Like most people, the future I want to see informs my politics and my worldview. However, I’ve also had a hard look at what the coming decades are likely to hold. Trying to plan for what you’d like to happen, without taking into account what is very likely to happen, regardless of whether you want it or not, is a guaranteed recipe for disappointment and disaster.
Obviously, some things are going to happen that can’t be predicted right now but other things are fairly safe bets.
Some of the things on the long list below are likely to happen because they are already underway; Some are likely to happen because there is insufficient public will to stop them, because stopping them would require international cooperation on a level never achieved before and for some stopping them would come at a price that would be unacceptable to most people.
That does not mean that all of these things are necessarily bad, but they will all bring social, cultural, political and/or economic changes. It is important that these potential changes are part of any long-term plan for society and long-term plans are the only ones that bring lasting change.
I’m going to break this into three parts. The first part will cover what is in store for humans. Over the next few generations we will have to think hard about what it means to be human and then we could have to change the definition. The second and third parts will look at changes to the climate and the environment and changes in geopolitics, especially the rise of the East.
When most people hear the term “genetic engineering” they think of genetically modified foods (GMOs). The fear of GMOs is completely overblown and not based in science. Modified crops will also be necessary if we’re going to feed the planet while the population continues to rise and the amount of available farmland continues to decline. However, genetically modified crops are the least of what is coming.
The arrival of CRISPR, and even more advanced tools, make it relatively easy to modify microorganisms, plants, animals and even people. This could ultimately lead to ‘designer babies’, modified so that they are free of genetic diseases, resistant to many viral ones, more intelligent, more physically fit and in possession of specific skills and tendencies. It could mean the end of cancer and aids and the end of depression and addiction. Unfortunately, it could also lead to some real dangers as it is so easy to use that anyone with the right training can modify genes at home. DIY home CRISPR kits have been available for a few years now.
Scientists still have a great deal to learn about the human genome and it will be a long time before we see the full potential of gene editing, however, certain gene therapies and experiments on human subjects have already begun.
It is probably too late for people to decide to ban this technology or even heavily regulate it. The fact that people can do it at home, without an expensive lab means that enforcing regulation would be incredibly difficult. It would also require much more international cooperation than the Paris Climate Accords achieved.
If even one country decides to go ahead with the technology, it would sabotage international regulation. If, for example, China decides to go ahead then the United States and Europe will feel pressured to use it too in order to remain competitive and provide their citizens with the benefits of the technology. If everyone bans it except Switzerland, it would mean that the benefits of the technology would be reserved for those citizens who can afford to travel and pay for the treatments themselves. It would also not be difficult for a country that signed on to international regulation to work on CRISPR projects in secret. And, of course, because we’re talking about modifying the genetics of living organisms, some of the impacts of modifications would spread even to countries that banned the technology outright.
Robotics and Artificial Intelligence
It would be impossible to even summarize the potential impacts of robotics, artificial intelligence and automation in a few paragraphs. However, the most direct impact and immediate impact on society will be the end of labour as we know it.
Robotics will replace hundreds of millions of jobs globally. Anything that involves repetitive physical labour, basic predictable decision-making or even complex analysis will be gone. This means almost all jobs in mining, manufacturing, construction, transportation, distribution, retail, sales, call centres, food service, farming and even the military will be gone. Many jobs in the medical, legal, financial services, education, and public service sectors will go as well.
Obviously, this will put considerable strains on society and will require a re-working of the economy but it is not without benefits for society. Getting highly customized and personalized goods and services will be faster, easier and less expensive than ever before. It will also provide more time for people to do as they please. It will be easier than ever to learn new skills, study subjects you’re interested in, start a business, have a product of your own invention created or pursue artistic interests. In addition to doing most of the jobs, robots will likely be cleaning your house, preparing your meals and tending your yard. With everything that we currently consider “work” being done for us, people will have a new level of freedom. However, they will only be able to enjoy that freedom if we find a way to supply them with an income and maintain social stability.
We can’t realistically halt the rise of these technologies, for essentially the same reasons we can’t stop genetic engineering. There are those who still argue that new industries will emerge and create new jobs to compensate for the millions of jobs replaced by automation. Those people are wrong.
When I was a child, the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman both teased the possibilities of bionic technologies which barely existed at the time. In 2018, bionics are no longer science fiction. Bionic limbs that are more powerful than human limbs, controlled with thought and have a sense of touch will be here soon. Implantable devices which could one day allow you to have all the functions of your smartphone built into your head and controlled by thought are on the horizon. Scientists studying nanotechnology are making microscopic robots which could be injected into your body to hunt cancer cells. Artificial organs, and implants that could allow the blind to see, the deaf to hear and even enhance our existing senses aren’t far away.
The medical applications for these technologies will crush any calls to outlaw them or slow them down and once they are commonplace, healthy people will start opting for stronger limbs, bulletproof skin, better than 20/20 vision and night and telescopic vision.
Longer Life Expectancy
One common thread through everything so far has been an impact on human health. Gene therapy and genetic modification could mean the end of genetic illness, a stronger immune system and predisposition to things like cancer, addiction and depression. The end of gruelling physical labour and dangerous jobs will mean fewer injuries and less wear and tear on human bodies. Bionics will mean that limbs and even organs injured beyond repair could be replaced. If you add lab-grown or 3D printed appendages and organs, nanotechnology, a new generation of drugs spawned from a better understanding of stem cells, biology, neuroscience and genetics and it all adds up to a longer life expectancy.
There are some, including Google’s chief futurist Ray Kurzweil, who think that humans could achieve immortality in the next few decades. Whether or not that comes to pass, we can certainly expect people to live longer lives than they do now. We can also expect the be healthier in our old age.
In 1917, life expectancy was about 50 years (48.4 for US men, 54 for women). In 2017 it is 79 years for men and 81 for women. Over the next hundred years, we can expect life expectancy to increase at least the same rate. This would mean that life expectancy by the end of the century would be roughly 125 to 130 at a minimum. However, it could easily go well beyond that.
On the surface, this would be a wonderful development, but it would cause some problems. For example, currently, people from the baby boom generation are waiting longer to retire. This is frustrating for many of the so-called millennials who want them to hurry up and vacate good paying jobs and positions of authority. However, with a life expectancy of 125, many boomers would still be in those positions for another 40 years. In fact, some of them would still be waiting for their own parents to finally retire.
No one knows how quickly all of these changes are coming. Every day tens of thousands of scientists, doctors, engineers, mathematicians and support staff go to work in labs around the world to push all of these technologies (and others not listed here) forward. Some days go better than others but all of these technologies are creeping forward constantly.
We cannot say on what day delivery drivers or cancer is curable but we can be sure that at some point in the not too distant future, humans will be living much longer, healthier lives and the idea of a job that you get up and go to every day will be a note in a history book.
It is possible, and even likely, that at some point in the next few generations that humans will be so different from the current model that we will have to reclassify ourselves as a new species or even multiple new species. Though technology and genetic manipulation the average person could achieve mental and physical capabilities that previous generations reserved for comic books. It is even possible that the human genome and the human body could be modified for living underwater, in space or in other locations currently thought inhospitable for human habitation.
With all of these changes, we will have to give serious thought to who we are, what makes us human, which parts of ourselves we need to retain and who we want to become in the future. If we do not, those decisions will be made for us.