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Future Snapshots – A 25-Year Outlook

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Karolina Dolatowska, Helena Calle, Alexandra Whittington, April Koury, Wendy Schultz, Guy Yeomans, Peter Stevens, and Kaat Exterbille
How might key aspects of our world evolve in the next 25 years and what could this mean for humanity?
How Might Our World Change in the Next 25 Years?

The notion of what constitutes a very human future might evolve quite dramatically over the next 25 years. Over that period, many different fields of science and technology will progress at an exponential rate or faster and combine to create currently unimaginable possibilities. At the same time, we will see these developments have a dramatic impact on and be influenced by the complex interactions of societal norms and behaviors, economic thinking, geo-politics, and notions of business, work, and employment. Here we explore some snapshot scenarios of how these factors might all play out and interact over the next 25 years.

The Stuff of Life

Artificial Living—Unless there’s a dramatic slowdown or reversal in technological progress, it is reasonable to suggest that artificial intelligence (AI) will permeate our lives and our world. The technology will be in use across every aspect of society from healthcare and education to entertainment and financial services. Smart systems could manage our social lives, help us select the ideal partners for dating, marriage, and reproduction, monitor our health in liaison with our doctors, and personalize our education so content is delivered in the way we learn best.

The technology will likely be making legal decisions in court, determining our benefit payments, fact checking politicians, and powering the transport sector. For some, AI will be seen to be uplifting humanity and creating powerful new possibilities to enhance life and the way it is lived. For others, the concern will be that technology has stripped us of identity, purpose, agency, and privacy.

Aging—Science and technology advances associated with human longevity mean that people are expected to be living longer and healthier lives than ever before. Experts believe that organs will be regenerated in vitro and implanted with 100% success rates, similar to plugging new devices into 20th-century computers. Unlimited stem cells could be used to grow or repair any type of organ, in vitro or in situ. Transplant rejection should no longer be an issue, and with the exception of the brain, literally all of our organs should be replaceable by new synthetic, grown or printed ones.

Intelligent nano-robots could help with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases at any age, including pre-birth surgery. They will be able to read from and write into our biology. They should also be able to detect and destroy neoplasms, thus holding out the prospect of defeating cancer forever. Similar to nano-robots, the expectation is that bio-computers will be inoculated into the human body to perform complex tasks, for instance sensing and monitoring the status of organs or repairing tissues and organs in real time.

Artificial Wombs—Within the next 25 years it may be possible to prevent preterm mortality in infants by use of artificial wombs that provide all the conditions required to safely achieve full development and birth of a fetus. This technology would at first be used to save at-risk pregnancies but may over time become a reproductive technology available to consumers interested in having a baby without pregnancy.

Countering Antibiotic Failure—Many pathogens are gaining immunity to the antibiotic medicines available today. Without antibiotics, common illness and medical procedures, even pregnancy and childbirth, could become life endangering events. In the next 25 years, is it possible that we will experience “the end of antibiotics” as suggested by the World Health Organization in 2016? Fortunately, the microbial threat is being met with advanced drug development, allowing medical researchers to explore new approaches to fight superbugs. New strategies on the horizon range from genetic modification of germs and implantable semiconductors through to the discovery of new antibacterial agents in soil.

Transhumanism—Over the next 25 years, Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) and bio-medicine could fundamentally improve the human condition and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. As a result, the notion of the “transhuman” could emerge. For example, the augmentation of human beings’ cognitive and intellectual abilities through technological implants, such as memory storage, is a process that is well underway already. These enhancements mean humans could achieve heightened senses and biological capabilities that are so far the prerogative of other species (e.g. speed, resistance, adaptation to extreme conditions, etc.). Conversely, future cyborgs and soft robots could be built out of biological components. For some this is simply the next stage in our evolution and the ultimate way to preserve humanity. For others there are a variety of concerns around the moral and religious implications of such developments. There are also questions of who might be able to afford such augmentations and the further polarization of society.

Sustaining Humanity

Water—As climate change continues to alter rainfall patterns worldwide, water may become an increasingly scarce resource. Regions with the financial capital may be able to invest in the latest microfiltration technologies, thus allowing constant recycling of waste water into drinkable water. Desalination plants may be the solution in arid regions along coastlines. Hopefully, as technology improves, and costs fall, the issues associated with desalination, namely high energy usage and residual salt, could be resolved to such a degree that coastal regions all over the world would be able to afford desalination. Access to plentiful clean water could have dramatic impacts on health, migration patterns, agriculture, and even interstate conflicts.

Agricultural Disruption and a Food Revolution—Within the next 25 years every aspect of the food ecosystem we know could change. The food chain will undergo a major transformation led by AI. Fruits and vegetables might be grown in buildings controlled by AI rather than on farms, meat could be cloned, and we might see widespread consumption of 3D printed food. Food innovation will see the rise of vertical farming and lab grown meat. Hydroponic plants, fruits, and vegetables might change agriculture as we know it, and help revolutionize the food industry. Population growth and city expansions are having major consequences, driving a lack of growing space and food in many parts of the world. The growing global population will force us to find creative solutions. Having AI-controlled hydroponic vertical farms on the sides of buildings might be one of the solutions.

