Image: The world's first virtual computer model of a human body.
Masumi Yajima  /  Univ. of Calgary / AFP
A researcher checks a 3-D model of the human body, projected from the walls and floor of a virtual-reality room at the University of Calgary. Such blends of medical and cybernetic innovation are likely to become more widespread in the next 50 years.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 4/18/2008 1:03:34 PM ET 2008-04-18T17:03:34

How will the world look in the year 2058?

Sixty thinkers from around the world rise to that challenge in a collection of essays titled "The Way We Will Be 50 Years From Today."

The consensus view is that we'll muddle through many of the issues that vex us today — including climate change and terror threats. And we'll hit upon so many medical and technological wonders that today's 50-year-olds will have a fair chance of finding out firsthand how the world will look in 2058.

The problem with having so many predictions of the future is that they can look like a collection of to-do lists: The most popular item on the checklist would be getting your complete genetic code analyzed, so that the doctors can give you custom-made medications for what ails you (or what might have ailed you without the drugs). And don't forget the cyber-implants: Several essayists, including inventor-futurist Ray Kurzweil, heralded the day when nanomachines would merge with our own bodies.

In addition to those well-worn themes, "50 Years From Today" is jam-packed with nuggets of less conventional wisdom from experts in fields ranging from bioethics to counterterrorism. Here are a few examples:

  • Diseases ranging from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder will be shown to be caused by infectious agents that take advantage of genetic predisposition, says psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, president of the Treatment Advocacy Center. Researchers will be surprised to find that many of those infectious agents are being transmitted from animals to humans. As a result, it will be uncommon to keep cats, birds or hamsters as pets — but we'll still have dogs around, because they've been "man's best friend" for so long that we've already adjusted to their infectious agents.

  • International terrorism will be brought under control because governments will realize counterterrorism is primarily a police function rather than a job for the military, says Ronald Noble, the secretary-general of Interpol. Passports and IDs will be linked to a global monitoring system, much as credit cards are today. "People will no longer be able to travel and engage in transactions with anonymity," thanks to surveillance and biometrics, he says. All this will pose "thorny issues" for a post-privacy era.

  • Several essayists said water will become as big a resource issue as petroleum is today. "We cannot go green without thinking blue," former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta and former Energy Secretary James Watkins say. Norman Borlaug, father of the "Green Revolution" in agriculture, says there will have to be a "Blue Revolution" to provide enough water for the planet's burgeoning population. Thus, cleaning up the oceans and providing fresh water should rank right up there with controlling greenhouse gases.

  • The outlook for longer life spans is a mixed bag: Kurzweil says the pace of life extension will outrun the passage of years, offering at least the possibility of an indeterminate life span 50 years from now. But trends also point to a decline in average life expectancy, due to the increased incidence of obesity among today's young people, says Wanda Jones, director of the Office on Women's Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Pros and cons for longer life
Arthur Caplan, a columnist for and director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, takes something of a middle road: In his essay, written from the point of view of his grandchild, he foresees a world where people can look forward to 140 years of high-quality life. (In a comic twist, the essay also bemoans Caplan's death, "frail and decrepit," at the young age of 80.)

Caplan, who is 58, told that he bases his prediction on the promise of regenerative medicine, as well as a better understanding of how lifestyle and genetics affect health. All these new technologies will raise new ethical issues, he acknowledged — for example, whether future generations will be genetically modified to fix defects and even introduce enhancements.

"People will have to think harder about whether they want to have kids the old-fashioned way," he said. "Why would you choose to take a random chance, knowing that your child would have a chance of having a defect but going ahead anyway? You start to get into blame and guilt about disability in a way that we don't really do now."

Greater longevity will also have social implications, he said. "You're not going to just have people living till 140 without changing your ideas about retirement, career, education, leisure, marriage, childrearing — also, even eligibility for social benefits. My hunch is that you're going to have to tack on a few more years before you get that senior discount card."

The bad, the good and the ugly
In his essay, Case Western Reserve University theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss sorts through the "bad, the good and the ugly." For Krauss, the "bad" issues that have to be dealt with focus on climate change, energy shortages and nuclear weapons — and the "good" technologies ahead include medical breakthroughs, computer intelligence and virtual reality.

Dealing with the bad and taking advantage of the good will depend on whether society can bring an end to today's "ugly" struggle between science and religion, Krauss said. That observation is particularly apt for a week in which this year's presidential candidates passed up an opportunity to attend Science Debate 2008 — and in which a new movie titled "Expelled" renews the creationism-vs.-evolution argument.

"If we allow nonsense to be purveyed with impunity, then I think it feeds down — it's a slippery slope," Krauss told "We can't honestly address the serious problems we're going to face in the next 50 years until we're willing to accept the world the way it really is, without fear."

