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How will the Internet and communication technologies change our lives? Rather dramatically and in vastly unpredictable ways, say Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google and Jared Cohen, Director, Google Ideas. It won't be too long, they predict, before everyone on Earth will be connected. And this boom in digital connectivity will "bring gains in productivity, health, education, quality of life and myriad other avenues in the physical world..."

The proliferation of communication technologies has advanced at an unprecedented speed. In the first decade of the twenty-first century the number of people connected to the Internet worldwide increased from 350 million to more than 2 billion. In the same period, the number of mobile-phone subscribers rose from 750 million to well over 5 billion (it is now over 6 billion). Adoption of these technologies is spreading to the farthest reaches of the planet, and, in some parts of the world, at an accelerating rate.

By 2025, the majority of the world’s population will, in one generation, have gone from having virtually no access to unfiltered information to accessing all of the world’s information through a device that fits in the palm of the hand. If the current pace of technological innovation is maintained, most of the projected eight billion people on Earth will be online.

At every level of society, connectivity will continue to become more affordable and practical in substantial ways. People will have access to ubiquitous wireless Internet networks that are many times cheaper than they are now. We’ll be more efficient, more productive and more creative. In the developing world, public wireless hot spots and high-speed home networks will l reinforce each other, extending the online experience to places where people today don’t even have landline phones. Societies will leapfrog an entire generation of technology.

Eventually the accoutrements of technologies we marvel at today will be sold in flea markets as antiques, like rotary phones before them.

And as adoption of these tools increases, so too will their speed and computing power. Moore’s Law, the rule of thumb in the technology industry, tells us that processor chips- the small circuit boards that form the backbone of every computing device- double in speed every eighteen months. That means a computer n 2025 will be sixty four times faster than it is in 2013. Another predictive law, this one of photonics (regarding the transmission of information), tells us that the amount of data coming out of fiber-optic cables, the faster form of connectivity, doubles roughly every nine months. Even if these laws have natural limits, the promise of exponential growth unleashes possibilities in graphics and virtual reality that will make the online experience as real as real life, or perhaps even better. Imagine having the holodeck from the world of Star Trek, which was a fully immersive virtual-reality environment for  those aboard a ship, but this one is able to both project a beach landscape and re-create a famous Elvis Presley performance in front of your eyes. Indeed, the next moments in our technological evolution promise to turn a host of popular science-fiction concepts into science facts: driverless cars, thought-controlled robotic motion, artificial intelligence (AI) and fully integrated augmented reality, which promises a visual overlay of digital information onto our physical environment. Such developments will join with and enhance elements of our natural world.

Tele-medicine in rural areas is inevitable. Photo courtesy: healthresearchforaction.com

This is our future, and these remarkable things are already beginning to take shape. That is what makes working in the technology industry so exciting today. It’s not just because we have a chance to invent and build amazing new devices or because of the scale of technological and intellectual challenges we will try to conquer; it’s because of what these developments will mean for the world.

Communication technologies represent opportunities for cultural breakthroughs as well as technical ones. How we interact with others and how e view ourselves will continue to be influenced and driven by the online world around us. Our propensity for selective memory allows us to adopt new habits quickly and forget the ways we did things before. These days, it’s hard to imagine a life without mobile devices. In a time of ubiquitous smart phones, you have insurance against forgetfulness, you have access to an entire world of ideas (even though some governments make it difficult), and you always have something to occupy your attention, although finding a way to do so usefully may still prove difficult and in some cases harder. The smart phone is aptly named.

The vast majority of us will increasingly find ourselves living, working and being governed in two worlds at once. In the virtual world we will experience some kind of connectivity, quickly and through a variety of means and devices. In the physical world, we will still  have to contend with geography, randomness of birth (some born as rich people in rich countries, the majority as poor people in poor countries), bad luck and the good and bad sides of human nature. Sometimes these worlds will constrain each other; sometimes they will clash; sometime they will intensify, accelerate and exacerbate phenomena in the other world so that a difference in degree will become a difference in kind.

On the world stage, the most significant impact of the spread of communication technologies will be the way they help reallocate the concentration of power away from states and institutions and transfer it to individuals. Throughout history, the advent of new information technologies has often empowered successive waves of people at the expense of traditional power brokers, whether that means the king, the church or the elites. Then as now, access to information and to new communication channels meant new opportunities to participate, to hold power to account and to direct the course of one’s life with greater agency.

The spread of connectivity, particularly through Internet-enabled mobile phones, is certainly the most common and perhaps the most profound example of this shift in power, if only because of the scale. Digital empowerment will be, for some, the first experience of empowerment in their lives, enabling them to be heard, counted and taken seriously-  all  because of an inexpensive device they can carry in their pocket. As a result, authoritarian governments will find their newly connected populations more difficult to control, repress and influence, while democratic states will be forced to include many more voices (individuals, organizations and companies) in their affairs. To be sure, governments will always find ways to use new levels of connectivity to their advantage, but because of the way current network technology is structured, it truly favours the citizens.

So, will this transfer of power to individuals ultimately result in a safer world, or a more dangerous one? We can only wait and see. We have only begun to encounter the realities of a connected world: the good, the bad and the worrisome.

(Excerpted from the book, The New Digital Age by the authors.)

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