The comments in the following section are a sharp contrast to the utopian visions of equity and advancement described above. Whereas some see the future of the internet as a great equalizer, others warn that technology can just as easily be used for control and exploitation.

Inequality on the rise: The growing divide between haves and have-nots

The majority of respondents to this study are in agreement that digital life is likely to improve the lives of people at the top of the socioeconomic ladder over the next few decades. A large share of those who predicted that internet use will produce change for the worse for most individuals over the next 50 years expressed concerns that an extension of current trends will lead to a widening economic divide that leaves the majority in the dust of the privileged class.

Johanna Drucker, professor of digital humanities in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said, “The question ignores the growing and disastrous division between poor, disenfranchised populations and wealthy, privileged ones. There may be huge improvements in some people’s lives and negative impacts for many, many more – pollution, toxins from waste generated by electronic media, deregulation of labor conditions for workers in the high-tech industries, deterioration of support systems and social infrastructure and so on.”

Michael Kleeman, a senior fellow at the University of California, San Diego, and board member at the Institute for the Future, wrote, “Because of the economic disparity the new technologies will be used with those with access to more resources, financial and technical. The digital divide will not be one of access but of security, privacy and autonomy.”

Jillian C. York, director of international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, commented, “I don’t believe that technology will be a net negative; rather, I worry and suspect that it will make life better for some of us but worse for others. Much of the technology coming out of Silicon Valley aims to serve elites, when we should be aiming toward equality for all.”

Zoetanya Sujon, a senior lecturer specializing in digital culture at University of Arts London, commented, “In my view, and drawing from the growth of global big tech companies and decreased pluralization of global platforms, I believe that in 50 years, the economic and cultural divides between rich and poor, developed and developing nations, technologically advanced and disadvantaged will continue to grow. These divides are serious and already take place within urban centers, between developing and developed nations, and between rural and urban areas, to name only a few sites of division. Thus, for those with capital, including access to new technologies and the literacies that come with them, life will likely involve wearable and ubiquitous computing based on internet and platformed communication…. These kinds of tools will likely be available only to those with the economic and cultural capital to access them.”

John Laudun, a respondent who provided no identifying details, commented, “The next 50 years is going to be great for a percentage of humans smaller than the percentage of humans for whom things will probably get worse. We continue to forget that 75% of the world’s populations are effectively peasants, individuals (living in families, groups, etc.) who engage in subsistence agriculture. Too often when we project into the future we imagine ourselves, people like us or the people we think we see. But there are hosts of groups that we do not see. How will technological advances, and their various implementations, help or hurt them? No one, for example, could have predicted the explosion in micro-transactions connecting villagers to one another and a wider world thanks to the cellphone.”

Christopher Leslie, lecturer in media, science and technology studies at South China University of Technology, wrote, “There will be many opportunities for consumers and entrepreneurs in the internet of the future, but the technology will mostly enhance the businesses and countries that already are ahead. It seems likely that a different kind of networking technology, perhaps truly decentralized and certainly separated from telecommunications companies, will be developed to challenge the inequalities fostered by today’s use of internet technology. The general trend in the technological society to this point has been that more people have received more benefits to their lives. This is in terms of any meaningful metric: health care, education, political participation, sense of self. This will continue into the next 50 years. However, the inequalities perpetrated by the modern use of digital technology will mean that not all people will benefit. The overall trend will be positive, but some ways of life and some categories of people will suffer a detriment that may be extreme.”

John Willinsky, professor and director of the Public Knowledge Project at Stanford Graduate School of Education, explained why he selected the automated survey response that digital life will be mostly beneficial for most individuals’ lives over the next few decades: “I say ‘mostly for the better’ as both praise and critique, because the ‘mostly’ speaks to the continuing inequities in the distribution of the ‘better,’ and – while ‘mostly’ suggests a majority of benefits – it will take a great deal of concern and effort to ensure that that those benefits are distributed with some lesser degree of inequality than previously to more people and, by the same token, more people need to participate in the processes behind that distribution.”

Fernando Barrio, director of the law program at the Universidad Nacional de Rio Negro, Argentina, commented, “The ubiquitous-tech society will imply a better, more enjoyable life for those being part of it. Wearable technology, tech implants, AI-medicine, autonomous robot workers and companions and many other coming technologies will allow humans to reach new limits of what to do and expect. However, the question is, with an ever-increasing income concentration at global scale in almost every country, how many members of the society will be able to be part of the enjoyment of that ubiquitous, hyper-connected, AI-tech society?”

James Scofield O’Rourke, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, commented, “People will be ‘mostly better off’ in 50 years’ time, largely because of our ability to apply things we already know, i.e., the decoding of the human genome, our understanding of the fragility of our planetary environment and more. The singular exception will be that group of people who have no assets, no education, no opportunity, and as a result, no hope. They will be reduced to dependence on the kindness of neighbors, strangers and the government.”

Elizabeth Feinler, the original manager of the ARPANET Network Information Center and an Internet Hall of Fame member, said, “As the internet matures, I hope the big guys will remember the little guys. As a pioneer, I remember when the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brins and countless other famous and successful entrepreneurs were working out of garages or dorm rooms, often penniless but with a lot of perseverance behind a great idea. Leave room for the next little guy – the one who comes up with a great pair of socks, or produces lovely artwork, or sells that gizmo you can’t live without for $19.95, or develops a security system that works, or cures cancer or Alzheimer’s – to hang their shingles on the internet too. True, one of them may challenge your greatness – it’s the American way – but don’t crowd them out. Just make your own service, product or idea better, and enjoy the challenge.”

Michael Veale, co-author of “Fairness and Accountability Designs Needs for Algorithmic Support in High-Stakes Public Sector Decision-Making” and a technology policy researcher at University College London, responded, “Technological change will improve some of the lowest standards of living in the world today, but beyond a certain point (e.g., provision of basic needs), it is unclear who will benefit. It is likely that technological change will force countries to reconsider how they measure welfare, progress and societal benefit, and this is likely to differ strongly across different countries and cultures.”

Ryan Sweeney, director of analytics at Ignite Social Media, commented, “Technology has the potential to further divide humans on a class level. Those who can afford the technology will have significant benefits from wealth-maintenance to extension of life. Those who cannot afford the technology will likely remain disconnected or will not receive the same level of service as those who can.”

Ian O’Byrne, an assistant professor at the College of Charleston whose focus is literacy and technology, said, “The main challenge is whether or not we have the social, political and educational imagination to adapt and effectively use these technologies. If we do not (and history has shown this again and again), then a relative few will be able to leverage these new powers and tools, while the remainder may be worse off for it.”

A policy director with the European Commission wrote, “Millions of people in the world still do not have access to clean water, education, clean energy, fast and cheap communication and the health and welfare benefits that are associated with that (not to mention economic growth and job potential).”

Denise N. Rall, a professor of arts and social sciences at Southern Cross University, Australia, responded, “It is more likely that some climax will come, in a semi-apocalyptic scenario. The world’s resources cannot continue to support ‘life as we know it.’ If people continue to pursue digital realities over real-life realities – that is, too many people to feed and not enough resources to do so, plus the ever-widening gap between rich and poor – any kind of internet-based interactions will come under threat as our physical environment continues to deteriorate around us. Generally, technology has made things better for the ‘haves’ and rarely, with a few positives, such as the Grameen Bank, for the multitude of poor. Over 1 billion people live on less than $1 U.S. per day, and between 20 [million] and 50 million people are housed in refugee camps, without hope of permanent homes. Until these trends can be reversed, internet-based technologies will become secondary to overwhelming necessities of maintaining life for those on this planet. I cannot see any technological solution to this issue, as the wealthy may have increased digital access and employ digital servants, but this will not improve conditions overall. In Australia, we are suffering again from prolonged drought, and the simple fact of growing food is becoming precarious in many parts of the world, while population continues to climb. There will be significant benefits from technology for the wealthy, and significant drawbacks to the poor. Therefore, saying ‘each individual’ is a meaningless parameter for this question. Some percentage (1% to 10%) will be immeasurably richer in their employment of technological solutions, the vast majority will not.”

Peter Asaro, a professor at The New School and philosopher of sci-tech and media who examines artificial intelligence and robotics, commented, “The penetration of the internet deeper into the physical and social world will benefit some greatly, many to some degree and most little or negatively. Most of the benefits will go those who have already benefited from the internet. Some benefits will be derived from aggregating and analyzing the collected data, but few people will see the connection.”

Joshua Loftus, assistant professor of information, operations and management sciences at New York University and co-author of “Counterfactual Fairness in Machine Learning,” commented, “I expect inequality to continue growing in each new dimension. For many in the world it will be a long and drawn-out apocalypse. For others it will be an augmented reality wonderland of hyperstimuli and consumption. It will be better for some and worse for others. For non-humans, for example, mass extinction will probably accelerate.”

Simeon Yates, director of the Centre for Digital Humanities and Social Science at the University of Liverpool, said, “I sadly believe that we will see a world of digital haves and have-nots – where the majority have access but utilize a limited set of services (as is the case with written literacy).”

