Enabling human actions in an altered environment
This third article is the last part of our “equation” to identify the key technologies of the future.
We started, with the first article, in establishing that solely making laundry lists of new technologies was insufficient to identify the key technologies of the future. 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.
Then, with the second part, we found conditions that make technologies key. Technologies that help satisfy one or more of the actions needed to meet individual and social needs, as well as the conditions for these actions, become key. Furthermore, because we have a model that allows for an evolution of technologies through time, our model is able to identify the key technologies of the future.
We must now look at the way these still potential key future technologies function in their environment. Indeed, they can only be key if they work and fulfil their function in a certain environment.
We first highlight the many ways through which our environment is degraded, indeed increasingly often leading to extreme environments. Furthermore, this degradation of our ecosystems forces us to increasingly use naturally extreme environments.
We then focus on the way key technologies of the future will have to be resilient to these extreme conditions. We explain that key technologies will need to enable actions in these extreme environments, with examples related to deep sea and deep underground environments. We also explore possible escalating feedback loops between the use of extreme environments and the alteration of the environment, using the case of disease and the rise of contaminated environments.
Finally, we highlight that some technologies will not only be key in the future but also for the future, if they can mitigate damages and, even better, heal our altered environment.
An altered environment
Our environment has changed compared with the past. This will be even more the case tomorrow, if we consider linear trends. Our ecosystems will change in ways that are essentially negative or threatening to the survival of individuals and societies. Several destructive forces are at work.
Adverse forces alter our environment
Numerous adverse forces, often interacting through positive feedback loops, alter our environment, notably:
- Climate change (C02 in the atmosphere in particular);
- Loss of biodiversity;
- Invasive species;
- Increase in diseases, epidemics and pandemics (stemming notably from the previous two factors);
- Industrial, chemical and nuclear accidents;
- Intensive agriculture;
- Space activity and debris;
Towards extreme environments
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The altered environment within which we, as individuals and societies, live will tend to become extreme. This will take place either as the altering forces transform the environment itself or as the new altered environment pushes us to discover new environments that were previously left aside because they were out of reach, harsh and because we did not need them.
Here we build upon the original idea of “extreme environments” as developed by the UK Ministry of Defence, Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) in its Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2040 (2010). There, the highly likely growing resource scarcity were to lead to strengthened interest in what was called “Extreme Environments”, i.e. the deep sea, space, the Arctic, Antarctica and the deep underground – and in their exploitation. The DCDC then abandoned this idea, despite its power.
Our future extreme environments will be:
- The very cold: Arctic and Antarctica notably;
- The very hot (with increased temperatures because of climate change) and the need to use all earthly spaces, such as deserts. Possibly we may have to move to very hot places on other planets;
- Extreme weather events haphazardly shaking ecosystems;
- Contaminated areas: pandemics, industrial hazards, radiations;
- Deep sea
- Deep earth and underground
- Digital and increasingly virtual environments: extreme for human beings as we need to adapt extremely fast to them and as these environments are totally alien to us.
(Photo Pandemic in India by Gwydion M. Williams, 2020_05_300100 – CC BY 2.0; Deep Earth : Professor Dale Russell , “The Future of Cities”, Samsung KX50: The Future in Focus, 29 août 2019, other images as on slide and Public Domain)
The key technologies of the future and extreme environments
The key technologies we identified will thus have imperatively to consider these extreme environments.
Extreme resilience, an imperative condition for the key technologies of the future
The key technologies of the future will imperatively need to function in altered environments, which become or are increasingly extreme.
No matter how wonderful a technology and how great it could be at helping satisfy human and social needs, if this technology is fragile and cannot cope with extreme environments, then it will be useless. It will thus not be a key technology of the future.
For example, wind turbines will need to be able to withstand increasingly powerful and frequent hurricanes and twisters (e.g. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “Wind Turbines in Extreme Weather: Solutions for Hurricane Resiliency“, 23 January 2018).
Computers and more broadly everything related to the digital world, including AI, will need to function under extreme weather events and under extreme temperatures. They will have to face possible disruptions or hard choice in terms of energy. As a result, energy-related technologies will become even more important. For example, photonic computing hardware, such as the chips LightOn develops, is a strong candidate for being a key technology of the future.
Here, to precisely identify the key technologies of the future, we shall need to add to our broad schematic model precise analytical mapping for each tech (or family of tech). We shall need to make sure all forces and their interactions are taken into account (see online course on analytical modeling). We must be sure some vulnerabilities are not overlooked. It will be crucial to analyse each and every technology in this way before to decide to use them if they demand substantial investments, if they have a crucial role within your company or organisation. Imagine that you invest millions, if not billions in integrating a technological system, to find out a couple of months or years later that this technology that is now at the heart of your system just fails repeatedly or worse definitely. This is also of course even worse for governments and state agencies and for governance infrastructures as whole countries could then face immense disruptions, with cascading adverse effects.
