Fifteen years ago the CIA tried to predict life in 2015. Now, we imagine what will amaze and terrify us all fifteen years from now
Prediction is hard, they say, especially about the future.
Even the CIA didn't quite get everything right when they tried to predict what life would look like in 2015 .
Their report, written in the year 2000, correctly foresaw the growth of the internet and the social crisis caused by ageing populations, but missed the rise of Putin and the financial meltdown of 2008.
Still, trying to predict the future can help us prepare for it. And even if it doesn't, it's too much fun to resist. The Telegraph is no exception to that rule.
Inspired by the CIA, we asked eight academics, analysts and Telegraph journalists to predict what life might be like in the year 2030.
The results cover technology, terrorism, and the breakup of the United Kingdom to be replaced with a "British Confederation".
Automation will make university degrees obsolete, displacing white collar workers in huge numbers. The first generation to grow up with the internet will leave behind multimedia gravestones. Nasa will be working on a Mars landing, while widespread genetic editing will spark ethical debate.
And as extreme weather driven by climate change creates millions of refugees, human beings will gradually lose control of their societies and their lives to algorithms and "small AI".
Of course, none of this may happen. Inevitably some of it won't. But you'll have to stay alive for another 15 years to find out.
1. Middle-class jobs will be automated
Steve Fuller, University of Warwick professor and author of Humanity 2.0
By 2030, automation will have made white collar workers redundant on a scale comparable to what blue collar workers faced in the second half of the 20th century. "White collar" here covers not only office clerks and bureaucrats but also professionals in law, medicine and even higher education. This development will lay to rest the central dogma of the "knowledge economy" that has fuelled the policy imagination for the past quarter-century: namely, that credentials are the key to productivity.
Two complementary forces will be behind this revolution in labour. On the one hand, improved artificial intelligence will effectively mechanize the execution of many of the standard complex tasks that currently employ professionals, such as diagnosing an illness, filing a patent or teaching an entry level course. On the other hand, a more discerning class of consumers will come to question the "value added" of a human being once there are machines which can perform the relevant tasks more affordably, perhaps with greater accountability, and better customized to user needs.
"In the end, university credentials will be the preserve of a relatively elite cadre of practitioners whose work cannot yet be automated"
To be sure, the professional classes will offer pushback, conjuring up the hazards of placing too much trust in machines. However, in a world long acquainted with online banking and shopping, such scaremongering is unlikely to prevail, especially as the tally of satisfied customers mounts. In the end, the sort of extensive university-based credentialing process nowadays required of professionals will be the preserve of a relatively elite cadre of practitioners who work in areas which for whatever reason cannot yet be subject to automation.
Those who envisage scenarios like the one just sketched often call for a "basic income" in order to ensure a decent standard of living for everyone in a "post-work" world. But if the state continues to shrink, this call is unlikely to be heard. Instead it may make more economic sense to have us receive automatic payment for the data we generate whenever we go online, which at the moment we offer to our online providers for free. One possible downside is an irreversible blurring of the work-leisure distinction.
2. Genetic editing will be commonplace
Madhumita Murgia, Technology Editor
“Designer babies” may sound like a concept from science fiction, but in 2030 we will be manipulating the human genome of embryos before birth. This isn’t a wild prediction to spark debate. We’ve already started editing embryos of living creatures.
In October, Chinese scientists used popular DNA editing technique CRISPR Cas 9 to create two designer dogs – beagle puppies created to be twice as muscular as typical beagles. All they did was delete a single gene called myostatin, which usually blocks muscle production. If performed in humans, it could reverse muscle wasting diseases.
A few weeks before that, the Beijing Genomics Institute reported the creation of "micropigs" which will be sold for $1600 as pets. And in April another Chinese team reported altering human embryos in the laboratory in a failed attempt to cure a fatal blood disorder.
If techniques like CRISPR are used responsibly, they can help us solve thus-far incurable diseases like Huntington’s or Tay Sachs, and prolong the healthy lives of children otherwise doomed before birth.