Artificial Meat—In-vitro cloned meat could be another future solution to our food supply problems. While lab grown meat may still face many challenges, such as flavor control, it also has many advantages such as less waste, less risk of viruses, reduced space requirements, lower emissions, and reduced environmental impacts, among others. These benefits seem to outweigh the disadvantages and drawback of traditionally reared livestock. The idea of artificial meat might disturb us, nonetheless this solution seems to be finding its way into our diets.

Technology in Service of Humanity

Smarter Money—By combining the power of AI and blockchain, the concept of money could evolve into electronic tokens with far more types of assets tradeable within the one “currency.” For example, we might earn tokens from our employment, as rewards from retailers and airlines, and as micro-credits for completing workplace training, school learning tasks, or community service actions. Instead of simply liking a track from a musician, we could now make a micro-payment to them with a fraction of a token. State or community funded tokens could also be given to acknowledge the value of the tasks undertaken by family members performing home care tasks that have traditionally gone unrewarded such as caring for children, the elderly, and the ill. This evolution from cash and cryptocurrencies toward a universal means of exchange could mean the end of cash and foreign exchange markets. Broadening the means of paying for goods and services could allow people to realize the full value of their various dormant assets, such as airline loyalty points, and help address social exclusion.

Art, Sciences, and Humanities—The challenges facing humanity are revealing themselves as increasingly global and highly interconnected. The next few decades should give us the tools to start mastering this complexity in terms of a deeper understanding, but also in terms of policy and action with more predictability of impacts. This will result from a combination of an exponentially increasing volume of data from various sources of evidence (smart grids, mobility data, sensor data, socio-economic data) along with the rise of AI, dynamic modeling, and new visualization, analysis, and synthesis techniques (like narrative). It will also rely on a new alliance between science and society.

Hyperconnectivity—The prevailing connectivity scenario that underpins most government, business, and technology sector thinking for the next 25 years is that the internet and its distributed successors will continue to expand as global connectors, enabled by advances in underlying technologies (e.g. blockchain, transmission protocols, photonic networks, quantum and organic computing, etc.) and by the need to support more and more sophisticated application scenarios bridging the physical and virtual worlds instantaneously. The complexity and significance of the internet should increase dramatically as we move to the new era of nano sensors and devices, and of virtual spaces and 3D social networks exchanging zillions of bytes of data every day.

Media Evolution—Social media and its successors will continue the process of replacing traditional editorial media as the dominant news and information platform over the next 25 years. The evidence is already accumulating: people like to curate their own lives through social media. As new cohorts of youth enter the digital arena, they become ever-more expert in creating their own user-generated content—dramatizing and exploiting it through social media. Scarcity of attention means less time for editorial media and fewer resources allocated to it. The means of delivery will also expand to include personalized content in multiple media and potentially event direct uploads to our brains. For many, this evolution is seen as a process of democratizing creation and access and breaks the control of those who would seek to dictate what news and content we consume. Others will remain concerned over fake news, bias, and the potential for reader manipulation.

Business, Work, and Talent

New Production Models—In 20-30 years the world’s economy may change significantly, driven by the advent of new technological and societal innovations and the industries they enable. Advanced robotics, AI, automation, and smart manufacturing could bring most of today’s production back to a local sustainable dimension. Continued evolution of 3D and 4D printers should make possible the self-production of many consumer items like clothes or furniture. Ultimately, only large artifacts (e.g. aircraft) may still be produced in centralized plants.

Cradle-to-Grave Work and Play—In 20-30 years, healthcare advances should enable people to work throughout their extended lifespan and change jobs according to varying personal needs and aspirations. The idea of the steady, permanent job is predicted to become a relic of the 20th century. Under such a scenario, perhaps only a minority of the population will still experience linear/sequential life cycles (i.e. study – job – family – retirement). We could see a situation where health and wellbeing have improved to such an extent that citizens could do what they like, irrespective of their age. Technology is expected to continue transforming the very nature of work and the dynamics of organizations and labor markets. For instance, part-time work, teleworking, virtual meetings etc. may become common practices at all levels long before 2050.

Learning—The future education and learning landscape will be characterized by an increased “blurring of boundaries” between the different levels and directions of education, between schools, higher education, and industry. This evolving education ecosystem should provide greater flexibility in designing educational pathways tailored to individual needs and combining several education modalities into a lifelong and stimulating learning experience. Technology is increasingly supporting new forms of learning, for instance using virtual spaces and enhanced classrooms for experimentation and full immersion in learning settings not achievable otherwise. Over time these will likely include ever-more powerful simulations, intelligent conversational agents, and brain-to-machine or even brain-to-brain interfaces.

