“When the 530 participants in this study shared wide-ranging insights about the future, most of their responses were tied to hopes and concerns over human evolution in light of technological change. A share of their comments referred to technological advances such as brain-computer interfaces, virtual immersive experiences that will teach and entertain users, pervasive connectivity linked to artificial intelligence (AI) that helps people navigate the world and understand it better and predictive, and personalized applications that make life easier and more enjoyable. A few predicted space-based interactions.

The respondents pushed for an array of reforms in laws, international treaties, technology systems and educational processes to try to lessen the known harms that digital technologies already create.

The next sections of this report briefly describe the most common themes from respondents and include remarks by Internet Hall of Fame members and other internet pioneers. After that, several additional chapters cover the broad theses of hundreds of other responses, bunched into broad categories. Some answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Creating a fair and equitable digital future

Theme 1: Humanity’s responsibility. Digital life will continue to be what people make of it. For a better future, humans must make responsible decisions about their partnership with technology.

Responses representing this theme:

Ben Shneiderman, distinguished professor and founder of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at University of Maryland, said, “The future will be shaped by those who understand how to support trust, empathy, responsibility and privacy. Ever richer layers of social systems will support community building, political action and commercial opportunities. Medical systems that collect patient data will give richer portraits of individual health as well as data to develop new treatment protocols. Persuasion to improve patient wellness will enhance compliance with health regimes, as measured by quantified-self tools that allow patients to monitor their health.”

Bill Woodcock, executive director at Packet Clearing House, the research organization behind global network development, commented, “The technological changes that matter are the ones that allow people to live safe and pleasant lives, pursuing intellectual challenge and pleasure, rather than simply trying to stay alive.… But that’s not how they’re being used right now. Right now they’re largely being used to exploit human psychological weaknesses for very short-term gains for a very few people, and any benefits the rest of the world derives along the way exist merely to sweeten the pot. This is a consequence of combining unbridled capitalism with technology in the absence of empathetic humanity or public responsibility.”

David Zubrow, associate director of empirical research at the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute, said, “The trend of digital assistants that learn your preferences and habits from all the devices that you interact with will become integrated with each other and take on a persona. They may even act on your behalf with a degree of independence in the digital and physical worlds. As AI advances and becomes more independent and the internet becomes the world in which people live and work, laws for responsibility and accountability of the actions of AI will need to be made.”

Theme 2: Public policy and regulation. The age of a mostly unregulated internet will come to an end. Elected officials and technology leaders will move ahead with regulatory frameworks aimed at protecting the public good. The lawless alternative has caused dangerous disruptions across society.

Responses representing this theme:

Angelique Hedberg, senior corporate strategy analyst at RTI International, said, “The definition of what it means to be human will evolve and the laws and regulation will follow, albeit in a less than direct manner. We will value governments in new and different ways, and we will expect more from our technology platforms. The deluge of data will provide new inputs into the decision models for platforms, bringing greater clarity to the short-term benefits and long-term risks, in return making the financial decisions more social, environmental and moral. Where laws and regulations can [articulate] a bottom line, they will. Where law and regulations cannot, the planet will step in and regulate the excess.”

Adam Popescu, a writer who contributes frequently to the New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek, Vanity Fair and the BBC, wrote, “The dark side of the web has emerged, and it’s come bringing the all-too-human conditions the web’s wunderkinds claimed they would stamp out. Given the direction in the last five years, the weaponization of the web, it will go more and more in this direction, which ultimately means regulation and serious change from what it is now.”

Micah Altman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and head scientist in the program on information science at MIT Libraries, said, “How technology affects people and society depends in large part on what values we embed into the design of these technologies, and who controls them. With appropriate governance, information, communication and AI, technologies can vastly increase human capability if we as a society establish the rights of users of ubiquitous technologies to inspect their operation, audit their results and exercise agency into how these systems interact with them and their data, and if we use effective regulation to ensure that these systems are both designed and operated to preserve these rights. If not, it is likely that these increasingly powerful technologies will enable concentrations of power and influence over others – economically through using these technologies to amplify the advantage of wealth, through influence over beliefs and persuasion, and through surveillance and coercion. I choose to be hopeful.”