We are already engineering genes to cure or resist disease in adults. Currently, there are around 2000 human clinical trials in many countries around the world which are trialling gene therapy – inserting genes into your body – to reverse cancers like leukaemias and myelomas, Parkinson’s disease and cystic fibrosis. Trials are also trying to breed resistance to HIV.
But such technology can be manipulated by both good and bad guys . We need to consider everything from nation-backed eugenics to weird socially-driven genome designs (skin lightening in Asian countries, or upping melanin in the West, perhaps). Earlier this month, scientists gathered in Washington DC for a three-day Human Gene Editing Summit – the first of its kind convened to discuss ethics. While very few real decisions came out of it, the next decade will be spent hashing out concrete rules.
By 2030, we will have tight laws governing the manipulation of human embryos, perhaps only allowed in certain restricted medical circumstances. But Pandora’s box is already open.
3. Climate change will displace millions
Neil Adger, professor of human geography at the University of Exeter
From local planners to the world’s great armies, governments will judge wild weather, and people displaced because of it, as the new normal in 2030.
Many people will be directly forced from their homes by floods, wildfires and even by droughts. For the past decade, there have been around 20 million people every year displaced by wild weather, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council .
I have talked to the displaced in places as diverse as Somerset, Cumbria, Bangladesh and Vietnam. They have a common tale to tell . They are temporary migrants. They stay with friends or relatives till they make it home and rebuild their lives. In the meantime they are miserable and anxious. There will be many more of them in 2030 in almost every part of the world.
Another effect will be the huge risk to food production and what is known as food security. James Clapper is the Director of National Intelligence in the US. He told Congress in February year that extreme weather "will probably create or exacerbate humanitarian crises and instability risks." But he was not talking about 2030; this was his assessment for 2015 . When food prices spiked in 2010 and 2011 they dragged 44 million people below the poverty line and sparked riots around the world. This danger will increase as climate change drives drought and desertification in formerly fertile land.
That may also create more permanent migration. We are already seeing a huge global drift from rural communities into cities, mainly driven by the search for jobs. Still, climate change may amplify and speed up this process.
As for whether climate change will trigger wars – and the international migration they cause – the jury is still out. But it is certain that climate change impacts on food security and even on water resources shared by neighboring countries will simply turn up the heat on existing rivalries and tensions.
So in 2030 the climate dice will be more loaded than today. And even those charged with protecting Britain will be planning for the next humanitarian crisis and worried about whether this new normal is stable in the long run.
4. The United Kingdom will fall apart
Michael Keating, professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen and senior fellow at UK in a Changing Europe
The British Confederation represents a new form of political order in a world of nation states.
Scotland never did decide whether to leave or stay in the United Kingdom. Now it runs its own affairs, including taxation and welfare, and has a social settlement closer to the Nordic than the Anglo-American model . It contributes to a UK-wide insurance fund to cushion economic shocks, and to a security union focused on conventional defence and new risks from non-state actors.
"The collapse of Labour and the Conservatives amid internal strife has ended the two-party system"
England finally decided to leave the European Union but negotiated a new partnership allowing it halfway back in, albeit with reduced influence. Scotland has a special deal opting into three quarters of European policies, including free movement of labour, stricter social provisions and the new common energy policy. Northern Ireland has a similar arrangement, with its citizens enjoying the benefits of British, Irish and European citizenship. Wales looks to follow Scotland wherever it can benefit.
The collapse of Labour and the Conservatives amid internal strife has ended the two-party system. Proportional representation at Westminster has encouraged new parties arrayed along different axes: left-right; unionist-nationalist; Europhile-Eurosceptic; environmentalist-pro-growth; socially progressive-conservative. With coalition government the norm, all have a stake in politics at the centre.
Observers insist that the system is unsustainable, that the nations are on slippery slopes, motorways with no exit, or downward escalators. Some people in Scotland suggest that they would be better off within the new European Federation, even its inner core led by Germany. Others argue that we have muddled through to a new understanding of political authority, better attuned to the complexities of the world of the mid-twenty first century.
