I’m up early (thanks, dexamethasone!) and there’s not really any news in the morning papers that I’m just bursting to respond to. So, since predictions are the thing to do when a new year dawns, here are some predictions. Not for 2015, mind you—I’m not an idiot—but for the medium-term future, which in my book extends over the next 30 years or so for reasons given in prediction #1. Here you go:
- AI and robotics will continue to improve rapidly. We’ll have useful AI by 2025 and full AI by 2045. This will either transform the world or destroy it. Flip a coin. However, regardless of how the end point turns out, the transition period is going to be pretty brutal for the 90 percent of the population that occupies the middle classes and below. Note that this prediction is #1 on my list for a reason. The rest are randomly placed.
- At some point, we will reach a tipping point and medicine will be revolutionized. I’m guessing it starts around 2025 and really takes off over the ensuing decade or two. By 2030 or so nanobots will be involved. I know this has been predicted for about as long as nuclear fusion reactors have been “twenty years away,” but honestly, that’s not a strike against this prediction. It just means that lots of influential people are habitually starry-eyed about technology, something that’s always been true for reasons of either personality or simple business self-interest. But the medical revolution will come regardless. It will just take longer than the congenital utopians thought. Speed bumps along the way aren’t reasons for cynicism, they’re the signposts of progress.
- Climate change is going to start to seriously bite by 2030. This will have increasingly catastrophic results in equatorial zones, which rich countries will decline to do much about despite many pious promises. We’ll be too busy adapting ourselves.
- However, the big wild card on climate change is geoengineering. I think there’s at least a 50 percent chance that we’ll undertake some kind of major geoengineering project by 2035, either unilaterally or as a global initiative. It will almost certainly be something of a clusterfuck, but we’ll get better with experience and the continued development of AI.
- On the bright side, solar panels will keep getting cheaper. By 2020 they’ll be competitive with coal in many parts of the world. As early as 2030, solar could be providing a very substantial part of our energy production if we have the brains to get serious about reducing greenhouse gases and allow government regulation to speed the process of the free market. Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith that we’ll do this. But if we do, it will allow us to start our geoengineering experiment with more modest projects, which will be a very good thing indeed. Nuclear fusion remains unlikely but not impossible.
- The rich world will continue to age. Old people will continue to vote in large numbers. This will reach a critical point around 2025 or so, but I don’t really know how it’s going to resolve itself. Maybe we’ll just muddle along. Maybe old people will increasingly—and successfully—demand policies that steadily kill economic growth. Maybe the young will revolt. I’m just not sure.
- The surveillance state will continue to grow. Partly this is because technology simply can’t be stopped, and partly because terrorism will continue to increase and we will willingly trade privacy for security. By 2030 personal privacy will be all but dead, and everyone under 40 will simply accept it. The rest of us will remain uncomfortable but won’t put up much of a fight.
- Social media as we know it will slowly die out. It will be replaced by (a) ubiquitous surveillance, (b) instant, ubiquitous wireless communication, and (c) immersive virtual reality. This will happen in the rich world by, say, 2030, and in the rest of the world a decade or two later.
- Online retail will continue to grow. Duh. Partly this will happen for the obvious reasons, partly because the experience of truly trying out a new product online before you buy will get better and better. The kindergarten version of this is reading a sample of a book for free before you buy. The grownup version will be virtual versions of tech gadgets that you can play with as if they were in your hands, along with highly accurate online avatars that will let you try on virtual clothing and truly see what it looks like and whether it fits. Here in Irvine, a nearby shopping center is slowly being shut down and transformed into a medical office complex. I take this as a sign of things to come.
- Personal 3D printing? I’m still not sure if and when that becomes more than a toy. At an industrial level it will certainly become a big thing, allowing us far more routine customization of consumer products that we buy online.
- Real, honest-to-god driverless cars that can navigate essentially anywhere and respond to sophisticated voice commands, will become reality by 2025 or 2030. See #1 for why. This will change society as profoundly as the invention of the mass-market car itself.
- Manned space exploration will go nowhere. We will not colonize the moon. At most, we will eventually launch a manned mission to Mars, but it will find nothing of interest beyond what unmanned probes have discovered. We gave up on manned missions to the moon after seven flights. We’ll give up on Mars after one or two. FTL travel will continue to be impossible. Thanks a lot, Einstein!
- We will all have plenty of body implants by and by. Bionic eyes are an obvious possibility. Bionic limbs are already good enough that their continued success barely counts as a prediction anymore. Cognitive enhancement will become mainstream, which is a good thing since we’ll need it to keep up with AI development.
- Russia will decline. China will keep growing and will certainly become a major world power, but growth will slow down due mostly to inexorable consequences of demographics and the decay of labor costs as a competitive advantage. Over the long term, the United States will continue to outperform them both, as well as the EU and (maybe) South America. I’m not really sure about India.
- Nuclear warfare? Beats me. I’d say a major exchange is unlikely, but a few minor exchanges are certainly possible. The most likely spot is the tinder keg stretching from Morocco to India, which already contains three nuclear powers and will likely contain at least two more (Iran and Saudi Arabia) within two decades.
- There will also be some terrorist biological attacks, but nothing catastrophic. Thanks to ubiquitous surveillance and superior technology, the good guys will develop defenses faster than the bad guys can develop truly killer bugs. Whether the same can be said for natural pandemics is less clear.
As you’ve noticed, I have no predictions for art or culture, which I know little about. In any case, these subjects are far too nonlinear to say anything useful about. Not too much about politics either, though the political implications of many of the predictions are fairly obvious. Economics will undergo a sea change for the same reason it’s gone through sea changes before: the underlying world of trade and money will fundamentally change. It’s not clear if the political class will pay much attention to this, but at some point I suppose they won’t have much choice.
The corporate world, despite the endless predictions of the techno-utopians and the equally endless kvetching about slacker Millennials, won’t really change much. There will be more telecommuting, more consolidation into gigantic multinationals, and ever more sophisticated marketing, but no revolutionary changes to the basic structure of business. (The marketing part of this prediction relies largely on the fact that although big data may look like crap right now, it won’t forever, and it will intersect with ubiquitous surveillance to become either revolutionary or sinister depending on your worldview.) Patent law will either be seriously reformed or will become perhaps the most dominant and most oppressive feature of corporate R&D. Not sure which.
Media will continue to be 95 percent entertainment subsidizing a small amount of serious news, just as it’s been for centuries. Only the tech will change. Books will continue to be books. English will continue to take over the world (see #14), though it’s possible the development of accurate, idiomatic, real-time translation AI will make this a moot point. The revolution of medical tech may or may not come soon enough to affect the treatment of multiple myeloma.
Obviously I’m missing lots of stuff. Some of it is due to ignorance, some is because I’m genuinely skeptical that certain much-hyped trends are likely to pan out. However, I’m not going to tell you which is which. This will allow me to plausibly deny ignorance for anything big that I’ve stupidly left off my list.
You should feel free to offer to bet me on any of these trends, but they’re all far enough out that you’ll likely have to badger my estate for payouts. Good luck with that. This is deliberate on my part, so let’s skip the whole betting thing, OK?