18 Things to Watch for in 2018

by futurists Richard Worzel & Kit Worzel

2018 is going to be remarkable in many different ways. Indeed, when we put together our lists for the most important changes ahead in 2018, we wound up with so many we decided we couldn’t discuss them all, and settled on 18 things for 2018 (catchy, right?) that we feel are highest profile, or of greatest interest and importance.

But because there’s so much material, please feel free to pick and choose, reading the items that catch your interest and skipping the rest.

And since every year is a mix of good and bad news, we’re going to start with the scary stuff, then end with the fun stuff:

Scary Stuff

The Potential for War – There are two parts of the world where war, even a nuclear war could break out: North Korea and Iran. In both cases, war might well be started by the United States – or more specifically, President Trump and/or the advisors around him.

In the case of North Korea, no matter what bombastic statements Kim Jong-Un makes, it’s unlikely he would be the first to pull the trigger. Not only has China said they would not back him up if he was the aggressor, but he knows that no matter how many other people wound up dead, he would die. Since he only cares about his own life, this is likely to deter him. On the other hand, President Trump doesn’t believe he would die, and he seems just as uninterested about the welfare of others, so he could well lash out against North Korea. If this happens (and we think it’s possible, but unlikely), it will be incredibly bad, and if the US is the aggressor, it could even lead to war with China.

Meanwhile, Iran has been a sore point for the US government since the Shah was overthrown in 1979, and has been getting progressively worse as they have worked steadily towards developing nuclear weapons. The US doesn’t want that, but has few good ways of stopping it. The agreement that the Obama administration reached with Iran is sort of the least-worst solution, delaying Iran’s nuclear program, but not stopping it entirely. President Trump doesn’t have the patience or forbearance for such a nuanced approach. Moreover, there is a significant faction within the military leadership that reportedly wants to invade and neutralize Iran. This is much easier said than done, as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, but if this faction gets its way, the US is in for another very expensive, and very frustrating, Middle Eastern war.

Cybercrime Gets Even Scarier – 2017 would have been known as the year of cyber-terror except for all of the other things that happened. Last year showed just how damaging cyberattacks can get, with over $2 billion dollars lost from ransomware, data stolen from hundreds of millions of personal accounts including Equifax, voter data from the GOP’s data files, tax information stolen by NotPetya, and even the massive Yahoo hack from 2013 that was exposed in 2017, which resulted in more than one billion accounts being compromised.

There are several very important points that we can learn from these attacks. First, they are profitable, having made billions of dollars for the hackers. As a result, it’s estimated there will be a quadrupling of such attacks in 2018.

Second, companies that are hacked try to cover it up rather than notifying customers. And cover-ups prevent customers who’ve had data stolen from taking steps to protect themselves.

Third, these attacks reveal a massive downside for the Internet of Things (IoT). We wrote about the IoT a few years ago, and warned about the vulnerability of objects connected to the internet. After all, who puts a firewall on a Fitbit? The WannaCry hack exploited this lack of security, and used the processing power of internet-capable objects for its own purposes, as well as ransoming them. This means that one person’s lack of security on a router or smart thermostat is no longer just their problem, it becomes everyone’s problem.

Lastly, everyone needs to be better about updating security. Almost all of the security breaches of the past year happened because people didn’t install the latest security patch, or because they didn’t configure their security properly. We need a society-wide trend towards better security practices to prevent attacks like this from happening more frequently in the future.

Widespread Civil Strife in America – Strife in America seems likely, but the real question is: how violent will it get?

Strife could break out for several different reasons. The Mueller investigation could conceivable and credibly charge President Trump, members of his family, and members of his inner circle with collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice, or something approaching that. Trump would go ballistic over that, firing Mueller and attempting to castrate FBI leadership in order to bend it to his will.

Or, the midterm elections in November of 2018 could produce divisive results no matter how they end up. If the Democrats take over one of the House and Senate, then the US government will be even more deadlocked than it is now.

If gerrymandering, combined with voter suppression, deny the Democrats control of either house, even though they might gain a majority of the votes in all the relevant elections (which happened in 2016, where the Republicans won 49.9 percent of the votes in the House, but got 55.2 percent of the seats), then the outcry will be enormous. Or President Trump could do something truly egregious, such as starting one or more wars (see above).

Several movements also hold the potential to precipitate more strife through protest and counter-protests, from Black Lives Matter, to Time’s Up (the successor to the #MeToo movement), to LGBT+ protests against conservatives’ attempts to roll back history, to white supremacists, and more.

America’s political landscape has become incredibly polarized over the past several decades, so any of these things, or a range of other possibilities, could produce demonstrations that evolve into pitched battles.

