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When we make predictions about the future, how cloudy does the crystal ball look in hindsight? Will self-driving cars and breath-giving nanocomputers look any different?
If you spend much time researching past generations’ predictions of the future, you’ll notice a few trends. For one, some futurists are really optimistic. Whether it’s the nature of their predictions or the timeline by which they expect them to unfold, people hold great faith in the benevolence of technology while overlooking its potential for malice—atomic energy is a perfect example.
The other noteworthy trend is how predictions tend to center around the cultural and economic concerns of the time. In 1900, the Ladies Homes Journal published a series of predictions for the year 2000. Aside from the more ridiculous projections—such as continental networks of pneumatic tubes and the removal of the letters “C,” “Q,” and “X” from the alphabet—the list seemed overly concerned with agricultural demands.
Eight predictions (out of 28) were devoted to agrarian issues: strawberries the size of apples, peas as large as beets, prohibition of exposed foods, and the eradication of flies and mosquitoes, to name a few. The obsession with mega-fruit makes sense, though. These predictions were made at the turn of the century—a time before widespread sanitation, consumer refrigeration, and large-scale food production. So food was a bigger issue in 1900.
Then in 1950, Popular Mechanics published a similar series of predictions for the following 50 years. That list was also inordinately focused on one theme—in this case, domestic technology. This makes sense when you consider the post-war baby boom, the rise of suburban life, and the sheltering paranoia of the nuclear age. It has turned out to be a more accurate list than the first, but it was still off the mark in many instances.
So What Is the Prophetic Hallmark of Our Time?
Popular Mechanics recently released another list of predictions for the future, titled “110 Predictions For the Next 110 Years.” While the list has its share of head-scratchers, the respected journal and its brain-trust showed remarkable deference to the challenges of prognostication. Editor-in-chief Jim Meigs even referenced his publication’s list from 1950 for both its prescience and its humorous miscalculations:
“Here’s the problem: Just because something is possible does not mean it is inevitable… Perhaps the trickiest part of making predictions is getting the timing right. Some advances are slowed by social inertia or economic impracticality. Others suddenly leap ahead as a result of a technological breakthrough such as the microchip.”
Surely, though, with 110 predictions across a 110-year period, and even with the impressive catalog of scientists, engineers, and journalists at the helm, some of them will look silly—someday, anyway. While analysis may vary, one thing is clear: These predictions seem a bit too focused on health and biology, as this category received far and away the most predictions. So it begs the question: Is our concern with health, like the agricultural and domestic emphases of past prognostications, reflective of our generation? Or, is the technological pendulum actually, legitimately swinging toward this front—that is, the front of biological longevity?
To help answer this question, we’ve decided to pore through the list of predictions, and to hold up for scrutiny the various no-brainers and curiosities among them.
Highways will handle three times as many cars Self-driving cars already exist; Google makes them and predicts that self-driving vehicles will be available to all within five years. It’s surprising, though, that Popular Mechanics placed this prediction within its 2023–2062 category (as opposed to 2012–2022). "Three times as many cars” seems like a lot, but because the technology exists and would solve a major problem for mass transit, this Minority Report scenario will come to fruition. And don’t worry, car lovers, you’ll still have the option of driving a car yourself. Just think of it as advanced cruise-control.
One of us will celebrate a 150th birthday Some respected futurists and scientists are talking about unlocking human immortality within a generation. But even if we disregard this strange notion, advances in medicine and nanotechnology strongly point toward a drastic rise in life expectancy across the globe. Centenarians are already becoming more common, so it’s not hard to imagine someone celebrating a 150th birthday within the next 50 years—let alone 110.
Supersonic jets will return—for good this time Last month, a British aeronautics company announced it achieved the biggest breakthrough in aerospace propulsion “since the invention of the jet engine.” The development will help aircraft fly at more than fives times the speed of sound. You could fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo for lunch. The demand for this technology is clear, but the fuel and energy required has rendered commercial applications impractical—a big reason why the Concorde was retired. In coming years, however, technology will make such travel faster, cheaper, and more efficient.
Supercomputers will be the size of sugar cubes This is just an application of Moore’s Law coupled with recent advances in nanocomputing. While the logistics of this prediction are complex, it makes intuitive sense. Given the exponential pace at which information technology develops, it’s very likely that, within the next 50 years, the average microchip will be invisible to the naked eye, and the average supercomputer the size of a sugar cube.
Checkups will be conducted by cellphone This one’s also pretty obvious when you think about it; it’s just the extent to which our mobile devices will be able to monitor our health that remains in question. The idea of an iPhone capable of performing a liver transplant is still a stretch (at least for the next couple decades), but a personal mobile device that can check your blood pressure and perform throat cultures? Why not? One company called Scanadu even recently unveiled a working copy for an app that monitors your vital signs. So the technology is basically there; it’s just a matter of how (and if) the healthcare industry embraces it, which is probably why this prediction was placed in the 2023–2062 category.
