“Politics is not just the battle for today, it is also the war for tomorrow.”
Welcome to Futurist Friday, where tomorrow intersects with politics, policy and prediction. The point of this exercise is to describe the likely future based on current analysis of trends, curves and activity occurring today. The hope is to encourage discussion and debate on what needs to be changed, what actions can be taken and; why should Alan Boyle have all the fun?
The format of this article will cover five year increments to the year 2100. This week, 2051 to 2055 will be covered. A word of caution, some of this will seem rather dystopic, however as history has shown, it is always within peoples’ nature to change. I must give credit to FutureTimeline.net as an invaluable source for the speculations presented.
Welcome to the Future 2051-2055
Global Population is Reaching A Plateau
By the mid 21st century, the global population has stabilized between 9 and 10 billion with most of the recent growth occurring in the developing world. Better education along with greater access to contraception, family planning and other birth control methods markedly reduced the number of children per couple. Information technology plays a major role in boosting literacy levels and spreading knowledge to the world’s poor.
The global population continues to get older, putting a huge strain on government welfare systems and employment. More than 20% of the planet is over 60 years of age, with continued breakthroughs in medicine, this trend continues.
More than two-thirds of the population live in urban areas by this time, compared with 50% in 2010, and there are vast, sprawling mega-cities in all corners of the globe. In the very densest parts of the world, the tallest skyscrapers reach almost a mile in height, are occupied by millions of people and are effectively cities in their own right with self sufficiency in food and energy. Many residents within these towers spend almost their entire lives in these buildings, with little need or desire to venture outside.
The population of the United States has nearly reached 450 million now (up from 309 million in 2010), with Hispanics doubling their share of the population to 30% and Asians going up from 5% to 9%. Non-Hispanic whites have become a minority, with their demographic share dropping below 45%. They made up 85% of the population in 1960. Due to climate change, living standards are the highest in the northern states, which have better access to water and are generally more stable. California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have seen huge declines in wealth and influence.
Despite recent advances in energy, food production and other technology, there are still widespread conflicts around the globe-due to a rapidly worsening environment, coupled with a host of socio-political issues as the world struggles to adopt a more sustainable economic paradigm. Huge shantytowns have formed in some countries, with millions of people displaced. the worst-affected regions are so destitute that they have been reclassified as “fourth world” countries. Desperate attempts are now underway to sequester carbon from the atmosphere in the hope of reversing the effects of global warming.
The Vast Majority of Countries Have Achieved Democracy
The on-going information revolution-aided by mobile telecommunications, social media and other technology-continues to nurture democracy. The vast majority of countries now have free and fair elections.
However, this general upward trend has begun to plateau in recent decades. Climate change is now having a significant impact on regional stability, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, where concerns over the scarcity of resources have created conditions allowing dictators and authoritarian governments to make a comeback.
In any case, a number of cultures are simply more compatible with monarchies, theocracies and autocracies at the present time. These parochial nations will remain undemocratic for some time to come.
Traditional Media is Fragmented and Diversified
By the mid-2050s, traditional Western news corporations no longer exist. News gathering, analysis and distribution has fragmented-shifting to millions of creative individuals, bloggers, citizen journalists and small-scale enterprises. Together, they work cooperatively and seamlessly, utilizing the “global commons’ of instantly shared knowledge and freely available resources. This includes information retrieval not only from cyberspace, but also in the real world; embedded in everything from webcams and personal digital devices, to orbiting satellites, robots, vehicles, street lamps, buildings and other public places.
Even people themselves have become part of this collection process. Bionic eye implants (for example) can relay data and footage on the spot, in real time, from those willing to participate.
Traditional Western TV channels have largely disappeared, replaced by unique “personalized” web channels, covering practically any subject or combination of subjects imaginable. These are filtered and customized to the exact tastes and requirements of the individual and are viewable anywhere at anytime. They can be highly interactive and are often experienced in virtual reality settings, rather than on a screen. This is especially true of movies, many of which have non-linear plotlines allowing the viewer to influence the outcome themselves, or even to become characters within the film.
