Forecast | The end of theft: Future of crime P1

We live in a world of scarcity, of not having enough to go around. That's why, since the dawn of human experience, there has existed the urge to steal, to take from others to enrich ourselves. While laws and morals forbid it, theft is a biologically natural urge, one that has helped our ancestors keep safe and fed over the generations.

Yet, as natural as theft is to our nature, humanity is only decades away from making the motivation behind theft altogether obsolete. Why? Because humanity’s ingenuity, for the first time in history, is pushing our species toward an era of abundance, where everyone’s material needs are satisfied. 

While this future may be hard to imagine today, one need only consider how the following emerging trends will work together to end the era of commonplace theft. 

Tech will make high-value items harder to steal

Computers, they are awesome, and soon they will be in everything we buy. Your pen, your coffee mug, your shoes, everything. Electronics are shrinking so quickly every year that soon every object will have some element of ‘smartness’ embedded into them. 

This is all a part of the Internet of Things (IoT) trend, explained in detail in chapter four of our Future of the Internet series. Briefly, IoT works by placing miniature-to-microscopic electronic sensors onto or into every manufactured product, into the machines that make these manufactured products, and (in some cases) even into the raw materials that feed into the machines that make these manufactured products. 

The sensors will connect to the web wirelessly and will initially be powered by miniature batteries, then through receptors that can collect energy wirelessly from a variety of environmental sources. These sensors provide manufacturers and retailers the once impossible ability to remotely monitor, repair, update, and upsell their products. 

Likewise, for the average person, these IoT sensors will allow them to track every object they own. This means if you lose something, you'll be able to hunt it down with your smartphone. And if someone steals something of yours, you can simply share your property's sensor ID with the police for them to track down (e.g. the end of stolen bikes). 

Theft-proof by design

Similar to the point above, modern product and software designers are building future smart products to be theft-proof by design.

For example, you can now download software into your phones that can let you remotely lock or wipe your personal files if your phone is stolen. This software can also allow you to track its whereabouts. There's even software out now that will allow you to destroy remotely or ‘brick' your phone should it ever become stolen. Once these features become mainstream by 2020, the value of stolen phones will tank, thereby reducing their overall theft rate.

Similarly, modern consumer vehicles are essentially computers on wheels. Many newer models have theft protection (remote tracking) built in by default. Pricier models feature remote hack-proofing, in addition to being programmed to only work for their owners. These early protection features will be perfected by the time autonomous (self-driving) cars hit the road, and as their numbers grow, car theft rates will plunge as well.

All-in-all, whether it’s your laptop, your watch, your oversized television set, any electronic device over $50-100 in value will have anti-theft features built into them by the mid-2020s. By then, insurance companies will begin offering cheap anti-theft management services; similar to home security systems, this service will monitor your ‘smart’ belongings for you and alert you should any item leave your home or person without your approval. 

Physical currency goes digital

Smartphone users may have already heard the early announcements of Apple Pay and Google Wallet, services that will allow you to purchase goods at physical locations through your phone. By the early 2020s, this method of payment will be accepted and commonplace in most major retailers. 

These and other similar services will accelerate the public's shift towards using digital forms of currency exclusively, especially among those under 40. And as fewer people carry physical currency, the threat of muggings will gradually go down. (The obvious exception being people who rock mink coats and heavy jewelry.) 

Everything is getting cheaper

Another factor to consider is that the need to steal will implode as living standards improve and the cost of living decreases. Since the 1970s, we’ve become so accustomed to a world of constant inflation that it’s now hard to imagine a world where just about everything will become substantially cheaper than it is today. But that’s the world we’re headed towards in just two to three short decades. Consider these points:

