What does 2018 hold in store?

Drones for good, a green internet, regulated Ai and data as consumer tool – all on the list of predictions for 2018 from Nesta. How many are likely to become reality next year? And, with the series in its seventh year, how have previous years’ predictions fared?

collab-economy-400pxIt’s a game folk love to play at this time of year – what does year ahead hold for us all? More serious players looking for answers in digital turn from the tea leaves towards the annual predictions of the future by the team of experts over at innovation foundation Nesta.

Nesta says its predictions – now in their seventh year – “aim to encourage discussion, debate and ultimately action, in areas as diverse as healthcare, the arts and innovation policy”.

Little surprise to learn that Nesta sees an immediate future where the growth of artificial intelligence continues. But it’s what that means for wider society, and for humanity, that surely interests.

In a blog, Nesta’s director of explorations Celia Hannon asks what, with many of the predictions tackling the rise of intelligent machines, “humans can still bring to the equation”.

There’s little doubt that 2017 has seen a realisation by the mainstream, and by people living beyond the tech sector bubble, that artificial intelligence is going to change the way we live and work, almost certainly forever. It’s a realisation that’s accompanied by a growing unease at many of the implications.

We’re not only nervous about what lies ahead; we’re deeply sceptical about the motives of the people creating the technology, and worried that our policymakers are failing to protect us.

Hannon points to last month’s public opinion survey by Demos showing a major trust deficit on big tech, with two thirds concerned that our MPs aren’t taking sufficient action to safeguard against the impact of the tech change before us.

regulators-data-consumers-400pxThe rise of intelligent machines will be matched by a continued growth in resistance to Silicon Valley power, predicts Hannon. “Several of our predictions this year would suggest that this so-called ‘techlash’ is coming of age; as collective movements, regulators and others move decisively to tackle power imbalances,” she says.

“If the past decade has been defined by big players pioneering a tech revolution, we may now be seeing the seeds of counter-reformation,” she says.

As evidence of this backlash, Nesta points to a year that has seen policymakers and workers push back against the gig economy and the business models that create it. Alice Casey and Peter Baeck say 2018 will see “increasingly mature experiments in new models of owning and organising”, from workertech to platform co-operatives.

And, in a further push back at the prevailing trends, Katja Bego predicts the growth of movements to make the internet greener, in response to the rising environmental cost of digital consumerism.

Nesta director Geoff Mulgan sees governments stepping in to regulate Ai for the first time, to address “the huge asymmetry between those using the algorithms and those whose lives are affected”, while Chris Gorst sees regulators waking up to the power of putting data into consumers’ hands.

Control of our data drives much of our anxiety about big tech, as that Demos survey showed. The centralisation of that control in the hands of Google and Apple could, predicts John Loder, lead to the acquisition of healthcare providers to help train their algorithms. “In common with so many other fields, the benefits of predictive analytics are appealing but the risks (on issues such as patient privacy) are also real,” says Hannon.

Public unease on privacy will only be compounded, predicts Lydia Nicholas, by the rise of machines capable of reading our emotions through facial signals. “How comfortable will we be with these tools in the hands of more or less scrupulous advertisers and employers,” asks Hannon.

health-data-400pxIt’s not all dystopian gloom and doom, however. Advances in machine learning are taking us to the point where machines have the potential to be creative in themselves. This opens up the exciting possibilities of “creative co-production” between artist and machine, says Georgina Ward-Dyer. And drones, so often the bete noir of the mainstream media, are given an optimistic outlook by Olivier Usher, who sees cities working to make sure they deliver public benefit, not just parcels.

The predictions game is a notoriously tricky one to play with any accuracy, with time being the ultimate judge. So it’s credit to Nesta for taking an honest look back at how its predictions for 2017 are progressing.

Hannon looks at the impact of technology on the nature of forecasting itself. “Now that machines are carrying out predictive analysis in fields as diverse as criminal justice, city planning and medicine no doubt we will be asked why, as fallible humans, we play the perilous game of prediction on a yearly basis,” she says.

“Even where there is such a thing as a ‘right answer’ which could conceivably be found by a perfectly constructed model – it falls to humans to define the questions we want to ask about the future. This is where machines, acting alone, still fall short.”

Nesta’s 10 predictions for 2018

1 Drones deliver public benefit, not just parcels, as cities take control of drones and guide them in a more socially useful direction

2 Humans and machines will create prize-winning art, with Ai emerging as a game-changer for the creative sector

3 The year the internet goes green, as we start to care about the impact of the internet on the planet

4 Guiding the smart machines, as governments will take the first serious steps towards regulating Ai

5 Tech giants race to buy a healthcare provider, turbocharging their efforts to train their algorithms

6 Smarter policy through simulation, just as SimCity trained a whole cohort of city planners

7 Regulators wake up to consumer data, as it starts to become a powerful tool for regulators and consumers alike

8 The collaborative economy changes direction, disrupting the disruptors who have created unintended consequences like the gig economy

9 The nation state goes virtual, as citizenship stops being determined by geographical boundaries

10 Emotional surveillance goes mainstream, as artificial intelligence that can read your emotions and predict mental health outcomes gets used and abused.

Illustrations for Nesta by Peter Grundy