It’s the end of the year, which means it’s prediction season—when pundits put forth their perennial prognostications about all that shall be in the following 365 days and beyond.
Like any announcement that must compete for human attention in the public sphere, the strange, bold, and surprising predictions gather the most notice.
We at the Futurist magazine love predictions, but we consider them statements as much about the speaker and the time in which she lives as about the future. With that in mind, we have assembled a list of more than 30 predictions made in 2013, originating from researchers, A-list actors, and industry titans. In many of these, the person who is making the prediction is as significant as what is being said. With each, we’ve included a big “but” or countertrend that could get in the way.
The final list is available from the Futurist magazine. But here are 10 of my personal favorites from the past 12 months.
1. As much as 45 percent of the jobs that currently exist in the United States will be taken over by computers or artificial intelligence systems by 2045.
Why it’s a strong prediction: Yes, it’s bad news. But the difference between peril and opportunity is the time available to plan. Would you rather hear that half of the jobs in the United States will be gone in the next five minutes?
The team at Oxford ran detailed models on 702 different occupations to assess the effects of computerization on U.S. labor. This report jibes with previous statements from other experts. Most technology that’s disruptive to labor has historically produced net employment gains within 10 years. Some economists, most notably Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have suggested that the trend may soon reverse and that increased productivity through technology could begin to hurt—rather than help—long-term employment. It’s one reason why even libertarians are warming to the idea of a guaranteed income for everybody.
At least the Oxford folks had a hopeful takeaway: “Wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerization.” So the smarter you are, the safer your job.
BUT: The 19th century was also filled with anxious futurists. Karl Marx, heavily influenced by the Luddites, was a tech historian and was forever fretting about unemployment through automation, as Amy Wendling describes in her book Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. Even Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, bemoans a future in which automation takes away every man’s livelihood and dignity. “Half a dozen sound-asleep steamboats where I used to see a solid mile of wide-awake ones! This was melancholy, this was woeful. The absence of the pervading and jocund steamboatman from the billiard saloon was explained. He was absent because he is no more. His occupation is gone, his power has passed away.”
Yet history shows that the process of industrialization in the 1900s produced more employment and broad-based economic gains than it destroyed. The premise that automation and computerization are destined to be job killers remains controversial among some very smart people. Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, for one, takes issue with McAfee and Brynjolfsson’s conclusion, arguing on the MIT Technology Review website that “far from being doomed by an excess of technology, we are actually at risk of being held back by too little technology.” Atkinson’s own prediction: By 2023, the United States will have 5 percent more jobs than today.
Bottom line: The best way to plan for either future, be it the one in which your career has been lost to a robot or the one in which automation continues to create jobs, is to get smarter about technology. If you’re in a rush, 2014 could be the year to pick up an in-demand programming language like Java. Alternatively, you could take the advice that Google research director Peter Norvig laid out in this 2001 essay and dedicate the next 10 years to learning programing. After all, you’ve got some time.
2. Massive amounts of algae for food and fuel will be grown in places that we today consider wasteland.
Who made it: Jason Quinn, of Utah State University, speaking at the Algae Biomass Summit, in Orlando, Fla., in September. Quinn modeled the algae-producing capacity of 4,388 places around the globe. He told me that “the total lipid oil yield for the world using just non-arable land is 48,719 billion liters per year.”
Why it’s a strong prediction: For years, halophytic (saltwater) algae have been called the super fuel of the future. On paper, it’s an extremely attractive replacement for oil. Yes, to run your car on alga, you have to burn it, which might not smell great. But it’s a plant, so you can mitigate the CO2 you are releasing into the environment by growing more algae than you’re burning. Also, it doesn’t use up valuable freshwater. That’s extremely important in a future world where a majority of the human population lives in a water-stressed environment.
Furthermore, you can grow algae in places where you can’t grow conventional crops. As Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at the NASA Langley Research Facility, wrote for the Futurist, “The Great Salt Lake could conceivably be turned into an algae pond to produce something on the order of $250 billion a year in bio fuels. People are looking at turning parts of the Pacific Ocean off of South America into algae ponds.” Even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, synonymous with oil wealth, has announced that it will begin to produce 30,000 tons of algae by 2014 (though it’s intended for food, not fuel).
BUT: People have been looking for a scalable algae fuel model for more than a century. The firm Pike Research has forecast that the global algae biofuel industry will likely be producing just 61 million gallons per year by 2020, a far cry from an amount sufficient to replace petroleum.
One notable skeptic of a fast and easy path to full commercialization also happens to be the man carrying out the field’s most innovative research: geneticist J. Craig Venter. In a 2011 interview, Venter told Scientific American writer David Biello, “These are huge challenges. Nobody has the yields, that I'm aware of, to make it economical—and, if it's not economical, it can't compete. It's going to be the ones with scientific innovation and deep-pocket partners that can see to making the long term investment to get someplace.”
Venter is currently in a $600 million deal with Exxon Mobil to genetically engineer a form of halophytic algae that grows at a much lower cost than algae that exists naturally. If he succeeds, the world’s energy landscape would be transformed overnight. “It's a 10-year plan,” he cautions. “We're not promising new fuel for your car in the next 18 months.”
Bottom line: A decade from now, algae may transform how we run our growing cities, cars, and gadgets. But for now you’re still responsible for your own carbon footprint.
3. We are approaching a post-antibiotic era.
Who made it: Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on The Diane Rehm Show, Sept. 18.
Why it’s a strong prediction: Every year, 2 million people get sick—and at least 23,000 people die—from infections that have turned drug-resistant, according to the CDC. There’s evidence that overuse of antibiotics (not only in people but also in animals) is terrible for you even if you don’t get an infection. It can harm everything from the helpful bacteria that live in your gut (your microbiome) to your DNA.
But a little DNA-denting may be the least of our worries. The CDC is more focused on preventing another Black Death. One consequence of the overuse of antibiotics is the continued spread of the “nightmare” carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) bacteria to more hospitals and health facilities. A CRE infection has a mortality rate of 50 percent when the germ infects the bloodstream.
BUT: It’s not too late. Every hospital needs an antibiotic stewardship program, says Frieden.
Bottom line: One of the most common ways we treat illnesses today will soon be doing us more harm than good. You may want to pay more attention to the antibiotics that go into your food, and into you.