Or, to put it more simply: It’s hard to think up a scenario where civil society in America has a quietyear in 2018.

Climate Change News Gets Worse – 2017 was the second hottest year on record, following only 2016. Indeed, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. Anyone who actually is qualified to have an opinion on climate change says that climate is changing, it’s changing faster than we thought, and extreme weather events are going to become both more extreme, and more frequent. Therefore, while it’s not possible to say what weather extremes we are likely to have in 2018, the floods, hurricanes, wildfires, cold snaps, heat waves, blizzards, and so on that we experienced in 2017 are probably milder than what’s going to happen in 2018.

Russian battlefield robots – In August of 2017, 117 experts signed a letter to the UN asking for a ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), also known as battlefield robots, that lack human controls. Despite the widespread support for this measure, Russia and China have stated that they will continue to develop – and potentially deploy – LAWS.

It is likely that 2018 will see the first fully autonomous killer robots deployed against humans in battle, and there is pressure that other militaries will not want to fall behind in this field. Experts worry that LAWS will lack judgement with respect to targets, and use of lethal force.

But regardless of the consequences, the push to create and deploy battlefield robots is on, and a new arms race begins.

Not Scary, But Startling or Unsettling Stuff

US Midterm Elections – There will be massive interest in the 2018 US midterm elections, which started even before the votes were counted in 2016.

We would love to tell you what the outcome of the highly-anticipated mid-term elections will be, but the truth is, that trying to predict the outcome is like throwing a dart in a hurricane. At present, it looks as if a Democratic wave will decimate the ranks of Republicans up for re-election, but as has been frequently observed, a week is a lifetime in politics, and we are many weeks away from November. However, there are three primary scenarios in prospect:

1) There is no significant shift in seats. In this outcome, the Republicans maintain control over the House and the Senate, and things continue as they have been for the past year, leading to massive unrest (see above). This seems unlikely at the moment.

2) The Democrats win enough seats to take control of the House, but not the Senate. This seems like the most probable scenario at the moment, and would likely mean that Congress would be stuck in complete gridlock, with neither party being able to push through legislation, especially as both parties maneuvered for political position in the 2020 presidential election.

3) There’s a Democratic wave, leading to an enormous shift, with the Democrats gaining control of both the House and the Senate. This could conceivably lead to the impeachment of President Trump by the House – although it would be unlikely that the Senate would convict him as that requires a 2/3 majority.

The Decline of Men – It’s our belief that men, as a sex, are in decline, both physically and socially. We’ve discussed this before, but for 2018, we have three specific concerns.

Young men in particular (but not exclusively) seem to be spending their time in online gaming and online pornography to the detriment of their ambition, their social interactions with real people. Add to that the emergence of sex robots, and you have a dangerous mix that threatens to stunt the social skills of a certain fraction of men, and undermine their ability to function successfully in society.

The second area of concern is that the cultural perception of men has declined to the level of Homer Simpson and the characters portrayed in such movies as The Hangover. In other words, men are being perceived as immature man-children, with nothing on their stupid minds but sex, food, and short-term gratification. This is not, in our view, a healthy environment in which to raise boys and have them become responsible people.

The third element will be the sometimes-violent reaction of men to the decline in their perceived status, especially as the rise of women (see below) means a relative lowering of their status. Add to this the emergence of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, with the vast number of accused sexual predators being male, and the environment is ripe for a backlash by some less-confident men. This could feed into the white supremacist movement, as well as increased violence towards women by a small minority of men.

In short, we see 2018 as an unsettling time to be a man, especially a young man.

The Rise of Women – The long push for female equality in all aspects of life, but especially in equal pay for equal work, has yielded some results, although nowhere near parity. What it has done is to lay the groundwork for a serious push for equality, which is, in our opinion, just starting now, triggered by the #MeToo movement, and its successor, Time’s Up. When we say “groundwork”, we would point to three things that portend the rise of women, and, we would argue, the eventual supremacy of women in society and our economy.

The first is that there are now female role-models for every role in society, up to, but not yet including, president of the United States. As a result, a young girl can consider a career, and find someone who has done what she wants to do – and therefore believe that she can do it. This is an often overlooked, but critical development.

The second sign is that there are now more businesses being created by women than men, and the businesses started by women are twice as likely to survive. This means that there will be more business owners and owner-operators who are women, and who have economic clout. In turn, this means that even businesses owned, operated, or managed by men will have to be respectful of women-run businesses if they want them as clients.