An associate professor of sociology at a major university in Japan responded, “The digital divide will become a more serious problem. Most tech companies will make apps and digital tools for people who easily utilize internet and digital devices and also for English users. This creates an illusion of ubiquitous internet, but the infrastructure will tend to be made for only those people. This could create huge social problems.”

A program director for technology at a U.S. Ivy League school said, “Adoption of technology will be uneven, and the rich will get richer. Surveillance technology will keep the masses from organizing for social and political movements. The rich will get richer.”

A number of respondents expressed concerns over the power of large technology companies, the rise of platforms that offer services in exchange for data and marketing dollars, the potential for growing lack of human agency in the algorithm age, the potential loss of jobs as humans are replaced in workplaces, and other worries over emerging potential negatives of digital life.

Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and professor of strategic foresight at New York University, commented, “In 2018, there are nine companies (which I call the Big 9) that control the future of humanity, because they are building the future of artificial intelligence. Over the next five decades, we will see widespread consolidation in the fields of AI and digital platforms. We’ll trade convenience for choice and find that we have far fewer options for everything, from how fast to drive in our cars to which restaurants we’ll choose for dinner. Our professional and personal lives will be tethered to a provider – likely Amazon or Google – which will maintain and run our smart homes, hospitals, schools, city infrastructure and offices. We will probably see a vast new digital divide: The wealthiest among us will have the privilege to remain anonymous if they choose, while everyone else will submit to continual surveillance for marketing and business intelligence. Importantly, during the next five decades, America will have fallen far behind China, primarily because of China’s long-term, comprehensive AI strategy and its integration into other state-level initiatives. In the U.S. commercial interests are what propel AI, platforms and digital media. The interests of for-profit companies don’t necessarily align with the best interests of democracy, our country or humanity. With significant investment in these fields, there is tremendous pressure to generate commercial products and services, and the speed required doesn’t leave room to ask critical questions about a technology’s impact on individuals, communities or our society. If we do not change the developmental track of AI in the present, the probability of negative scenarios will increase during the next 50 years. Collectively, we fetishize the future. Few are actively mapping longer-term outcomes, and that is a big mistake.”

Anita Salem, systems research and design principal at SalemSystems, wrote, “Without a concerted effort to design these new systems ethically and responsibly with a goal of improving the human condition, we will see a world of increasing power disparity with capitalism and corporations at the top. Worldwide, we already see a rise in authoritarianism, a weakening of democracy and the dominance of transnational corporations. In the United States, we are also seeing a shift in demographics and economics that looks to further weaken democratic ideals of freedom (but not for people of color), identity (a corporation has human rights) and free speech (journalists are the enemy of the people).”

Roland Benedikter, co-director of the Center for Advanced Studies at Eurac Research Bozen, South Tyrol, Italy, responded, “The overall problem is democracy. The internet as we know it has been invented by and within open societies. If there will be a multipolar global order in the full sense, it might be partially nondemocratic, thus lowering basic rights and opportunities as compared to now.”

Simeon Yates, director of the Centre for Digital Humanities and Social Science at the University of Liverpool, said, “I see a much greater commercial role in the digital sphere unless net neutrality can be enforced. As more of the internet is served up through walled garden/gated community platforms and apps – digital places whose access is commercially or organizationally constrained – there are inherent threats to open society and democracy. This is ironically the opposite of the hopes of the internet’s founders and first users. If we want to see an internet for all – for the many, not the few – we need to realize that this will need regulation and policy. I see the internet becoming ever more part of politics and policy on many fronts therefore.”

Jillian C. York, director of international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, commented, “I expect to see the world’s platform companies break up, and a more diverse array of platforms to enter the market. This may lead to more silos, but it could also create safer spaces for communication for various communities…. As for laws, it remains to be seen – but I worry that if our democracy continues down the road it’s on, the internet will suffer.”

Danny O’Brien, international director for a nonprofit digital rights group, commented, “My hope will be that these tools will be at the control of individual users, not hidden or concentrated in smaller, more powerful groups.”

Kenneth Cukier, author and data editor for The Economist, commented, “These tools in the hands of the populists and authoritarians of 2018, in 50 years’ time, mean that if safeguards are meagre, a surveillance state is possible. Freedom might be winnowed even if most people feel better off. This could be a horrible irony.”

Andrian Kreye, a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Germany, said, “Current conditions will solidify monopoly capitalism, making it harder and harder for users to escape the grip of the grid and for newcomers to break into the business. The internet as we know it in 2019 is the basic structure for a world based on an AI-driven infrastructure…. User interfaces will be speech- and thought-based, turning users even more into nodes of an ever-expanding network. For most people, these technological advances will increase convenience and ease of use. For corporations using networked AI this will mean a wealth of data and constant contact with a consumer base that can be steered and nudged with increasing ease.”

Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, wrote, “At the very moment when the bottom-up networked revolution is affording us the opportunity to disperse power closer to the people, both our politics and our business are concentrating power in fewer hands. We can change this, but we need to act now.”

Brian Harvey, lecturer on the social implications of computer technology at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “Just in this past year, there has been a big increase in popular understanding of who profits from social media technology. If that new understanding leads to rebellion, perhaps the internet can return to the anarchist utopia that was first envisioned. But if it fizzles out, people will still be bought and sold by social media.”

Peter Levine, associate dean for research and professor of public affairs at Tufts University, wrote, “Right now, the internet seems to be eroding journalism as a profession, giving a few big companies and governments (like China’s) more social control, and balkanizing citizens. Those trends may continue, or they may provoke a civic backlash that yields a better internet.”

Mauro D. Ríos, an adviser to the eGovernment Agency of Uruguay and director of the Uruguayan Internet Society chapter, responded, “The internet will reach very advanced technological development but will lose freedom due to economic and political interests over the network. It is possible that the international community will develop a parallel network or establish technical environments on the internet that are beyond the control of governments or organizations.”

Christine Boese, digital strategies professional, commented, “Most algorithms [now being] used are shortsighted, flawed and reductive, but so ‘black box’ that no one has the expertise to check the work! There is enough tech available for humans to do destructive things, including destroying their own technological infrastructure. There are a number of bad actors on the human stage with outsize resources and ill intent, in this new Gilded Age created, not by technology, but by changes in government policies. Note the number of super-rich people building elaborate bunkers and compounds for themselves and their ‘servants’ if you doubt where the hoarded wealth of this planet believes the future is heading. We are living out a nightmare as analyzed by Jared Diamond, more resembling Western Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’ of feudal castles, keeps and moats. With a vanishing middle class and extreme polarization of wealth and poverty, the super-rich have no intention of investing in a networked infrastructure that serves anyone but themselves.”

A professor of computer science expert in systems at a major U.S. technological university wrote, “On the one hand, the future technological changes will lead to positive societal changes, if the political power in control of knowledge is benevolent and progressive. On the other hand, if the political power is repressive (e.g., the Orwellian vision described in his book ‘1984’), then the technological changes will result in significant negative changes, possibly a dystopian society. In other words, technological changes are enablers that can be used for good or for evil. The question of whether they will better or will worsen an individual’s life is not a technological question, but a political one, of how technological advances will be used. My hope is that the political forces will evolve toward bettering individual lives.”

Ramon Lopez de Mantaras, director of the Spanish National Research Council’s Artificial Intelligence Research Institute, said, “Unfortunately, with the arrival of the internet we did not only open a box that contains good and positive things. We opened a box that is causing lots of problems. We are living in an accelerated pace that leaves us less and less time for reflection. We are on a train running at very high speed that is taking us nobody knows where. Are we happier now than 30 years ago? I do not think so! And when one reads about the social credit initiative in China one should be really afraid. In summary, there will be more stress due to living an accelerated life and real threats to our freedom and privacy.”

Mike O’Connor, a retired technologist who worked at ICANN and on national broadband issues, commented, “I’m deeply pessimistic about the future of the planet in general and digital life in specific. The undercurrent of the present day pits earnest volunteers (like me) against ever more sophisticated and well-funded corporations and governments. I believe that 2050 will find us in a dystopian environmental nightmare in which the internet I love has become a devastatingly powerful tool of suppression and mind control. The next 50 years will see the end of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance and the descent back into a much more authoritarian era. Techniques being beta tested in current politics (e.g., Russian meddling, Brexit, Trump) will be viewed as unsophisticated trial runs of control technologies built by the very best minds – people who are well compensated for their efforts. While I’m a fan of ‘plucky opponents,’ I don’t believe the forces of good stand a chance against the gathering intellectual and ethical darkness.”

Ken Birman, a professor in the department of computer science at Cornell University, responded, “Bill Gates often points out that by any statistical metric you can define, global quality of life and also quality of life in the Western world have risen enormously for many decades now. I see no reason for this to change in the 2050 time period, with one major exception: Some countries, notably China, seem to be viewing the internet as a massive technology for spying on their own population and on much of the rest of the world. Russia seems to view the internet as a playground for disruption. North Korea has used it to extort money and to harass their enemies. So I do worry that research on strong ways to protect security and privacy, and to protect against intrusion, needs a great deal of additional emphasis and investment, to enable the bright future Bill Gates sees and also to protect against this sort of harassment and meddling.”