The Global Agenda

Global Governance—The current outlook for many observers and analysts is dominated by the hard and soft tensions that surround us, ranging from long-standing military conflicts and terrorism through to trade wars and sanctions. However, many shifts are possible in a 25-year time frame. Societies could be characterized by continuous interplay between individual and collective interests—potentially leading to tensions between two opposing models: 1) a society where only a few decide for all, either as elected representatives, or because new forms of oligarchic power emerge to exert societal manipulation; and 2) a society with neither classes nor hierarchies, characterized by participatory leadership and new forms of “chaordic” organization, where all have the possibility to co-decide on most if not all issues that matter to them.

Asia Rising—Looking at the development of the Asian market, we can expect that within 25 years world economic and industrial leadership will have passed to China and India. The growth of China and other Asian economies will continue to outstrip more developed nations and see Asian nations establish themselves as the driving force of the world economy rather than the USA and European countries.

Global People and Power—In the coming 20-30 years, our increasingly hyperconnected and immersive lives should enable people to be more empowered than ever to share knowledge, become aware of their environment, and take informed and responsible decisions. Such developments will allow us all to become active players in the global scene. New platforms for social networking could allow citizens to self-organize into communities that emerge as new powers able to exert influence and address shared problems in a more structured, responsible, and concurrent manner.

Societal Infrastructures

City Powerhouses—A number of cities will grow into megacities, which have the potential to be highly vascularized by eco-friendly and energy-sustainable transportation modes and filled with new dwellings and buildings made from innovative construction materials. If current trends continue, then all elements of the city will be connected to a higher supra-network, the future internet, on which a whole new service-economy would thrive—the so-called “internet of everyone.” In this vision, cities throughout Europe would compete among each other as places to be, developing their own forms of participatory citizenship to drive a continuous co-creation of the cityscape and its multi-cultural social fabric.

Autonomous City Centers—Following increasingly widely invoked policy moves to ban petrol and diesel fueled vehicles from city centers in the coming years, the same could happen with manually driven cars. We are entering an era that will be marked by exponential innovation changing ideas of asset ownership, delivering radical leaps forward in AI, providing increasingly efficient electric propulsion units for vehicles, and enabling the emergence of genuinely smart city infrastructures. These relatively smooth transitions should lead to other changes in cities, including the removal of redundant traffic signals and the remodeling of some street intersections. The clear benefits for humanity here would include cleaner, more livable, safer cities.

Autonomous Commuter Trains—Overground and subway/metro commuter services are now fully automated in many cities. At busier stations and at peak travel times, train staff supervise the safety of passengers at the station, but the trains themselves are fully autonomous with AI systems driving the train and monitoring passengers. As yet, long distance express trains retain on-board crews, although much like civilian aircraft, the drivers’ roles are to supervise the systems and provide on-board customer service. The move to autonomous trains might allow for a more predictable service that wouldn’t be affected by issues such as staff illness or recruitment issues. Others might be concerned that this is another development that will see net job loss.

Autonomous Cargo Aircraft—While most passengers are skeptical about an autonomous plane ride to their destination in the sun, cargo has no such qualms. While regulations allow the operation of autonomous aircraft for cargo purposes, they are still operated between specialist cargo hub airports, separate from passenger traffic. There would of course be serious implications for those who lose their jobs. One view is that the move to autonomous cargo might help free up trained pilots to service the expected growth of passenger demand for air transport and the associated shortage of flight crew. Clearly many would also be concerned about the environmental impacts of an overall growth in aviation.

The First 3D Printed Moon Base—Following a series of missions in the coming years to create an autonomous 3D accommodation manufacturing facility on the Moon’s surface, the facility should be ready within 25 years. The Moon base would support greater and more extensive autonomous and human exploration of the Moon’s surface and serve as a base for onward missions to deep space. There are an increasing number of people raising concerns over the Earth’s capacity to sustain a growing population and over the potentially irrevocable environmental damage that results from human activity. Some see the establishment of settlements on other planets as a way of reducing the pressures here on Earth and providing alternative habitats for humanity. Some might see these as only accessible by the ultra-wealthy.

Scenarios as a Tool of Dialogue and Exploration

Stepping ahead 25 years allows us to break the shackles of current assumptions and constraining beliefs to explore new possibilities and stimulate constructive dialogue. In many cases those scenarios posit a better future for most of humanity. However, there are a number from the use of AI to transhumanism which will polarize views, and in many cases, it is hard to see a coming together on one global perspective. Indeed, there are relatively few issues today where we could claim global support for a particular desired future.

 

  • Which scenarios offer the most positive outlook for humanity from your perspective?
  • How can citizens best engage in shaping the future when so many of the developments and shaping factors seem to lie out of our control?
  • What new global mechanisms might be required to steer a future path that protects the interests of people and the planet?

This article is excerpted from A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World. You can order the book here.

This article is based on Fast Future’s contribution to the European Commission Futurium platform, and interviews given to Best Life and MSN.

 

Image: https://pixabay.com/images/id-801891/ by Free-Photos

 

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