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The Future, Ready or Not

From tiny sensors to massive data, UVA visionaries ponder the coming technology and all that comes with it

Efi Chalikopoulou

In the words of Mark Twain: “Prediction is difficult—particularly when it involves the future.”

But what about when it’s informed by research and scholarship? Surely then prediction is less perilous?

In that spirit, we asked UVA faculty members in a range of fields to tell us what’s coming down the road.

What’s on the horizon? Robots delivering our packages, sensors embedded in our bodies, big data revolutionizing our health care. Although we’ll have autonomous cars, many of us could walk and bike more to complete daily tasks, but not necessarily to commute. More of us will work from home, and even attend concerts and art exhibits from the comfort of our living rooms as life becomes more diffuse and individualized for many people.

Cooler Cars—But Fewer of Them

Peter Norton (Grad ’02), associate professor, Department of Engineering and Society

Peter Norton
Courtesy photo

Environmental sustainability depends on our driving less, not more, says Peter Norton, an associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society. And yet we’re being sold a future of more car dependency, in the form of autonomous vehicles.

Something has to give, Norton says.

So how will we get from Point A to Point B in the future?

Possibly like we did in the past.

“In the long run, what we need to do is adapt our geography so it’s more cost- effective to have transit, walking and cycling,” Norton says.

Such a shift would run counter to the past 80 years or so, when cars have been promoted as the solution to all our transportation needs, whether it’s a quick trip for a cup of coffee or a cross-country vacation. Self-driving vehicles are merely the latest example of this peddling of a car-dependent future in which the latest automotive technology can solve our problems, Norton argues in his book Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving.

The title is a fusion of the words “autonomous” and “Futurama,” which was the name of an exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in which General Motors presented an auto-centric vision of a city in 1960.

We’re still living in that world and dealing with the environmental fallout. The transport sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and advancements in technology alone can’t solve sustainability issues, Norton says. As dazzling as the technology is, electric and autonomous vehicles are still cars—energy-intensive solutions to everyday transportation needs.

“I am as impressed as the salespeople are at what the technology can do,” he says. “But the technology does not make dependency work.

“Everything that makes cars inefficient, expensive, unsustainable, spatially wasteful, all of those defects remain in toto,” he says. “We need to do more.”

What are the options? Norton does not envision our flying around in air taxis. To relieve traffic congestion on a large scale, millions would have to use them. Even if that were cost-effective, it would move the congestion elsewhere, to landing spots.

Hyperloops, in which trains pass through near-vacuum tunnels with little wind resistance, would be of little use for day-to-day trips, but could conceivably replace domestic airline travel, though the construction cost per mile would be “incredibly high,” Norton says.

Restrictions on driving aren’t a desirable solution either. The future depends not on shaming people but on offering them more options, Norton says.

Changes in zoning laws to allow for more mixed-use residential/commercial development are one relatively low-cost way to do that, he says.

Can it happen? Norton doesn’t see much choice. As a historian, he points to campaigns to reduce pesticides and smoking as precedents.

“We’ve gotten some things right before,” he says. “We can still have driving in the future, but we need to have a lot less of it, the same way we needed to have a lot less chemical pesticides.”

The Human/Technology Merger

Rosalyn Berne (Col ’79, Grad ’82, Grad ’99), professor, Department of Engineering and Society

Rosalyn Berne
Courtesy photo

If you think Alexa can read your mind now, wait until Amazon’s virtual assistant, or some other form of ambient intelligence, is actually embedded in it.

Rosalyn Berne, Olsson professor of applied ethics in the Department of Engineering and Society and a science fiction writer, sees a day in the not-too-distant future when sensors connected to intelligent systems and big data are implanted in our bodies.

“It’s likely to be very adaptive and easily personalized, and able to anticipate our needs,” Berne says. “We are right on the cusp of intelligent implants.”

