THE FUTURIST Magazine's Ten Favorite Predictions for 2011
Our interaction with the future—as individuals, groups, and nations—is an expression of both personal and national identity. Regardless of what may or may not happen, the future as idea continues to shape buying, voting, and social behavior. We interact with the future in a myriad of ways, but none is more conspicuous than the prediction. With that it mind, the editors of THE FUTURIST magazine assembled a list of the best predictions we read in 2011, published in the January-February 2012 issue included more than 70 from sources in government, business, and the occasional celebrity; herewith are our top 10 selections.
What makes a prediction a good one? We struggled with the question. We evaluated those we came across in terms of ambition, seriousness of subject, persuasiveness, and viability (with the understanding that the future can never be known with certainty.) We were most inclined to remember those that surprised us but that also seemed to "fit," to make intuitive sense. Our metric, in other words, was entirely subjective and we make no apologies for that. We included with each a big BUT that could get in a way of the prediction coming to pass, and a bottom line.
These statements do not paint a full portrait of the future, nor are they intended to. Their value is as a reflection of our rapidly shifting world at this moment in time. Humanity is inundated with technology yet exceptionally hopeful for technological solutions; we are wary of how the Internet is changing the way we live, and dimly aware of the tremendous promise of the century before us.
With no further ado, here they are:
1. Prediction: In the next 25 years, synthetic biology—the creation of life from nonliving chemicals designed on a computer—could produce thousands of synthetic genomes and life-forms not yet imagined.
Who: Jerome C. Glenn, director of The Millennium Project, extrapolating from the work of the J. Craig Venter Institute
Why Great: Scientists are expanding the tools available to solve a myriad of problems, from enhancing health to improving energy supplies.
BUT … If no one yet knows what can be created, neither can we know what mischief such creations could create.
Bottom Line: Technological development has always been a double-edged sword. Researchers who ignore potential side effects or the ethical implications of their work, and who do not govern their own activities, risk having government regulators (and public disdain) thwart any hope of achieving positive breakthroughs.
Source: “Global Situation and Prospects for the Future” by Jerome C. Glenn, in Moving from Vision to Action edited by Cynthia G. Wagner (World Future Society, 2011), page 8.
2. Prediction: Nano-engineered solar panels will free the world from fossil fuels by 2016.
Who: Ray Kurzweil, speaking to Lauren Feeney of the online environmental magazine "Grist" in February.
Why Great: At present, solar provides less than 1% of U.S. energy needs, despite its obvious merits over fossil fuels, nuclear power, and especially coal.
BUT... No matter how a solar panel is designed, no more than 70% of the sunlight that strikes it can be converted into energy, thanks to those pesky laws of thermodynamics. Also, assuming that the U.S. coal lobby still has money in five years, we'll still be using plenty of black rocks.
Bottom Line: You don't need a nano-engineered solar panel in order to ask your local utility how much of their energy comes from solar.
3. Prediction: “Computers” will cease to exist. We’ll access the Web through our contact lenses, going online in the blink of an eye—literally.
Who: Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku.
Background: Miniaturization of all things electronic will allow more technology to be embedded on the convenient contact lens.
Why Great: Imagine never having to say you’re sorry when you don’t remember your telecommuting colleague’s name or what project you’re supposed to be working on with her. The information you need will arrive discreetly and instantly on your contact lens in a 3-D display visible only to you. You’ll even get subtitles if your partner is speaking a different language.
BUT … Augmented reality has a way of taking over your life. If people can’t even text and walk at the same time, look out for those whose visual displays are distracting them.
Bottom Line: The long-term trend in communications technology has been toward integration and convenience. As cool as things like the iPad and other tablets are, they are still stuff and have to be handled and carried and cleaned and protected. Computer contacts will be seen as a great boon to many people, and not just the usual early-adopter gearheads.
Source: various individuals cited by Australian blogger James Adonis “Internet via contact lenses, as computers die out” (May 27, 2011), Work in Progress, Sydney Morning Herald
4. Prediction: By 2020, the world could have a space ship capable of carrying human crews to other planets, says a NASA team. To build this ship, which the team dubs Nautilus-x, engineers would take the International Space Station and outfit it with artificial-gravity mechanisms, modules for supply storage, and hangars for landing vehicles. The whole project could be completed for a mere $4 billion.
Who: NASA’s Technology Applications Assessment Team
Why Great: Anything that could ferry humans to other planets for less than $4 billion would be a momentous development for humankind. This is the kind of cost-effective infrastructure that we would need if we are to ever break free of Earth. As an added plus, it would ensure a future for the International Space Station, which the U.S. government does not plan to fund beyond 2015.