An engineer and chief operating officer for a project automating code said, “The internet will become a highly regulated and monitored form of communication with its main aim to promote consumerism. People’s use of it in seeming information will be mined to an intimidating extent, putting severe limitations of personal freedoms. People wanting social change, which will mean equity and justice will withdraw from electronic communications. The use of encoding will eventually be made illegal except for those with sociopolitical power.”

An expert in algorithms and bias and assistant professor artificial intelligence at a major European university wrote, “At some moment the question of who owns or controls the algorithms will become the prime question for humanity, and at the moment algorithms will become uncontrollable by humans we will face a whole lot of other questions. Whether that will happen in the next 50 years or earlier, or later, who knows? But, that there is this trend of algorithms replacing/controlling any interaction between humans and the world (and other humans) is undeniable and already happening: Facebook controls much of our social communication, Google manages our lives and information consumption, Twitter mediates our chit-chat, and with the rise of modern smartphones the control of visual information (e.g. Google Lens) is coming. And this is just the beginning. Algorithms will take more control over our lives (health, music preferences, job choices, satisfaction, etc.) and the world (markets, cities, deployment of resources and much more).”

One of the world’s foremost experts in the sociology of human-technology interaction said, “I fear not only an integration but surveillance so that there is a chill on political and social expression. Already you see the start of this kind of regime in China. Social control in exchange for convenience is what I mostly fear.”

What’s going to happen if humans become cyborgs or AI gets smarter than us?

A share of respondents reflected on the potential dark side of recent innovations – a world in which neural implants help connect people’s brains to the internet – and shared concerns about the prospects of technology moving toward and beyond human-level artificial intelligence.

Steven Thompson, an author and editor of “Androids, Cyborgs, and Robots in Contemporary Culture and Society,” wrote, “I expect a dystopia to rise out of the consequences of the internet appliance moving into the human body. That is a game-changer from economies to personal liberties and everything in between…. [O]nce the internet in inside you, and that’s prior to 2030 even, you are no longer strictly human, so all of the necessary structures for sustainment of you as the creature will change the future for mankind as a species…. [I fear] a sentient internet.”

Frank Tipler, a mathematical physicist at Tulane University, commented, “We may see human-level AI within 50 years. Once the human level is reached, AI will automatically take off to superhuman levels. Humans will cease to be the dominant life form in the universe. If humans accept their loss of being the dominant life form, then AI technology can raise human standards of living. If humans join AIs as downloads, this will also be good. But if humans decide to make war or enslave the AIs, it will be very bad. I’m optimistic, hence my answer that internet evolution over the next 50 years will be mostly positive in individuals’ lives.”

Erik Huesca, president of the Knowledge and Digital Culture Foundation, based in Mexico City, said, “The greatest point of tension between humans and intelligent entities (not necessarily robots) will be the values of our current society, privacy and respect for democracy and the diversity of communities and cultures. If systems whose objective is efficiency interact in the social field with humans, there can be seeds for the type of totalitarianism that we are seeing today. The idea of the individual in societies highly linked by networks can disappear. Technologies will be aimed at development of superhumans with genetic modification. (It is cheaper to modify an organism than to produce entities from other materials.) The values of human life will change. The new sciences of life will be the key point of knowledge development.”

Frank Feather, futurist and consultant with StratEDGY, commented, “Thinking ahead 50 years, it is highly likely that DigiTransHumanoids, who will replace humans as a species, will be able to network and communicate directly with each other on a brain-to-brain basis, via the cosmic wavelengths that carry today’s platforms. As such, no platforms will be needed. There may well be a Google-like cosmic platform that prevails if Google itself transforms itself into that platform. We need to understand that each and every technology is an extension of the human species and its abilities – abilities that are vastly underdeveloped. DigiTransHumans will be vastly more advanced in our next evolution, and they will unify this planet and reach out into the cosmos from where they first originated.”

Michael Dyer, an emeritus professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles, commented, “One of the greatest existential threats to humanity will be, not AI, but General Artificial Intelligence (GAI). Our humanity is based in our bodies, not our minds (when comparing ourselves to synthetic entities with similar or greater mental capabilities). Synthetic GAI entities will not be born; they will not grow from children into adults; they will not grow old and die. They will not urinate or defecate. They will not have sex. Change the embodiment of mind and you change what it means to be human. GONE would be the following: Disney movies (since no children), romantic novels (since no sex) and all experiences based on bodily desires (recharge batteries vs. good meal at a restaurant). If GAI is allowed then elimination of humanity will occur, either via general spread of GAI entities or by development of a single, super-intelligence GAI.”

Alexey Turchin, existential risks researcher at Foundation Science for Life Extension, responded, “If there will be life on Earth at all, that is assuming a positive outcome, we will live in the world dominated by global benevolent superintelligence, where there will be no border between VR, AI and individual minds of fleshy humans and uploads.”

Anita Salem, research and design principal at SalemSystems, shared a dystopian post-human scenario, writing, “In 50 years, digital tools, if used at all, will be used for entertainment only. Video and chat apps will be created by the corporate powers to shape opinions and behaviors of the masses and will be widely and publicly displayed. The Dark Web will be alive as a black market and revolutionary system used by the outcasts. Organic/chemical communication systems will be used by corporations for real work and they will form the underlying structure of computing systems. They will be embedded in everything, including humans. This will be the ‘post-human’ era, where the human/machine interface is embedded at birth, invisible and pervasive.”

What if having less work leads to the opposite of the ideal ‘life of leisure’?

A share of respondents shared thoughts about a world with fewer jobs for humans.

Mark Maben, a general manager at Seton Hall University, wrote, “Right now, we are ill-prepared to manage how artificial intelligence will disrupt the nature of work across the globe, both emotionally and institutionally. Humanity has to plan immediately for the loss of literally billions of jobs around the world as AI and automation replace people in all types of work. This means governments must step up to provide for displaced workers through benefits like a universal basic income, health care, retirement security AND guiding people to accept a new definition for what it means to perform meaningful work. Parenting, volunteering, lifelong learning, mentoring, leisure, artistic creation and other pursuits must be raised in stature and acceptance. But the response to economic disruption so far has been nationalism, authoritarian, scapegoating, violence against ‘the other’ and denial of what’s to come. While I believe in the potential for technological progress to improve our lives, I lack faith in our ability to successfully manage that progress for social good. As E.O. Wilson wrote, ‘We have created a “Star Wars” civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.’ That’s a dangerous combination, one that presents a real risk for individuals.”

Justin Amyx, a technician with Comcast, said, “It can be potentially catastrophic to low-wage, unskilled workers. Without a plan to do something to mitigate that displacement – of machines taking people’s jobs – poverty may prevent access therefore stifling growth. If we do resolve to account and accommodate for these potential issues there is no telling where technology can possibly go.”

Marc Noble, a respondent who provided no identifying details, commented, “AI, if properly developed, will take over a lot of jobs. A lot of IT positions will disappear; programming will be relegated to a very small number if at all. AI will develop its own language and communications channels that will be faster, more efficient and a lot more secure. The need for old industries and fossil fuels will be sharply curtailed.”

Johanna Drucker, professor of digital humanities in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggested a movement toward planned creation of non-technological job positions as work evolves. She wrote, “Distributed computing, embedded into ‘natural’ interfaces, will create a seamless integration of access to networked information and experience in the physical, analog world. The hazard is that the greater the integration, the higher the risks of codependence. I would advocate for physical labor (urban gardens and forests, elder care, child care, local food production and preparation) to be part of the emerging social structure. Free human beings from labor that is meaningless, but give them work with a purpose. Keep in mind that skills like plumbing and electrical work cannot be outsourced and that infrastructure is massively physical and built on stacks of systems that have to work together. We should always have a way to sustain ourselves without networked technologies. Reduce our path dependencies, fragment the supply chains, resist monopoly controls, change the values of the culture toward sustainable and equitable human and animal life. Someday the idea of huge profits and private control of massive wealth will look as grotesque as the idea of heads on pikes and guillotines do now.”

An assistant professor of social justice based in the U.S. wrote that in a world with fewer jobs for humans thanks to networked AI and other transformations, “Technology will end humanity, as people will no longer strive to be the best they can be.”

Who’s really in charge here – humans or automated digital systems?

Concerns over slipping into a world with no real human agency were expressed by some respondents.

Marc Brenman, managing partner at IDARE LLC, said, “The internet will become transparent to us. We will think our way through it, using implanted devices. There will be no privacy. Everything will be remembered, and there will be no forgiveness. Virtual reality will become reality. The very concept of ‘virtual’ will almost disappear. People will be able to distinguish fact from fiction even less than we do today. Unscrupulous people will use this technology to create our obedience. Free will will be eroded. We will surrender even more of our time to bread and circuses, celebrities, puppies and kittens. We will live so long that life itself will be a burden. Machines will do everything better than we can, including creating art.”

An assistant professor of social justice at a U.S. university wrote, “People will become helpless and rely on tech for almost everything. Tech will take over almost all routine activities, but this will not empower most. Rather, tech will serve as a prison.”

