“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, 2071 to 2075 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 2071-2075
Advanced Nanotech Clothing
Fifty years have passed since the mainstream appearance of nanotech clothing. During that time it has made extraordinary improvements in utility, power and sophistication. Modern fabrics have built upon the abilities of previous generations, perfecting many of the technologies involved. Today, a complex blend of nanotechnology, biotechnology, claytronics, met materials and other components has yielded a type of clothing previously confined to the realm of science fiction. Though mostly restricted to specialized personnel, government forces and the elite, a number of these suits are finding their way into the mainstream.
Construction via self-assembling nanotechnology has been around for a number of decades. Until now, the process was only practical using bulky and/or conspicuous machinery, nanofabricators, or objects suspended in tanks of catalytic fluids. However, recent advances in nanorobotics have allowed for more subtle and rapid construction of macro-scale objects in a more compact form-factor and with less impact on Earth’s resources. As happened in early nanotech adoption in the 2020s, one of the easiest and most common applications has been seen in fabrics. Today, a high-end home “closet” may consist of a thin surface or pad built into the wall or floor, concealing a mass of nanobots and molecular building materials. A user can stand on or touch this surface and issue instructions to the machine (through voice command or virtual telepathy) for what to create. Each nanobot is then programmed with the final clothing design and set in motion.
The process begins with each nanobots organizing and categorizing each building molecule, based on the aggregate material needed and where each piece will be located in the finished process. The nanobots - also called “foglets” - then begin interlocking themselves, forming a basic “skeleton” on which the building molecules can be attached.
As more and more nanobots and molecules are added on, thousands of individual fibers begin to form out of the machine’s surface. These grow up and around the person’s body, crossing each other to create a weave pattern, before finally taking the shape of traditional clothing. The result is a basic structure around which the nanobots then construct the more advanced and customized features. Depending on the outfit’s function, the original fibers can be interlaced with photovoltaics, piezoelectric nanowire, carbon nanotubules, metamaterials, claytronics or any number of other useful materials. Tiny electronic devices can be added for communication or medical purposes. This whole process is completed in a matter of seconds.
With such detail and control, fabric of this nature confers the wearer an array of conveniences. In earlier decades, this technology was limited to relatively simple functions, like color and texture modifications. Today, it is almost indistinguishable from magic. Complete wardrobes are no longer necessary, since one garment performs the function of many, transforming into an endless variety of styles and shapes. Most outfits are self-cleaning, self-fragrancing and rarely if ever need to be washed. They can instantly adjust themselves in emergencies - becoming harder than steel to stop a knife or bullet; cushion-like in the event of accidents or falls. If a person is injured, the fabric can administer life-saving drugs and medical nanobots, or contract to seal a wound. A drowning person can be made safe. Fire-fighters and other rescue workers are completely protected from hazards such as fire and radiation. This is also useful in space, protecting people from sudden changes in air pressure, micrometeorites, cosmic rays and other hazards. Medical devices included in these outfits monitor for disease at all times, catching the earliest signs of cancer or infection and alerting the wearer before any damage is done. Whatever power is needed for the various functions is supplied by a combination of piezoelectric and photovoltaic components embedded throughout the clothing material.
Some of these aforementioned comforts had already been available in earlier decades, but were simpler and fewer - usually limited to just one, or a small number within each item of clothing. Today, however, all of them can be fully integrated and combined together into a single suit, created and maintained via swarms of intelligent foglets. As this technology evolves further, it becomes a permanent part of peoples’ physiology, almost like a second skin.
Picotechnology is Becoming Practical
Technology on the scale of trillionths of a meter (10 to the -12 power) is becoming practical now. This is orders of magnitude smaller than the nanotechnology of earlier decades. The structure and properties of individual atoms can be altered via the manipulation of energy states within electrons, to produce metastable states with highly unusual properties, creating new and exotic forms of atoms.
The First Space Elevator is Becoming Operational
The idea of a space elevator has been around as early as 1895, when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first explored the concept. Inspired by the newly-built Eiffel Tower, he described a free-standing structure reaching from ground level into geostationary orbit. Rising some 22,000 miles (36,000 km) above the equator and following the direction of the Earth’s rotation, it would have an orbital period of exactly one day and thus be maintained in a fixed position.
A number of more detailed proposals emerged in the mid-late 20th century, as the Space Race got underway and manned trips to Earth orbit became increasingly routine. It was hoped that a space elevator could drastically reduce the cost of getting into orbit - revolutionizing access to near-Earth space, the Moon, Mars and beyond. However, upfront investment and level of technology requires meant that such a project was rendered impractical for now, confining it to the realm of science fiction.
By the early decades of the 21st century, the concept was being taken more seriously, due to progress being made with carbon nanotubules. These cylindrical molecules offered ways of synthesizing an ultra-strong material with sufficiently high tensile strength and sufficiently low density for the elevator cable. However, they could only be produced at extremely small scales. In 2004, the record length for a single-wall nanotubules was just 4 centimeters. Although highly promising, further research would be needed to refine the manufacturing process.