5. Isil will be defeated, but its spirit will live on
Julie Lenarz, executive director at the Human Security Centre
Isil's grip on Syria and Iraq will not last forever . Western campaigns will roll back its territory while maintaining pressure on al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It will retain influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north and sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet as long as there is a theological justification, Islamist violence will continue. Ending it would require a wide-ranging Islamic reformation, detaching religion from politics and de-literalising interpretations of the Qu'ran. It is unlikely that any such radical transformation will take place in the short term, or even the medium term.
In the meantime the "old orders" put in place by former colonial powers – such as the Sykes-Picot agreement which helped establish Syria's modern borders – will continue to dissolve under the pressure of political turmoil. And so the problem of ungoverned spaces and failed states will grow, even as the existing nation states fall apart.
"Low-tech, amateur terrorism is hard to stop: all you need is a grievance and a smartphone"
These ungoverned spaces will provide increasingly fertile ground for terrorists to recruit, propagandise, fund-raise, plan, and carry out attacks. With globalised communications and ever-cheaper travel, more and more people will be radicalised online and lured to these places to swell the ranks of terrorist groups. Then they will come home, hardened and trained. These hardcore terrorists will certainly employ cyber-warfare and may use chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons on major civilian populations and critical infrastructure.
But even if such ambitious attacks don’t occur, or fail, we will see a rising tide of lower-tech murders using guns, knives, cars, and whatever else is to hand. These will be carried out by amateurs, often self-radicalised, without any formal affiliations to terrorist groups. And in the end, that may be what scares people the most, because it is so hard to stop: all you need is a grievance and a smartphone.
In response, governments will try to deploy more sophisticated surveillance as well as screening and travel restrictions. Their challenge will be ensuring civil liberties aren’t eroded – either by too much security, or too little.
6. Nasa will be working on a Mars landing
Sarah Knapton, Science Editor
It's hard to predict the future of space travel, because aviation is one industry that seems to have regressed in past decades.
Concorde once flew passengers at supersonic speeds across the Atlantic in less than four hours, while Nasa regularly shuttled astronauts in to space. Now both projects are scrapped and Americans must hitch a lift into orbit with Cold War era Russian technology.
Private companies have also suffered serious setbacks, with the death of Virgin Galactic's Michael Alsbury and the worrying SpaceX rocket explosion.
But Nasa is keen for SpaceX to take over human transportation to the International Space Station, and it is likely that, within a matter of years, astronauts will ditch the Russian Soyuz for the Dragon capsule on Falcon 1 .
Boeing is also developing its CST-100 Starline capsule with Bigelow Aerospace which is hopes to sell to Nasa. Robert Bigelow, the motel tycoon, is also planning to build a space hotel, and has already designed two inflatable habitat modules which are currently floating in orbit.
Space Adventures Ltd have announced they are working on DSE-Alpha, a mission to the moon with a £50 million price tag for lunar tourists. XCOR Aerospace is developing a suborbital vehicle called Lynx which could fly up to four times a day although only with one passenger.
“In the next few decades, Nasa will take steps toward establishing a human presence beyond Earth" Nasa report
Meanwhile, Nasa has stated it wants to have humans living and working on Mars in independent colonies by the 2030s, so development of craft capable of making such a flight is picking up pace.
The first experiments away from the ISS will take place in cislunar space – the area of space around the Moon – before missions begin venturing further afield.
Nasa says it is committed to designing "a new and powerful transportation" system which will involve solar electric propulsion, using the Sun’s energy to take spacecraft deeper into space. Cargo ships will being shuttling supplies to Mars months or even years before the first humans land.
The Mars One project, set up by a nonprofit organisation based in the Netherlands has also proposed to land the first humans on Mars and establish a permanent human colony there by 2027.