But the third sign is the clincher. Almost 60% of undergraduates in colleges and universities are women in North America, and that percentage is even higher in grad schools. This means that the leaders of the future are women.

And now that women are speaking out and confronting sexual predators (who are virtually all men), they are going to find that, collectively, they have power they didn’t suspect or hadn’t chosen to exercise. When that realization hits, they won’t be satisfied until they are given due respect, compensation, and security of person, and political parties that try to oppose them will be trampled in the dust. Not all of this will happen in 2018 – it will take time for this to unfold. But 2018 will see the beginning of this major social upheaval. Richard argued this at more length here.

The Rise of Robots, AI, and Automation Will Be Messy – We recently posted a blog discussing how automation was set to take over whole industries, and the impact will grow throughout 2018. In particular, as the push for a higher minimum wage gains force, we will see machines, AI, and automation replace humans in jobs that, to quote Forbes magazine, cover the 4 Ds: dull, dirty, dangerous and dear (as in expensive). This is both a good thing, as machines will be doing the boring, repetitive, dangerous work that humans dislike or could be injured by, but it also means that the job market will get more difficult for humans.

There’s a long-standing argument between what might be called the neo-Luddites and the techno-weenies over whether humans are going to be largely replaced by automation, which we discussed here. And there are strong arguments both ways.

We believe that no matter who is ultimately right, there will be widespread displacement of workers as automation at least changes who does what work as automation and robots offer more cost-effective solutions to some aspects of blue- and white-collar work. There will also be many new jobs created – but most of these will either be relatively low-paid service jobs, or will require such highly specialized education that they won’t be available to most job-seekers. And there will be widespread unemployment, often for long periods of time.

But the so-called rise of the robots will not be a simple process, and will often happen piecemeal, or in unexpected ways, and will often happen by having robots and automation work with humans rather than replacing them. Indeed, we believe that a hybrid robot/human model will turn out to be more effective than either on their own.

Self-Driving Cars Will Emerge, But Not Easily – The rise self-driving vehicles has been widely forecast, and gets lots of media coverage. There have been many scenarios of how wondrous and liberating they will be, freeing up parking lots in urban centers for redevelopment, reducing traffic flow, and unjamming traffic gridlock. And there are power economic motivations for the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

But there are at least two problems with this future. The first is that for these scenarios to materialize, people would have to very quickly get rid of their cars, and switch to a world where they relied solely on Uber-like AVs for everything.

I doubt if people will switch their behavior patterns that quickly. What about summer camping trips to national parks? What about snowbirds who drive to Florida or Arizona for the winter? Will they use Uber for that, or wind up renting a vehicle they don’t really like for the duration? Or will they stick with their trusty ol’ car, at least until it wears out or they want a new one, or just buy a new vehicle with self-driving capabilities?

And if we do make the switch away from personally-owned vehicles, how will there be enough AVs to deliver everyone to work during rush hour? And wouldn’t that mean there would be as much traffic on the highways as before, just with different vehicle owners?

Meanwhile, until most human drivers are off the highways, AVs won’t be able to operate efficiently or drive as quickly as they might because humans aren’t as predictable as AVs.

This brings us to the second problem: driving in urban environments is the biggest obstacle to AVs because of its chaotic nature, and the unpredictability of human drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. Indeed, long-distance trucking firms are considering a two-part operation for self-driving trucks: the trucks drive themselves over the superhighways and arterial roads to urban centers, and then are driven into the urban centers by human drivers.

Facing the Future – There are plenty of people who forget their phones, wallets, or keys when they go out, but no-one forgets their face. Bypassing fingerprints entirely, automated commerce, or a-commerce, involves having your bank account linked to your face, with your phone number as a password. This will be extremely convenient, as it involves using something you literally cannot leave home without, and the security involved is impressive.

It uses a 3D camera, so substituting a photograph won’t work, and even very sophisticated makeup will not move the same way your own face does, so the test that requires a person to smile or say a random word will be difficult to fool. After setting up an account with Alipay, one set of Alibaba-developed software that runs the verification, you’ll never be without a means of payment.

Naturally, there are downsides. For starters, your face is now codified in facial recognition software, meaning tracking you is now trivial. And since there is a massive facial recognition database for this to work off of, if it gets hacked, the hackers don’t just have your banking information – they have your face as well. Considering that researchers at the University of Washington have created digital dopplegangers of people, such as former President Obama, by use of AI and video, this could be a concern.

