Robots and drones will be as much a part of our lives in the future as smartphones are today. People still wanting to drive their cars themselves in 2025 will have to pay higher insurance premiums. And heavy machinery will be a thing of the past. Futurologist Lars Thomsen presents his visions.
What will the life of a child born today be like when it is as old as its parents are now?
That child will grow up in an era when the child itself will be the world's rarest commodity. Businesses and employers will fight over it. It will also be amazed to hear from its parents how they had to go to work every day and work 40 hours a week before getting paid. The child, by contrast, will be paid according to what it can do well. At home, there will probably be a robot to do the cleaning, empty the dishwasher and tidy up. That might sound Utopian, but if you had told your parents that we would all be walking around with little computers in our pockets and be permanently connected to the Internet, they would not have believed that either.
Will the child learn to drive?
There will be no need to. It will get from A to B by pressing a button to call a driverless vehicle which will then pick it up and take it to its destination. Driverless vehicles will be common as soon as 10 years from now. There will still be people who want to drive themselves, but they will have to pay higher insurance premiums because driving an auto-piloted car will carry a much lower risk of accident than driving yourself. This is a development that, even for me as a futurologist, is progressing at a surprisingly fast pace. Even now, there are drones that can land on a car park, pick up passengers, and fly to the next town. So far they are just prototypes, but the fact is that the technology to do this exists.
How much longer will vehicles be driven by IC engines?
That depends on the vehicle. The last cars to be powered by internal combustion will have rolled off the production line by the end of the 2020s. At present, you have to pay around twice as much for an electric car as for a fuel-burner. But the battery prices are dropping by about 9% a year and at some point there will be parity between fuel-burning and electric vehicles. Some heavy-goods vehicles will be powered by internal combustion engines for longer – fuelled either by gas or diesel. That is because, over long distances, the internal combustion engine can run very efficiently. But I expect that by the end of the 2030s at the latest, the electric motor will establish itself as a better alternative in this area too. And by then lorries will no longer look like they do today. Containers will drive themselves about - they will just sit on an electrically-powered, driverless chassis. Whether there will be a fully automatic battery replacement system by then or whether the system will be recharged by induction loops in the road is a question we cannot answer at present.
And what about off-road vehicles?
That depends entirely on application. In towns with good infrastructure, construction vehicles will undoubtedly be electrically powered in the near future. In remote areas such as a mine in Alaska or a difficult-to-access railway line, for example, off-highway vehicles and trains will certainly continue to be powered by IC engines. I think there will be two options for every vehicle category - either a conventional powertrain with IC engine, or an electric motor. Which option the operator prefers will depend on the environment in which the vehicle is to be run.
In the early days of engine development, the primary concern was engine power. Then, over the years, factors such as fuel consumption, availability and emissions levels also began to play a role. What will a 5th-generation combustion engine have to look like if it is to have a future?
There will be two major issues: emissions and efficiency. The emissions issue will occupy us for many years to come and the limits will get tighter and tighter. And if the internal combustion engine is to have a future, it will have to squeeze more and more out of our diminishing resources of oil or gas – in other words it will have to be ultra-efficient. It is foreseeable that a fossil-fuel tax on CO2 will be levied in a large number of countries. When that happens, fuel-efficiency will become even more crucial.
So what will our engines mainly be powering in the future?
I need to expand on that a little. We are living in a time that we futurologists call 'the end of stupidity'. For the first time ever, machines are being invented that can partially replace the human brain. This often comes under the general concept of artificial intelligence. For a long time, we thought that the most computers could do was perform calculations or play chess better than us. Now we are finding out that computers can drive cars better than us or produce better financial analyses than human analysts. Such artificial intelligence will change our lives entirely in the coming years. Just take a look at a building site for instance, where today lots of people and a few very large construction machines work. In 20 years' time, robots will undoubtedly have taken over most of the routine work from humans. That will also mean that machines will change. There will be an army of smart machines all networked together. They might excavate ditches on their own or carry away soil automatically. Those machines would no longer require one large engine but lots of small motors instead.
So which major trends will be relevant for the engine industry?