Theme 3: Internet of everything. In 50 years, internet use will be nearly as pervasive and necessary as oxygen. Seamless connectivity will be the norm, and it may be impossible to unplug.

Responses representing this theme:

Bebo White, managing editor of the Journal of Web Engineering and emeritus associate of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, said, “The internet as we know it today will be ubiquitous and ‘disappear into the background’ as universal connectivity becomes the norm. So-called ‘apps’ will be integrated seamlessly within our homes, transportation and wearable devices. Advancements in security and privacy technologies should make this possible.”

Ashok Goel, director of the Human-Centered Computing Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech, wrote, “The internet will become omnipresent, omniscient and almost omnipotent. Everyone in the world will have access to the internet and the internet will have access to everyone and almost everything. It will become the repository of all data about the whole world as well as human knowledge. Of course, there will be both cooperation and competition among individuals, institutions, corporations and countries on the use of this data and knowledge. A new set of values and law may be needed to enhance collaboration and manage confrontation. The internet 2069 will not only enable new kinds of commerce but also enable humans to collectively address seemingly intractable problems such as climate change and global warming.”

Jean-Claude Heudin, a professor with expertise in AI and software engineering at Pole Universitaire Leonard de Vinci, France, wrote, “Internet will be everywhere, like the air: a cybersphere connecting all people, machines and objects. AI everywhere: embedded intelligence and ambient intelligence.”

Theme 4: Visions of the future. From amazing advancements to dystopian developments, experts imagine a wide array of possible scenarios for the world 50 years in the future.

Responses representing this theme:

Baratunde Thurston, futurist, former director of digital at The Onion and co-founder of the comedy/technology startup Cultivated Wit, wrote, “It’s the year 2069, and it’s been 20 years since the conclusion of the Platform Wars and 30 years since Amazon bailed out and acquired the United States of America. Shareholders were initially dumbfounded by Chairman Jeff Bezos’s strategy, but it soon became clear that physical territory gave Amazon a significant competitive advantage over its onetime rivals, Alphabet, The People’s Republic of Baidu and 4Chan…. Once it was proven in 2045 that a hybrid human-networked intelligence could manage and draft legislation far better than inconsistent and infinitely corruptible humans, the U.S. Congress was replaced with a dynamic network model accounting for the concerns of citizens yet bound by resource constraints and established laws.”

Jerry Michalski, founder of the Relationship Economy eXpedition, said, “Half a century is a long time. Many futures seem possible; I’ll describe one. Software has ‘personhood.’ It has rights, personality and limited responsibility. Cryptocurrencies and distributed systems have helped one-third of Earth’s population separate from nation states and join ‘nations of choice,’ ranging from Burning Man to racially segregated enclaves. The digital platforms these nations use are larger and more powerful than the old nation-states. Few people have privacy or full-time jobs. Facts hardly exist: Everything is easy to fake, so everything is in doubt. Digital platforms still haven’t figured out how to stop stalking us and use their presence and power to help us govern together better.”

Jamais Cascio, research fellow at the Institute for the Future, wrote, “I imagine three broad scenarios for AI in 50 years. No. 1, EVERYWARE, is a crisis-management world trying to head off climate catastrophe. Autonomous systems under the direction of governance institutions (which may not be actual governments) will be adapting our physical spaces and behaviors to be able to deal with persistent heat waves, droughts, wildland fires, Category 6 hurricanes, etc…. No. 2, ABANDONWARE, is also crisis-driven, but here various environmental, economic and political crises greatly limit the role of AI in our lives. There will be mistrust of AI-based systems, and strong pushback against any kinds of human displacement. This likely results from political and economic disasters in the 2040s-ish linked to giving too much control to AI-based systems…. The dominant design language for AI here is submissive. AI is still around, but generally whimpering in the corner. No. 3, SUPERWARE, is the world described in the first answer (AI common but largely invisible) turned up to 11. In this scenario, AI systems focus on helping people live well and with minimal harm to others. By 2069, the only jobs performed by humans in the post-industrial, post-information world require significant emotional labor, unique creative gifts or are simply done out of the pleasure of doing them…. Most people born before 2020 hate this, seeing it as ‘robo-nanny state socialism’ and ‘undermining human dignity’ even as they take advantage of the benefits. The dominant design language for AI here is ‘caring.’ Machines of Loving Grace, whether you like it or not.”

