient for our purpose. What we want is to test the logic behind the model.

Evolving technologies enabling the conditions for action

Energy-related technologies

Energy-related technologies moved with time. We had first a situation when no technology or hardly any was used, when the sun (and probably lightning) as well as hunting and gathering – food being the fundamental energy for human beings as highlighted by Homer Dixon (Ibid.) – were the sole source of energy. We moved then to a time when “tech”, then rather primitive, started being involved in the discovery of fire, and the use of wind and water.

Moving forward in time, we had technologies included in sedentary agriculture and those that allowed or facilitated energy-related discoveries, for example technology linked to wood, then coal and oil or more broadly fossile fuel extracted energy. Then technology participated in intensive agriculture, nuclear energy, transformation into electricity. Finally, we have higher or more complex technological use of natural forces such as hydroelectricity, solar panels, wind turbine, precision agriculture, etc.

Defence and attack-related technologies

Defence and attack-related technologies went from none, when only the human body was used, to the use of tools as weapons and caves as dwelling. We then had the development of metal and related weapons, archery, siege weapons, crossbows, alongside walls and fortresses, etc.

We moved then to modern weapons, extension of theatres of operations and corresponding defense systems allowed notably by gunpowder and steam engines. Technologies allowing for aviation were then added.

We are now heading toward high tech weapons and defence (for example, see, all the articles related to security and geopolitics in our section on AI).

Evolving technologies enabling action

Motion related technologies

Motion related technologies evolved from use of animals to modern transportation means such as cars, trucks, planes, trains, ships, space shuttles, nano-enabled “movers”, etc.

Craftsmanship and implementation-related technologies

Craftsmanship-related technologies, for example, went from tying basic materials and pelt then fabrics, to cutting and sowing with thread and needle, while looms became increasingly mechanised, to smart fabrics and programmable textiles and the capacity to manufacture each at best.

Cognition, perception and transmission related technologies

Cognition-related technologies can also be seen as evolving with time. For example, for calculation, we went from the abacus to increasingly powerful computers to quantum computers. An obvious example here is also the development of narrow artificial intelligence (see When Artificial Intelligence will Power Geopolitics – Presenting AI).

Considering current knowledge and research, we must here look at both cognition and perception (e.g. article based in part on an Integrative Science Symposium at the 2019 International Convention of Psychological Science (ICPS) in Paris, by Alexandra Michel, “Cognition and Perception: Is There Really a Distinction?“, Association for psychological science, January 29, 2020). We echoed this perspective when we underlined the importance of sensors for AI, the actuators for AI being nothing else that the possibility to carry out our actions and tasks (see our related section on sensors and actuators for AI, starting with Inserting Artificial Intelligence in Reality).

The importance of perception and sensors also tells us something more.

It reminds us that the evolutionary use of technologies takes place in the world. Perception must have something to perceive. Sensors must have something to sense. Meanwhile, the actions and tasks enabled by technologies act somewhere and on something.

Thus, all these technologies, which we identified as key, in the future are, actually, only potentially key. What defined them as key were necessary but insufficient conditions.

Technologies can only be key in the future (and the present for that matter) if they work, if they fulfil their functions in a certain environment. This is what we shall see in the next and last part.


Bibliography

Featured images: Spaceship and planet by Reimund Bertrams of Pixabay  / Public domain; hydroponic farm by iamareri of Pixabay  / Public domain.


Arbatov, Alexey, “Nuclear Deterrence: A Guarantee or Threat to Strategic Stability?“, Carnegie Moscow Centre, 22 March 2019

Biology Library, “Taxonomy and Phylogeny”, LibreTexts project, 2019

Boyd, R. & Richerson, Peter. (2006). Culture and the Evolution of the Human Social Instincts. Roots of Human Sociality.

Dixon, Thomas Homer, (The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, Random House Canada, 2006

GISAID

Michel, Alexandra, “Cognition and Perception: Is There Really a Distinction?“, Association for psychological science, January 29, 2020.

Moore, B., Injustice: Social bases of Obedience and Revolt, (London: Macmillan, 1978).


Published by Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the President/CEO of The Red Team Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues. Her current focus is on the COVID-19 Pandemic, methodology of SF&W, radicalisation as well as artificial intelligence and quantum tech and security. She teaches at Master level at SciencesPo-PSIA.

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