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 msnbc.com 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 msnbc.com 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.
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“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 msnbc.com. “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.”