How will the world look in the year 2058?
Sixty thinkers from around the world rise to that challenge in a collection of essays titled "The Way We Will Be 50 Years From Today."
The consensus view is that we'll muddle through many of the issues that vex us today — including climate change and terror threats. And we'll hit upon so many medical and technological wonders that today's 50-year-olds will have a fair chance of finding out firsthand how the world will look in 2058.
The problem with having so many predictions of the future is that they can look like a collection of to-do lists: The most popular item on the checklist would be getting your complete genetic code analyzed, so that the doctors can give you custom-made medications for what ails you (or what might have ailed you without the drugs). And don't forget the cyber-implants: Several essayists, including inventor-futurist Ray Kurzweil, heralded the day when nanomachines would merge with our own bodies.
In addition to those well-worn themes, "50 Years From Today" is jam-packed with nuggets of less conventional wisdom from experts in fields ranging from bioethics to counterterrorism. Here are a few examples:
- Diseases ranging from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder will be shown to be caused by infectious agents that take advantage of genetic predisposition, says psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, president of the Treatment Advocacy Center. Researchers will be surprised to find that many of those infectious agents are being transmitted from animals to humans. As a result, it will be uncommon to keep cats, birds or hamsters as pets — but we'll still have dogs around, because they've been "man's best friend" for so long that we've already adjusted to their infectious agents.
- International terrorism will be brought under control because governments will realize counterterrorism is primarily a police function rather than a job for the military, says Ronald Noble, the secretary-general of Interpol. Passports and IDs will be linked to a global monitoring system, much as credit cards are today. "People will no longer be able to travel and engage in transactions with anonymity," thanks to surveillance and biometrics, he says. All this will pose "thorny issues" for a post-privacy era.
- Several essayists said water will become as big a resource issue as petroleum is today. "We cannot go green without thinking blue," former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta and former Energy Secretary James Watkins say. Norman Borlaug, father of the "Green Revolution" in agriculture, says there will have to be a "Blue Revolution" to provide enough water for the planet's burgeoning population. Thus, cleaning up the oceans and providing fresh water should rank right up there with controlling greenhouse gases.
- The outlook for longer life spans is a mixed bag: Kurzweil says the pace of life extension will outrun the passage of years, offering at least the possibility of an indeterminate life span 50 years from now. But trends also point to a decline in average life expectancy, due to the increased incidence of obesity among today's young people, says Wanda Jones, director of the Office on Women's Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Pros and cons for longer life
Arthur Caplan, a columnist for msnbc.com and director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, takes something of a middle road: In his essay, written from the point of view of his grandchild, he foresees a world where people can look forward to 140 years of high-quality life. (In a comic twist, the essay also bemoans Caplan's death, "frail and decrepit," at the young age of 80.)
Caplan, who is 58, told msnbc.com that he bases his prediction on the promise of regenerative medicine, as well as a better understanding of how lifestyle and genetics affect health. All these new technologies will raise new ethical issues, he acknowledged — for example, whether future generations will be genetically modified to fix defects and even introduce enhancements.
"People will have to think harder about whether they want to have kids the old-fashioned way," he said. "Why would you choose to take a random chance, knowing that your child would have a chance of having a defect but going ahead anyway? You start to get into blame and guilt about disability in a way that we don't really do now."
Greater longevity will also have social implications, he said. "You're not going to just have people living till 140 without changing your ideas about retirement, career, education, leisure, marriage, childrearing — also, even eligibility for social benefits. My hunch is that you're going to have to tack on a few more years before you get that senior discount card."
The bad, the good and the ugly
In his essay, Case Western Reserve University theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss sorts through the "bad, the good and the ugly." For Krauss, the "bad" issues that have to be dealt with focus on climate change, energy shortages and nuclear weapons — and the "good" technologies ahead include medical breakthroughs, computer intelligence and virtual reality.
Dealing with the bad and taking advantage of the good will depend on whether society can bring an end to today's "ugly" struggle between science and religion, Krauss said. That observation is particularly apt for a week in which this year's presidential candidates passed up an opportunity to attend Science Debate 2008 — and in which a new movie titled "Expelled" renews the creationism-vs.-evolution argument.
"If we allow nonsense to be purveyed with impunity, then I think it feeds down — it's a slippery slope," Krauss told msnbc.com. "We can't honestly address the serious problems we're going to face in the next 50 years until we're willing to accept the world the way it really is, without fear."
The first and last word
In "50 Years From Now," the first essayist to have his say is Vint Cerf, who was one of the founding fathers of the Internet almost 40 years ago. Today, he's vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, and one of the world's most widely consulted technological seers.