Hopeful visions of 2069

Theme 1: Living longer and feeling better. Internet-enabled technology will help people live longer and healthier lives. Scientific advances will continue to blur the line between human and machine.

Responses representing this theme:

Geoff Arnold, chief technology officer for the Verizon Smart Communities organization, predicted there will be “Better health. Less freedom. Less loneliness. Less work.”

Andrew Tutt, an expert in law and author of “An FDA for Algorithms,” said, “The era of complex automation will revolutionize the world and lead to groundbreaking changes in transportation, industry, communication, education, energy, health care, communication, entertainment, government, warfare and even basic research…. Intelligent AI will contribute immensely to basic research and likely begin to create scientific discoveries of its own…. Information will become more freely available. Everything will become cheaper. Miserable work – cleaning up after others, serving others, engaging in rote repeated thankless tasks – will continue its slow march to extinction. Our massively improved capacity to deal with suffering, both emotional and physical, is probably among the least-appreciated advances we will make. Empathetic machines will go a long way toward making people feel less lonely and more important. They may also help to teach us to be more moral.”

Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst for Altimeter Group expert in data, analytics and digital strategy, commented, “We’re also seeing a huge amount of research in the areas of prosthetics, neuroscience and other technologies intended to translate brain activity into physical form. All discussion of transhumanism aside, there are very real current and future applications for technology ‘implants’ and prosthetics that will be able to aid mobility, memory, even intelligence, and other physical and neurological functions.”

Clark Quinn, executive director at Quinnovation, wrote, “In 50 years, we will have mastered the art of human augmentation. Our digital world will interact with our physical world seamlessly, so that our physical actions can have semantics, and vice-versa. Our senses will be amplified, the world will be annotated and there will be guidance and warnings on our actions.”

Theme 2: Less work, more leisure. Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven tools will take over repetitive, unsafe and physically taxing labor, leaving humans with more time for leisure.

Responses representing this theme:

Benjamin Kuipers, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, wrote, “The technological, often digital, tools we are creating have the promise of greatly increasing the resources available in society. While it may be possible to automate some current jobs, people have an intrinsic need for meaningful work. If we can use these new resources to support them, many jobs can be created to provide meaningful work for many people and to improve the environment for everyone in society.”

Ken Goldberg, distinguished chair in engineering, director of AUTOLAB and CITRIS at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “I believe the question we’re facing is not ‘When will machines surpass human intelligence?’ but instead ‘How can humans work together with machines in new ways?’ … Rather than discouraging the human workers of the world with threats of an impending Singularity, let’s focus on Multiplicity, where advances in AI and robots can inspire us to think deeply about the kind of work we really want to do, how we can change the way we learn and how we might embrace diversity to create myriad new partnerships.”

Theme 3: Individualized experiences. Digital life will be tailored to users.

Responses representing this theme:

Michael Wollowski, associate professor of computer science and software engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, wrote, “Much of our lives will be automated. Better yet, we will be in control of the degree of automation. Technology will assume the role of a polite personal assistant who will seamlessly bow in and out. Technology based on learned patterns of behavior will arrange many things in our lives and suggest additional options.”

Greg Shannon, chief scientist for the CERT Division at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, said, “Pervasive/complete/competing memories – capture/network/storage tech will allow complete digital records of each life, with fast recall for discussion, disagreements and manipulation. What will it mean to not have to remember, that you can recall the video with higher fidelity than one could ever remember?”

Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Center, responded, “Technology gives individuals more control – a fundamental human need and a prerequisite to participatory citizenship and collective agency.”

Theme 4: Collaboration and community. A fully networked world will enhance opportunities for global collaboration, cooperation and community development, unhindered by distance, language or time.

Responses representing this theme:

Mike Meyer, futurist and administrator at Honolulu Community College, commented, “The very nature of the technology that will become part of our bodies and will shape the very nature of our communities … [T]he natural result will be homogenization of the species. The nature of [the] planet will become predominantly urban with constant instantaneous communication. We are already well on the way to a planetary culture.… This may, finally, eliminate the problem of irrational bigotry, racism and xenophobia.”