John Sniadowski, a director for a technology company, wrote, “To the vast majority of internet users, the internet is akin to making a cup of tea. You simply want to fill the kettle from the tap, switch on the kettle, boil the water and pour it onto the tea. They don’t ever think about the infrastructure that makes that possible. This means that people will adopt any internet that makes life easier without thinking of the consequences.”

An anonymous respondent wrote, “I fear that we will end up in an extremely dystopian situation where autonomous AI makes decisions for society with significant disparities between the haves and the have-nots. This is not inevitable, but I think controlled self-learning and self-management is necessary for a beneficial contribution to society.”

A strategy consultant wrote, “People will lose individuality and cultures will die, merged into one Eurocentric mass with threats to trade, aid and international access. Minorities will be corralled and shamed online into silence and acceptance as online speech and media overwhelms typical law. Copyrights will be enforced beyond fair use, leaving entertainment and information heavily blockaded from the poor.”

An anonymous respondent predicted that the public will just tune into entertainment to cope with the new realities of this dystopia others have described, writing, “Oh, brave new world that has such addictive pacification tools available. People will not be better or worse off. They will be distracted from their situation with individualized circuses.”

Corporate self-regulation is seen as unlikely remedy due to market capitalism

The 50th year of computer networking has been one of commonly expressed disillusionment with the current state of affairs online. A large share of respondents to this canvassing say that profit-based enterprises’ domination over the network of networks and thus the world – now and in future – is what concerns them most.

Cliff Zukin, professor of public policy and political science at the School for Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said, “Looking backward, there are two axioms that have stood the test of time: 1) Information is power and 2) Power corrupts. Fifty years into the future – by then I expect everything will be global and individual at the same time – we either won’t be here, or we will have figured it out. If we figured it out, there will be no independent states, nor much difference between human and robot. All big players will be multinational corporations. Borders won’t exist; countries electing their own leaders won’t exist. We will have a governance structure of the internet determined by those powerful enough to make that happen. In other words, the Empire will win.”

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media at City University of New York, responded, “When technological development is determined solely by the market we get some unintended consequences. Barring a major shift in emphasis away from corporate capitalism, the benefits of any technological development will probably be determined by how aggressively one company or another pursues its goals. Some technologies will be less bad, because the manufacturers want to be less harmful. But even those outside traditional venture funding, who attempt to create beneficial technologies, will be subject to the supply chain and platform limitations of the mainstream technologies. So it’s going to be really hard to develop any capital-intensive tools that don’t serve capital over people.”

Christian Huitema, internet pioneer and consultant focused on privacy online, previously Internet Architecture Board president, chief scientist at Bell Research and Microsoft distinguished engineer, commented, “We developed a wonderful communication technology only to see it captured by large corporations and governments. It will take several generations for humanity to regain control…. The ad-funded business model evolved in generalized corporate surveillance. It requires more attention to drive more revenue; AI-driven user interactions are providing that. This AI + ads feedback loop is creating digital drug addicts.”

Seth Finkelstein, consulting programmer at Finkelstein Consulting, commented, “I, for one, welcome our new platform overlords. I see almost no check on the tendency toward monopoly control, or at the very best, oligarchy involving a handful of corporate behemoths. It’s sobering to realize that the very few serious restrictions that exist come from major nation-states (i.e., China’s own desires for internal control). That’s the level of power needed for an effective opposition. Looking at the history of the 20th century, it’s entirely possible that the 21st century will see some massive convulsion similar to the Great Depression or a World War. And the aftermath of that event (presuming civilization still exists) could entail strong antitrust laws that would severely limit the data-mining business models of many of today’s major internet companies. It’d be a horrible way to get that outcome, but if the past is any guide, one of the few ways it would ever happen.”

Walid Al-Saqaf, senior lecturer at Sodertorn University, member of the board of trustees of the Internet Society, commented, “With consolidation on the internet as an ongoing threat to democracy and fairness to citizens, there will be a greater tendency to move to alternative decentralized solutions that aim at empowering citizens more directly as bitcoin did. That being said, I expect a pushback by governments and conglomerates that will fight to remain in power, leading to an inevitable clash of wills. At the end of the day, it will be mass adoption of which technology that will determine who will win.”

John Leslie King, computer science professor, University of Michigan, and a consultant on Cyberinfrastructure for the NSF CISE and SBE directorates for several years, commented, “It is hard to know exactly what will happen with power-reinforcing technologies in a climate that is tending to exacerbate wealth and income inequalities, given the proven influence of wealth and income on the social order. It is not crazy to imagine IT reinforcing the power of an elite that already has a lot of power, especially if that elite tends to be aggrandizing power to begin with. Many IT proponents think that some version of libertarian utopianism will arise to save the day by taking power from ‘the man’ and giving it to ‘the people.’ In my experience, ‘the man’ doesn’t want to lose power to ‘the people’ or anyone else. It is a mistake to think of technology as changing anything. Technology is, at most, one of several powerful forces that shape things.”

Michael Veale, co-author of “Fairness and Accountability Designs Needs for Algorithmic Support in High-Stakes Public Sector Decision-Making” and a technology policy researcher at University College London, responded, “As more and more tasks and interactions move online, political battles will become increasingly about the governance of the internet. The interconnectedness of this policy area means that new democratic institutions will be needed that are more global in nature. Some old-style, exclusive, powerful networks will find new forms online, as a new political elite are ‘digital-first.’ A consistent battle between centralization and decentralization is likely to continue, with AI tools enabling individuals and small firms to make and connect compelling services, and the value-add of a large design and management bureaucracy like Facebook will decrease. Competition rules might be in place to force services to work with each other, and the failure of the ad-supported funding model will mean that individuals are often paying a premium for enhanced access to exclusive networks of people and activities.”

A professor of computing and digital media expert in in artificial intelligence and social computing predicted, “The trends around democratic governance of technology are not encouraging. The big players are U.S.-based and the U.S. is in an anti-regulation stance that seems fairly durable. Therefore, I expect computing technologies to evolve in ways that benefit corporate interests, with little possibility of meaningful public response. As such systems take in more data and make bigger decisions, people will be increasingly subject to the systems’ unaccountable decisions and non-auditable surveillance practices. Soshanna Zuboff’s term ‘surveillance capitalism’ describes this state of affairs.”

A well-known journalist, blog author and leading internet activist wrote, “The future of technology depends on our willingness to break up the digital monopolists and reinstate the antitrust measures that prevent predatory pricing, market-cornering and other anticompetitive actions. In particular, companies must not be able to convert their commercial preferences against ‘adversarial interoperability’ (when a competitor or toolsmith makes a tool that modifies their products and services to make them better for the users, without the service provider or manufacturer’s permission) into a legal right to invoke the state to punish competitors who engage in this conduct.”

An anonymous respondent said, “Neo-liberal economic policies are resulting in increasing inequality and are unsustainable. If current trends continue, we will be living in a frightening dystopia, where personal data is collected and monetized by a small number of giant companies.”

Sanjiv Das, a professor of data science and finance at Santa Clara University, responded, “Technological revolutions improve the world not because they offer cool new toys but because they improve lives with better use of information…. These systems implement control through inequalities in knowledge, which lead to inequalities in wealth. Advances in technology unaccompanied by enlightened politics may delay progress and create turmoil in the short run. It may take a mutiny by a tech elite to move things forward in the right direction.”

Larry Lannom, internet pioneer and vice president at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), an expert in digital object architecture, said, “I am an optimist and I hope all of these advances will, overall, be for the better. But I worry about the ownership and use of ubiquitous computing and network technologies – will they be used to control the masses for the benefit of the few or will the benefits apply to all? It will almost surely be a mix of the two and we should be working today to ensure that the balance of advances will go to improving the general welfare.”

Serge Marelli, an IT security analyst, predicted that the future will bring, “More porn, more advertising, less privacy, fewer users’-citizens’ rights (e.g., right to privacy), more money for big corporations. And politics and democracy will fall short.”

Joël Colloc, professor at Université du Havre Normandy University and author of “Ethics of Autonomous Information Systems: Towards an Artificial Thinking,” responded, “The internet is no more than a tool of business polluted by advertising, and internet users are seen as customers to target with CRM and the place of the trade. This evolution is irreversible. The internet has become a space without ethics where the user is subjected to predators in a lawless, wild world. The netiquette rules must be updated to protect the rights of users and protect them against business spamming, which has become a plague.”

Manoj Kumar, manager at Mitsui Orient Lines, responded, “Advancement of knowledge/information availability has not only empowered humanity; it has also bewildered it. Rights are being abused. Commercial aspects are being hijacked by few strong companies, depriving the rest of fair opportunities. At some point, government and the public will have to rethink the options and ways of limiting their reach. Amazon and Alibaba will need to become more decentralized, less encompassing and less pervasive than what they are today. Google will need to scale back its analytical reaches to provide the freedom of choices…. The proliferation of the services sector is leading to erosion of the infrastructural economy, which is not sustainable. The coming years will require correction to these uncontrolled advancements in the digital world. The excesses of free access, unchained commerce and capital-free digitalization must be checked and the human element enhanced to provide the balance of the digital with human growth so that they are sustainable in the coming century.”