  • By 2040, the price of most consumer goods will fall due to increasingly productive automation (robots and artificial intelligence), the growth of the sharing (Craigslist) economy, and the paper-thin profit margins retailers will need to operate on to sell to the largely un- or underemployed mass market.
  • Most services will feel a similar downward pressure on their prices from online competition, except for those services that require an active human element: think personal trainers, massage therapists, caregivers, etc.
  • Education, at nearly all levels, will become free—largely a result of the government's early (2030-2035) response to the effects of mass automation and the need to continually retrain its population for new types of jobs and work. Read more in our Future of Education series.
  • The broad use of construction-scale 3D printers, the growth in complex prefabricated building materials, along with government investment in affordable mass housing, will result in falling housing (rent) prices. Read more in our Future of Cities series.
  • Healthcare costs will plummet thanks to technologically-driven revolutions in continuous health tracking, personalized (precision) medicine, and long-term preventative health care. Read more in our Future of Health series.
  • By 2040, renewable energy will feed over half the world’s electrical needs, substantially lowering utility bills for the average consumer. Read more in our Future of Energy series.
  • The era of individually-owned cars will end in favor of fully electric, self-driving cars run by carsharing and taxi companies—this will save former car owners an average of $3-6,000 annually. Read more in our Future of Transportation series.
  • The rise of GMO and food substitutes will lower the cost of basic nutrition for the masses. Read more in our Future of Food series.
  • Finally, most entertainment will be delivered cheaply or for free via web-enabled display devices, especially through VR and AR. Read more in our Future of the Internet series.

Whether it's the things we buy, the food we eat, or the roof over our heads, the essentials the average person will need to live will all fall in price in our future tech-enabled, automated world. That's why a future annual income of even $24,000 could roughly have the same buying power as a $50-60,000 salary in 2016.

Some readers might now be asking, “But in a future where machines take over most of the jobs, how will people even be able to make $24,000 in the first place?” 

Well, in our Future of Work series, we go into detail about how future governments, when faced with the prospect of enormous unemployment numbers, will institute a new social welfare policy called the Universal Basic Income (UBI). Put simply, the UBI is an income granted to all citizens (rich and poor) individually and unconditionally, i.e. without a means test or work requirement. It’s the government giving you free money every month. 

In fact, it should sound familiar considering that senior citizens receive essentially the same thing in the form of monthly social security benefits. But with the UBI, program advocates are saying, ‘Why do we only trust seniors to manage free government money?'

Given all these trends coming together (with the UBI thrown into the mix), it's fair to say that by the 2040s, the average person living in the developed world will no longer have to worry about needing a job to survive. It will be the beginnings of the era of abundance. And where there is abundance, the need for petty theft falls by the wayside.

More effective policing will make theft too risky and expensive

Discussed in detail in our Future of Policing series, tomorrow's police departments will become far more effective than the norm today. How? Through a combination of Big Brother surveillance, artificial intelligence (AI), and Minority Report-style pre-crime. 

CCTV cameras. Every year, steady advancements in CCTV camera tech are making these surveillance tools cheaper and far more useful. By 2025, CCTV cameras will blanket most cities and private properties, not to mention the CCTV cameras mounted on police drones that will be commonplace around that same year. 

AI. By the late 2020s, all police departments in major cities will have a supercomputer on their premises. These computers will house a powerful police AI that will crunch the massive amounts of video surveillance data collected by its city’s thousands of CCTV cameras. It will then use advanced facial recognition software to match the public faces captured on video with the faces of individuals in government monitoring lists. This is a feature that will simplify the resolution of missing persons and fugitive cases, as well as the tracking of parolees, criminal suspects, and potential terrorists. 

Pre-crime. The other way these AI supercomputers will support police departments is by using "predictive analytics software" to collect years' worth of crime reports and statistics, and then combine them with real-time variables such as the occurrence of entertainment events, traffic patterns, the weather, and more. What's generated from this data will be an interactive city map that indicates the probability and type of criminal activity likely to occur at any given time. 

Already in use today, police departments use these insights to deploy their officers in those urban areas where the software forecasts criminal activity. By having more police patrolling statistically problem areas, police are better positioned to intercept crimes as they happen or scare off would-be criminals.

The kinds of theft that will survive

As optimistic as all the forecasts might appear, we have to be honest in saying that not all forms of theft will vanish. Unfortunately, theft doesn’t exist purely because of our desire for material possessions and necessities, it also arises from related feelings of jealousy and hatred.

Maybe your heart belongs to a person someone else is dating. Maybe you're vying for a position or job title someone else has. Maybe someone has a car that turns more heads than yours.

As human beings, we covet not only those possessions that allow us to live and get by, but also those possessions that validate our self-worth. Because of this weakness of the human psyche, there will always remain the motivation to steal something, someone or some idea even when there is no pressing material or survival need to do so. This is why crimes of the heart and of our passions will continue to keep future prisons in business. 

Next up in our Future of Crime series, we explore the future of cybercrime, the last criminal goldrush. 

Likelihood of happening rating 
Large (4/5)
importance rating 
Moderate (3/5)
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Next scheduled update for this forecast
March 1, 2019. Last updated March 1, 2017.
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