These sensors have many possible applications. For example, a sensor could alert someone of a heart problem—while alerting a medical system at the same time. (See Data-Driven Health Care, below.) The data provided could route people to the hospital and specialist best equipped to treat them at that moment.

In education, sensors tuned to individual students could provide them with the materials they need through virtual reality.

Such technology would raise ethical questions around privacy, equity and even what it means to be human.

“The same issues we are dealing with with social media now, we’ll have to deal with them more profoundly because it won’t be something in a device you hold; it’ll be in a sensor that’s in your body,” Berne says.

The benefits of these embedded systems will go to those with the resources to participate, and likely won’t be distributed equitably globally, Berne says.

“What we’re going to end up having is pockets of humans that live differently than other humans because of these systems,” she says.

Some will opt out, Berne says, pointing to the current divide over vaccines.

“I imagine there will be tremendous hesitation at some level to go to that next step of merging human and technological systems,” she says.

Beep Boop Package Delivery

Nicola Bezzo, assistant professor, School of Engineering

Nicola Bezzo
Dan Addison

Robots and autonomous devices have slowly crept into our lives, vacuuming our floors, helping us drive our cars or sorting the boxes on warehouse shelves that are delivered to our doorsteps. And, in the next decade, thanks to tremendous advances in technology, the daily pres-ence of robots in our lives is only poised to grow, forecasts Nicola Bezzo, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering.

“We have the technology, we have the theory, and a lot of work has been done to make the system more and more autonomous,” Bezzo says.

Now the goal is to make those systems agile, efficient and resilient. And that’s possible, Bezzo says, thanks to improvements in just the past decade in machine learning, the process of teaching computers to learn; faster computational processing speeds; and better lasers, sen-sors and cameras, among other things.

Robots already are used in myriad business applications. They are automating warehouse operations and harvesting produce. Drones are flying over construction sites to provide images for inspections and to survey land. And robots are cleaning floors at airports and spraying disinfectants in bathrooms.

In the next five to 10 years, Bezzo predicts, better, faster robots will improve on what exists now and make other uses possible. His vision of the future includes, perhaps, airport-cleaning robots that don’t just wash floors, for example, but can, without human intervention, devel-op a cleaning schedule and determine which areas need more frequent cleaning.

At home, he sees the potential for package delivery by drones or autonomous vehicles and the continued growth and reliability of self-driving cars. (See Cooler Cars—But Fewer of Them, above.)

Some may fear that robots will take their jobs—or take over our lives. But as more robots become part of our day-to-day existence and take over tasks humans don’t want to do, Bezzo says, acceptance will grow. “People are starting to appreciate why we have autonomous sys-tems,” he says. “We can use our energy and time to do other things.”

Data-Driven Health Care

Phil Bourne, dean, School of Data Science

Phil Bourne
Sanjay Suchak

The future of health care is data.

From electronic health records to 3D imaging, wearable devices to inpatient monitoring systems, cellular research in laboratories to pop-ulation-scale modeling, an enormous volume of digitized data is now being generated, compiled, analyzed and applied to better understand and improve human health.

Phil Bourne, dean of the School of Data Science, predicts that in the coming decades not only the amount and variety of health data that is collected, but also our ability to use that data effectively, will reshape health and wellness in ways that we can barely begin to anticipate or imagine today. “It is going to change the face of health care,” he says.

Electronic health records are providing an ever-richer database of imaging, vital signs, health histories and more, not only for individual health profiles, but also for large-scale analysis. Researchers can already draw from databases built from tens of thousands of records; as those records become increasingly comprehensive, there will be “lots of opportunities to use that data to improve health care,” Bourne says.

The real-time data generated by consumer and medical wearables and other sensing technologies will lead to new breakthroughs as well, Bourne predicts. Inpatient monitoring will flag subtle signs of developing complications, while your smartphone might one day be able to detect the earliest indicators of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

Data will also drive the move toward care that is personalized for each patient. “We are getting a much broader and detailed window for looking into someone as an individual rather than as one of a cohort of people,” Bourne says.