First and foremost, demographic change. Before long, businesses will have to compete for employees rather than people competing for jobs. And they will not be able to attract talented staff by money alone. Businesses are changing from being straightforward employers to shared-value communities. So corporate culture will play a decisive role when it comes to finding new staff. The second major trend that is relevant to industry is artificial intelligence, which I have just mentioned. It will firstly have an effect on machinery, both in development and production. Secondly, we should be prepared for a second generation of robots. In about ten years, robots will work with people in an integrated way in production. And we will use artificial intelligence in the office too. In five years we will hardly bother with e-mails any more. Computers will be able to read and understand them. They will become genuine assistants who relieve us of more and more routine tasks and help us deal with the information overload. Not to put too fine a point on it, we could say that artificial intelligence will ultimately save us from insanity because the interconnection of systems and the deluge of information will continue to increase – whether we like it or not. The third major trend is the use of renewable energy. Mineral oil and fossil fuels will soon lose their dominant position in the world's energy mix. Part of the reason is that energy produced by regenerative systems has already become cheaper than oil today. Maybe that also explains the collapse in the price of oil. Part of what is behind the 'sell-off' is the fear on the part of oil-producing countries that the age of oil will soon be over.
How will the Internet of Things change industry?
Drastically. Both in terms of product development and the products themselves and their use. Development is already completely digitalized today, but more digital tools are now being introduced. In the past, designers worked on a drawing board, then on a computer, and soon they will be using holographic representations and simulations. So they will be able to test engines before they are put on the test stand. This development has not yet come to an end, and will continue to accelerate. With the right tools, we will be able to produce more and more products in less and less time. Customized designs will be easier to produce as well. But the products will change too. The engines that power them will be intelligent enough to monitor themselves. The product will be able to communicate with the manufacturer, who will be informed as to how much wear has taken place and where servicing is required. That will make service intervals much more dynamic.
The future of mining is on the moon – how speculative is that statement?
Very. Although the moon is relatively close, it is difficult to reach. The transport costs would literally be astronomical. I do not believe we will see mining on the moon in our lifetimes.
So where does it stand?
Mining will diversify into intelligent mining. Because, although we can recycle a lot, we still need large quantities of raw material. But we will not necessarily continue to dig them out of gigantic mines. There will be larger numbers of smaller excavation sites, which we will have to operate intelligently. By intelligently, I mean that we need methods that only occupy small areas, do not destroy the landscape and use small amounts of energy, water and other resources in the mining process. Raw materials will not be available in such high concentrations as before either. Processing and refinement of raw materials and other materials will thus become a more important concern.
Which raw materials will we need in future?
We assume that the battery market will grow by a factor of a hundred in the next ten years. To make batteries, you need (depending on battery type) nickel, cobalt, graphite, iron, copper, aluminum and lithium. We will need increasing amounts of those raw materials.
At present there are 32 luxury yachts in the world whose length exceeds 100 m. For some decades there has been frenzied competition among the owners of such craft to have the biggest yacht in the world. Just now a Saudi prince is the holder of that honor. Will this madness continue?
We have an enormous concentration of wealth. The richest 67 people in the world have more money than 50% of the world's population added together. That disparity will increase and so the luxury market will continue to grow. People have a tendency to want bigger and bigger things. However, there is an uncertainty factor. There is a probability of 75% that there will be another major global economic crisis before 2020. We call it the "crisis of employment" and it will involve the loss of large numbers of jobs. Because if 20 to 30% of low-skilled jobs are lost in developed countries, our social welfare systems will have a massive problem. And that may also have consequences for the luxury sector.
And how will the transport of goods, freight and passengers by sea change?
It remains a growth market. As far as international freight is concerned, I see no alternative to transportation by sea. But once again, ships will increasingly be modernized and will undoubtedly soon have autopilot systems; and maybe some will be powered by hydrogen as well as LPG.
So is hydrogen a fuel that we can put our money on in future?
I do not expect hydrogen to establish itself as a fuel for land-based vehicles. The advantage of hydrogen is that re-fuelling is quick. Its disadvantage is its energy-efficiency, which is significantly lower compared to electric batteries. But for air and sea travel, hydrogen is of interest. In aircraft, for example, weight is a key factor, and hydrogen is very light. And large ships have the space for a large hydrogen tank; in those areas I could well imagine its use as a fuel, especially since it can be produced using renewable energy such as coastal wind power.
Where will our food come from?
At present we can see two trends in that regard. On the one hand, increasing amounts of food are produced organically and locally. Although such food is more expensive than the mass-produced alternative, more and more people value and promote that quality. The rest of the food industry is becoming increasingly industrialized. In addition, urban farming is gaining significance and offers much potential. Today, the average small farmer has enough land to manage two or three crop harvests a year. And he has to hope that there will be enough rain – but not too much – that the sun will shine, that there will be no big storms, no hail, and no attacks on crops by insects. But if you grow vegetables or cereals in a sort of high-rise greenhouse, you can control the wind with curtains, and use mirrors to adjust the sunlight to what the plants need. And you can constantly recycle the water. I expect that basic foods will be industrially produced – but less and less by traditional farmers and more and more by large food producers such as Nestlé or Kraft Foods.
