Thinking about the far reaching future is hard, especially when current business has to be addressed. But how will these innovations shape product today, tomorrow and beyond?

Thirty years ago, Stephen Hawking published A Brief History of Time, Steve Jobs unveiled the NeXT Computer, and Die Hard hit cinemas for the first time. The World Wide Web had not yet been invented.

A lot can change in a few short decades, whether guided by advances in science and technology or by changing ideas and politics. Ahead of the 2018 Hay Festival, we asked 15 leading writers and thinkers to answer one question: Which innovation will most change the way we live by 2050?

Below are their responses - which range from driverless cars to neural implants, plus a rather unexpected bet on the return of snail mail.

Nigel Shadbolt, co-author (with Roger Hampson) of The Digital Ape: How to Live (in Peace) with Smart Machines

Personalised digital companions. They won’t need to be self-aware to be a real presence in our lives. From cradle to grave, our AI-powered chums will play with us, be our teachers and tutors, help us remember, shop and bargain for us, console and cajole us. They will be in every aspect of our lives, become trusted sources of information, knowledge and perhaps even wisdom. They will, after all, have the power of the future web to draw on, as well as the social networks they and we engage with. All of this with no one at home in their digital circuits, but it won’t feel like that as we share every aspect of our lives with them.

Hannah Critchlow, scientist and author of Consciousness: A Ladybird Expert Book

Optogenetics. Born in the first decade of the 21st century, optogenetics is one of the most revolutionary innovations – so much so that I’m willing to wager the inventors will win a Nobel Prize for it. The technique allows researchers to instantaneously and precisely switch on, or off, discrete pathways in the brain. This single technique has revealed how complex behaviours from love to social anxiety or addiction are directed in our brains simply by the flick of a switch – by lighting up, or dimming down, the activity in a specific circuit in our brains. It uses genetic tricks to convert light energy into electrical activity in the nervous system. The way it has opened up our understanding of psychiatric conditions is unprecedented and it’s exactly this that spurred one of its creators, psychiatrist Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University, to invent it.

Sue Black, author of All That Remains

A national identity database. I suspect that by 2050 we will have lost physical money and plastic debit and credit cards. Our biometrics will instigate every one of our transactions via the digital world and internet of things. The interaction will occur at different levels of security using our fingerprints, retinal scans, facial recognition, voice and DNA. Some of these will be captured at birth – and the birth certificate will be a thing of the past, replaced by a biometric chip. By stealth we will have introduced a national identity database.

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