Bourne also foresees that data from diverse sources will help us discern surprising associations. He cites recent research associating Yelp reviews and BMI or DMV data on accident types with specific internal injuries. “There is so much data from different sources that could be valuable that we now have greater access to.”

There are, of course, privacy and ethical concerns, with technological advances far outpacing our ability to manage, regulate and protect how data is gathered, accessed, shared, used and potentially misused. And it will be important, Bourne says, that people get the access, tools, and education to use their own data. But he’s bullish on the upside of this data future. “What we will see more of is health and well-being.”

More Flexible Work

Roshni Raveendhran, assistant professor, Darden School of Business

Roshni Raveendhran
Courtesy photo

Changes to the nature of work were already underway before a global pandemic proved that people could be just as productive, if not more, at home as at the office.

Two years in, “I don’t see a world where we’re going back to that pre-pandemic model,” says Roshni Raveendhran, a Darden professor whose research focuses on understanding the future of work and how technological advancements influence workplace practices and em-ployee management.

Raveendhran instead sees a more flexible model in which we can be more efficient and productive in less time, as long as employers un-derstand the psychological implications of technologies coming into widespread use and leverage them accordingly.

Take behavior-tracking technologies, which came into prominence during remote work as employers sought to keep tabs on their work-ers. Microsoft, for example, rolled out a new “productivity score” feature in its Office products, allowing employers to track employee behav-iors across 73 metrics, including how often employees turned on their cameras during meetings, how often they contributed to shared docu-ments/group chats, and how often they used Office tools.

“We would think these types of technologies are things we should be averse to,” Raveendhran says. “What we overlook is that we’re able to get a lot of information about our own behaviors from these technologies, in a way where we don’t feel judged if they are implemented in ways that do not have human involvement.”

Such technologies could tell us when we’re most productive, leading to greater efficiencies in structuring the when and where of work-days.

If information presented in a nonjudgmental way can empower remote workers, what about front-line workers who face a more direct threat from automation? Raveendhran anticipates their jobs will evolve as has been the case throughout history with advances in technology.

Robots, for example, could free waiters from having to carry heavy plates, allowing them to concentrate on making food recommendations.

“And maybe we won’t need a retail cashier to check us out, but that person could now be a personal shopper and really pay attention to what you want.

“You could think of it more as a human/technology partnership, rather than technology completely replacing those jobs.”

If her outlook is less dystopian than some, Raveendhran says, she has no choice but to be “cautiously, an optimistic futurist.”

“I don’t see our pessimism or resistance to technologies getting us anywhere meaningful,” she says. “If anything, the pandemic has shown us that life is pretty short, and if we can leverage technologies in a positive way to empower us to have more autonomy and control of our lives, that would be great.”

Connections for the Unconnected

Christopher Ali, associate professor, Department of Media Studies

Christopher Ali
Dan Addison

From telehealth and robotics to online learning and work-from-anywhere opportunities, so much of the future hinges on high-speed broad-band access across the country. But the reality is some 120 million Americans aren’t using it, often because it’s too expensive or not available where they live.

Gaps in access are common in rural and tribal communities and underserved urban neighborhoods, says Christopher Ali, an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies, whose new book, Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity, covers the digital divide.

But the pandemic underscored that access to high-quality, high-performing, affordable broadband isn’t simply a luxury, but a necessity—no different from roads or electricity, Ali says. “You heard these horror stories of folks having to spend hours in the parking lot of a McDonald’s or their local library.”

That new understanding, coupled with $65 billion for broadband investment in the recently enacted $1 trillion federal infrastructure package, are signals that there could be better connection in the future, Ali says. “The next five to 10 years is going to be about local commu-nication, local connectivity and local empowerment to solve the digital divide.”

There will be plenty of hurdles along the way, Ali says. The move to local services demands a shift away from rules and regulations that have historically favored larger broadband companies over small, local and municipal providers across the country.