Wangari Kabiru, author of the MitandaoAfrika blog, based in Nairobi, commented, “As we have more owners of democracy through the net … this will result in new super-powers being created – now not nations but individuals and corporations.”

An assistant professor of media studies at a major U.S. university commented, “So long as the political economy of the internet is shaped by surveillance and the extraction of personal data from users who have no recourse, any democratic potential of these new communication technologies will be squandered.”

A professor emeritus at a major U.S. university’s school of information responded, “I remain hopeful, yet I am pessimistic. The U.S. form of capitalism has ‘won’; variations of it have been adopted in virtually all nation-states. It has yielded extraordinary technical innovation and economic development, progress in health care and medicine and overall improvements in living standards. Yet the benefits of this economic infrastructure are unequally distributed among the global population, and currently this benefit inequality seems destined to widen. Without a revolution or upheaval in values and structures, we can posit that AI becomes increasingly embedded in existing corporate/government organizations. With this evolutionary movement, the emergent structures can continue to become more centralized. The increased centralization of power is likely to be manifest as the larger platforms (corporate or government, the boundary may become more porous or blurred) exercise their economic power with greater control of individual choice and behavior. The control might be exerted either through a ‘Big Brother’ model, with more personal intervention at the highest level or a more Kafkaesque model, with AI aiding governance systems to make decisions using complex and hidden algorithms whose origins and evolutionary paths are not evident and can’t be dissected and understood.”

An infrastructure engineer for a leading social network company commented, “The push to monetize every aspect of digital life will continue, potentially causing large disruptions in the way we live. Not all these disruptions will be for the positive, particularly in the areas of human dignity and worth. As humans increasingly rely on social networks to make decisions, they will find themselves unable to resist the ‘mob of the moment,’ which will cause political and social problems far beyond our current ability to manage. These problems may well be met with attempts to ‘regulate’ expression to prevent mob actions from occurring, which could, in turn, lead to less-free societies – the opposite of what was intended in the invention and fostering of these technologies. The law of unintended consequences is likely to show itself in many other aspects of our lives, from sexuality to social order. We are building highly complex systems for one purpose, and failing to realize that complex systems, and their social offshoots, have unintended consequences far larger than anything we can imagine. The backlash to these movements, once the unintended consequences set in, are far greater than imagined, as well. The initial goals are often mixed, causing both a gain and loss in human dignity; the backlash is often mixed, as well. Whether dignity ratchets up or down is an open question at this point, but right now we are seeing human dignity ratcheted down, with human life being devalued en masse. The problem of ‘content wants to be free’ will need to be resolved, as well; if content is free, then the human effort put into creating that content is useless. This would reverse the trend of thinking being more important than doing, and virtual products being more valuable than physical ones. Until the worth of human effort can be balanced against the ability to move and copy information freely, the problem of paying people to create will remain.”

Some express the hope that the troubled times they foresee coming over the next few decades will eventually be overwritten by new social, economic and political processes and forces.

Ian Peter, pioneer internet activist and internet rights advocate, said, “The internet, after a period of utopian visions for a form of media that enhanced freedom of expression and communication, and improved access to information has followed the pattern of most forms of mass media by becoming dominated by a few players. As part of this domination a new financial model has emerged where internet users are the commodity, with their free or cheap usage funded by the use of their personal data for a variety of commercial uses. It is hard to see a change to this model occurring in the near future, and the internet as we know it is likely to continue this pattern for the rest of its lifetime. However, the internet will in time become old media like radio and television: New forms of media will emerge, and they are likely to be disruptive changes rather than some type of incremental development.”

Yvette Wohn, director of the Social Interaction Lab and expert on human-computer interaction at New Jersey Institute of Technology, commented, “Despite the internet being a system that enables peer-to-peer interaction, in the past 50 years we have seen it enable the corporate broker in scales unprecedented. Amazon, Facebook, Spotify and Uber are just few examples of these brokers. The roles of these brokers will slowly change so that they have less power and decentralization will bring back individual and small businesses.”

Sasha Costanza-Chock, associate professor of civic media at MIT, said, “Here I’ll offer an edge-case optimistic scenario. In 50 years, very high-speed symmetrical network connectivity will be freely available to all humanity, served by a mix of satellite, municipal networks and community-controlled cooperatives. For-profit ISPs will be a thing of the past. In a similar vein, key platforms and features of the net will no longer be controlled by for-profit companies. The dominant search engine will be run by the Wikimedia Foundation, in partnership with the United Nations. Social networking sites will be predominantly decentralized, federated, interoperable and powered by F/LOSS (similar to the way email functions, with many different providers, or the option to host your own, that all communicate with one another). Important services that benefit from network effects will be controlled by municipalities; for example, OpenHail ridesharing standard will be mandated by most municipalities so that ride services are no longer controlled by one or two large firms. Airbnb will be largely replaced by OpenHouse home sharing/hostel standards that enable many players in the market. Most importantly, new applications and services, and improvements to existing applications, will largely be developed through co-design methods that include intended end users in all stages of the design process. Co-design, or design justice, will have long since become the standard best practice across all areas of technology design and development. All AI and algorithmic decision systems will be monitored through standing intersectional audits by independent third parties and/or state agencies to ensure equitable distribution of outcomes rather than the reproduction of bias.”

An anonymous respondent said, “It is my hope that platforms/giants like Facebook, Google and Apple take more responsibility for their intrusion into our lives.”

Digital experiences threaten authentic human interaction

A share of respondents envisioned a future for many humans of self-imposed isolation in virtual worlds or personalized online algorithm-avatar-based relationships that seem more attractive than real-world, in-person social interactions. Some are concerned that the many hours people spend in controlled digital environments will influence them in a negative manner.

Luke Stark, a fellow in the department of sociology at Dartmouth College and at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, wrote, “Increasingly ubiquitous digital systems will do a good job of cocooning individuals within personalized augmented reality bubbles, but a terrible job at facilitating durable connections between us. At the same time, those connections will be surveilled, measured, tracked and represented back to us in ways that will aim to make us more economically productive and socially pliant in the guise of ‘wellness’ and ‘community.’ These systems will increase social inequality through their dividuating effects and contribute to environmental degradation through their use of natural resources – a Philip K. Dick dystopia come to banal life.”

John Lazzaro, retired professor of electrical engineering and computer science, University of California, Berkeley, commented, “Fifty years from now, we will return to Steve Jobs’ original vision of computers as bicycles for the mind. As someone whose first job in technology was stocking shelves in a Radio Shack, years before the first personal computer appeared in the store, I am lucky enough to remember life before Steve articulated his vision. I then watched the vision’s ascent, and its current fall from grace. Today, as I walk down the street, and see people walking with their attention captured by their phone screen, I wonder how it all went so wrong. The only thing more depressing is the content that appears on their screen, and the cultural impact that the content has on us all. I believe the way forward starts with an acceptance of the human condition: We are an easily addicted species, and our evolutionary survival depended on prioritizing ‘thinking fast’ over ‘thinking slow’ in many contexts. Today, from the application user interface up to the economic ecosystem, platforms often exploit human foibles for profit, just as Marlboro Man and Virginia Slims billboards did in the 1970s. The first step in the journey of the next 50 years is reaching a consensus that an addictive approach to the digital world is not sustainable. And that the profit motive, like discipline, is a means to an end, and not an end to itself (to paraphrase Robert Fripp). Technology options can inform the journey’s second step. On the device level, Mark Weiser pointed us to the right direction with the concept of ubiquitous computing in 1988, and the many iterations of this concept in the decades since provide a good foundation for a world where a computer is not a cigarette. The mature mechanical devices (for example, venetian window blinds) and electro-mechanic devices (for example, electric shavers) in our lives do not foster addictive responses, and have benign business models. If we rethink the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of digital devices in our lives, we can remake them in the same positive way.”

Eliot Lear, principal engineer at Cisco, said, “On the whole the internet has proven to be a wealth of knowledge and entertainment. But it has also isolated us from our local communities.”

Ian Peter, pioneer internet activist and internet rights advocate, said, “We cannot dismiss two key factors in the current spread of internet usage: firstly the addictive and pervasive ‘always-on’ effect of unending access and multiple device usage, and secondly the effects on our capacity for critical thinking of having the ‘information’ we see determined by algorithms whose objective is not to inform us, but to capture or thoughts and minds. The decline of a capacity for critical thinking is a serious side effect of continued addictive internet usage that warrants more detailed scientific investigation.”

Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, commented, “Half a century from now, one of the biggest challenges will be what, in our book ‘Re-Engineering Humanity,’ Brett Frischmann and I call the right to be ‘off.’ Currently, it’s extremely hard for many of us to unplug. Unplugging is simply a luxury that most of us can’t afford. As internet connectivity expands to more and more interconnected devices, a robust Internet of Things infrastructure will keep expanding. The expansion will be fueled by a desire to acquire more personal and collective data and the ideal of ubiquitous algorithms acting upon integrated and aggregated big data will become harder to decouple from smart living. In such a world, where will people find protected spaces for thinking critically about whether they are being programmed to behave in ways that diminish their agency and capacity to determine whose interests the unshakable, augmented intelligences really serve?”