And what types of vehicle will they need?
The organic farmer who produces food for the local market needs a very versatile vehicle. He does not want many individual pieces of machinery which are only put to use once a year. There will be multi-functional vehicles that are highly robotic. At the industrial level, we will see larger and larger vehicles which, of course, will be increasingly automated. In the case of urban farming, it is likely that there will be a new generation of vehicles that look very different from the large harvesters we see in the fields today. These will probably be robotic harvesters that know what to harvest when and how.
Locomotives, railcars or something entirely different? How will trains be powered in 2030?
Railways will remain important for a very long time. Electrification of lines will undoubtedly increase. But there will also be lines that are difficult to electrify and so will continue to be served by trains with IC engines. But there are some radically new ideas around. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, has proposed a vacuum tube called Hyperloop along which passengers and goods are transported in pods – extremely quickly and with low energy consumption – as if in a sort of super-sized pneumatic tube. The first prototype pipelines for such a system are currently under construction in the USA.
How will we generate energy in the future?
We have got an amazing fusion reactor up in the sky that has been supplying energy for at least five billion years. We will use it more and more in the future, either by means of photovoltaic technology or wind and water power. The fossil-fuel era is over, many renewable energies can compete with the price of fossil fuels today and will become even cheaper. If you compare their generated power output, a coal-fired power plant costs about three times as much to build as a solar power plant. But the coal-fired plant produces power around the clock, which solar panels cannot, so it generates three times as much electricity. So in future we will need vastly more storage capacity. The point at which solar plus storage system costs the same as a coal-fired facility will be reached within the next ten years. The same applies to nuclear energy, which is on its way out world-wide. If you take the disposal and storage of the radioactive waste into consideration, which is something you have to do, nuclear power is one of the most expensive types of energy we have.
And what will energy grids look like in future?
Localized and decentralized. Instead of a large power plant, there will be millions of smaller power plants that are intelligently controlled like an insect colony. The more renewable energy we feed into the grid, the greater the demand grows for storage systems and dynamic generation capacity. This is where the internal combustion engine might perhaps come into play again in the shape of combined heat and power modules. In the summer there is not much wind, in the autumn not so much energy – so we need micro-generation plants that can be intelligently operated so as to fill that gap.
How do you see the factory of the future?
Manufacturing in the future will be a combination of human and artificial intelligence. We need people with extensive technical and expert knowledge, quality-consciousness, process know-how and engineering skills together with a production concept that is smart enough to apply the expectations we have of people to production processes. The so-called "dark factory" in which there are no people will not happen. But we will have a production process in which the entire supply, logistics and production chains are fully integrated. Suppliers will know exactly when to supply which parts because they will be constantly informed of the status of production by their clients. Robots will then dispatch the necessary parts entirely automatically. That will substantially improve the efficiency and quality of production. And the other possibilities that it opens up we probably cannot even see at present. When the Internet was talked about at the end of the 1990s, there was massive hype surrounding it but nobody knew what its true potential was. It is similar with the 4th industrial revolution now. Everyone is talking about it but we have not yet properly grasped what it actually means. But there is a lot to come. We could manufacture highly complex products on very small production lines. Production will become localized, more modular, smaller-scaled, and more flexible.
Thank you for that fascinating look into the future. Finally, just one more question about your work. How do you make sure that you are really looking into the future and not just into a crystal ball?
Technical developments always follow a certain logical progression. If you have enough information to predict technological developments then you can forecast the dynamics of trends very well. New technologies are generally more expensive and perform less well in the beginning. But sometime or other there comes a point when they become cheaper and better than the conventional technology. We call it the tipping point. We are always looking for tipping points. For example, we might ask ourselves when it will be cheaper to use robots in hotels instead of chamber maids, or when it will be cheaper to use electric cars than petrol or diesel vehicles. To find those tipping points we spend many hours a day studying. We are always curious about the world around us so that we can understand things. Because the future can be shaped. It does not happen by chance. The future is shaped by thinking now about what it might look like.
And how far can you see?
We look 520 weeks ahead. That is ten years. When I say to people that it will take ten years for something to happen, it seems a long way away. But if I say it will take 520 weeks, that seems much closer. Everyone knows how quickly a week passes. Many people make the mistake of underestimating what can happen in ten years. Looking back it all seems logical. But who would have thought ten years ago that today we would all be carrying mini-computers around with us? It sounded like science fiction.
The content of the stories reflects the status as of the respective date of publication. They are not updated. Further developments are therefore not taken into account.