But, already, local organizations have been stepping up to provide access in rural communities. Electric cooperatives in far-flung areas across the United States are establishing fiber-optic communication networks, and small cities and other municipalities are building broad-band connections for residents. Money from the infrastructure bill could fuel more local systems like these, closing the gap that leaves so many unconnected, Ali says.

“I want that family in Iowa, I want folks living in public housing to have the exact same connectivity as those who are living in that huge giant skyscraper that they built in Manhattan along Central Park,” he says.

Payments Go (Even More) Social

Lana Swartz, assistant professor, Department of Media Studies

Lana Swartz
Courtesy photo

If you pay rent or your kids’ babysitter with peer-to-peer payment apps like Venmo, Cash App, PayPal and others, you’re already part of the growing social-payment trend. Money doesn’t just exchange hands but is part of a social network of payments between friends, loved ones and business clients. Over the next decade, paying for things is only going to get more social, predicts Lana Swartz, an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies.

And that could mean that it will only be easier for any person or organization—from our friends and family to your favorite shoe brand and insurance company—to find out how we spend our money and with whom.

“Within the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see more and more of our personal payments being channeled through different kinds of social media platforms, and we’re going to have to decide how we, as a country, want that regulated or not and the terms of financial privacy,” Swartz says.

It’s a trend that started a decade ago in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Swartz says. The growth in the gig economy and online shopping and payments during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the transition away from dollar bills and paper checks.

“If the last crisis was the beginning of laying the groundwork for various new money experiences, this current crisis hit on very fertile ground for people who were inclined to experiment,” Swartz says.

This is good news for those eschewing the traditional 9-to-5 job and seeking more flexible lifestyles and ways of earning money, she says.

“Rapid modernization of payment systems is, by and large, a good thing,” Swartz says. “We just have to pay attention and make sure this modernization is happening in the public interest.”

That’s because it’s also rife for scams, which Swartz is studying. A focus on financial literacy education is necessary, along with a close look from lawmakers and regulators about how social media platforms operate more broadly, she says.

“There’s going to be a major reckoning—or not,” she says. “We’re going to see how power shifts in the next five to 10 years and whether these platforms are regulatable. Whether or not we get it right is going to decide the fate of many aspects of our children’s future, and that’s absolutely going to include money.”

Expanding Mental Health Support

Bethany Teachman, professor of psychology, director of clinical training

Bethany Teachman
Dan Addison

Rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed amid the stress, isolation and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting pressure on an already strained mental health system. Fewer than half of U.S. adults with mental illness received treatment in 2020, according to an October 2021 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

And it’s no surprise, psychology professor Bethany Teachman says, considering how treatment for mental illness often relies on highly trained professionals. “Right now, our reach is a bit small,” Teachman says. “We are absolutely failing to reduce the burden of mental illness as a society right now.”

But Teachman sees reason for hope in the next decade with advances in technology and a move to treatment models that don’t solely require doctoral-level professionals.

Already, we’ve seen growth in meditation apps in the market, such as Shine or Headspace, aimed at supporting our mental health. And re-search, Teachman says, suggests that shifting care from only professionals to trained laypeople can provide the right support for many suffer-ing from mental illness and flag cases that need more expert care from a doctor. The practice has been growing in popularity in Canada, Aus-tralia, Europe, Africa and the United States.

Teachman envisions a world in the next five to 10 years where people struggling with mental illnesses no longer need to wait for a therapy appointment. Instead, they can learn about resources and get help at their neighborhood drugstore or hair salon where people have received training to identify signs of mental illness and provide some level of care. And they can log in to digital mental health platforms to watch videos, skills training and other research-backed content that meets their individual needs.

More work is required before these innovations can launch in earnest.

“There are system-level changes that need to occur, but they are possible,” she says. “And if those things can happen in tandem with the innovation, I think we can really change the narrative right now where we reduce some of the stigma, increase access and allow for much more reach and ability to tailor to different people’s needs.”