If you are investing in the development of new technologies, be it through portfolio on the markets or directly as a company or as a state agent in supporting this or that industry, use, then you will need, likewise, to check the “extreme resilience” of the technologies you support. Imagine what could happen if you chose wrongly.
To sum up, a sine qua non condition for a technology to be key in the future is to have as characteristics extreme resilience.
The key technologies of the future will need to help us access and operate in extreme environments
The key technologies of the future will need to help us access and operate in extreme environments.
Extreme environments are, by definition, those environments that are not favourable to human societies. As a result, it is always difficult to survive in these environments and most often hard to access them.
Even in the case of digital and virtual environments, negative and so far unknown impacts on human beings exist (e.g. Matt Southern, “Study Finds 4 Negative Effects of Too Much Video Conferencing“, SEJ, 27 February 2021; Cheryl Roy, “What are the harmful effects of virtual reality?“, Law Technology today, January 21, 2021; Lavoie, Main, King, et al. Virtual experience, real consequences: the potential negative emotional consequences of virtual reality gameplay. Virtual Reality 25, 69–81, 2021, etc.). Meanwhile, it is impossible to live only through and by digital and virtual reality. Finally, the countless companies handling cybersecurity, as well as the construction and development of the digital and virtual environment, are evidence of the difficulty of access to this type of world.
Detailed studies for each extreme environments will be necessary to determine conditions for access and operation. In the meantime and as example, we can give instances of new technologies helping us access the “under-worlds”, i.e. deep sea and deep earth environments.
The deep sea is an extreme environment that is increasingly becoming crucial for the future (see Helene Lavoix, “The Deep-Sea Resources Brief“, The Red Team Analysis Society, updated January 2018, first ed 2012). It must be seen notably in the context of need for resources including energy, protection of fragile ecosystems, as well as strategically with the redrawing of real boundaries of states. Note that this last element, although fundamental, does not seem to have already permeated global awareness.
China is very advanced in developing and using deep sea technologies as Liu Feng, secretary general of the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA), highlights (Interview by Wang Yan, “China’s deep-sea mining, a view from the top“, China Dialogue, 18 October 2019). Strategically, it is also active in being involved with the corresponding international authorities. In October 2019, for example, Beijing Pioneer Hi-Tech Development Corporation and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) signed an exploration contract for polymetallic nodules in the western Pacific Ocean (ISA Press release, 24 October 2019). On 9 November 2020, the International Seabed Authority and China launched a joint training and research centre (ISA press release, 9 November 2020).
China has the highest number of sea bed exploration contracts with the ISA (map 22 April 2021 ISA – click on image to access original on ISA website).
Technologically, China has developed, among others, an unmanned submersible, Qianlong 3, that carried out its first 3500 meters deep dive in April 2018 (Global Times). Its deep-sea manned submersible Fendouzhe finished a deep-sea mission in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific and reached a depth of more than 10.000 meters in November 2020. This is the second deepest dive after an American record set in 2019 (“New Chinese submersible reaches Earth’s deepest ocean trench“, Phys.org, November 2020).
The DARPA launched a Subterranean challenge in December 2017 to “develop innovative technologies that would augment operations underground”. The program should end in 2021.
Meanwhile, futurists, such as Professor Dale Russell, imagine a life underground (“The Future of Cities” in Samsung KX50: The Future in Focus, 29 août 2019).
Some quantum technologies, for example quantum gravimeters, may become key to map the underground world (e.g. Dr Nicole Metje and Dr Michael Holynski, “How can Quantum Technology make the underground visible?” University of Birmingham, 2016; Geoff Zeiss, “Applying quantum effects to detecting underground infrastructure“, Between the Poles, 8 February 2021). Thanks to them, underground developments are and will likely be easier to implement, which will most probably be key as deep earth environments become more important. The observation of these constructions will also be crucial in terms of security (Ibid.).
Geothermal energy is also an interesting example of deep earth usage (e.g. John W. Lund, “Geothermal energy“, Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Apr. 2018; Julia Rosen, “Supercharged geothermal energy could power the planet“, New Scientist, 17 October 2018). It is an energy of the underground extreme environment. Although it has been used for millenia through its naturally easily accessible output such as hot springs, technologies allowing for a more systematic and deeper use are more recent and evolve as more extreme depth and heat are reached and channeled.
Such technologies are both key in terms of energy and in term of access to and use of extreme environments. They could also have serious deleterious impacts, thus participating, in turn, in altering the environment.
Geothermal energy could also be a game changer for some countries, as could signal El Salvador efforts to couple its volcanoes’ geothermic energy and so far environmentally unfriendly bitcoin. Furthermore, here, social coordination, through political authorities via currency, is also impacted (Reuters, “Does money grow on volcanoes? El Salvador explores bitcoin mining“, 10 June 2021).
Technologies related to geothermal energy are thus highly likely part of the key technologies of the future. To the least they must be put under watch.
Extreme emergence of disease: From deep earth to contaminated environments
Using deep earth environments may also have unexpected and unintended consequences. That usage of an extreme environment has the potential to create an escalating feedback loop with other extreme environments.