Cerf foresees a world in which the infrastructure used today for transporting oil has been replaced by water tankers and water pipelines. The energy for a global electrical grid is provided by solar, wind and nuclear plants. Outposts are taking root on Mars and Titan, knit together by an Interplanetary Internet . And discoveries about the Higgs field and the nature of mass, pioneered by the Large Hadron Collider , are raising the possibility of inertialess travel at the speed of light.
This e-mail exchange with Cerf, conducted while he was traveling in Spain, serves as the last word here:
Q: A lot of the essays in the book, yours included, refer to the global warming / energy issue but imply that the problems have been overcome without putting a crimp in technological development. Why is your projection of life 50 years from now so optimistic on the rising technological trend line?
Vint Cerf: I am an optimist by nature and believe strongly that technology can be brought to bear to create alternatives, even in crisis situations.
I just spent a half-day at the Bletchley Park museum near London. As you will recall, it was at Bletchley Park that a remarkable and diverse group of Britons produced some of the most critical intelligence of World War II through the use of the Bombe and Colossus special-purpose computers. They created alternatives where there were none before, as did the Americans with the Manhattan Project. I believe that the problem of global climate change will ultimately spur our global society to respond and while the condition does not appear to be reversible, we will find ways to adapt to it.
That there will be many negative side effects is not in dispute. Ways of life will change and in some cases degrade, but I believe that we will find ways to adapt. We may find that we have to move into underwater habitats. We will need to invest massively in more environmentally responsible energy production. And the world's ecological and economic systems will almost certainly change, too. But we will survive.
Q: I'm interested in your reference to the Higgs field and potential implications for new technologies, obviously because of the imminent startup of the Large Hadron Collider. You mention the E.E. Smith inertialess drive, which is really quite intriguing - that's something I hadn't heard before in reference to the LHC. Could you expand a bit on how understanding the theoretical underpinnings of inertial mass might lead to propulsion technologies (even in hand-waving terms)?
A: I am only a layman in this area, but it is my understanding that the Higgs field is what imbues other atomic particles with mass and that the Higgs boson is the particle that delivers the force of the field. If we had a way to manipulate the Higgs field, we might be able to establish inertialess conditions that could overcome Einstein's fundamental speed limitations.
Q: Could you provide a brief update on the Interplanetary Internet project?
A: The project is in its 10th year and it is now planned to carry out tests of the Interplanetary Protocols using the Deep Impact spacecraft that launched a probe into Comet Tempel 1 in October 2006. The spacecraft is still operational, and the plan is to upload the Delay Tolerant Networking protocols onto the onboard computer. NASA has given the project permission to test these protocols from Earth. A successful test will qualify the protocol for future deployments on production space missions. We also hope to carry out demonstrations and tests on board the international space station.
Q: Any thoughts on Ray Kurzweil's singularity ? I'm not sure if you've seen his essay in the book, but it makes clear he thinks that the machines we build 50 years from now will be ... us. In your estimation, will artificial implants and enhancements have a significant impact on how we think of ourselves in 2058, or will it not be that big of a deal?
A: I continue to worry about the potential to upload ourselves into a silicon analog. I think Kurzweil could be right about the relative intelligence of the computers of the distant future, but a machine intelligence may not be commensurate with instantiation of a biological intelligence within the silicon version. However, I do agree that artificial implants will provide us with supranormal capabilities that are presently inaccessible to most humans today.
Q: I like the idea that trying to explain the new jobs of the future would be as difficult as trying to explain what a Webmaster does to the man in the 1950s gray flannel suit. Nevertheless, do you have any thoughts on what any of those jobs might be, even in very general terms? (E.g., virtual-worldmaster...)
A: I can imagine people actually working in virtual environments where productive, cooperative work is undertaken, and I think we will find people helping others to take advantage of masses of information that are inaccessible or too vast to process in real time today. With billions of Internet-enabled devices or at least programmable devices on the network, there seems to be ample room for new services that manage these devices to be developed. "Hi, I'm your virtual entertainment manager! What movies would you like to watch next week?"
Q: Do you think imagining the future, as you and your colleagues have done in this book, will help shape that future - or do you see this exercise as merely a fun, readable exercise of the imagination?
A: I think imaginative exercises can have a profound impact on the future - what you can imagine can sometimes turn into something you can figure out how to build. I hope that reading these essays, there will be a few young people who will realize some of the speculative ideas or discover more interesting ones of their own.
An expanded version of this report has been published as a item on Cosmic Log.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints
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[Note:I became politically active and committed on the day 20 years ago when I realized I could stand on the front porch of my house and point to three homes where children were in wheelchairs, to a home where a child had just died of leukemia, to another where a child was born missing a kidney, and yet another where a child suffered from spina bifida. All my parental alarms went off at once and I asked the obvious question: What’s going on here? Did I inadvertently move my three children into harm’s way when we settled in this high desert valley in Utah? A quest to find answers in Utah’s nuclear history and then seek solutions followed. Politics for me was never motivated by ideology. It was always about parenting.
