The Future of Society

future of society

Many of the stories today about artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality and other emerging technologies focus on the scary stuff—the dangers, the risks, the potential end of humanity as we know it. Dr. Nick Zingale, an associate professor at the Levin College of Public Affairs and Education at Cleveland State University (CSU), wants to focus on the positive. “There’s a real opportunity to reverse the current economic trend we have that is not healthy for us as a society—the separation between people who have resources and assets and those who do not. I see these technologies as an opportunity to level that playing field and provide access, and to democratize experiences,” he said.

Dr. Zingale spearheads the Society 5.0 initiative at CSU, which is built on the premise that humanity is rapidly approaching a fifth stage of development marked by the confluence of advanced technologies: artificial intelligence, human-machine systems, and augmented and virtual realities. Acknowledging the potential for all the scary stuff, he spends his time focusing on how the technologies being developed can be harnessed for good.

“We need to elevate the humanistic side of us that we’ve tamped down over the years,” he said. “Elevating ethics, spirituality, philosophy. It’s our job as human beings to assign meaning to the technology and assign structure and what we want it to do for us.”

Learn more about the PDF icon new interdisciplinary, 10-credit Society 5.0 certificate here, and read more below about what Dr. Zingale believes the future of society will look like and what we can do to prepare.

Q: What is Society 5.0?

A: Society 5.0 is the next major societal change. If you think of societies evolving, we’ve gone from Society 1.0, hunters and gatherers to Society 2.0, agrarian, where we started growing food to Society 3.0, industrial, where we started making things in a more efficient way to Society 4.0, technological, the computer age. If you do a search on the web, you’ll find a Japanese version of the term. The Society 5.0 I’m speaking of is much different from what Japan is talking about. Japan uses the term Society 5.0 to refer to a connected society, similar to the Internet of Things concept. To me, that’s more like Society 4.5. What constitutes a major societal change is when the technological innovation is so dramatic it reconstitutes how society functions as a whole, in terms of where we choose to live, how we choose to live, the relationships formed, the government structures that are created. Inhabiting a virtual world, being able to add tactile sensation to robotic things, that will restructure the societies we live in.

Q: How did a public affairs professor get interested in this subject?

A: About four years ago, the Internet of Things Collaborative (IOTC) between CSU and Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) formed with support from The Cleveland Foundation to drive cutting-edge, innovative technologies through collaboration between the two universities. The IOTC is about connected devices. How do parking meters talk to phones? How do we think about innovative lighting for security-related issues, or privacy and security of information? How do we improve manufacturing by using connected devices? Technologists are about creating the gadgets. My role has been to understand how humans are impacted by technology and what does it mean for society at large. Through the IOTC, I got connected to Dustin Tyler at CWRU who was starting the Human Fusion Initiative, which is about connecting the body to prosthetic devices. Dustin and his team made a breakthrough about three years ago where they incorporated Bluetooth technology to provide tactile sensation to a synthetic hand. They put tactile sensors on the end of a robotic hand and connected them through Bluetooth technology to sensors in the body. It was a very emotional development. Someone began to have sense again in a hand that they hadn’t had sense in in years. What we began to learn is we could detach the hand and put it anywhere in the world and someone could have tactile sensation as if it was attached to their body. We started putting their hand in another room. That got the attention of UCLA’s robotics department and we worked with them to add sensation to the end of robotic hands. Someone had tactile sensation across the United States, from Cleveland to California.

At the time, I was working on a number of different projects at Cleveland State, on augmented and virtual reality, on the human-machines center out of the engineering school and I began to do more and more thinking about the confluence of three subsets of technologies simultaneously: human-machine systems (fusions), augmented and virtual reality and artificial intelligence (AI). This got me thinking about what the future of life might look like. The light bulb went off to say: This is the future of society. We are heading into an environment where I can be almost anywhere at almost any time and feel fully present. If I wanted to know what it felt like to be an elephant moving through the African plains, I could have an AI program write me up the coding for the human-machine system connection and develop the augmented/virtual reality system and I could have the full sight, sound and tactile sensation of being that elephant moving through the African plains.

Why can’t we have full societies that start to get built in these platforms? Think about the number of galaxies in the universe. The potential is there could be a similar number of virtual worlds that can be created at any time.

The Society 5.0 initiative at CSU is one part research, one part curriculum. It’s a push, a thrust, not structured. It’s more conceptual work, moving an idea forward and allowing people to tap into it however they want to tap into it. It’s not a center or a discipline. It’s made up of multiple disciplines. We’ve had podcasts, convenings, papers that have been written. We’ve got these combined research teams that are working in different areas. We have graduate-level curriculum. Next, we’re looking to work with the Honors College to consider some sort of undergraduate curriculum.

I am also working on a Society 5.0 textbook. Not only will it introduce the topic of what I believe to be the future of society but it will also stimulate conversations about this so we begin to think more deeply about the future of life and where we are heading with these technologies. It’s designed to create enough interest so there could be greater dialogue around Society 5.0 at the public, private and governmental levels to think through these things in a way that is beneficial to human existence.

Q: How far off is Society 5.0?

A: Societal changes take place over many years. It took something like 100,000 years or longer for us to move from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one. And then the agrarian age lasted 400 years. Then the industrial age lasted 200 years. The technological society has been about 70 years. We’ve seen a compression of societal transformations taking place. To what degree are we that far off? By 2030, maybe routinely doing things that reflect this new society. By 2080, it’s firmly situated as part of our daily lives.

But there won’t be a total break. That’s not how societies have worked in the past. It’s scary but not as scary when you understand not everything we know is going away. Remnants of previous societies are still with us. People still hunt. We obviously still grow food. We make things. There will always be remnants of past societies that provide us with some level of stability, of living in the real world.

Q: What is the potential positive impact of Society 5.0?

A: Society 5.0 allows us to be many things. We’ll only be limited by our imagination. The physical and economic constraints we have today, some of those start to get lifted. When our constraints are lifted, think about the opportunity for the human mind to be innovative, imaginative and to develop a greater sense of purpose and worthwhile.

Q: What should we be doing to prepare for the coming societal shift?

A: The technological thrust, we are already putting enough resources into that. Stuff is happening at universities and private places, that doesn’t need more support. Where we need more resource support is in the arts and humanities to get ourselves mentally prepared to be able to deal with these types of things and that is severely under resourced. That includes creating sections of government that are looking at future of life and future of technology. Interdisciplinary programming to take philosophy classes, psychologists working with other types of scientists. We need an influx of resources and funding to fund the human and societal portion of this. We are already doing enough for the technological development.


In addition to leading the Society 5.0 initiative, Dr. Zingale is co-director of the CSU TECH Hub and co-director of the Human Fusions Institute at Case Western Reserve University (CSWRU) as well as a member of the steering committee for the Internet of Things Collaborative between CSU and CWRU. To learn more about his work and research, see his faculty profile page.