U.S. intelligence agencies envision the world in 2035

Some countries may ban drones because of their use in murder, gig workers will riot, but Africa will prosper thanks to solar and batteries

By 2035, developers will have learned to automate many jobs. Investments in artificial intelligence (A.I.) and robotics will surge, displacing workers. And a more connected world will increase -- not reduce -- differences, increasing nationalism and populism, according to a new government intelligence assessment prepared just in time for President-elect Donald Trump's administration.

The "Global Trends" report, unveiled Monday, is produced every four years by the National Intelligence Council. It is released just before the inauguration of a new or returning president. The council is tasked with helping to shape U.S. strategic thinking.

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This year's report, which details the challenges and threats facing the globe over the next 20 years, sees rising perils. The rapid advance of technology is a major reason why.

The study may be at its most clever in offering up some future outcomes in the form of "surprise" news stories, including:

  • On Feb. 3, 2019, wire services report "China Buys Uninhabited Fijian Island to Build Military Base." The government of Fiji sells the island -- 3,150 miles southwest of Hawaii -- for $850 million.
  • May 13, 2019, news media reports, "Mexico Outlaws Private Drones After Latest Assassination Attempt." This followed the fifth "drone-bomb" assassination.
  • Sept. 17, 2021, the headline news is "Gig Workers Riot in London and New York" over poor pay, job uncertainty and lack of benefits.
  • Feb. 11, 2032, "IMF says African Economic Growth Rate Surpasses Asia." The report cites availability of cheaper solar power panels and home batteries which "have revolutionized energy" and desalination technology that has stabilized food production.

The trends are global. Mega cities are sinking, about half of the world's aquifers are being bled dry, and in 20 years, half of the world's population will experience water shortages and in some places severe shortages, said Rod Schoonover, director of environment and natural resources, National Intelligence Council, at a webcast panel about the report.

Capabilities and basic science will also exist for individuals to develop their own, do-it-yourself weapons of mass destruction, said Suzanne Fry, director of the Strategic Futures Group at the National Intelligence Council. These terrorists will operate with the goal of "bringing armageddon to everybody," she said.

Advances in technologies are likely to change the nature of war in other ways, and will bring about increased use of cyber weapons, robotics and unmanned attack systems, the report said. In space, the deployment of anti-satellite technologies is expected to raise even more concerns.

On Earth, automation may outstrip the economy's ability to deliver new types of jobs -- something that has not been the case in the past when new technologies arrived on the scene.

Despite the dire expectations, these assessments are uncertain.

"The problem is always that it's easy to point to the troubling developing trends," Thomas Stork, an economist with the National Intelligence Council, said at the conference presentation. "It's more difficult to point to the as-yet unknown thing that is going to make it less troubling in the future."

The intelligence report doesn't see problems in supplying the world with energy. New sources of natural gas and declining prices of solar electricity are part of the reason. But water supplies are seen as a major challenge.

Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said many places in the world are "mining" for water to meet their needs, or getting it out of aquifers that can take thousands of years to fill. Globally, 21 of the 37 largest aquifers now "are being depleted unsustainably," she said.

But McNutt said water supply problems can be addressed with management and technology changes. She argued, for instance, that it is wasteful to use potable water to flush toilets, wash cars and clean sidewalks.

Soil degradation is another issue. The loss of soil productivity, mostly due to human-induced changes, "is already occurring at rates as much as 40 times faster than new soil formation," the report said.

The intelligence assessment cites not only the problems caused by rising temperatures and sea levels, but the possibility of sudden, dramatic shifts in the climate. That said, climate change will also create new industries, investment opportunities, and "drive both geopolitical competition and international cooperation as well."

In other words, climate change could become a rallying point for global cooperation -- if people can regain their trust in information. That lack of trust could work against a consensus on climate action or anything else. Technology, the report notes, has given individuals and small groups "the ability to exert worldwide influence."

All these changes and environment threats are happening at the same time tensions are rising globally. "A hobbled Europe [and] uncertainty about America's role in the world create openings for China and Russia," the report said,

Amid the report's many warnings and cautions about the next 20 years, was a little optimism.

"The United States has rebounded from troubled times before, however, such as when the period of angst in the 1970s was followed by a stronger economic recovery and global role in the world. Innovation at the state and local level, flexible financial markets, tolerance for risk-taking and a demographic profile more balanced than most large countries offer upside potential," the report said.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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