Kostas Alexandridis, author of “Exploring Complex Dynamics in Multi-agent-Based Intelligent Systems,” a research assistant professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, said, “In the next 50 years digital integration will become closely integrated with almost every aspect of our lives, from our simple household infrastructure to our transportation systems to our economic infrastructure to our social systems. Digital integration will change norms and institutions the same way that industrialization and electricity was integrated to our societies and global infrastructure in the beginning of the 20th century. From smart devices to smart cars to smart wallets to digital commerce to digital democracies, it is very likely that newer generations of citizens will develop a strong and tightly integrated dependency with networked infrastructure.”

Alper Dincel of T.C. Istanbul Kultur University, Turkey, wrote, “Technology’s first purpose is creating benefits, so apps and programs helping people to consume more. In this point of view, companies are losing their reliability. And we are losing quality of our life. Our life will be like 1990s pop music (not 1980s) with the effects of digital age – less meaningful and more fast.”

Johanna Drucker, professor of digital humanities in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said, “We will be shocked by the rapid acceleration of destabilizing influences and the rate at which civility can break down. Hopefully it can also be rebuilt with the same forces.”

Robert Bell, co-founder of Intelligent Community Forum, wrote, “I expect ubiquitous high-capacity connectivity in the rich and semi-rich worlds, and vast increases in it for the rest of the world’s people. Riding that connectivity will be learning algorithms that we integrate into our lives without a thought and deliver a vast range of services and information. Our interface with the network will evolve in ways that seem almost fantasy now. How well this turns out for us depends on getting a few things right. We must have a near bulletproof solution for security and identity online, and individual control over online privacy. Otherwise, the ‘pollution’ of cyberthreat, fraud and misinformation will choke off all progress. It is typically a crisis that forces us to confront the damage of such third-party effects as pollution. I have no idea what the crisis or crises will be, but as the network grows toward ubiquity, the potential damage of such a crisis grows with it. The great challenge that will come with all of this is to avoid being overwhelmed by the digital overlay of the physical world. We already see the early stages of it in daily life. I hope that humanity’s ability to adapt its environment to its own needs, rather than letting the digital environment control it, will continue to shield us from the worst effects. If we give people individual choice and the power to evolve rules to guide those choices in the right direction, we will manage to extract more benefit than harm from what we do.”

Dalsie Baniala, Telecommunications and Radiocommunications Regulator of Vanuatu, said, “Digital will divide lives (rich and poor). Rich people will interact with only rich people. Digital life for some people will also create artificial living and happiness. Digital life will cause no more human-to-human interactions but human machine-to-machine. Digital life creates no more human senses.”

Ross Stapleton-Gray, principal at Stapleton-Gray and Associates, an information technology and policy consulting firm, commented, “I suspect that the internet will evolve toward greater robustness and reliability through, in some ways, becoming more opaque, more like a ‘system of (system of systems)’ than the current ‘system of systems,’ and partly through increased demand (for some of this infrastructure) for authentication. I would not be surprised to see it genericize from ‘the Net’ or ‘cyberspace’ or ‘being online’ to just ‘connected,’ with an assumption that unless you were actively seeking to be ‘unconnected by choice,’ you’d always be connected/have connection. Like we plug things into any electrical socket without much caring how the electrons get there, we’ll assume connectivity. I’ve written some on how humans might relate to the Internet of Things, and that vision, that humans, like cars, or buildings, or any other object, will be seamlessly interacting with all of the other things, seems likely.”

Andrea Bonarini, a professor of AI and soft computing at Politecnico di Milano, Italy, said, “People will be less free and they will lose their ability to think and design, as we are already experiencing nowadays.”

Alistair Knott, an associate professor specializing in cognitive science and AI at Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand, wrote, “AI systems that understand human language have potential for both good and bad impacts on society. The technologies are likely to be developed and used by large transnational companies with the aim of maximizing their profits. The likely effect of this is that people will increasingly fall into the role of ‘consumers’ of entertainment-like apps that encourage political apathy and discourage individualism.”

A professor emeritus expert on technology’s impacts on individuals’ well-being wrote, “Sadly I think we will find ourselves spending nearly all of our time immersed in internet-based activities. We are already spending, on the average, more than five hours a day using our smartphones and in 50 years smartphones will be replaced by smart devices, implants, etc. Relationships will suffer, as will our feelings of freedom. I already see the beginnings of an increased obsession to what is contained in the little box we carry with us 24/7/365 as opposed to the world that is right in front of us. It is Sherry Turkle’s dichotomy of SL (online life, or a ‘second life’) vs. RL (real life). SL appears to be winning already, and we are talking about what will happen in 50 years. It is happening now.”

A researcher and teacher of digital literacies and technical communication at a state university based in the U.S. Midwest responded, “In the future I expect to have network interactions embedded or subcutaneous on humans. We will have more interactions that are done in networked environments rather than in person. We may not even have to speak to a person for several days.”

Toby Walsh, a professor of AI at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and president of the AI Access Foundation, said, “By 2069, the real and virtual world will have blurred into one. It will be impossible to tell them apart. Whilst many will spend much of their time in this digital world, there will be an analog counterculture, celebrating a disconnected and old-fashioned existence.”

A digital accessibility consultant responded, “Augmented reality is likely to become part of the everyday experience. Transceivers in clothes or even under the skin will give people direct access to the internet all day every day wherever and whenever they find themselves. Thus, information will be available at all times and people will be able to control their environments through sending signals. It is unlikely that this will be done through thought alone for some time, but that is likely to come at some stage in the future. This is likely to lead to less interaction between people and certainly less personable interactions as people are likely to interact with information on the internet rather than each other. However, people with disabilities may gain somewhat as they will be able to gain access to information and services through the internet which they cannot do now because of the inaccessible nature of much of our current-day environments.”

An anonymous respondent commented, “Connections between people are going to change. I think people will work from home more, having virtual meetings that are presented in 3D. I think this will produce a general depression among people having a lack of connection to others. In general, people will thrive; they won’t have to spend time shopping, commuting and doing menial tasks. But I think we are going to lose our connection to each other.”

An anonymous respondent wrote, “The internet will be more and more integrated in our daily lives. However, I see a problem developing. The ability to connect to people all around the world is actually splitting us into smaller groups, not uniting us.”

Constant data monitoring and surveillance is a condition of hyperconnectivity

Many survey respondents pointed out that people are already trading privacy for convenience and perceived security and said they expect this trend to be magnified.

Ken Birman, a professor in the department of computer science at Cornell University, responded, “In the coming 50 years we will surely mature and invest in the needed technology to make this connected world a safer world, too. But today, that deficit stands out, and historians will be harsh when they judge us relative to this one aspect. The harm to entire cultures that oppressive monitoring and surveillance can cause is frightening, and those future historians will be in a position to document that harm – harm that people are actively inflicting today for all sorts of reasons. But I think the good will easily outweigh this harm over long periods.”

A professor expert in cultural geography, American studies and gender and sexuality said, “Unless we soon make policies to regulate data collection, privacy and use as well as the policies and practices laden into algorithms (such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and so on)…. I fear we may wind up with a very small elite controlling most of the population.”

A professor of sociology at a major U.S. university responded, “It seems likely that in 50 years there will be very few free spaces left for citizens to engage with one another without corporate or government sponsorship/surveillance. This will have implications for content and, I suspect, make it very difficult for individuals to avoid corporate advertising and government-sponsored messaging.”

Craig Burdett, a respondent who provided no identifying details, wrote, “The greatest challenge facing society is determining how much privacy and autonomy we are willing to cede in exchange for convenience and features. How much of our personal lives are we willing to share? Even in 2018 the internet is nearly ubiquitous in first world countries. Users happily allowed Uber to track them 24/7 in exchange for having a car nearby when they needed it. And we’ve learned that Uber is far from virtuous. New York’s LinkNYC kiosks make Wi-Fi available at no cost in exchange for ad displays. And New Yorkers happily agree to the terms, which include allowing select third parties to contact them ‘with … express … consent.’ What feature will CityBridge offer to entice that consent? By 2069 some form of the internet will be embedded in almost every aspect of modern life. Elon Musk is already showing us how our cars will be always connected and can be updated (or disabled) without notice. And Tesla owners are happily allowing that intrusion in exchange for his cars. Extend that concept to every appliance and device we touch, from our door locks to our refrigerators, and imagine what privacy we might be enticed to give up for a smidge more convenience or efficiency. What if your refrigerator could evaluate and pre-order items before they were depleted, communicating directly with the supplier using your online account? And your front door will automatically know which delivery person (or robot) to allow inside based on the products the refrigerator (or the washing machine) ordered. Imagine never running out of toilet paper, or never again scurrying to the market at 7 a.m. for eggs. Is that sufficient incentive to share that information? I imagine devices like tablets will cease to be primarily standalone appliances. Their functionality will be embedded in homes and offices. The wall of your entryway will have a tablet that automatically adjusts the home to match your individual preferences: from adjusting the temperature in your bedroom to turning the teapot on when you arrive. And your power company will know not only when, but specifically who, is home based on that information. Each of these affordances is available by virtue of making information about your habits available to the device manufacturers. The internet, in and of itself, is benign – like a handgun. But the companies and individuals behind the services are the greatest threat.”