Mass advertising, too, has undergone a revolution in Western societies. some of the oldest outdoor media still exist-such as posters, billboards and leaflets- which continue to survive in holographic and other forms. However, online web and televisual product/service information is now accessed almost entirely from on-demand, advanced customer feedback networks along with automated, semantic web assistants. Together these can provide instant, factual and trustworthy information on a highly personalized level: automatically filtering any marketing bias or corporate propaganda which might have influenced a consumer in the past.
Despite the increased choice and empowerment, one major consequence of this fragmentation (a trend which began in the 1980s) has been the increased isolation of the individual. A decrease in the shared experience of media has led to a further decline in Western family life.
Moore’s Law Reaches Astounding Levels
As predicted by Moore’s Law, the average desktop computer now has the raw processing power equivalent to all of the human brains on Earth combined. There is no longer a clear distinction between human and machine intelligence. Entities of astonishing realism and interactivity are widespread. Many are in fact merging with human intelligence, as the trend toward brain-computer links increases.
Video games of today provide fantastically lifelike experiences. Full immersion VR is now a mainstream phenomenon, having developed rapidly over the last decade. Recent advances in AI have led to Matrix-style worlds of breathtaking scale and ingenuity. Entire new societies have formed in cyberspace, with many in developed nations spending their entire leisure time engaged in them. Mounting stresses from the outside world have served to increase demand for this form of recreation; as a means of escaping from reality itself.
High Tech, Intelligent Buildings Revolutionize the Urban Landscape
In the first half of the 21st century, a soaring urban population posed serious problems for the environment, health and infrastructures of many cities. In newly industrialized nations especially, urban centers became polluted, overcrowded and chronically inefficient. Throughout the world, metropolitan areas grew to unprecedented sizes-putting huge and increasing pressure on city planners to adapt.
Amid worsening climate change and resource depletion, urban regions were forced either to evolve, or die off. Countless cities failed to make the transition in time, and went the way of Detroit, many being abandoned and left to decay, or subject to intense military control and martial law. In those that survived, a new generation of buildings and infrastructure emerged based on these rapidly changing social and environmental needs.
Among the most important trends in modern architecture, has been self-sufficiency. By 2050, environmental and resource degradation have become so obvious and huge, it triggered radical new ideas of production and consumption by citizens. As such, many modern skyscrapers now come complete with the internalized creation of food, water and other resources. Farms often comprise multiple floors of a tower-regardless of its purpose-while rain, mist and condensation are constantly trapped and stored. Advanced 3-D printers are available locally on site to manufacture everything from household furniture, to personal transportation, to replacement parts for the building itself. Energy is typically provided by photovoltaics and wind turbines. These are often integrated seamlessly into the building design, so as not to harm the aesthetic appeal. Solar power, for instance, can be collected by window panes or special photovoltaic paints applied to outside surfaces. The efficiencies for solar have been improving steadily for decades.
Nature figures heavily in these structures. The outside of buildings are often covered with vegetation, or special membranes, designed to filter pollutants and capture CO2. Government regulations now require a large percentage of buildings to be fitted in this way, making it the dominant style of architecture today. Algae bio-fuel cells adorning the building facade can also absorb CO2 while acting as a source of electricity.
Buildings are integrated into the city around them in a number of ways. Fuel restrictions and other factors have led to increasingly socialized transportation. The bottom floors of most towers have dedicated public car share (AI controlled) and bike share facilities, while bus and other mass transit stations are often built into the structures themselves. Pedestrian sky-walkways feature heavily in most modern cities, improving access and permeability of the urban area, while shielding walkers from the elements. If ornamented with foliage, they can function as elevated parks and gardens.
Buildings are making cities more comfortable and inviting in various other ways. By tightly controlling a tower’s reflectivity, heat absorption and heat balance, for example, planners can significantly reduce the temperatures associated with urban heat island effects. This comes at a time when temperatures in less developed cities are soaring from the combined effects of climate change and urbanization.