The Neat Stuff

Artificial Intelligence Gets REALLY Big – AI was a big story in 2017. It will be an even bigger story in 2018 and beyond. AI is already making big inroads in legal research, accounting & tax preparation, medical diagnostics, load management for electric power utilities, helping autistic children learn socialization skills, managing investments, and selecting music for your listening pleasure. But the interesting part is that AI is going to start appearing in places you won’t expect. We’re just guessing, but such areas might include:

  • Assessing the migratory patterns of birds, fish, and the global spread of infections.
  • Looking for ways to streamline Medicare billing.
  • Reducing your daily commute time specifically, and managing rush hour congestion generally.
  • Much more effective email spam filters & telemarketing blockers for your phone.
  • Plagiarism checkers for secondary, post-secondary, and graduate instructors.
  • Identifying autistic people, and assessing where they are on the autism spectrum.
  • Recommending a regular, automatic shopping system for your routine needs, then ordering them without your involvement, as well as recommending better choices, however you define “better”.
  • Acting as a lie-detector, but one you can download as an app for your smartphone, and then use with your friends, family, and casual acquaintances.

One specific application, which we’ll deal with in more detail later on, is the widespread adoption of AI in all aspects of health care.

Rent a Celebrity’s Personality to Be Your BFF – Another application of AI is the development of virtual assistants (also called genies, computer butlers, or avatars), like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Amazon’s Alexa, but now with individually customized personalities that respond to your personality. In effect, they will evolve into your best buddy, your closest companion (literally), and your online servant. This will become a big deal, as such virtual assistants will effectively become your representative in cyberspace, putting themselves between you and everything you do, or could do, online.

All of the major tech companies will want to be in this position: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft – and anyone else who thinks they can swing it, including companies we’ve probably never heard of.

As part of this, the virtual assistants will grow personalities that evolve to suit your preferences. But we also foresee the potential for a further, somewhat unexpected development: franchising the personality of a celebrity or a movie character to be your virtual BFF. Suppose you really like the Jarvis AI character from the Iron Man movies. Paul Bettany, who does the voice of Jarvis, would record enough text to enable an AI to simulate his voice for any given words, and the script writers would answer questions to allow your genie to imitate Jarvis’ verbal mannerisms.

Or, in the case of a real human celebrity, let’s say a singer named Fred Smith, Fred would enter into an agreement with Big Tech to franchise his personality to inhabit their virtual assistant in exchange for royalties. His voice would be recorded so it can be matched, and he would answer a range of personal questions (without getting too personal). The virtual assistant then adopts his voice, his attitudes, and his mannerisms in order to convince you that you have Fred Smith as your virtual companion.

And when you lose interest in Fred or Jarvis, you rent another celebrity personality to inhabit your genie!

Gene Therapy – Gene therapy has long been the promised silver bullet of medicine, with hopes to cure cancer, and diabetes, and even hemophilia, but has failed to deliver. Twenty years ago, a prototype gene therapy treatment resulted in the death of a young patient, and it put the entire field on hold. But 2017 marks the first year that any gene therapy techniques were approved for use in the US, starting with two specific forms of leukemia and lymphoma, and following with a type of congenital blindness. As success breeds success, we are likely to see more progress in this field, hopefully covering a wider range of diseases. 2018 is posed to be a great year for the field, and for those receiving treatment.

Reversing Paralysis – A traumatic spinal injury usually means the patient is paralyzed, likely for the rest of his or her life. This has long been the case, and while quality of life for such people has improved, there hasn’t really been any hope for getting them to walk again – until recently.

It has been found that putting special implants into a patient’s brain, and running wires to non-responsive limbs can bypass spinal injuries, restoring some degree of motion and mobility to those who are otherwise unable to move. The clinical trials have shown it is possible, and in 2018, it is expected that this treatment will begin proliferating, and hopefully even get to the point that the spinal cord injury can be bypassed directly, instead of restoring mobility to limbs

Renewable Energy & Battery Technology – Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuelsin most cases. Saudi Arabia held an auction for companies wishing to build a 300 MW solar farm under contract, and the winning bid came in at 3.6¢ (US) per kilowatt-hour – without government subsidy. Solar power has dropped by 80% over the past 10 years, and by 99% since the 1970s, and continues to fall as economies of scale kick in and technology continues to advance.

Meanwhile, India commissioned a 100 MW wind farm in October, 2017 at an effective price of 4¢/kWh, which represents a 24% drop in cost since February of 2017. Renewable energy is now usually the cheapest source of utility-scale power.

As a result, coal consumption has dropped in every country except India. According to the International Energy Agency, “…5.3bn tonnes of coal equivalent were burnt in 2016, down 1.9% on the year before and 4.2% on 2014, the fastest decline since 1990-1992, when the global economy was in recession.” So, despite the best efforts of the Trump administration, renewable energy is the future, and fossil fuels are – mostly – the past.