Angelique Hedberg, senior corporate strategy analyst at RTI International, said, “Our digital footprints – intentional, unintentional and simulated – will create troves of data that will be used to model and predict our behavior and as such will be used to maximize product and control by one or more entities. At the individual level this may feel like a loss of control. At the community and relevant transnational levels it will make room for enlightenment. We will benefit from the data of individuals we have never met just as we will be questioned about our own potential because of persons who never existed. The term for the greater good will take on new meaning as we balance personal privacy with human good.”

David Brake, senior lecturer in communications at the University of Bedfordshire, UK, said, “It is very likely that the (relatively) free and open internet that flourished across much of the world in the internet’s early days will continue to be threatened and, I fear, all but overwhelmed by an oligopoly of powerful platforms that will have ‘captured’ the time and attention of most internet users most of the time. Whether they are aware of it or not, almost everyone will live their lives continually being sorted into different categories depending on their behavior, much of which will be in some way digitally recorded, processed and shared. Some will react by attempting to remain constantly ‘digitally vigilant’ but this is not achievable in the long term, particularly as you will remain traceable through your interactions with others. And of course even an absence of digital profile or a carefully curated one sends its own signals.”

Betsy Williams, a researcher at the Center for Digital Society and Data Studies at the University of Arizona, wrote, “Privacy will be largely a luxury of the rich, who will pay extra for internet service providers, services and perhaps separate networks that protect privacy and security.”

David Sarokin, author of “Missed Information: Better Information for Building a Wealthier, More Sustainable Future,” commented, “The world of 2069 will be dotted with ‘privacy spaces’ in our homes, workplaces and public areas. These will be rooms where people can be assured that their words and activities are not being tracked in any manner. Outside of such spaces, our current notion of ‘privacy’ will have essentially disappeared.”

Thad Hall, a research scientist and coauthor of “Politics for a Connected American Public,” wrote, “Privacy will diminish further and further as facial recognition becomes more prevalent and people can be tracked through shopping areas and other public places and their personal data from search is linked to their face persona. You walk down the street and you are presented with specialized ads on a small screen in stores as you look at a rack of clothes. Data are used to differentiate between the rich and poor, whites and nonwhites, and biases are built into every customer experience. A person’s ability to be anonymous will cease and ad intrusions will become very common. These trends are likely to have political ramifications. Employers, retailers and others will be able to infer people’s political behaviors – or lack of participation – from data and discrimination will occur, much as it did in the early to mid-1800s, but with greater impact.”

Amali De Silva-Mitchell, futurist, responded, “When they realize the implications of data collection and profiling and tracking under various uses, people will group together to adjust to their value and comfort levels in this regard. This clustering will impact the quality of data and the quality of outcomes using algorithms. We will see tweaking of algorithms and data all the time, but poor ethics or low-quality updates are a real issue. Mobile technology in the palm of everyone’s hand will result in the small minority without it living at a disadvantage although they may have a lot of privacy.”

Bart Knijnenburg, assistant professor of computer science active in the Human Factors Institute at Clemson University, said, “Put the computational power, sensors and connectivity of a modern smartphone into every single object in your life. This is where I think the Internet of Things will go: You can ‘ping’ any object to learn its location (where is my thermos?), its status (is it full or empty?), past interactions (when did I last use it?) and connections with other devices (what brand of coffee did I fill it with and which device brewed that coffee?). It has very powerful applications, but also severe implications for our privacy. Note though that privacy concerns will not stop this future from happening. Privacy concerns have never stopped anything from happening.”

Anirban Sen, a lawyer and data privacy consultant, based in New Delhi, India, wrote, “The next 50 years will have both fights over big data and privacy as well as people desiring to use new apps. How data in different jurisdictions can be used/relied will be a problem and technology will be used to also fight technology. Integration would be holistic, but it would be tough to live un-networked.”

The co-founder of an information technology civil rights program wrote, “The internet will become as ubiquitous as electricity. That means sensors will be everywhere. Governments will engage in surveillance. But the same surveillance capabilities will allow you to get immediate help from 911, for example, with the operators knowing exactly the context of the call and the situation in progress. Moreover, currently 80% of 911 calls are prank calls. That number will go down to zero. There are other examples: If your car goes off the road into a cliff and you’re unconscious, the car will likely inform emergency responders automatically.”

An anonymous respondent said, “Technology, and the evolution of technology, hews closely to long-standing human hegemonies, priorities and identities. We will probably be more dependent than ever on networked technologies (such as autonomous cars and mapping), but we may also be increasingly wary of invasions of privacy and the way that the data we have been donating to large tech firms can be used in service of those aforementioned hegemonies. We will be even more instantaneously connected, and machines will make more decisions for us for our convenience, but I expect that we will also have a ‘reckoning moment’ in which we decide that our digital footprint is as important and protectable – as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, for example.”

A principal researcher for one of the world’s top five technology companies commented, “The shape of the future could hinge on whether the world moves toward autocratic rule, as in China and Russia, and now with the U.S. and other governments considering that direction, or whether it extends democratic institutions to meet challenges in a world so complex that the public can’t engage meaningfully with many issues. In either case, privacy will be gone, with our lives visible to governments or corporations that – in the face of pushback such as GDPR – will raise the amount they pay us for full access. Only bad actors will refuse the offers they make; whether we will build systems to let bad actors operate with the current degree of cloaking is an open question.”

A professor of information science wrote, “When I’m feeling dystopian, I see a world that looks a little too much like ‘Mr. Robot’ or ‘Person of Interest,’ with government or private organizations knowing too much about us and having too much control over us. I’d like to believe that interconnectivity could, instead, provide us with more ubiquitous access to information and with the ability to establish connections and deliver services across space and time. I hope that increases in access to information and services will enable a fairer distribution of goods and one that allows those with fewer resources to achieve success in their endeavors.”

An anonymous respondent said, “The future will see our sacrifice of personal freedom as real-time surveillance becomes ubiquitous.”

A professor of artificial intelligence and cognitive engineering from a developing nation said, “There will be a loss of freedom, and anything you or your relatives did or said can be used against you. It cannot be predicted on what criterion you will be singled out for termination, purportedly to ‘save the planet.’”

Miguel Moreno-Muñoz, a professor of philosophy specializing in ethics, epistemology and technology at the University of Granada, Spain, expressed hope, writing, “Perhaps a more sophisticated culture of privacy will emerge.”

Misinformation and mistrust must be addressed for positive internet growth

A number of respondents worried over misinformation, security and other concerns. They said that current issues in internet evolution and what seems to be quite an uncertain future will call for new methods of building trust and security.

Benjamin Kuipers, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, wrote, “We will take for granted that there will be AIs that know an enormous amount about each of us, and we will trust them to protect our individual interests, consistent with the ethical requirements of society. One of the great contrasts between the positive and the negative possible futures will be the extent to which we can trust that available knowledge, and to what extent we can trust those AI knowers. In my ideal future, within the next 50 years we will have found ways to ensure trustworthiness in the infrastructure of knowledge and AI knowers. We will understand that there are ethical principles governing the use of knowledge about each of us as individuals, and the respect we must all have for the collected general knowledge that is a resource for humanity. We will trust that those ethical principles will be followed by the vast majority of people, corporations, robots and states, and that there are mechanisms in place to detect violations, protect us from their effects and sanction the violators. The Founding Fathers of the United States of America were among the greatest systems engineers of all time, designing feedback systems, checks and balances to protect our government and our society from the failures of all-too-human leaders, holding power and hungry for more. We need a new generation of great systems engineers, to create new feedback systems to create and maintain a trustworthy society, even with the hugely powerful tools we are creating.”

Theodore Gordon, futurist, management consultant and co-founder of the Millennium Project, responded, “We will have Watson-like capabilities for data and analytic reasoning in our pockets. False or suspect news will be rejected or marked with a skull and bones. The internet seems likely to splinter into specialized networks that communicate with each other. Big data will be a given and important in determining epidemics in health and in ideas.”

Greg Shannon, chief scientist for the CERT Division at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, said, “Trust will be a critical social asset. Those communities that value and promote trust will have more life, liberty and happiness. AI and IT will allow communities to ensure varying degrees of security, privacy, resiliency and accountability in building trust. Being trustworthy all the time is stressful given that trust is based on competency, dependability, honesty, loyalty, boundaries and sincerity.”

A share of respondents discussed the challenges presented by the constant flow of misinformation and by the potential for massive misuses of data.

Thad Hall, a research scientist and coauthor of “Politics for a Connected American Public,” wrote, “The ability of the news media to report facts will be hampered by a cascade of alternate news, with different video and audio of the exact same event. Things as simple as what the president said in a meeting will be constantly up for debate as instant, real-time alternate feeds show something different, presenting a different worldview. There will be greater segmentation of the population and divisions that separate people. People are likely to become more polarized and tribal over the next 50 years. People will be pushed in different directions by advertisers, who will segment us in ways so that people will not even be aware of certain products others use (especially as online sites like Amazon continue to grow greatly). We will receive different news, again exacerbated by the prevalence of fake news that is exceedingly difficult to discern from reality.”

