What will Iowa’s farms look like when the combines and tractors drive themselves?
How will Des Moines’ banking and insurance sectors fare when supercomputers run financial markets?
Where will Iowans live when a self-driving car can take them anywhere with the tap of a smartphone?
These are the kind of questions Thomas Frey ponders.
Frey is the founder of the DaVinci Institute, a Colorado-based think tank, and a futurist whose predictions and TED Talks have made headlines in numerous publications.
He is speaking Friday in Johnston at a regional breakfast hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The event, at 7:30 a.m. at the Goodwill of Central Iowa Headquarters, is $20 for members of the Partnership and $30 for nonmembers.
In an interview with the Register, Frey discussed what he envisions for Iowa in the coming decades. As someone who grew up on the back of a John Deere tractor in South Dakota, Frey said he understands how technology and innovation can change a state like Iowa.
Here are six of his predictions.
1. Farms tended by drones
Farm consolidation will continue as automated equipment allows massive farms to be managed by one person.
“The person operating the farm will be more like the conductor of an orchestra with all the machines and equipment taking directions from the farmer,” Frey said.
A fleet of airborne drones will monitor crops, spray fertilizer and apply pesticides. “Drones will be the worker bees that replace a lot of the manual labor,” he said.
Drones won’t just be in the air. In the next two to three decades, Frey predicted, tractors, combines and other farm vehicles will be self-driving.
2. Upended finance and insurance industries
Finance and insurance industries, which are critical to central Iowa’s economy, should expect wholesale changes. Supercomputers will all but eliminate risk, changing the way people manage and invest money.
“I don’t see how the stock market will survive, not in its present form,” Frey said. “With quantum computers and artificial intelligence coming around the corner, chance will be eliminated to the nth degree.”
3. Insurance shifts from cars to drones
Frey expects self-driving cars to take over the roads in the next two to three decades. As the technology improves and human error is eliminated, collisions will be greatly reduced and the need for auto insurance will shrink.
But as flying drones begin delivering packages and fulfilling other tasks, the need for drone insurance will skyrocket.
“Creating insurance policies for drones will be one of the challenges of the future,” Frey said.
4. Self-driving car fleets replace public transit
The future of bus routes and other public transit has been the focus of much discussion in Des Moines recently.
But public transit could be made obsolete by the advent of self-driving cars, Frey said. He sees a future in which people no longer have personal cars but can subscribe to a ride service to hail a self-driving car with a smartphone.
“The mass transit systems I think are going to have a hard time surviving because these vehicles that you can summon to take you anywhere will be very efficient,” he said.
5. Waves of job losses and ‘super employment’
Frey has made headlines for predicting automation will eliminate 2 billion jobs worldwide by 2030.
“It was intended to be a wake-up call,” he said.
Technologies like 3-D printing, driverless vehicles, artificial intelligence and virtual reality will transform society, each creating as much change and opportunity as the advent of the internet, Frey said.
Such technologies will create more jobs than those lost to automation, Frey said. But filling them will require a better education system and massive investment in high-tech infrastructure projects.
“I actually see us entering a time of super employment,” he said.
6. Rural areas benefit from technology
For years, rural Iowa has seen its population shrink, resulting in empty schools, blighted main streets and fewer businesses and neighbors.
But Frey said some technology could temper the forces driving people away from rural areas. Rural residents will be able to have goods delivered by drones, telecommute to work using virtual reality and get rides to urban areas via self-driving cars.
“As we move into a driverless car era, distance becomes much less important,” he said. “Just think 10 years from now, you will step on your front porch, pull out your smartphone … and a driverless car comes and picks you up and takes you where you want to go.”