Several weeks ago I chanced to see a Facebook post about some predictions an artist had made in the early 20th Century of what life would be like a hundred years later, i.e., in the early 21st Century. (I’m talking about the time around 1910, here.) The predictions were interesting, but what came through for me was that the predictions seemed to be limited to devising objects and machines that would make life easier. Household items that did the work for you, and so on. Nowhere was there any prediction of major advances in health, communications, travel, and what have you. No mention of television, organ transplantation, computers, even the telephone. Those, of course, are much harder to predict. It has always been difficult to predict new technology, and much easier to merely extrapolate from what we know into the future. For example, computers, cell phones, electronic tablets and so forth have made communications much easier and more widespread than even twenty years ago. But what is the future of the cell phone? Will it just get faster and faster? Or smaller and smaller? So small it will fit on our fingernail? Or will there be another revolution in the way we communicate, a revolution that will make a cell phone look like the telegraph looked in 1910?
Advances in most areas of technology and science are slow in coming and hard to predict. When I started out in microbiology in the 1960’s, I couldn’t have foreseen the revolution in the handling of DNA that led to advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, not to mention the treatment of many other diseases, or the ability to detect incomprehensibly tiny amounts of DNA on environmental surfaces that has transformed forensics and genealogy. There was something on the horizon, to be sure, and we all knew that sometime, someone will break through and change the way we look at disease. But it’s hard to look too far ahead. All we can do is take research one small step at a time, and do the best we can.
So, what are your predictions for the next 100 or 200 years? One thing that helps us in our attempt to look ahead is science fiction. Back in 1910, very little science fiction had been written, and it wasn’t anywhere nearly as popular as it is now. To be sure, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had published what we now term science fiction, but it had limited impact on the population. Nowadays, we see sci-fi in so many places: television, movies, books, comics, etc. We’re used to looking at spaceships that travel faster than light, or time machines that transport fictional characters to unknown and unlikely places. Faster than light travel and time travel—if they ever come to exist—could be considered game changers in the same way jet aircraft changed the world for a 1910 person. (The Wright Brothers had barely gotten off the ground in 1910.) But now, let’s push the boundaries of life of an early twenty-first person. What’s coming by 2110? By 2210? For a person born in 2010, what will they see in 2100? They’ll be 90 years old, so that’s not unrealistic. Can you get out of the rut of merely extending what is known now and make real substantial predictions? I’m not sure I can.
Here’s a couple of my predictions, not necessarily game changers, though. (I’m a life scientist, it should be noted.) 1. Surgery will be non-existent. Cancer will be gone, and any necessary surgery (by 2000 standards) will be taken care of by non-invasive procedures. Nanobots may be a part of this. 2. Pollution will be gone. That’s just a decision we have to make, not a technological advance. Stopping climate change is a different matter. Even if we made the decision world-wide right now, some climate change is inevitable, though it is possible someone, somewhere will find a way to halt climate change in its tracks. 3. I don’t foresee Star Trek-style transporters, though I could be wrong. Travel is travel. You have to expend a certain amount of energy to move an object a given distance. But what the hell, let’s go for it. 4. Life span will be around 100 years, maybe even more. I’m not expecting a fountain of youth, but advances in aging will be substantial.
That’s enough for now. Got any other predictions?