Gabor Melli, senior director of engineering for AI and machine learning for Sony PlayStation, responded, “By 2070, most people will willingly spend most of their lives in an augmented virtual reality. The internet and digital life will be extraordinary and partially extraplanetary. Innovations that will dramatically amplify this trajectory are unsupervised machine learning, fusion power and the wild card of quantum computing.”

Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing, commented, “Civilization itself centers on and thus depends upon communication of all forms. The more we communicate, the better the opportunities for peace and prosperity on a global basis. It would be difficult to imagine communications without the internet, now and especially in the future.”

Theme 5: Power by the people. Expanded internet access could lead to further disruption of existing social and political power structures, potentially reducing inequality and empowering individuals.

Responses representing this theme:

Liz Rykert, president at Meta Strategies, a consultancy that works with technology and complex organizational change, responded, “We will see more and more integration of tools that support accountability…. The internet will let us both monitor and share data and images about what is happening, whether it is a devastating impact of climate change or an eventful incident of racism. Continued access to tools of accountability and access to knowledge and collaborative opportunities will support people.”

Henry E. Brady, dean, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, wrote, “The biggest impact of the internet has been the creation of self-governing communities of interest that use ‘hashtags’ or ‘likes’ or other mechanisms to ‘govern’ themselves. It seems likely that these communities will grow and expand, creating powerful groups in cyberspace that may approach or exceed nations in their power in the world through their ability to express their needs and preferences and to find ways to reward those who help them…. Their power will also stem from their ability to exercise political and social authority through the dissemination of information and through political acts.”

Worrisome visions of 2069

Theme 1: Widening divides. The divide between haves and have-nots will grow as a privileged few hoard the economic, health and educational benefits of digital expansion.

Responses representing this theme:

Grace Mutung’u, co-leader of the Kenya ICT Action Network, responded, “There will be loss of autonomy as humans integrate more with technology. This will have both positive and negative effects…. Technology will increase existing inequalities. At the moment, for example, low- and middle-income countries import technology and participate minimally in its design and creation. Most of the world’s population is in low- and middle-income countries and already disadvantaged by it. They are likely to suffer technology colonialism.”

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.

Fernando Barrio, director of the law program at the Universidad Nacional de Rio Negro, Argentina, commented, “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?”

Theme 2: Internet-enabled oppression. A powerful elite will control the internet and use it to monitor and manipulate, while providing entertainment that keeps the masses distracted and complacent.

Responses representing this theme:

Ken Birman, a professor in the department of computer science at Cornell University, responded, “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.”

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…. The internet, in and of itself, is benign – like a handgun. But the companies and individuals behind the services are the greatest threat.”

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.”

Theme 3: Connected and alone. The hyperconnected future will be populated by isolated users unable to form and maintain unmediated human relationships.

Responses representing this theme:

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.”

A professor emeritus expert on technology’s impacts on individuals’ well-being wrote, “Sadly 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.”

Theme 4: The end of privacy. Personal privacy will be an archaic, outdated concept as humans willingly trade discretion for improved health care, entertainment opportunities and promises of security.

Responses representing this theme:

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.”

Vian Bakir, a professor of political communication and journalism at Bangor University, responded, “Assuming that the commercial impetus remains dominant, that international regulation remains weak, and that people remain willing to give away their data for access to the internet and apps, then I foresee a dysfunctional future where dataveillance reigns supreme, and where privacy (and associated freedoms) has become a distant memory.”

Theme 5: Misallocated trust. Digital life lays you bare. It can inspire a loss of trust, often earns too much trust and regularly requires that you take the plunge even though you have absolutely no trust.

Responses representing this theme:

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. 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.”

Theme 6: There is no planet B. The future of humanity is inextricably connected to the future of the natural world. Without drastic measures to reduce environmental degradation, the very existence of human life in 50 years could be in question.

Responses representing this theme:

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.”

Eliot Lear, principal engineer at Cisco, said, “With another 50 years under our belts, hopefully we will have by then models for resiliency, privacy and security that are tied to societal norms such that people can rely on technology to have saved the planet. We will use the internet to predict environmental costs of human activity such that they can be minimized and perhaps even offset.”

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…. [N]ow imagine an artificially intelligent government, programmed to rebalance 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.”