Alan Mutter, a longtime Silicon Valley CEO, cable TV executive and now a teacher of media economics and entrepreneurism at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “I hope internet users in the future will have more control over their data, interactions and the content pushed to them, but I fear that the platform companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu and others – will take us in the opposite direction. A safe and satisfying user experience requires far more thought, work and time than the average user can muster. So, we will be at the mercy of the platforms, which have an asymmetrical ability to outwit and outmaneuver any government entities that try to rein them in. The internet will make lives both better and worse in the future. It will provide greater access to information to those who know how to use it well. At the same time, it will push horrific misinformation to people who lack the ability to critically discern what they are seeing, reading or hearing.”

Rik Farrow, editor of “;login:” a publication of the USENIX Association, predicted, “The problem of ‘fake news’ will be solved by news-providers providing digitally signed content, such as photos, recordings and videos, so that news can be trusted.”

A professor of psychology for a human-computer interaction institute commented, “It will be more and more difficult to determine the validity of sources of information, and people will have weaker tools to make judgments for themselves. Perhaps I am discouraged by recent political events, but to me they are a harbinger of more to come. We could look to the past: The National Socialists knew all about controlling information.”

An online communities researcher said, “We will continue to have problems of community and identity online, where malicious actors quite easily pose as others and manipulate people’s opinions.”

Security issues will be an ongoing obstacle

Assuring security in a constantly evolving human-technological system was mentioned by respondents as a moving-target challenge that will be a constant in years to come.

Llewellyn Kriel, CEO of TopEditor International, a media services company based in Johannesburg, South Africa, wrote, “Despite all the assurances security has become the biggest obstacle in the path of all forms of technology. We predicted this 10 years ago, but things have become worse than even we imagined. The Internet of Things will aggravate this many times. AI so far shows no signs of being able to address security – personal, corporate and national. We see this situation simply getting worse as criminal cartels, international terrorists and rogue governments exploit the thousands of loopholes.”

A professor of computing and digital media expert in in artificial intelligence and social computing predicted, “In 50 years we will have at least one large-scale internet-enabled attack against an entire country, lasting more than five days: power grids, banking, transportation, utilities. People will die. This will (at last) trigger a complete rethinking of the internet protocols, and they will be redesigned with security by design. It will become illegal to use nonconforming devices.”

Eugene H. Spafford, internet pioneer and professor of computing sciences at Purdue University, founder and executive director emeritus of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security, commented, “Crime and propaganda are going to be even bigger problems, as we have no good, global solutions to deploy as of yet. We need to come to some form of consensus on issues such as fact, primary sources and reliability of information. I see a future where there are more likely to be editorial and content controls, and continued Balkanization of the internet.”

Lou Gross, professor of mathematical ecology and expert in grid computing, spatial optimization and modeling of ecological systems at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said, “I see entirely new options for theft and an ongoing battle across linked systems to maintain orderly operations. Because of the linkage of systems this ‘warfare’ has the potential to be highly destructive, and I see major opportunities for insurance companies to enter the fray and provide services to those willing to pay to allow them to maintain an interfaced-lifestyle while having a measure of safety.”

The chief marketing officer for a technology-based company said, “Security and privacy will become a very important and critical subject of discussion as individuals and societies at large realize that the benefits come at a severe cost to these freedoms. The EU is pushing and shaping this agenda with its latest effort for protecting from these technologies via GDPR. We will see how all of these play out. At the moment, key technology platforms do not seem to realize the power and the responsibility. The exchange between the European Union’s Guy Verhofstadt and U.S.’s Zuckerberg nailed this exact subject in their recent interaction. But the biggest problem and threat for humanity emanates from our historical insecurity and craving for power. As infrastructure is becoming more dependent on AI and the Internet of Things, so do weapons of mass destruction will become more focused on how to better attack them with digital weapons.”

Dan Geer, a respondent who provided no identifying details, commented, “This is a question of the whole being different than the sum of the parts. If one is, as I am, certain that only God is perfect, then a digitalized world that is ever-more optimized begs the question of optimized to what end, to whose benefit, to which criteria of perfection? As Donald Knuth said, ‘Premature optimization is the root of all evil,’ and there exist optimizations that are, or soon will be, within our reach yet will be forever premature. When you cannot believe what you hear, cannot believe what you see, cannot believe what you smell, taste or touch, what are you? Soon, my friend, soon.”

Climate change, the internet and the future of the human race

Several experts observed that this attempt to divine features of the future digital world is futile if the planet can no longer support life in 2069.

Judith Donath, author of “The Social Machine, Designs for Living Online” and faculty fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, commented, “Western civilization, pinnacle of individual liberty, has culminated in the reckless and wasteful consumption of the Earth’s natural resources: We’ve polluted the water, paved over the land, cut down the forests, strip-mined the mountains. Confronted with the apocalyptic specter of human-induced mass extinctions and disastrous climate change, we as a species appear to have chosen to do nothing – to continue on the same path that got us here, buying, burning and birthing as if tomorrow simply did not exist. If we – and the myriad other species we share this planet with – are to survive into the next century, the billions of us humans will need to radically change our behavior. It will take extraordinary measures over the next 50 years to get us to eat less, buy less, reproduce less. I see few signs of us moving in that direction in a serious fashion left to our own devices. But now imagine an artificially intelligent government, programmed to re-balance humans and the natural world as painlessly as possible. Though there would be no privacy from the machine government’s ceaseless sensing, it would be a pleasant world. We would enjoy an apparent wealth of choice – the illusion of liberty. In reality, personal agency would be quite minimal, our desires redirected and our behavior shaped by subtle, powerful nudges. It may be the only hope we have left.”

Divina Frau-Meigs, UNESCO chair for sustainable digital development, said, “Environmental issues will be the primary problem everybody will want to solve in the next 50 years. There is no planet B.”

Hank Dearden, executive director at ForestPlanet Inc., said, “My hope is that the more we explore the cosmos, the more we appreciate our precious and fragile planet, and as such use the Internet of Things to monitor and regulate all manner of metrics: oxygen, carbon dioxide, temperature, biomass (trees), trash levels in the oceans, etc.”

Brock Hinzmann, a partner in the Business Futures Network who worked 40 years as a futures researcher at SRI International, said, “I choose to remain optimistic, although I don’t expect there to be one future for everyone on the planet, and I expect there will be plenty of abuse of the technology to limit freedom. It could also be that many other concerns, resulting from climate change, global migration and geopolitical conflict, will overwhelm issues related to technology.”

Christine Boese, digital strategies professional, noted that the future development of burgeoning cloud technologies relies upon the electrical grid, commenting, “I believe this brilliant system – the internet – is more robust and persistent than anything else the world has created, barring a worldwide failure of electrical grid infrastructure (which is a real possibility). I am more skeptical that humanity will still be around in its present, literate form, to access it! It is carbon-based life forms which endanger the future networked and communicating computer. I have high hopes for blockchain technology, to be used for far more than cryptocurrency. I believe evolving XML schemas will continue to add important logic to our metadata for semantic parsing and sense-making. Aggregated data has promise, but the server farms required to support constant crawling, indexing and processing will require outsize electrical grid support, and human civilization’s declining literacy, its lack of ongoing infrastructure maintenance and disproportionate grid power draws by server farms could endanger the entire system within 50 years. We are becoming dumb, violent Eloi, without our engineering Morlocks.”

Thomas Streeter, a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, said, “The next 50 years will be shaped by human social and political choices in the context of limited global resources. Whether life in 50 years is better or worse (and for whom) will not be determined by technology.”

The founder of a technology research firm wrote, “I always recommend ‘He, She, It’ by Marge Piercy for an understanding of where the internet could go, and she wrote it before the internet existed. I think cars won’t be the same and fully expect that we won’t be riding individual cars in 50 years. If we are still functioning as a planet and all this has to be contextualized within dramatic climate change as well as population increase and the resulting migrations flows, with their concomitant political disruptions. Digital life will leave more people behind as it is created for young people by young people, and in an aging planet, this will not serve us well.”

A British-American computer scientist commented, “I don’t think society in a recognizable form will survive climate change, increasing inequality and the centralization of essential systems to 2069. Increasing centralization of essential systems will reduce society’s resilience in the face of these problems, leading to societal collapse.”

An anonymous respondent commented, “It depends on what the overall state of the world will be then and whether one subscribes to the mantra of continuing progress. Those of us who take climate change seriously and see the continuing failures to deal with it must see the possibility of some very nasty changes, even down to the mass movement of populations and the contraction of natural resources including landmasses. In this vision of the future, fixed infrastructure may be a casualty and the local generation of electricity may be the difference between survival and not. One hopes that this pessimism will turn out to be unfounded but at the same time this sort of economic decline or even collapse cannot be ruled out and its impact on technology will be profound. Ad hoc networks might become the main game in town for example.”

An anonymous respondent said, “Global climate change will continue unabated as long as ignorance and capitalists are allowed to triumph over humanity.”

An anonymous respondent commented, “Climate change is going to have a very destabilizing effect on economies and societies worldwide, so it’s difficult to predict how long we will have the infrastructure to support rapid technological advances.”