We are moving toward a computer-augmented world with clean energy from the sun, self-driving cars, major breakthroughs in medicine and few, if any, famines. That’s the view of Robert Reichenthal, an optimistic futurist who spoke to a Livermore audience last week.

We will enter that world after a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” that is just getting underway with the advent of AI – artificial intelligence – and the ability of computers to undertake tasks far better and faster than humans, Reichenthal said.

There are still some dangers, largely because we still have the power to make “really bad choices,” he said, but if we plan right, the problems should amount to mere “bumps along a positive trajectory.”

Reichenthal is an author, teacher and podcast host with nearly 30 years of experience advising governments and companies about emerging technologies and trends. His talk was part of the Rae Dorough Speaker Series, held at Livermore’s Bankhead theater.

He also served as chief information officer for Palo Alto, one of the top digital cities in the U.S. He has won a variety of awards and honors for his technology forecasting.

Profound Changes

Historically, Reichenthal believes, each of the three industrial revolutions to date has brought profound changes to our economies, culture, demographics and health.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is now emerging from the Third. It will bring largely positive changes, although the timing is uncertain and some change may be beyond our power to imagine.

Reichenthal traces the first Industrial Revolution to the advent of steam power for industry and transportation in the 1700s. Steam-powered factories attracted people to industrial centers, while trains allowed people to move between cities and eventually cross great landmasses, such as America and Russia.

The Second Industrial Revolution got underway in the following century, after electricity was harnessed, enabling long-term changes in communication, lighting, lifestyle and many other activities that still influence us today.

“It’s because of steam, electricity, and the movement of humans that we started to move into cities, to work in factories,” he said.

“In America, just in 200 years, we went from one or two percent who live in cities to 98 percent who live in cities, as a consequence of industrialization.”

Reichenthal believes the Third Industrial Revolution was driven by Sputnik, the world’s first successfully orbited satellite. Americans could not tolerate the idea that another nation – particularly our strategic adversary, the USSR– could beat us to space.

“We didn’t like the Russians having the first spaceship up in the sky looking down at us, and there was nothing we could do. We panicked and said, ‘We have to do that, and do it better.’”

Our reaction, he told the Bankhead audience, was technological. We developed the transistor, which led to integrated circuits, which in turn led to faster computers, iPhones and many other electronic devices that became the platform for the Third Industrial Revolution.

Just Beginning

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is emerging from the Third and is “just beginning. The big transformation is ahead of us, not behind us.”

He expects change in the coming revolution to happen with extraordinarily speed, as trends that once took years to develop now happen in days or hours. As an example, he cited is how quickly it takes selected industries to reach 50 million customers, as the world of commerce and electronic communication evolves.

It took 64 years for the airline industry to develop 50 million customers, he said. It took 12 years for the mobile phone industry to reach 50 million; one year for the Chinese messaging app WeChat; and 19 days for the augmented reality game Pokemon Go.

Change will be global in scope and impact, with software written in Silicon Valley affecting billions around the world, for better or for worse.

Change will also involve the convergence of multiple factors. “Don’t just think ‘artificial intelligence,’ think about ‘artificial intelligence plus.’ Artificial intelligence plus healthcare, for example.”

Take Uber, for instance. Why didn’t Uber exist 10 or 12 years ago? “It didn’t exist because all the parts required to make it work weren’t available.”

Just as the rise of GPS service, online payment systems, big data, social computing and smart phones made Uber possible, the rise of future advances augmented by artificial intelligence – sometimes described as the ability of computers to learn to solve problems — will pave the way for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Beating Humans

Reichenthal said that computers have shown in many contexts that they can be far superior to humans in certain applications. Computers programmed with the rules of complex board games, like Go and chess, made use of artificial intelligence techniques to outperform human masters.

Far more impressively, Reichenthal said, a Google team challenged its Alpha Zero computer program to learn the rules of Go and then to decide how to play the game. It then beat a human.

“It did it in blazing speed. It figured out how to play the game; it figured out how to win.

“That’s the world we are moving into. That’s why this is a whole new day. Because once it can beat the humans, the computer will never go back. The very next day, it’s going to be better, and the day after that, better again.”

As fast as computers have become, their rapid growth in power probably can’t continue through classical methods, he said. He expects that an innovative approach known as quantum computing may get around that limitation and create a way to speed up computing by a factor of a million.

He believes solar energy is the wave of the future, with prices declining as the technology improves and becomes more widespread.

“The sun gives us energy every single day. We just have to tap into it. It is largely free,” he said.

He also anticipates the end of the combustion engine within the foreseeable future.

“In some countries we have dates for these things. In Scandinavia, 2035 is pretty much the cut-off point” after which combustion-driven cars will not be sold. “That’s not long. We are closer to 2035 than we are to 2000.

“(The cut-off date) is 2045 in India. They won’t sell a combustion engine car after that. Pretty ambitious, pretty remarkable. So we are moving to a world of electric cars.”

He believes self-driving cars are becoming a reality and should be in widespread use within 30 years. Because future cars will be “connected” – that is, they will communicate with each other through wireless transmissions – it will no longer be necessary to have traffic signals or traffic lanes.

“Cars driving themselves don’t care about lanes; they just care about getting you there safely. The lanes are for us.

“We won’t need the grid system… We can completely redesign our cities…over decades as we begin to think of the needs of the city differently.

“It’s my view and the view of several others that the emergence of autonomous vehicles may be one of the most game-changing technologies of the first 50 years of the 20th century.”

On the cautionary side, he said that revolutionary changes to demographics, economics and technology will happen “in the context of a changing climate, and this matters.”

He showed time-lapse animation of the globe depicting two centuries of warming, with some regions getting significantly hotter in recent years than the global average, which is about one degree Celsius.

“After two degrees, the Earth becomes very unstable,” he said. “This (time-lapse animation) is data from 2015. I just read the other day that the last five years are the hottest years ever recorded.

“The numbers keep getting more difficult as we go into the future.” However, we will get through this, he said. “We will adapt.”