The pace of tech change in Paul Allen’s lifetime was nothing compared to what we’ll live through in the next 20 years

In the near future, artificial intelligence could disrupt the very fabric of society, and even cause us to question what it means to be human

Duncan Jefferies
Tuesday 16 October 2018 13:57
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Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen on how Bill Gates and him shared a bond, despite describing him as abusive in 2011 book

“Personal computing would not have existed without him,” Bill Gates said of Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who died this week from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

A true giant of the technology industry, Allen helped to put a computer in almost every office – and later every home – through the company he and Gates launched in 1975. Over the course of his lifetime, computers evolved from vast specialist machines hidden away in office basements into devices small enough to be worn on your wrist. But the huge technological developments of the past half century look almost tame in comparison to what lies ahead.

Today, computers – and the World Wide Web that Microsoft’s software helped to popularise – underpin almost every aspect of daily life. But over the next few decades technologies like artificial intelligence could disrupt the very fabric of society, and even cause us to question what it means to be human.

Many of the jobs we do now look set to disappear or change dramatically as machines take on more responsibilities. Although estimates vary regarding how many old jobs will be lost or new ones created due to automation, most experts seem to agree that big changes are on the horizon. Lawyers may find they have less value in the job market, for example, and nurses and care workers, whose work involves traits like empathy and compassion which machines can’t (yet) emulate, may find they have more. If most jobs do vanish, universal basic income could also become one of the defining political issues of the age.

Artificial intelligence will also have a dramatic impact on the way we travel. The self-driving car, which was stuck firmly in the realms of science fiction at the turn of the century, now looks set to become a familiar site on our roads. Drone ships are also being trialled, and flying drones could revolutionise everything from the emergency services to Amazon deliveries. We might even travel to work in one, if the flying taxis that the likes of Boeing and Uber are developing eventually, ahem, take off.

Although it’s been over-hyped of late, blockchain – essentially a distributed ledger that anyone can access and trust – could also shake up everything from the way contracts are executed to how we generate, store and share electricity. And while augmented and virtual reality has yet to really catch on outside of the specialist sphere, it still has the potential to further merge the physical and digital world and change the way we entertain and educate ourselves.

Looking further ahead, we may even start to augment our bodies with technology (a process that has, in fact, already begun), gaining almost superhuman abilities – though perhaps at the expense of our humanity. The author Yuval Noah Harari has even speculated that Homo sapiens’ dependence on machines and algorithms could usher in a new age of techno-religion, and eventually make us redundant as a species – which, you have to admit, would make for one hell of a Black Mirror episode.

Of course the world of tomorrow may look entirely different to the one I’ve just described; it’s impossible to say precisely how new technologies will change society. But what’s certain is that when historians of the future look back at the development of the personal computer, they will see that Paul Allen’s death did not mark the end of a period of massive technological change – in fact it was only the beginning.

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