Meanwhile, battery technology continues to advance, with the most interesting developments happening in the aviation industry. There are now small planes that are battery powered, and capable of flights longer than 200 miles. EasyJet is working with Wright Electric to develop an electric commuter plane.

The energy density needed to keep a plane in the air has long been an issue when looking at electric planes, but with newer battery technology, it’s becoming possible. This same technology will enable renewable energy to store enough energy to keep a regular supply of power to an entire grid, and to revolutionize electric cars and trucks.

All of this doesn’t mean that oil and gas, or even coal, production will disappear, but it does significantly reduce its upside potential, and means fossil fuel and electric power producers must innovate in response to the rapidly changing energy landscape if they want to survive.

Quantum Computing Approaches Commercial Feasibility – Quantum computers are unlike today’s digital computers, and do not suffer from the limitations of digital computers. Hence, while today’s computers are reaching the physical limits of speed, compactness, and storage capability, falling behind the growth rate predicted by Moore’s Law, quantum computers operate on a very different principle, derived from quantum mechanics, and are barely starting. Yet, the race of quantum computing is very definitely on, especially between Google, IBM, and a Canadian minnow, D-Wave.

But, so what? What’s special about quantum computers? Well, they have the potential to be remarkably faster at certain kinds of problems, such as encryption. A quantum computer could, theoretically, try all possible combinations of a password simultaneously, which would render our current means of securing privacy and personal and corporate accounts useless.

In real world applications, quantum computers could become essential to corporate and personal privacy, tackle problems beyond even the theoretical capacity of today’s computers, such as analyzing the interactions of different genes in your DNA, which would help us assess how our bodies work; selecting compounds to develop as pharmaceuticals without wasting massive amounts of time and money on dead end compounds; identify patterns in stock trading that defy current techniques; and solve problems involving the massive amounts of new data emerging from the Internet of Things.

But the most important applications of quantum computing are unknown because they have yet to be discovered or invented. 2018 will be a watershed year for the field.

3D Printing Gets Real – 3D printing is getting to be old hat as far as news goes, but every truly novel technology goes through a hype stage, followed by real results. We are now in the “real results” stage for 3D printing.

The developments we’re going to see include things like:

  • Super-strong parts, from replacement bones, to surgical instruments, to tools. 3D printing is creating things that are both stronger and lighter than traditional fabrication techniques, limited primarily now by our imagination.
  • 4D printing, also called active origami or shape-morphing systems. These are objects that are produced using 3D techniques, but which can be programmed, or even autonomously adapt to circumstance and need. Hence, they can change form, shape, or, potentially, size, according to temperature, humidity, light exposure, pressure, or other outside triggers.
    Think, for example, of a sweater that bulks up to retain more heat as the temperature drops. Or a sheet of material that can be slipped into a narrow opening, then caused to change shape – sort of like rolling up a model ship as a sheet, and then inserting it into a bottle before having it snap up into its ship-shaped form. Or performing plumbing repair by slipping a slim, flexible rod into a corroded pipe, then having it expand into a full-sized pipe upon exposure to water, repairing the broken pipe without having to replace it.
  • Speed and commercial accessibility. It used to be that 3D printing was a novelty, and only produced cute, cheap, plastic toys. Then it started to be used for more serious applications, in a wide variety of materials, from titanium to chocolate, but was painstakingly slow and still pretty expensive. Serious 3D printers, for industrial applications, are now dipping below $1,000, and can produce items much more quickly and inexpensively. Hewlett-Packard is furiously trying to lead the consumer/industrial thrust because it wants to dominate the market for ink cartridges – effectively repeating the successful model for inkjet (paper) printers. And eventually, 3D printing may rival more conventional fabrication techniques for speed, leading to a vast array of inexpensive, customized products.

Back to the Future

There’s no question that 2018 will be an interesting year. Whether we’ll enjoy it or not depends on what kind of “interesting” things happen. And while nasty shocks and unsettling events seem to capture our attention, never lose sight of the fact that overall, things have been getting better for centuries, and that’s likely to continue.

There are fewer really poor people in the world as a percentage than ever before in history. We are developing the ability to cure or treat diseases and conditions that have bedeviled humanity throughout history, and our standard of living continues to rise beyond what our ancestors would have believed possible.

We continue to be guardedly optimistic about tomorrow’s world, and remain firm in our beliefs that each of us has more influence over our own futures than any other factor.

And if we can help your organization plan and prepare for the future you want, so that you can turn the changes coming to your advantage, please don’t hesitate to contact us.