How a sci-fi writer envisions the future – and how SA can keep up

2019-10-22 04:50 - Gabi Zietsman
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What will travel look like in 30 years?

People driving will be rare - instead you’ll order a wheel-less, pedal-less horizontal pod taxi driven by a computer.

For longer distances, you might even just hop onto a sleeper car where you’ll arrive at your destination feeling refreshed.

You might even order an autonomous, electric air taxi for longer distances for wine weekend away.

However, aviation will probably still look the same.

“I think it will be similar in some ways and very different in others.”

This is how Ramez Naam sees our future. Former Microsoft executive, entrepreneur and sci-fi writer, he sees a world becoming ever-more connected, overcoming barriers of understanding and distance through technology.

READ: #FutureProofAfrica: Putting humanity back into exponential technology 

Smartphone still a game-changer

And the technology that will still be driving our future for the next decade is the mobile smartphone. Paired with the internet, cloud services and artificial intelligence, it’s a superpower in our pocket, and Africa will be the last continent to tackle this bastion of growth.

“Most Africans have a feature phone, not a smartphone – five years ago feature phones outside of South Africa and parts of the middle east dominated, but now you have countries where a quarter of the phone subscribers have smartphones.”

And while Africa is the least connected continent in the world at the moment, Naam believes this headroom creates the potential for new connections to form, including perhaps leapfrogging in some important ways.

“I think that it’s instructive to look at China in some ways – China went straight from cash-only to a multi-trillion-dollar mobile payments-via-your-phone infrastructure before there was ever mobile payment happening in the US or Europe.’

In travel, besides being our trusty guide while adventuring in unknown locations, our phone also becomes our most important tool to super connect with others across language barriers.

Skype, for example, launched technology that instantly translates language in a call into the person’s own voice instead of using an out-of-place narrator or robot voice – just another step to create seamless translation in our Babel-world.

“Everyone is reachable everywhere, everyone has access to educational tools, everyone has access to market prices, everyone has access to digital health solutions.”

READ: This app turns your phone camera into an all-knowing exploration device 

The gap in tech adoption

But as with any amazing new advancements, there’s always a big gap between developed and developing nations in terms of tech adoption – and us Africans always feel like we’re ten years behind everyone else.

Naam however believes that gap is becoming ever shorter in the digital sphere. By 2025, there will be 500 million mobile internet users in Africa, but when it comes to larger, more physical infrastructure we still have a long way to go.

“Put it this way – almost every African household will have a high-bandwidth smart device before every African household has a toilet.”

And it doesn’t mean the digital can’t also help fill in the gaps in physical infrastructure – farmers could have an app that lets them ‘Uber’ a tractor when they can’t afford to buy one.

ALSO SEE: Sawubona! Soon you'll be able to use the instant photo function on Google Translate for Zulu, Xhosa and Sesotho

But is South Africa ready for the future to come?

“I’m not sure any place is ready. People have to be introduced to something, get used to the idea and it has to go slowly.”

“And I do think there’s a problem with people in tech, that we assume ‘oh we’ll give people something and they’ll just love it’ - we don’t think of the backlash or the fear.”

Recently electric car charging stations were launched at hotels across SA to bolster the idea of e-mobility in a country dominated by distances, but when you hear the price tag of some of these stations and vehicles, you just wonder if we’ll ever see this coveted electric future.

Yet as we face off another round of Eskom load shedding and doomsday predictions of the state of our planet, change is more likely to come about forcefully, whether we’re ready or not.

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