Editor’s note: WRAL TechWire contributing writer Jen McFarland has  20+ years working in IT with experiences across a range of tools and technologies. She wants to help small businesses and teams design, improve, and maintain the technology that helps them succeed. In 2022, she incorporated Marit Digital.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In case you’re keeping track, the only thing anyone can agree on these days is that technology is radically changing daily life. The emergence of AI and VR (among other tools) this year has led to an unprecedented number of articles, conversations, and debates about how – and how much – we should include technology in our lives. It will either kill us or save us. But maybe both!

Continuing this trend of indecisiveness, last month, Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center released a report in partnership with the Pew Research Center entitled, “As AI Spreads, Experts Predict the Best and Worst Changes in Digital Life By 2035.”

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While this survey is nonscientific, from a nonrandom sample, the responses come from 305 people with an array of expertise including entrepreneurs, government and policy professionals, and staff of nonprofits, technology businesses, think tanks, as well as academics and technology innovators.

The survey was simple; it consisted of only three questions.

  1. As you look ahead to 2035, what are the BEST AND MOST BENEFICIAL changes that are likely to occur by then in digital technology and humans’ use of digital systems? (open-ended)
  2. As you look ahead to the year 2035, what are the MOST HARMFUL OR MENACING changes that are likely to occur by then in digital technology and humans’ use of digital systems? (open-ended)
  3. On balance, how would you say that the developments you foresee in digital technology and uses of it by 2035 make you feel? (multiple choice)

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Benefits and harms

The open-ended question led to a lot of content – this report is 232 pages. Among the commentary are novel thoughts about the uses and pitfalls of AI.

Jamais Cascio, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future wrote that most of the benefits can also be categorized as risks (and vice versa) by reframing them.

“[The same] technologies that help expand upon a person’s creative work could easily be used to steer a creator away from or toward particular ideas or subjects. The system doesn’t want you to write about atheism or paint a nude, so the elaborations and variations it offers up push the creator away from [so-called] bad themes.”

Cascio also referenced the potential of whole new swaths of data to be collected on each of us.

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“The intersection of machine learning AI and privacy is especially disturbing, as there is enormous potential for the invasion not just the information about a person, but what the person believes or thinks, as based on the mass collection of that person’s written or recorded statements.”

Catriona Wallace, the founder of the Responsible Metaverse Alliance, chair of the venture capital fund Boab AI and founder of Flamingo AI, sees enormous benefits.

“There will be AI-driven, 3D-printed, fully-customized prosthetics,” she wrote. “Improved widespread accessibility to experiences.”

Daniel Pimienta, the leader of the Observatory of Linguistic and Cultural Diversity on the Internet, suggested a future with a focus on developing a more robust appreciation and understanding of information.

“I hope to see the rise of the systematic organization of citizen education on digital literacy with a strong focus on information literacy. This should start in the earliest years and carry forward through life,” wrote Pimienta. “I hope to see the emergence of innovative business models for digital systems that are NOT based on advertising revenue, and I hope that we will find a way to give credit to the real value of information.”

More concerned than excited

Question 3, which was multiple choice, is the easiest to unpack. 37% of respondents were more concerned than excited about the developments they foresee, vs. 18% who were more excited than concerned. Another 42% were equally excited and concerned.

The big takeaway here is that there is more concern than excitement. This is both good and bad. AI has just taken a huge leap forward, so if ever there is a time to be excited, it’s now. The fact that there are so many negative scenarios being envisioned is probably a good sign. These concerns are legitimate, and the way to address them is to be aware of them, talk about them, and work together to solve them.

Bill Gates agrees with me. He posted to his blog earlier this week on the risk of AI, saying they are “real, but manageable.”

“Whether it was the introduction of cars or the rise of personal computers and the Internet, people have managed through other transformative moments and, despite a lot of turbulence, come out better off in the end.”

Gates did caution that work needs to be done quickly to mitigate the risks.

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“Governments need to build up expertise in artificial intelligence so they can make informed laws and regulations that respond to this new technology,” said Gates. “In the private sector, AI companies need to pursue their work safely and responsibly.”

Gates' post doesn’t mention the biggest risk, however, which is that the last twenty years have shown a real weakness, or at least sluggishness, in the government’s ability to regulate information technology.

To quote Scott Galloway, “We should not ignore the dangers of AI, but the real risks are the existing incentives and amorality in tech and our inability to regulate it.”

The vision of the future is in the past

As Gates said in his blog post, we've been in this kind of situation before.

"In a moment like this, it’s natural to feel unsettled. But history shows that it’s possible to solve the challenges created by new technologies."

Perhaps the insight we need can come from examining previous technological changes. For this, we can turn back to Elon's Imagining the Internet Center. In addition to surveys, their website has an impressive collection of predictions and quotes from the early Internet days including gems like:

Video conferencing bears a terrifying promise: Distance will no longer be an excuse for not attending meetings. – Steve Steinberg, 1994

There’s a big cinder block stuck on the technology accelerator pedal, and we’re only gonna go faster and faster, never stopping. – William Gibson, 1994

Much care has to be taken with design and education in order for the change to be positive. We don’t have natural defenses against fat, sugar, salt, alcohol, alkaloids – or media. – Alan Kay, 1994

At first glance these are fun, but another pass makes them seem less amusing and more… insidious. Maybe part of the problem with all the discussion on the future of technology is really our problem. Our uncertainties, tensions, and anxieties. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t do anything about it, but if I may leave you with one more quote,

No matter what circumstances we face or predilections we harbor, the business of living is love. Getting love and keeping love. Manufacturing love. Making love. Making love stay. And no worldwide web of cool chips and hot wires is going to change that. So just shut up about your Brave New World, bub; we’ve all still got to live in the frightened old one. – Philip Mart, 1995