Today my three kids are, thankfully, healthy adults. But now that grandchildren are being added to our family, my blood runs cold whenever I project out 50 years and imagine what their world will be like at middle age—assuming they get that far and that there is still a recognizable “world” to be part of. I wrote the following letter to my granddaughter, Madeline, who is almost four years old. Although she cannot read it today, I hope she will read it in a future that proves so much better than the one that is probable, and so terribly unfair. I’m sharing this letter with other parents and grandparents in the hope that it may move them to embrace their roles as citizens and commit to the hard work of making the planet viable, the economy equitable, and our culture democratic for the many Madelines to come.]
I address this letter to you, but please share it with Jack, Tasiah, and other grandchildren who are yet unborn. Also, with your children and theirs. My unconditional love for my children and grandchildren convinces me that, if I could live long enough to embrace my great-grandchildren, I would love them as deeply as I love you.
On behalf of my generation of grandparents to all of you, I want to apologize.
I am sorry we used up all the oil. It took a million years for those layers of carbon goo to form under the Earth’s crust and we used up most of it in a geological instant. No doubt there will be some left and perhaps you can get around the fact that what remains is already distant, dirty, and dangerous, but the low-hanging fruit will be long-gone by the time you are my age. We took it all.
There’s no excuse, really. We are gas-hogs, plain and simple. We got hooked on faster-bigger-more and charged right over the carrying capacity of the planet. Oil made it possible.
Machines are our slaves and coal, oil, and gas are their food. They helped us grow so much of our own food that we could overpopulate the Earth. We could ship stuff and travel all over the globe, and still have enough fuel left to drive home alone in trucks in time to watch Monday Night Football.
Rocket fuel, fertilizer, baby bottles, lawn chairs: we made everything and anything out of oil and could never get enough of it. We could have conserved more for you to use in your lifetime. Instead, we demonstrated the self-restraint of crack addicts. It’s been great having all that oil to play with and we built our entire world around that. Living without it will be tough. Sorry.
I hope we develop clean, renewable energy sources soon, or that you and your generation figure out how to do that quickly. In the meantime, sorry about the climate. We just didn’t realize our addiction to carbon would come with monster storms, epic droughts, Biblical floods, wildfire infernos, rising seas, migration, starvation, pestilence, civil war, failed states, police states, and resource wars.
I’m sure Henry Ford didn’t see that coming when he figured out how to mass-produce automobiles and sell them to Everyman. I know my parents didn’t see the downside of using so much gas and coal. The all-electric house and a car in the driveway was their American Dream. For my generation, owning a car became a birthright. Today, it would be hard for most of us to live without a car. I have no idea what you’ll do to get around or how you will heat your home. Oops!
We also pigged out on most of the fertile soil, the forests and their timber, and the oceans that teemed with fish before we scraped the seabed raw, dumped our poisonous wastes in the water, and turned it acid and barren. Hey, that ocean was an awesome place and it’s too bad you can’t know it like we did. There were bright coral reefs, vibrant runs of red salmon, ribbons of birds embroidering the shores, graceful shells, the solace and majesty of the wild sea…
…But then I never saw the vast herds of bison that roamed the American heartland, so I know it is hard to miss something you only saw in pictures. We took lots of photos.
We thought we were pretty smart because we walked a man on the moon. Our technology is indeed amazing. I was raised without computers, smart phones, and the World Wide Web, so I appreciate how our engineering prowess has enhanced our lives, but I also know it has a downside.
When I was a kid we worried that the Cold War would go nuclear. And it wasn’t until a river caught fire near Cleveland that we realized fouling your own nest isn’t so smart after all. Well, you know about the rest—the coal-fired power plants, acid rain, the hole in the ozone…
There were plenty of signs we took a wrong turn but we kept on going. Dumb, stubborn, blind: Who knows why we couldn’t stop? Greed maybe—powerful corporations we couldn’t overcome. It won’t matter much to you who is to blame. You’ll be too busy coping in the diminished world we bequeath you.
One set of problems we pass on to you is not altogether our fault. It was handed down to us by our parents’ generation so hammered by cataclysmic world wars and economic hardship that they armed themselves to the teeth and saw enemies everywhere. Their paranoia was understandable, but they passed their fears on to us and we should have seen through them. I have lived through four major American wars in my 62 years, and by now defense and homeland security are powerful industries with a stranglehold on Congress and the economy. We knew that was a lousy deal, but trauma and terror darkened our imaginations and distorted our priorities. And, like you, we needed jobs.
Sorry we spent your inheritance on all that cheap bling and, especially, all those weapons of mass destruction. That was crazy and wasteful. I can’t explain it. I guess we’ve been confused for a long time now.