7. Social media will start to merge with the physical world
Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media
In his famous 1990 article about the future of sex in the magazine Mondo 2000, Howard Rheingold argued that "the definition of Eros" would "soon be up for grabs", because everyone would be as beautiful as they want and would be able to have virtual sex with anyone, anywhere.
We hear often how much better virtual reality will be than the real thing – and that it’s just ten or 15 years away. And I predict that, in 2030, people will be writing about how close we are to having incredibly good VR – in about 10 or 15 years. But obviously how we socialise online will change in all sorts of ways, and, just as no one predicted Facebook or Twitter in the year 2000, it’ll change in ways I can’t imagine.
"You could walk into a room and immediately know who is who, and dig up information about them. Wonderful or terrifying?"
Barring a calamity, connectivity will be better and faster, of course. We'll keep producing more data at an absurd rate, which will mean the algorithms that offer up information, stories and friend suggestions will be much better than they are now, since data is what makes them improve. But rather than thinking about people walking around in headsets or wildly ambitious augmented reality, I’d imagine that it’ll be duller. Facial and voice recognition technology will have progressed considerably I think – so much so that it’s plausible that lots of people have it, on their smart phones. That would mean you could walk into a room and immediately know who is who, and dig up information about them. Wonderful or terrifying, depending on your view (I think terrifying, for the record).
By 2030, some of the early internet users – those of the 1970s Arpanet and 1980s Usenet days – will be approaching the end of their lives. They won’t want boring old tombstones. I expect to see new digital tombstones, full of images, videos and social media updates: a homage to those people’s virtual identities that become as important as the real thing.
8. AI will take over your life
Laurence Dodds, Assistant Comment Editor
When we think about artificial intelligence, we always imagine it will look like ourselves. Often it is literally human-shaped, like the immaculate "synthetics" in Channel 4's Humans. But even when it has a body, it resembles us in other ways: a single, unitary intelligence, an individual consciousness, a digital brain in a jar.
That's not what the future will look like. Instead, we will be surrounded – as indeed we already are – by thousands, millions, billions of tiny pseudo-intelligences, together making up what one documentary has called "the invisible hand of the algorithm" .
They will surround us at a personal scale: machine learning software which generates automated emails based on your previous writing; digital assistants which help you navigate taxes and government bureaucracies; fitness trainers, diet apps, translation services and conversation prompts for the socially awkward.
"We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals" Charlie Stross
Yet they will also proliferate on a larger scale: crime prediction scripts, traffic dispatchers, critical infrastructure, expert systems taking over more and more of the routine work which knits corporations and other bureaucratic institutions together. As society generates ever-greater tides of data we will need to rely even more than we already do on machines which can pick out patterns from the noise. While humans will design and supervise these systems, it's unlikely that they will fully appreciate or control the way they shape our assumptions and responses (just think about the implications of automated crime prediction for racial profiling).
This is a vision of intelligence liberated from the human pattern, proliferating across all realms of life. What is the "internet of things" but a kind of digital pantheism, with a helpful spirit in every cooker and kettle? It won't be conscious intelligence, no, but it will make judgements and decisions which shape our lives in ways so complex and numerous that very few people on Earth will really understand their combined effect on humanity. And we can't control what we don't understand.
In some ways that's not new. Austrian School economists such as Friedrich Hayek saw capitalism as a kind of grand information processor for deciding prices, superior to any individual dictator or socialist bureaucracy. And science fiction author Charlie Stross says Earth has already been invaded by alien hive organisms called corporations, whose goals and decisions are different from those of the humans which serve as their cells. I think we will regard as prescient those philosophers who make up what Richard Grusin has called "the nonhuman turn".
Still, the rise of small AI will quicken and deepen this process. And while the idea of corporations as beings with agency seems wacky to most people, our rich modern mythology of robots and Frankenstein's monsters will make the next stages impossible to ignore. Even then, we probably won't be able to stop it, because most of us won't actually want to.
So if you want to imagine the future, imagine millions of machines talking to each other - while humans scratch their heads, and then shrug.
This article was written by TMG from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.