Every year, the editors of the Futurist magazine identify the most provocative forecasts and statements about the future that we’ve published recently and we put them to into an annual report called “Outlook.” It’s sprawling exploration of what the future looks like at a particular moment in time. To accompany the report, we draft a list of our top 10 favorite predictions from the magazine’s previous 12 months. What are the criteria to be admitted into the top 10? The forecast should be interesting, relatively high impact, and rising in likelihood.
In other words, it’s a bit subjective.
There are surely better methods for evaluating statements about the future, but not for our purposes. You see, we aren’t actually interested in attempting to tell our readers what will happen so much as provoking a better discussion about what can happen—and what futures can be avoided, if we discover we’re heading in an unsavory direction.
The future isn’t a destination. But the problem with too many conversations about the future, especially those involving futurists, is that predictions tend to take on unmitigated certainty, sounding like GPS directions. When you reach the Singularity, turn left—that sort of thing. In reality, it’s more like wandering around a city, deciding spur of the moment what road to take.
In that spirit, we offer these 10 forecasts to you. With each, I’ve attempted to explain our reasoning for its inclusion and present a countertrend that could derail the forecast’s realization. The future is more interesting when it’s treated precisely as what it is: a set of potentialities and probabilities.
Without further ado, here are the Futurist’s top 10 forecasts for 2014 and beyond.
1. Thanks to big data, the environment around you will anticipate your every move.
The forecast: “Computerized sensing and broadcasting abilities are being incorporated into our physical environment, creating what is sometimes called an ‘Internet of things.’ Data flowing from sensor networks, RFID tags, surveillance cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles, and geo-tagged social-media posts will telegraph where we’ve been and where we are going. In the future, these data streams will be integrated into services, platforms, and programs that will provide a window into the lives, and futures, of billions of people.”
Why it’s in the top 10: The threshold factor. The world reached a significant but unremarked upon turning point between 2008 and 2009 when the number of devices—sensors, phones, computers—connected to the Internet outnumbered the human population. By 2020, when an estimated 7.6 billion people will be running around on the planet, there will be 50 billion machines communicating to one another … about us. As a population, we generate 1.8 million megabytes of data on a yearly basis related to what we listen to and stream, where we are, where we’re going, what we buy, and how we feel about it.
Data brokerage companies like Acxiom send that information to marketers and companies looking to pitch products to you. Services like Google Now and Osito can deliver you traffic and scheduling recommendations based on an understanding of data you give them. Companies like California’s Esri combine all that information into geographical information services and capabilities to show how all of these people and objects are interacting in our physical world. In the decades ahead these different data streams will combine, forming a much more anticipatory environment.
Why it may not happen: Potential privacy backlash. When your environment gathers information about you, it has to share that information. People are beginning to ask a lot of questions about that. In a recent Pew poll, 68 percent of respondents said that they believed current laws related to Internet use don’t adequately protect consumers’ privacy.
The entire vision of the Internet of Things is evolving as quickly as it’s forming. In a recent speech at the World Future Society conference in July, One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte pointed out that the vision of the Internet of Things that he long nurtured at the MIT Media Lab, one where objects in our surroundings react to us with intelligence, has “almost gone by the wayside.” What’s replacing it is an app-based ecosystem that allows for the remote control of everything from iPhones and Androids.
We can either turn our world into a sensing, intelligent, living space, or into one big extension of a device not everyone owns, says Negroponte.
2. We will revive recently extinct species.
The forecast: The passenger pigeon, for example, may be brought back after 100 years. In our September–October issue, geneticist Ben Novak describes a strategy for “de-extincting” the passenger pigeon, which died out in 1914.
The project, dubbed the Great Comeback, involves five research phases:
- Sequencing and analyzing pigeon genomes to understand passenger pigeon biology.
- Producing cells that could be used to engineer a living passenger pigeon.
- Creating the genome from synthesized passenger pigeon DNA.
- Using altered cells to create breeding chimeras (combinations of rock and passenger pigeons) that would ultimately create pure passenger pigeons.
- Reintroducing new passenger pigeons back into the wild.
From “The Great Comeback: Bringing a Species Back from Extinction” by Ben J. Novak, September–October 2013.
Why it’s in the top 10: The last-great-hope factor. If current rates of species loss continue, we will see a mass extinction event within a few hundred years, according to Anthony D. Barnosky, a UC–Berkeley biologist, and his colleagues, writing in the journal Nature. In this sixth great die-off, more than 75 percent of the Earth’s biota could vanish. But the loss of just a few critical species, such as pollinating birds and insects and organisms that keep watersheds safe, could be extremely disruptive to humans and come much sooner (see item No. 7). De-extinction might be a do-over button.
In his recent piece for National Geographic Carl Zimmer tackles the Michael Crichton-esque hype surrounding de-extinction science. Dinosaur DNA is just too old to reanimate the T-Rex. A mammoth is a better contender but still poses enormous challenges. The best candidates for de-extinction, for reasons technical, ethical, and practical, are species that vanished recently at the hand of humankind—like the American passenger pigeon.
Why it may not happen: As Novak writes in his essay: “Of my nearly 500 million DNA sequences, about 50% of it is bacteria. A small fraction is human. And a small fraction is unknown in origin—a problem we won’t solve until we manage to sequence the DNA of every life-form on Earth.” This is a big-data problem, and there is a big-data labor shortage. Not many people know how this stuff works, and the ones who do have more lucrative work to do than playing Dr. Frankenstein with birds.
Furthermore, conservationists have very mixed views on the subject of de-extinction. As Frank Swain wrote in Slate, “to focus on de-extinction as a conservation strategy communicates the idea that species loss defines environmental degradation, rather than exists as a symptom of it.”
3. By 2020 populations will shrink, and wealth will shrink with them.
The forecast: “By 2020, half of the human race will live in countries where the birthrates have fallen below the death rates, and consequently, populations are shrinking. The cause is the combination of older adults living longer and fewer children being born. The countries will grapple with shrinking tax bases and workforces despite widening pools of retirees demanding social-security and health-care payouts. Society will survive, but GDPs will fall markedly throughout the world and probably never fully rise back up."
Why it’s in the top 10: The big narrative on population has changed relatively little since the publication of Limits to Growth in 1972. The story goes like this: Global population rise is unsustainable and will lead to a calamity of resource exhaustion before the end the century. The most recent United Nations forecast has the human population reaching 9.6 billion people by 2050. If these people consume resources the way Americans do today, it will certainly be beyond the Earth’s natural carrying capacity.