The first and last word
In "50 Years From Now," the first essayist to have his say is Vint Cerf, who was one of the founding fathers of the Internet almost 40 years ago. Today, he's vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, and one of the world's most widely consulted technological seers.

Cerf foresees a world in which the infrastructure used today for transporting oil has been replaced by water tankers and water pipelines. The energy for a global electrical grid is provided by solar, wind and nuclear plants. Outposts are taking root on Mars and Titan, knit together by an Interplanetary Internet . And discoveries about the Higgs field and the nature of mass, pioneered by the Large Hadron Collider , are raising the possibility of inertialess travel at the speed of light.

This e-mail exchange with Cerf, conducted while he was traveling in Spain, serves as the last word here:

Q: A lot of the essays in the book, yours included, refer to the global warming / energy issue but imply that the problems have been overcome without putting a crimp in technological development. Why is your projection of life 50 years from now so optimistic on the rising technological trend line?

Vint Cerf: I am an optimist by nature and believe strongly that technology can be brought to bear to create alternatives, even in crisis situations.

I just spent a half-day at the Bletchley Park museum near London. As you will recall, it was at Bletchley Park that a remarkable and diverse group of Britons produced some of the most critical intelligence of World War II through the use of the Bombe and Colossus special-purpose computers. They created alternatives where there were none before, as did the Americans with the Manhattan Project. I believe that the problem of global climate change will ultimately spur our global society to respond and while the condition does not appear to be reversible, we will find ways to adapt to it.

That there will be many negative side effects is not in dispute. Ways of life will change and in some cases degrade, but I believe that we will find ways to adapt. We may find that we have to move into underwater habitats. We will need to invest massively in more environmentally responsible energy production. And the world's ecological and economic systems will almost certainly change, too. But we will survive.

Q: I'm interested in your reference to the Higgs field and potential implications for new technologies, obviously because of the imminent startup of the Large Hadron Collider. You mention the E.E. Smith inertialess drive, which is really quite intriguing - that's something I hadn't heard before in reference to the LHC. Could you expand a bit on how understanding the theoretical underpinnings of inertial mass might lead to propulsion technologies (even in hand-waving terms)?

A: I am only a layman in this area, but it is my understanding that the Higgs field is what imbues other atomic particles with mass and that the Higgs boson is the particle that delivers the force of the field. If we had a way to manipulate the Higgs field, we might be able to establish inertialess conditions that could overcome Einstein's fundamental speed limitations.

Q: Could you provide a brief update on the Interplanetary Internet project?

A: The project is in its 10th year and it is now planned to carry out tests of the Interplanetary Protocols using the Deep Impact spacecraft that launched a probe into Comet Tempel 1 in October 2006. The spacecraft is still operational, and the plan is to upload the Delay Tolerant Networking protocols onto the onboard computer. NASA has given the project permission to test these protocols from Earth. A successful test will qualify the protocol for future deployments on production space missions. We also hope to carry out demonstrations and tests on board the international space station.

Q: Any thoughts on Ray Kurzweil's singularity ? I'm not sure if you've seen his essay in the book, but it makes clear he thinks that the machines we build 50 years from now will be ... us. In your estimation, will artificial implants and enhancements have a significant impact on how we think of ourselves in 2058, or will it not be that big of a deal?

A: I continue to worry about the potential to upload ourselves into a silicon analog. I think Kurzweil could be right about the relative intelligence of the computers of the distant future, but a machine intelligence may not be commensurate with instantiation of a biological intelligence within the silicon version. However, I do agree that artificial implants will provide us with supranormal capabilities that are presently inaccessible to most humans today.

Q: I like the idea that trying to explain the new jobs of the future would be as difficult as trying to explain what a Webmaster does to the man in the 1950s gray flannel suit. Nevertheless, do you have any thoughts on what any of those jobs might be, even in very general terms? (E.g., virtual-worldmaster...)

A: I can imagine people actually working in virtual environments where productive, cooperative work is undertaken, and I think we will find people helping others to take advantage of masses of information that are inaccessible or too vast to process in real time today. With billions of Internet-enabled devices or at least programmable devices on the network, there seems to be ample room for new services that manage these devices to be developed. "Hi, I'm your virtual entertainment manager! What movies would you like to watch next week?"

Q: Do you think imagining the future, as you and your colleagues have done in this book, will help shape that future - or do you see this exercise as merely a fun, readable exercise of the imagination?

A: I think imaginative exercises can have a profound impact on the future - what you can imagine can sometimes turn into something you can figure out how to build. I hope that reading these essays, there will be a few young people who will realize some of the speculative ideas or discover more interesting ones of their own.

An expanded version of this report has been published as a item on Cosmic Log.

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