The average modern building in 2050 is seamlessly integrated into a city’s power supply, acting as another node in a city-wide smart grid. Nearly all buildings are able to transmit locally produced energy back into the system. Wireless electricity transfer is also common, with energy beamed invisibly between buildings, which eliminates the need for unsightly poles and cables. AI systems within each building direct its total power consumption, adjusting according to the varying needs of occupants and taking into account even the most minor details.
Overall, this new smart infrastructure is helping to drastically improve the nature of urban living. Cities following this model are becoming far more livable, clean, efficient and modernized. Though many regions have collapsed into chaos, others are now leading the way in providing a more sustainable path for humanity.
Smaller, Safer, High Tech Autos
Increased living costs and environmental factors have resulted in smaller, cheaper, more energy-efficient cars. More people than ever before are choosing to live and work alone, while the number of children per couple has also declined, two additional factors which have led to these lighter, more compact vehicles, a large percentage which carry just one or two passengers.
The vast majority of cars in the developed world are now computer-controlled, while traffic flow and other road management issues are handled by advanced networks of AI. The resulting reduction of congestion has boosted some economies by tens of billions of dollars.
The inherent safety of being controlled by machine, rather than humans, allows for greater speed of travel: over 100 m.p.h. in many countries. Even when crashes do occur, which is very rare, built-in safety features and toughened materials (e.g. carbon nanotubules) mean that fatalities are becoming virtually non-existent.
Genetically Engineered “Designer Babies” for the Rich
The ability to manipulate DNA has come a long way since its discovery in 1953. A century later, wealthy parents now have the option of creating “perfect” babies in the laboratory. This is done by picking and choosing their best hereditary traits. Gender, Height, skin, hair and eye color-along with hundreds of other characteristics-can be programmed into the embryo prior to birth. The embryo is then grown in an artificial uterus.
The most advanced (and controversial) techniques involve manipulating the brain to improve the child’s intelligence, behavior and personality. Many conservative and religious groups decry what they see as the commercialization of the human body.
Interstellar Radio Message Arrives at Gliese 777
The Yevpatoria RT-70, located at the Center for Deep Space Communications in Ukraine, was among the largest radio telescopes in the world, with a 70 meter antenna diameter. On July 1, 1999, it beamed a noise-resistant message named “Cosmic Call 1” into space. This was sent towards Gliese 777, a yellow sub-giant star, 52 light years away in the constellation Cygnus. At least two extra solar planets were known to be present in this system. In April 2051, the message arrives at its destination, for any potential alien civilizations to hear and decode it.
Spaceflight Takes Leaps Forward
Environmental catastrophes, overpopulation, war and other crises have made humanity painfully aware of the limitations on its home planet. Many now believe that exploring and settling space could be the way to alleviate some of Earth’s immediate problems. As a result of this, spaceflight has advanced considerably since the beginning of the century. National governments are able to participate to a certain extent, but huge levels of debt and economic stagnation have left the bulk of the effort to private enterprises and wealthy individuals.
The cost of launching material into space has declined considerably by now. Advances in materials technology, greatly improved fuel efficiency for rockets and the proliferation of single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft have all contributed to this fall in prices. Automated design evolution, facilitated through artificial intelligence networks (enabling the rapid synthesis of optimal design requirements) has also played a role. This is allowing much greater frequency of flights, as well as heavier payloads.
Because of this reduction of cost versus weight, many options bring space travel into the mainstream of the commonplace. Space tourism is available to the middle class, while the super rich can take excursions to the lunar surface. Major corporations are mining both the Moon and the asteroids, with most asteroids containing more resources than have ever been mined on Earth. This resource boom causes nations to revise their monopoly and anti-trust laws so that all may share in the benefits of this technology. Space militarization rushes forward, with many nations launching sensors and weapons into Earth orbit. The United States becomes the leader in this respect, with sophisticated spy networks and kinetic striking weapons deployed to retain it’s influence. Employment in space, while calling for greater technical skills, becomes as regular as any terrestrial career path.