Passwords will be obsolete People hate passwords and don’t want to have to remember them. They’re a weak security barrier, too—just ask Wired’s Mat Honan. But how will you securely access private information? I’ll let Pop Mechanics explain:
“Apple and Google are designing face-recognition software for cellphones. DARPA is researching the dynamics of keystrokes. Others are looking into retinal scans, voiceprints, and heartbeats.”
IBM even predicts that passwords will be gone within five years, and not a soul among us will miss them.
Vegetarians and carnivores will dine together on synthetic meats The gist here is that synthetic meats—plant-based proteins that are almost identical in taste and texture to real meat—will greatly lessen demand for the real thing. While this idea is already taking off, as shown by the success of startups like Beyond Meat and Modern Meadow, (not to mention, it’s existed for some time on Star Trek) I’m not sure your average carnivore will take too kindly to the idea of shifting their diet to one based entirely on reconstructed plant protein—even if the taste and nutritional value remains the same.
But it’s easy to imagine that the same people who demand grass-fed, organic, and humane treatment of animals will continue to demand real meat. It’s already hard enough to get the organic zealots to acknowledge the advantages of GMOs. And I suspect true meat-lovers will continue to hunt, cook, and prepare meat the real way—just as some people opt for holistic medical treatment or natural, outdoor exercise. Of course, it all comes down to price and availability, so if real meat becomes scarce, it’ll be a different story.
Vaccines will wipe out drug addiction I don’t disagree with the essence of this prediction so much as its implications—an example of the optimism with which scientists often perceive their discoveries. Here are the editors:
“That’s the idea behind addiction vaccines: Persuade the body to produce antibodies that shut down drug molecules before they get to the brain. The concept works in mice. Human trials are under way.”
More specifically, this vaccine will prevent drugs from reaching the brain’s pleasure center (or whatever neurological center the molecule stimulates), thereby preempting the high, and eliminating its addictive capacity. Experts hope such vaccines will help abusers more easily get over their addiction. But if drug users knew they could simply get over a habit by consuming an antibody, wouldn’t that incite them to do more drugs? Like, a lot more? And we haven’t even addressed how such a breakthrough would impact adolescent drug use and prevention. No longer could addiction itself be used as a deterrent among educators.
This technology will probably come to pass, but it will also be heavily regulated—no waltzing down to the local CVS for a quick heroin antidote. It’s true that this hypothetical vaccine is not a “drug,” per se, but it’s not hard to imagine it being treated like one.
People will be fluent in every language Pop Mechanics explains that it’s not you who will become a polyglot within the next 10 years, but rather your smartphone or mobile device, which will be able to interpret and speak foreign languages for you. But we’re not sold on the idea that this technology will reach the level of translational perfection within 10 years. The idiosyncrasies of language, specifically speech, are too great for current smartphones to master. That doesn’t mean they never will be up to snuff (we’ve seen Watson in action); we just think it will take longer than 10 years—maybe when supercomputers are the size of sugar cubes.
Navy SEALs will be able to hold their breath for 4 hours Kurzweilian transhumanism to the core, this prediction relies entirely on the (as yet theoretical) concept of respirocytes, which are synthetic blood cells capable of retaining larger amounts of oxygen than natural cells. This, theorists claim, will allow humans to commit a whirlwind of currently impossible physical feats, such as holding their breath for hours or sprinting without breath for fifteen minutes.
While Pop Mech slotted this prediction in its 2023–2062 category, you can color us skeptical. A legion of highly dependent factors have not been considered here—as is the case with many aspects of the transhumanist movement. For a respirocyte to work effectively—and without harmful biological side-effects—it requires an unfathomable amount of computation, all within the confines of a blood cell. And remember, according to this same Pop Mech article, supercomputers will at this point only be the size of sugar cubes.
But let’s suppose these hypothetical bots are programmed and operated remotely; would this not expose the host’s respiratory “system” to a wide range of cybernetic dangers? Whether used for athletic, military, or recreational purposes, there’s always the prospect of entire biological systems being seized and corrupted by malware, viruses (biological or computer), criminal hacking, natural immune response, hyperoxia, cyber warfare, and general biological resistance. And this gets to the heart of the debate behind transhuman evolution: To what degree will our natural, analog selves resist the incorporation of synthetically augmented biological processes? And we’re not talking about prosthetic limbs here; we’re talking about prosthetic organs, nano-robotics, and the digitization of organic information—i.e. neurological signals, cell growth, and DNA. This field is a legitimate one, and humanity will indeed trend towards biological enhancement, but we have drastically underestimated the timescale involved.
Now It’s Your Turn
Anyone who spends a lot of time thinking about the future will agree that the best predictions are those that have been through the ringer, so to speak—they must be subjected to intense public scrutiny. So let us solicit your two cents on the matter: What have we gotten wrong? What have we overlooked? What has Pop Mechanics overlooked? What has Star Trek overlooked? Is it all for naught? Are we all just cosmic dust, destined to return, alas, to the stars that created us?
Photos: Ladies’ Home Journal; user Jurvetson, Flickr, CC BY 2.0; Scanadu