Oh, and sorry about the confusion. We called it advertising and it seemed like it would be easy enough to control. When I was a kid, commercials merely interrupted entertainment. Don’t know when the lines all blurred and the buy, buy, buy message became so ubiquitous and all-consuming. It just got outta hand and we couldn’t stop it, even when we realized we hated it and that it was taking us over. We turned away from one another, tuned in, and got lost.
I’m betting you can still download this note, copy it, share it, bust it up and remake it, and that you do so while plugged into some sort of electrical device you can’t live without—so maybe you don’t think that an apology for technology is needed and, if that’s the case, an apology is especially relevant. The tools we gave you are fine, but the apps are mostly bogus. We made an industry of silly distraction. When our spirits hungered, we fed them clay that filled but did not nourish them. If you still don’t know the difference, blame us because we started it.
And sorry about the chemicals. I mean the ones you were born with in your blood and bones that stay there—even though we don’t know what they’ll do to you). Who thought that the fire retardant that kept smokers from igniting their pillows and children’s clothes from bursting into flames would end up in umbilical cords and infants?
It just seemed like better living through chemistry at the time. Same with all the other chemicals you carry. We learned to accept cancer and I guess you will, too. I’m sure there will be better treatments for that in your lifetime than we have today. If you can afford them, that is. Turning healthcare over to predatory corporations was another bad move.
All in all, our chemical obsession was pretty reckless and we got into that same old pattern: just couldn’t give up all the neat stuff. Oh, we tried. We took the lead out of gasoline and banned DDT, but mostly we did too little, too late. I hope you’ve done better. Maybe it will help your generation to run out of oil, since so many of the toxic chemicals came from that. Anyway, we didn’t see it coming and we could have, should have. Our bad.
There are so many other things I wish I could change for you. We leave behind a noisy world. Silence is rare today, and unless some future catastrophe has left your numbers greatly diminished, your machines stilled, and your streets ghostly empty, it is likely that the last remnants of tranquility will be gone by the time you are my age.
And how about all those species, the abundant and wondrous creatures that are fading away forever as I write these words? I never saw a polar bear and I guess you can live without that, too, but when I think of the peep and chirp of frogs at night, the hum of bees busy on a flower bed, the trill of birds at dawn, and so many other splendorous pleasures that you may no longer have, I ache with regret. We should have done more to keep the planet whole and well, but we couldn’t get clear of the old ways of seeing, the ingrained habits, the way we hobble one another’s choices so that the best intentions never get realized.
Mostly I’m sorry about taking all the good water. When I was a child I could kneel down and drink from a brook or spring wherever we camped and played. We could still hike up to glaciers and ski down snow-capped mountains.
Clean, crisp, cold, fresh water is life’s most precious taste. A life-giving gift, all water is holy. I repeat: holy. We treated it, instead, as if it were merely useful. We wasted and tainted it and, again in a geological moment, sucked up aquifers that had taken 10,000 years to gather below ground. In my lifetime, glaciers are melting away, wells are running dry, dust storms are blowing, and rivers like the mighty Colorado are running dry before they reach the sea. I hate to think of what will be left for you. Sorry. So very, very sorry.
I’m sure there’s a boatload of other trouble we’re leaving you that I haven’t covered here. My purpose is not to offer a complete catalog of our follies and atrocities, but to do what we taught your parents to do when they were as little as you are today.
When you make a mistake, we told them, admit it, and then do better. If you do something wrong, own up and say you are sorry. After that, you can work on making amends.
I am trying to see a way out of the hardship and turmoil we are making for you. As I work to stop the madness, I will be mindful of how much harder your struggles will be as you deal with the challenges we leave you to face.
The best I can do to help you through the overheated future we are making is to love you now. I cannot change the past and my struggle to make a healthier future for you is uncertain, but today I can teach you, encourage you, and help you be as strong and smart and confident as you can be, so that whatever the future holds, whatever crises you face, you are as ready as possible. We will learn to laugh together, too, because love and laughter can pull you through the toughest times.
I know a better world is possible. We create that better world by reaching out to one another, listening, learning, and speaking from our hearts, face to face, neighbor to neighbor, one community after another, openly, inclusively, bravely. Democracy is not a gift to be practiced only when permitted. We empower ourselves. Our salvation is found in each other, together.
Across America this morning and all around the world, our better angels call to us, imploring us to rise up and be as resilient as our beloved, beautiful children and grandchildren, whose future we make today. We can do better. I promise.
Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and led several grassroots campaigns to make polluters accountable. He wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon, was an administrator of the award-winning Salt Lake City Public Library, and then retired to the canyons of southern Utah. His latest work, just published, is Dance, Don’t Drive: Resilient Thinking for Turbulent Times. His essays can be read at chipwardessays.blogspot.com. He can be written at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.