Communal Art Consumption

Jack Hamilton, associate professor, Department of Media Studies

Jack Hamilton
Sanjay Suchak

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered concert venues and nightclubs for months, ticket sales for live shows were growing at a pal-try rate, according to Pollstar’s 2019 end-of-year report. Meanwhile, movie ticket sales in 2019 dropped by nearly 5 percent, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

The consumption of visual arts was becoming less of a shared experience, says Jack Hamilton, associate professor in the Department of Media Studies. And the pandemic only sped that up.

“People’s consumption of ... popular art is becoming a lot more atomized and individual,” he says. “I worry about the future of communal experiences of art in terms of actual physical bodied communal experiences—whether that’s going to a movie theater or a live concert.”

With algorithms that steer you to suggestions based on your listening and viewing habits, platforms like Spotify and Netflix are only fuel-ing this move to personalized art consumption as we binge-watch shows by ourselves or listen over and over to our own curated playlists.

“There are cool things about that, but I do think it’s kind of alienating,” Hamilton says. Lost are the communal experiences of seeing a movie in a packed theater on opening night or watching a performer on stage with a crowd of thousands of fans. “I think there’s a powerful thing about experiencing art in the presence of other people,” he says.

But, he says, he’s hopeful that even if the next generation doesn’t make concertgoing a priority, it will find other ways to experience art as a community. We’re already seeing that now as people share their annual Spotify Wrapped lists, which highlights their favorite songs, artists and genres for the year, or fans of TV shows hotly debate favorite characters on social media.

In the future, “you’re going to see an increasing atomization in the terms of the way that art is marketed to people and distributed to peo-ple, particularly mass art,” Hamilton predicts. “But I think at the same time, people will find new avenues to try to turn that into a more communal experience.”

Afrofuturism and Possibilities

Njelle W. Hamilton, associate professor, English and Africana Studies

Njelle W. Hamilton
Courtesy photo

Coined in the 1990s, the term Afrofuturism named a long-standing tradition among Black artists and creators who build futuristic worlds that bring in elements of culture and history from the Afri-can diaspora. It’s an artistic genre used by a broad range of authors, musicians and artists—from author Octavia Butler to musician George Clinton to the filmmakers behind Black Panther—that provides powerful images of Black characters who traditionally haven’t been show-cased in mainstream work.

“Just by seeing an always-free, never-colonized Black country in Africa where Black folk are regal and science-y and fighting off invaders, that imaginary world you can create then creates a possibility that you never imagined,” says Njelle W. Hamilton, an associate professor of English and Africana Studies and expert on Afrofuturism.

As the genre looks to the future, it’s often not so optimistic, using the Black experience of the past, including slavery and racism, to presage what will happen to all humans when, for example, alien overlords colonize Earth. In this post-racial future, “the human race comes together be-cause we have aliens, and now the humans are the Black folk of the galaxy,” Hamilton says. In other words, all humans, regardless of their background or race, face the same struggles that Black people have historically experienced.

Various works within the genre forecast the future on every topic—gender, sexuality, community, new technology and, of course, those alien overlords. They touch on, for example, climate despair or ravaged landscapes that might involve Caribbean islands underwater or major U.S. coastal cities as a memory. The work often isn’t imagining the future, she says, but prophesying what probably is going to happen in the next five to 10 years. “Part of it is ‘wake up and pay attention,’” she says.

And, while the storylines might be pessimistic, they also reveal better ways of being, she says. Readers and viewers are encouraged to im-agine the future and think about how that might inform what they do now to build a better path forward. The vision of the genre often is a world with more ethical care for people and the planet, Hamilton says. “By just imagining something different, that might inspire us in the present to move in the world differently.”

Ed Miller is Senior Editor of Virginia Magazine. Sarah Lindenfeld Hall is a writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Caroline Kettlewell is a writer based in Richmond, Virginia.