By Pam Benson
Unmanned vehicles, robotic aides to the elderly and surgical enhancements to make you stronger, smarter, or even give you night vision - it's all part of the world the U.S. intelligence community says could exist just 20 years from now.
In its "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds" report released Monday, the National Intelligence Council indicated future advancements in technology have the potential to boost economic productivity and reduce scarcity in food, water and energy worldwide.
In a briefing for reporters, Christopher Kojm, the chairman of the council added, "they will continue to extend the average age and life spans of populations around the world."
The report is the fifth in a series that looks 15-20 years ahead at the critical trends and the potential game changers.
It's intended to provide policymakers a way to think about the future of the world. Kojm said the council made a "special effort" to assess one of the game changers: the impact of new technologies in shaping global economic, social and military developments.
The world population is expected to grow by 1.2 billion by 2030 with 60% of people living in urban settings leading to additional mega cities.
Kojm said that "information technology based solutions will be critical to ensure the reliability of mega cities, to maximize economic productivity and quality of life while minimizing resource consumption and environmental degradation."
The report indicates advanced information technology capabilities will be critical for resource management, transportation systems, security and urban planning.
Automation and manufacturing technologies will play a crucial role in 2030.
Robots are already used in manufacturing, as vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, and on the battlefield to detect explosives. The military is expected to expand their use in high risk situations. The military has already begun outlining rules for how autonomous a robot could be if it is capable of lethal action.
The report states that "health care and elder care robots will become more autonomous and be able to interact with humans," even though the tasks they can perform will be limited to "specialized functions such as surgical support or certain tasks to assist with daily living."
Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is "a group of technologies that allows a machine to build an object by adding one layer of material at a time."
It's currently used in the automotive and aerospace industries and for consumer goods, and home versions have begun being sold. The machinery is cheaper, because it requires less industrial infrastructure. But the quality of the materials produced by additive manufacturing is not as good.
"The ability of developers to produce parts with sufficient strength in high volume at low cost is still highly uncertain," the report states. Although quality and cost limit 3D printing, the report states there is the potential in 2030 for it to "begin to replace some conventional mass produced products."
Unmanned aerial vehicles are already used by the military and CIA for spying and for killing terrorists hiding out in remote regions. But according to the report, UAVs could be used to monitor conflicts and enforce no fly zones by 2030. Self driving cars are likely to become more prevalent.
The growing population, particularly the middle class, will increase demand for food, water and energy.
"Key technologies that are likely to be in the forefront for maintaining such resources in the next 15-20 years will include genetically modified crops, precision agriculture, water irrigation techniques, solar energy and advanced bio-based fuels and enhanced oil and natural gas extraction," Kojm said.
Disease management is expected to continue to improve with advancements in DNA sequencing.
"Molecular diagnostic devices will revolutionize medicine by providing a rapid means for testing for both genetic and pathogenic diseases during surgeries," the report states, leading to faster diagnosis and treatment.
"Fully functional limb replacements, enhanced eyesight, and hearing augmentation" have the potential to be "widely available" in 2030, according to the report.
The military is currently experimenting with augmentation technologies that would enable troops to carry increased loads. Powered exoskeletons could assist the elderly with walking and lifting, improving their quality of life.
And the future holds the possibility of people augmenting their physical capabilities much like is done with cosmetic surgery.
"Future retinal eye implants could enable night vision and neuro-enhancements could provide superior memory recall or speed of thought," the study suggests. "Neuro-pharmaceuticals will allow people to maintain concentration for longer periods of time or enhance their abilities."
But human augmentation comes at a price and will likely be available only to those individuals who can pay for it.