Recent progress has been achieved with anti-matter propulsion-making travel to the outer Solar System a real possibility in the coming years. A permanent base on Mars is in the late planning stages, set to be established by a consortium of national governments and corporate interests. Longer term projects are now being considered, with international talks being held over the future construction of a space elevator, to be located on the equator. Corporations are also looking to the massive, untapped wealth of the gas giants and the outer Solar System as an eventual goal. By all accounts, private interests are driving a new era of space exploration. Rapid progress in science and technology, combined with surging demand for resources, imply that humanity is well on its way to becoming a space-faring civilization.
Nearly Half of the Amazon Rainforest Deforested
Lack of enforcement in the so-called protected areas has resulted in the Amazon undergoing a catastrophic decline. Though army troops are deployed into regions of illegal deforestation, their numbers were simply to small, and the Amazon to vast, to have sufficient impact. Political corruption also played a role in undermining protection efforts. Droughts caused by global warming have further contributed to the decline, with many areas of jungle being turned into a parched scrubland. By 2050, nearly 1.67 million square miles have been deforested.
As a result, over 30 billion tons of carbon have been added to the atmosphere. Although clean energy sources are offsetting this, it can’t save the countless species of plant and animal life dependent on the rainforest for survival. Substantial amounts of biodiversity have been lost. Desperate efforts are being made by non-profit organizations to obtain DNA samples, in hope of resurrecting these species at some point in the future.
Wildfires Triple in Some Regions
Rising global temperatures are creating drier conditions for vegetation-producing larger and more frequent wildfires. In North America, the geographic area typically burned has increased by an average of 50%. Worst hit are the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains, which have seen a tripling of areas affected.
With so much extra burning, air quality and visibility in the western United States is being significantly altered. There has been a 40% rise in organic carbon aerosols and other smoke particles. These irritate the lungs, but are especially dangerous to people who have trouble breathing as a result of asthma and other chronic conditions. Southern Europe is badly affected-especially Greece, which has been ravaged in recent decades.
These wildfires are triggering positive feedback loops. As more and more carbon is liberated from burning material and released into the atmosphere, this is further accelerating the pace of global warming.
China Completes the Largest Water Diversion Project in History
The South-North Water Transfer Project-proposed almost a century ago- is finally completed in China at a cost of over $60 billion. This becomes the largest project of it’s kind ever undertaken, stretching thousands of miles across the country.
Its main purpose is to divert water from the southern region of China to the dryer north. It is hoped that this will spur economic growth and stability in the more populous northern area, where the per capita share of regional water has declined to near crisis levels. It consists of an extensive systems of tunnels, dams, reservoirs and canals, all connecting and diverting water from China’s largest rivers-including the Yangtze, Yellow and Hai Rivers. At peak capacity, the entire system can move nearly 45 billion cubic meters of water annually.
Like the Three Gorges Dam before it, the South-North Water Transfer Project receives heavy criticism. In addition to environmental damage through mining, construction and pollution, there are worries about the increased potential of floods in certain areas and droughts in others. Also of concern are the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes during construction. Meanwhile, other diversion projects in the south have provoked conflicts with neighboring countries.
Many doubted that China had enough water to begin with to make the project worthwhile. By the 2050s, southern China itself is beginning to feel the effects of melting Himalayan glaciers and drying conditions. As a result, the water diversion project rarely operates at full capacity, primarily acting as a way to evenly distribute water around China, easing tensions between the inland and coastal regions. While of some benefit to China now, in the coming years, even projects of this magnitude will be insufficient to prevent serious water shortages. In the long term, only desalination will be able to save the country.
Rainfall Intensity Increases by 20%
As the world warms, the increased evaporation is putting greater amounts of water vapor into the atmosphere. Rainfall intensity rises by 7% for each degree of additional warming. With temperatures approaching 3 degrees C (5.4 F) above the 20th century average, the most extreme rainfall events are now 20% more intense than before. Dramatic increases in surface runoff, peak river flows and flash flooding are being experienced around the world-exacerbating soil erosion and putting huge pressure on drainage and sewage systems. This additional rainfall is a particular problem in the tropics and poor regions with insufficient infrastructure of flood defenses.
“We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” - Carl Sagan