The question that seems never to come up when discussing population forecasts is: Why does population grow in some places and decline in others?
Here’s a very simple answer: As the West moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial one and finally to a system based on knowledge work, children have gone from being an economic asset to … something else. Wired’s Kevin Kelly has described the transition this way: “[T]he more technologically developed a society becomes, the fewer offspring couples will have, the easier it is for them to raise their living standards, the more that progress lowers their desire for large families. The result is the spiral of modern technological population decline—a new but now universal pattern.”
The technologically advanced nation of Japan is, in many ways, the embodiment of this trend. It has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world (1.39) and is also the second oldest nation on earth, demographically speaking, with more than one out of five people over the age of 65.
Population projections such as the U.N.’s 9.6 billion figure are the bread and butter of futurism because they’re stable and slow moving. (Futurists hate updating their PowerPoints.) But the future isn’t fixed, even for the United Nations. To arrive at a different conclusion, just imagine the same social and economic pressures that are present in Japan spreading to Africa as quickly as the spread of technology, because the two are linked. (Jeff Wise has also made the case for a declining population in Slate.)
Why it may not happen: After you are done imaging Africa becoming like Japan, wrap your head around the current projections. About 42 percent of Africa and 48 percent of sub-Saharan Africa still will not have access to electricity in 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. That fact bodes poorly for the rapid spread of information technology in the region. But Taylor’s forecast for the developed world still applies.
4. Doctors will see brain diseases many years before they arise.
The forecast: “Brain scans can warn doctors if a patient will suffer Alzheimer’s, dementia, Lou Gehrig’s, or a number of other brain disorders as many as 10–15 years ahead of physical symptoms. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are learning to identify distinct chemical biomarkers within patients’ body and brain functions. Doctors could then slow the progression of the diseases if they start administering treatments years earlier.”
Why it’s in the top 10: The this-affects-your-dad factor. Figures suggest that in 2050, half the U.S. population aged 85 and older will have Alzheimer’s disease. That’s an estimated 13 million people, unless you believe forecast No. 3. It’s one of the clear consequences of a longer-living population. Steps we can take today to manage Alzheimer’s could have huge benefits for what will be an incredibly strained health care system. “We’re currently trying to treat the disease in the last few years of the disease, and that’s probably not the best therapeutic strategy,” one of the study’s lead researchers, Randall Bateman, told the Futurist.
Why it may disappoint: Detecting Alzheimer’s decades earlier is very different from curing it. While some experimental treatments have proven effective in slowing the progression of the disease, actually getting rid of it still seems far away.
5. Buying and owning things will go out of style.
The forecast: “The markets for housing, automobiles, music, books, and many other products show a common trend: Younger consumers opting to rent or subscribe to pay-per-use arrangements instead of buying and owning the physical products. Shared facilities will overtake established offices, renting units will become more common than owning a home, and sales of books and music might never become popular again.” From “Consumption 2.0,” by Hugo Garcia, January–February, 2013.
Why it’s in the top 10: The megatrends factor. This is the story of two major phenomena colliding: an abundance of underemployed young people leveraging technology to create a new sharing economy.
One of the key consequences of the 2008 recession is that nearly half of recent college graduates in the United States are unemployed or underemployed. Those who went to college have better prospects than their peers but are carrying around record amounts of debt—an average of $27,000 per grad. Variations of this story are playing out in Europe, where student debt is lower but unemployment among young people is higher. For instance, in Spain nearly half of the population under the age of 25 have no jobs at all. We are creating a generation of young people with less disposal income than their parents had. Yes, there are lines around the corner to buy a new Apple iPhone, but millennials aren’t lining up to buy houses.
This high unemployment is being met by a second trend: social startups that make sharing a lot easier. Consider Getaround, an app-based car share service that allows anyone to rent out her car. You select the renter and send your customer a code to unlock your car and turn on the engine. When the contract expires, the code no longer works.
Why it might not happen: The economy is supposed to be recovering, which could lead to more disposable income for young people and the end of the sharing fad. But economists predict unemployment to stay above 6.5 percent through 2015, and young peoples’ lower earnings today may still show the effects of underemployment well past the time when we call them “young people.”
6. Quantum computing could lead the way to true artificial intelligence.
The forecast: “Conventional computers cannot make decisions, as humans do, but quantum computers eventually might, says Geordie Rose, creator of the D-Wave One quantum computer. They use programs based on quantum mechanics to see multiple possible outcomes to any given problem and combine information from each to formulate solutions. With another 10 to 15 years of enhancement, they might cross the threshold to true machine consciousness, Rose predicts.”
Why it’s in the top 10: The breakthrough factor. We don’t know the full applications of quantum computing aside from some very clear ones in encryption. Consider, however, that the D-Wave One consumes much less energy than a server farm but can do just as much work. In the spring of 2013, independent analysis revealed from researchers at Amherst and Simon Fraser found that the D-Wave system was 3,600 times as fast as a conventional system. Check out Quentin Hardy’s piece on the New York Times’ site for more. It’s possible that quantum computing could remake the entire field of computer science and move us past silicon-based transistors, which will reach an innovation endpoint by 2022, according to Robert Cowell, who has been both Intel’s chief architect and the director of DARPA.
Why it might not happen: Side-by-side performance measurements are one thing, but we don’t know what questions to ask about quantum computing to assess what’s really going on. For instance, with conventional bits, numbers and values are represented in a clear binary form. The qubits (or quantum bits of information that make up quantum computation) can represent ones, zeros, or both at once. Understanding how qubits are interacting with one another, with information, and with the universe is a far murkier business. And D-Wave has its detractors.
7. Phytoplankton death will further disrupt aquatic ecosystems.
The forecast: “The tiny marine plants are sensitive to temperature changes, so global warming poses a major threat to their populations. A University of Michigan study projects that up to 40% of the world’s phytoplankton will die out by this century’s end.”
Why it’s in top 10: The you-didn’t-know-this-mattered-but-it-does factor. Phytoplankton are like the rain forests of the sea, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on a massive scale. So their decline, as a result of global warming, will further exacerbate … global warming.
Oceans have already absorbed 23 percent of the carbon dioxide that our species has produced, which is part of the reason we have yet to really feel the impacts of climate change. But we can’t keep using the oceans as a carbon dump, because as they get warmer, their capacity to carry carbon goes down.