It was not until the 2040s that material for a practical, full-length cable became technically feasible, with the required tensile strength of 130 gigapascals (Gpa). Even then, design challenges persisted - such as how to nullify dangerous vibrations in the cable, triggered by gravitational tugs from the Moon and the Sun, along with pressure from gusts of solar wind.
Major legal and financial hurdles also needed to be overcome - requiring international agreements on safety, security and compensation in the event of an accident or terrorist incident. The insurance arrangements were of particular concern, given the potential for large-scale catastrophe if something went wrong. In the interim, smaller experimental structures were built, demonstrating the basic concept at lower altitudes. These would eventually pave the way to a larger and more advanced design.
In the 2070s, after 15 years of construction, a space elevator reaching from the Earth’s surface into geostationary orbit has become fully operational. The construction process involves placing a spacecraft at a fixed position - 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above the equator - then gradually extending a tether down to “grow” the cable towards Earth. It also extends upwards from this point - to over 29,204 miles (47,000 km) - a height at which objects can escape the pull of gravity altogether. A large counterweight is placed at this outer end to keep it taut. Locations most suitable as ground stations include French Guiana, Central Africa, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
As with most forms of transport and infrastructure in the late 21st century, the space elevator is controlled by artificial intelligence, which constantly monitors and maintains the structure throughout. If necessary, robots can be dispatched to fix problems in the cable or other components, from ground level to the cold vacuum of space. This is rarely requires , however, due to the efficiency and safety mechanisms in the design.
A major space boom is underway, as people and cargo can be delivered to orbit at vastly reduced costs, compared with traditional launches. Over 1,000 tons of material can be lifted in a single day, greater than the weight of the International Space Station, which took over a decade to build at the start of the century.
Although relatively slow - taking many hours to ascend - the ride is much smoother than conventional rockets, with no high-G forces of explosives. Upon leaving the atmosphere and reaching Low Earth Orbit, between 99 miles (160 km) and 1,200 miles (2,000 km), cargo or passengers can be transferred to enter their own orbit around Earth. Alternatively, they can be jettisoned beyond geosynchronous orbit, in craft moving at sufficient speed to escape the planet’s gravity, traveling to more remote destinations such as the Moon or Mars.
In the decades ahead, additional space elevators become operational above Earth, the Moon, mars and elsewhere in the Solar System, with considerable reduction in costs and technical risks. Construction is also made easier by lower gravity: 0.16 g for the Moon and 0.38 g on Mars. Further into the future, space elevators are rendered obsolete by teleportation and similar technologies.
The “Green Wall of China” is Completed
A 73-year environmental project to halt the advancing sands of the Gobi Desert is finally completed. Beijing and other cities along China’s northeastern border are now protected from desertification by a 2,800 mile (4,500 km) barrier of newly planted trees.
To build it, the government established a plan involving three approaches. First, aerial seeding over vast swathes of land where soil was less arid. Second, paying farmers to plant trees and shrubs in areas requiring greater attention. Third, the construction of a huge fence along the perimeter.
Inside this gigantic new forest, sand-tolerant vegetation was arranged in optimal checkerboard patterns to create an artificial ecosystem that stabilized the dunes. A gravel platform held sand down and encouraged the formation of a soil crust. The government also funded research into genetically engineered plants, chemical dune stabilization, grass strains bred in space, and even farming techniques that allowed rice to grow in sandy soil. Prior to the erection of this barrier, the Gobi had been advancing south almost two miles per year.
The Ozone Layer Has Finally Recovered
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were invented in the 1920s. They were used in air conditioning/cooling units, as well as aerosol spray propellants prior to the 1980s, and in the cleaning of electronic equipment. They also occurred as the by-products of some chemical processes. No significant natural sources were ever identified for these compounds - their presence in the atmosphere was found to be almost entirely due to human activity. When such ozone-depleting chemicals reached the stratosphere, they dissociated by ultraviolet light to release chlorine atoms. The chlorine atoms acted as a catalyst, each one breaking down tens of thousands of ozone molecules before being removed from the stratosphere.
The ozone layer prevents most UV wavelengths of sunlight from passing through Earth’s atmosphere. In the late 20th century, huge decreases in ozone generated worldwide concern. It was suspected that a variety of biological consequences - such as increases in skin cancer, cataracts, damage to plants and reduced plankton populations - resulted from the higher levels of UV exposure due to ozone depletion.
This led to the adoption of the Montreal Protocol - one of the single most successful international agreements of all time, which banned the production of CFCs, halons and related ozone-depleting chemicals. Although this ban came into force in 1989, the molecules had a longevity of several decades. In 2006, the ozone hole was the largest ever recorded, at 10.6 million square miles. It was not until 2075 that it fully recovered.
The Thames Barrier is Upgraded
London is just the latest of many cities to radically upgrade its flood defenses in the wake of devastating floods and sea level rises. The original barrier was raised a total of 62 times between 1983 and 2001. It was raised with increasing frequency as the decades went by. Towards the end of the century, its successor needs to be raised over 200 times every year to cope with the combined impacts of stronger storms and sea level rise.
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which arms you today against the present.” - Marcus Aurelius Antoninus