BUT... Nautilus-x’s short timetable and scant budget both sound incredibly optimistic. They may be correct, but we will never find out unless the proponents can win over a lot of skeptics within NASA’s leadership circles. The timing is anything but auspicious. Not only is there an ongoing budget crunch that would discourage bold ideas such as this, but NASA is also already planning for Orion 6, a more compact (and more expensive) vehicle for human flight into deep space.
Bottom Line: Nautilus-x represents several great ideas: recycling old space modules for new, more challenging missions; harnessing the resources of many partner nations, not just one; and cutting spacecraft construction costs by building and testing them in space. These ideas have staying power and will probably be guiding principles in many future space missions, whether Nautilus-x is constructed or not.
Read it: Future in Space Operations Group, http://hobbyspace.com/nucleus/?itemid=26786
5. Prediction: Thanks to the Internet and social media, the rich and powerful will be forced to share authority with formerly disempowered individuals and groups by 2020.
Who: Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist.org, in a guest editorial on Wired.com.
Why Great: Newmark predicts that, by 2020, a “new equilibrium” will arise “between the traditional holders of power and unexpected influencers arising from the grassroots.” He explains, “This will be paralleled with major changes in the media landscape, as the formerly powerless exercise power influence via evolving media, which is undergoing simultaneous change with the political landscape.” Newmark points to recent examples of this trend to back up his claims.
BUT... Newmark is more than a little vague on where everything is heading. “The big changes are barely emerging, and will arise from unexpected quarters,” he writes. “It’ll involve centuries of change compressed to a few years.” But it appears to be anyone’s guess as to what those changes will be.
What to do about it: Either utilize Internet-mediated mass media and social media to effect real change or just sit back and watch leaderless grassroots groups self-organize spontaneously.
Bottom Line: “Mass media and politics evolve together, in inseparable ways,” writes Newmark.
6. Prediction: Biofuel-powered hypersonic jets will shuttle passengers from London to Tokyo (and vice-versa) in less than two and a half hours by 2050.
Who: Airbus parent company EADS.
Why Great: High-speed international air travel that doesn’t generate air pollution would constitute a major achievement. The ZEHST (Zero Emission Hypersonic Transportation) would travel over 3000 mph powered by a combination of hydrogen and oxygen derived from seaweed, emitting water vapor instead of carbon dioxide. Also, at cruising altitudes just above the atmosphere of the Earth, it’s almost like space travel.
BUT... Commercial flights won’t be available for 40 years. What’s more, it may not be commercially viable: The aircraft will only be able to handle 100 passengers at most, so tickets would be prohibitively expensive. (MSNBC reports that seats on the ZEHST “will likely cost in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $30,000, according to aerospace industry experts.”)
Bottom line: This ambitious project literally aims for the stratosphere.
7. Prediction: By 2015, the majority of organizations that manage innovation processes will galvanize innovation by making a game out of it.
Who: Gartner, Inc.
Background: “Gamification”—applying game mechanics, such as scoreboards and rules of play, to non-game systems—is a well-known trend under way in IT, Web development, and many other types of businesses and organizations. Their management teams are all looking to increase customer feedback, employee engagement, and idea generation. They achieve all three by creating gamelike platforms that make the work of discussion and correspondence feel more like a game. For example, Great Britain’s Department for Work and Pensions created a social collaboration platform for its 120,000 personnel. Called Idea Street, it features points, leader boards, and a “buzz index.” In its first 48 months, approximately 4,500 users had registered and had generated 1,400 ideas, of which 63 had gone forward to implementation. The World Bank developed a similar application, called Evoke, which crowdsources ideas from players across the globe to solve social challenges.
Why Great: Plenty of adults, just like kids, enjoy friendly competition. The Department for Work and Pensions, the World Bank, and other organizations are clearly coming up with creative ways to channel grownups’ proclivities for games and, in the process, get higher volumes of serious work done. And who can argue with that?
BUT … No app is going to work magic. It is only as useful as the people who use it (or don’t use it). The two organizations above may have the dual benefits of an engaged population willing to contribute ideas and an open-minded leadership willing to receive new ideas. Both of these are important, and unfortunately, not every organization has them. Those that don’t will probably not see as much gain from gamification.
Bottom Line: Businesses and organizations are looking for, and often finding, highly productive ways to combine business and pleasure.
8. Prediction: “Micro-multinationals” will dominate the planet (with a little assistance from cheap robots) by 2025.
Who: Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, in an article for Foreign Policy.