Let us look at a case that may help us start understanding what could happen. Even though the Mojiang mine in Kunming, China, is an abandoned copper mine and thus probably not part of what we would call deep earth environment, we may nonetheless use this example to imagine possible impacts of deep – and less deep – earth activities.
Following the illness and death of miners working in the abandoned mine in 2012, a new virus of a rodent-origin – henipa-like virus – was identified in the mine, while 293 coronavirus were sampled in and around the mine, out of which “eight are “SARS-type” coronavirus” (Zhiqiang Wu et al., “Novel Henipa-like Virus, Mojiang Paramyxovirus, in Rats“, China, 2012, Emerg Infect Dis. 2014 Jun; 20(6): 1064–1066.; David Stanway, “Explainer: China’s Mojiang mine and its role in the origins of COVID-19“, Reuters, 9 June 2021).
If new viruses and new possible hosts emerge, then, potentially new diseases with pandemic capabilities may also follow. The Mojiang mine case could thus be an example of how new epidemics could emerge out of interactions between human beings and so far pristine environments. As a result, the extreme environment related to contamination would highly likely be activated.
If we follow this train of thoughts, and apply it to 2021, then the key question is not to know if China is guilty or not of being at the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly stemming from the mine. The real crucial question for the future would be to wonder how many of new extreme environment human activities enabled by technology, could unleash pandemics and how to mitigate the risk.
All locations surrounding extreme environments (namely deep sea, deep underground, very cold and very hot, space – possibly coming from other planets, virtual – by extension “cyber” viruses) would need to be closely monitored for the appearance of such new viruses and other organisms that could cause contamination. Bacteria and viruses emerging from the melting permafrost are another case exemplifying this possible threat (e.g. Jasmin Fox-Skelly, “Long-dormant bacteria and viruses, trapped in ice and permafrost for centuries, are reviving as Earth’s climate warms“, BBC, 4 May 2017). Technologies allowing for monitoring such risks and then necessary for accessing the extreme environments without triggering contamination would become key.
To sum up, those technologies, resilient enough to operate under extreme conditions, allowing us to access extreme environments and make them habitable for and exploitable by human beings and societies are very likely to be key in the future. Meanwhile, new possible alterations of our environment could appear, leading to deleterious escalating feedback loops.
This untoward possible twist, in turn, highlights a new need technology will have to meet, as we shall now see.
Ultimate Key technologies for the future
Taking into account our altered environment, we can consider two other functions that technology may play and that would make them key, indeed vital.
Technologies could mitigate the alterations of and negative impacts on the environment, as generated by previous human – and natural – activity.
Even more positively, we may imagine technologies that could repair the damages created and heal the environment.
Those repairing and healing technologies are more than needed. We may consider them not only as key technologies of the future but also ultimate technologies for our future.
To sum up, the key technologies of the future are those that help meet one or many of the actions and conditions critical to satisfy evolving individual and social needs. These technologies may notably help in ensuring energy as well as defense and attack needs. They may also be operative in three types of actions and tasks: motion and load transport, craftmanship and various types of implementation, and finally all the tasks related to calculation, memory, knowledge, understanding and transmission.
To be truly key in the future, and not only potentially so, these technologies will have to be resilient enough to function in an increasingly altered world and notably in extreme environments.
Furthermore, those technologies that will also allow accessing these extreme environments and enable human actions there will too be key in the future.
Finally, technologies that will help mitigate earlier damages to our environment, in the broader sense of the term, or even better heal this environment, will not only be key in the future but also key for the future.
DARPA, Subterranean challenge, 2017.
ISA Press release, 24 October 2019
ISA press release, 9 November 2020
Lavoie, Main, King, et al. Virtual experience, real consequences: the potential negative emotional consequences of virtual reality gameplay. Virtual Reality 25, 69–81, 2021
Lund, John W.. “Geothermal energy”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Apr. 2018.
Metje Nicole, and Michael Holynski, “How can Quantum Technology make the underground visible?” University of Birmingham, 2016;
Phys.org, “New Chinese submersible reaches Earth’s deepest ocean trench“, November 2020
Roy, Cheryl, “What are the harmful effects of virtual reality?“, Law Technology today, January 21, 2021;
Russell, Dale, “The Future of Cities” in Samsung KX50: The Future in Focus, 29 août 2019.
Southern, Matt, “Study Finds 4 Negative Effects of Too Much Video Conferencing“, SEJ, 27 February 2021;
Stanway, David, “Explainer: China’s Mojiang mine and its role in the origins of COVID-19“, Reuters, 9 June 2021.WuWu
Wu, Zhiqiang et al., “Novel Henipa-like Virus, Mojiang Paramyxovirus, in Rats“, China, 2012, Emerg Infect Dis. 2014 Jun; 20(6): 1064–1066..
Yan, Wang, Interview “China’s deep-sea mining, a view from the top“, China Dialogue, 18 October 2019
Zeiss, Geoff, “Applying quantum effects to detecting underground infrastructure“, Between the Poles, 8 February 2021.