Experts say ‘New Normal’ in 2025 will be far more tech-driven, presenting more big challenges

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SOURCE: Pew Research Centre — When pandemics sweep through societiesthey upend critical structures, such as health systems and medical treatmentseconomic life, socioeconomic class structures and race relations, fundamental institutional arrangementscommunities and everyday family life.

A new canvassing of experts in technology, communications and social change by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center finds that many expect similar impacts to emerge from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Asked to consider what life will be like in 2025 in the wake of the outbreak of the global pandemic and other crises in 2020, some 915 innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists responded.

Their broad and nearly universal view is that people’s relationship with technology will deepen as larger segments of the population come to rely more on digital connections for work, education, health care, daily commercial transactions and essential social interactions. A number describe this as a “tele-everything” world.

Notable shares of these respondents foresee significant change that will:

  • worsen economic inequality as those who are highly connected and the tech-savvy pull further ahead of those who have less access to digital tools and less training or aptitude for exploiting them and as technological change eliminates some jobs;
  • enhance the power of big technology firms as they exploit their market advantages and mechanisms such as artificial intelligence (AI) in ways that seem likely to further erode the privacy and autonomy of their users;
  • multiply the spread of misinformation as authoritarians and polarized populations wage warring information campaigns with their foes. Many respondents said their deepest worry is over the seemingly unstoppable manipulation of public perception, emotion and action via online disinformation – lies and hate speech deliberately weaponized in order to propagate destructive biases and fears. They worry about significant damage to social stability and cohesion and the reduced likelihood of rational deliberation and evidence-based policymaking.

At the same time, a portion of these experts express hope that changes spawned by the pandemic will make things better for significant portions of the population because of changes that:

  • inaugurate new reforms aimed at racial justice and social equity as critiques of current economic arrangements – and capitalism itself – gain support and policymaker attention;
  • enhance the quality of life for many families and workers as more flexible-workplace arrangements become permanent and communities adjust to them;
  • produce technology enhancements in virtual and augmented reality and AI that allow people to live smarter, safer and more productive lives, enabled in many cases by “smart systems” in such key areas as health care, education and community living.

These six themes were commonly expressed by these experts in their responses to a question that asked them to consider the changes that were set in motion in 2020 by the COVID-19 outbreak and describe what the “new normal” might look like in 2025.

Some 47% of these respondents said life will be mostly worse for most people in 2025 than it was before the pandemic, while 39% said life will be mostly better for most people in 2025 than it was pre-pandemic. Another 14% said most people’s lives in 2025 will not be much different from the way things would have turned out if there had been no pandemic.

Among the 86% who said the pandemic will bring about some kind of change, most said they expect that the evolution of digital life will continue to feature both positives and negatives. These expert views link in interesting ways with public attitudes. A Pew Research survey in August 2020 found that 51% of U.S. adults said they expected their lives to remain changed in major ways even after the pandemic is over.

This is a nonscientific canvassing, based on a nonrandom sample. The results represent only the opinions of the individuals who responded to the queries and are not projectable to any other population.

The bulk of this report covers these experts’ written answers explaining their responses. They sounded many broad themes about the ways in which individuals and groups are adjusting in the face of the global crisis, describing the most likely opportunities and challenges emerging as humans accelerate their uses and applications of digital technologies in response. It is important to note that the responses were gathered in the summer of 2020, before the completion of the presidential election in the United States and before COVID-19 vaccines had been approved.

As these experts pondered what was happening in mid-2020 and the likely changes ahead, they used words like “inflection point,” “punctuated equilibrium,” “unthinkable scale,” “exponential process,” “massive disruption” and “unprecedented challenge.” They wrote about changes that could reconfigure fundamental realities such as people’s physical “presence” with others and people’s conceptions of trust and truth.

They wondered, too, if humans can cope effectively with such far-reaching changes, given that they are required to function with “paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology,” in the words of biologist E.O. Wilson.

Among the scores of changes they see is the emergence of: an “Internet of Medical Things” with sensors and devices that allow for new kinds of patient health monitoring; smart millimeter wave machines to diagnose people with disease symptoms; advances in synthetic biology and computational virology that improve drug testing and targeted disease therapies; diagnostic screenings that cover a person’s diet, genes and microbiome; handheld detection devices that citizen swarms use to address environmental problems; and a new class of tele-care workers.

Additionally, these experts forecast the creation of 3-D social media systems that allow for richer human interaction (sometimes via hologram avatars); mediated digital agents (interdigital agents) gradually taking over significantly more repetitive or time-consuming tasks; a “flying Internet of Things” as drones become more prolific in surveillance, exploration and delivery tasks; ubiquitous augmented reality; an expanded gig economy built around work-from-home free agents; urban farming that reaches industrial scale; advances in trusted cryptocurrency that enable greater numbers of peer-to-peer collaborations; locally based, on-demand manufacturing; “local in spirit and local in practice” supply chains; a robust marketplace of education choices that allow students to create personalized schooling menus; “tele-justice” advances that allow courts to handle large numbers of cases remotely; “truth valuation” protocols that diminish the appeal of disinformation; and small, safer nuclear reactors for energy production.

At the more everyday level, these experts also think there will be better speech recognition, facial recognition (including sentiment discernment from facial expressions), real-time language translation, captioning and autocorrect capacity, sensory suits, robust video search, body motion sensors, 3D glasses, multimedia databases and broader network bandwidth that will enable full 3D virtual experiences and developments in AI allowing it to serve more of people’s needs.

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