Why Great: Thanks largely to the Internet, “even the smallest company can now afford a communications and computational infrastructure that would have been the envy of a large corporation 15 years ago,” Varian writes. These small businesses, known as micro-multinationals, can distribute their products (especially those that are Web-based)—and hire employees—in virtually any country in the world. Varian points to Skype, based in Estonia, as a successful example of such a company. Micro-multinationals can help prevent “brain drains,” too, since employees can work remotely from anywhere in the world. And soon, according to Varian, inexpensive robotic devices will be available to boost these businesses. This technology, which previously only large companies could afford, will further level the playing field.
BUT... Varian adds that terrorists and others who seek to create disruption and chaos have also “benefited enormously from the same proliferation of information technology that has enabled micro-multinationals and robotics.” He further points out that any problems with the communications infrastructure itself could cause “catastrophes.” In addition, he mentions that legislative and regulatory issues, among others, could prevent the potential of inexpensive robotic technology from fully being realized.
Bottom line: In summing up. Varian says, “A simple way to forecast the future is to look at what rich people have today; middle-income people will have something equivalent in 10 years, and poor people will have it in an additional decade.” While this may come across as an overly simplistic (and overly optimistic) forecasting shortcut, it does seem applicable in the business world.
9. Prediction: It will be possible to feed everyone in the world—all 9 billion of us—by 2050.
Who: Two French organizations, the National Institute for Agricultural Research and the Centre for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development, in the joint report Agrimonde1.
Why Great: A report that finds there are viable ways to end world hunger is good news indeed. Also, the organizations report that Africa’s agricultural productivity doubled between 1961 and 2003. However, agricultural productivity either doubled or tripled in other continents as well. Thus, agricultural productivity in Africa is still the lowest in the world.
BUT... Many looming questions remain as to how best to address food shortages in a way that is sustainable over the long term.
Bottom line: The report examines two possible scenarios. The first emphasizes economic growth over environmental concerns and necessitates an 80% increase in agricultural production. The second takes global ecology into account, and requires only a 30% increase in agricultural production while necessitating a cutback in overall food consumption in developed countries. Subsequent reports will look more closely at other issues, such as changing standards of living, climate change, and land usage.
10. Prediction: The cost to achieve indefinite life extension technology (the so-called “Methuselarity”) will only be in the trillions of dollars.
Who: Aubrey de Grey, in an interview with Ben Goertzel for H+ Magazine.
The Good News: De Grey believes that developing indefinite life extension technology could cost less than expected, due to projected advances in artificial general intelligence (AGI), which “will cut the cost of those later stages as well as of the early stages.” Goertzel argues that the trillions-of-dollars price tag is actually not prohibitively expensive, but in fact “quite affordable by society, given the massive amount we [the United States] spend on healthcare.”
BUT... The cost to develop artificial general intelligence isn’t exactly cheap, either. Also, de Grey isn’t entirely convinced that it’s possible to achieve AGI or to make it “safe” anytime soon.
Bottom line: Indefinite life extension remains a highly speculative area. Goertzel forecasts along two possible lines: that developed without AGI (the longer path) and that developed and enhanced by AGI (the shorter path). De Grey and Goertzel project that the “Methuselarity” could take anywhere from 20 to 50 years.
So what makes a prediction a good one? Perhaps we're no closer to knowing the answer to that. In fact, our social understanding of the term hasn’t changed much in several thousand years. The etymology is Latin, “pre,” meaning before,“diction” from dicere, or to say. Most people still tend to think of predictions in roughly this way, as statements, verbalizations on events that have yet to occur. But we at THE FUTURIST magazine see them as more than that.
A growing body of neurological research is revealing in new and exciting detail that conjuring up the future is more than something humans just do. Rather, it’s the raison d'être for our most humanistic brain regions, including the human neocortex, the origin of all higher order thinking. The future is a tool that humankind evolved to turn memories into guesses about what will next happen in order to better our chances for survival. We love predictions though we understand, implicitly, their fallibility. The future is not a destination; it’s something we create. Though it will never be finished, it is our greatest invention. A full version of the complete list, with links to the sources of each prediction, is available here.
About the author
Patrick Tucker is the deputy editor of THE FUTURIST magazine, which is published by the World Future Society, a nonprofit, nonpartisan scientific and educational association founded in 1966. Go to www.wfs.org for more information.
Note: FUTURIST magazine editor Cynthia G. Wagner and assistant editors Rick Docksai and Aaron M. Cohen contributed greatly to the article, “The Best Predictions of 2011,” published in the January-February 2012 issue
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