With the possible exception of interestellar propulsion, science fact is now outpacing science fiction. Now, when we scientists meet with science-fiction folks to discuss possible scenarios, we end up giving them ideas more often than not.
One hundred trillion dollars is a lot to pay for toilet paper. Utterly ridiculous! But I have a piece of such toilet paper in my office to remind me of the importance of including wild cards – low probability, high impact events – in thinking about the future.
People have been thinking and dreaming about self-driving cars for a long time. Paleofuture.com’s article about the “Driverless Car of the Future” (Novak 2010) features a 1957 magazine ad depicting a family playing Scrabble in a bubble-topped car as it cruises down a six-lane freeway, the steering wheel pointedly unattended. The ad copy reads in part, “One day your car may speed along an electric super-highway, its speed and steering automatically controlled by electronic devices embedded in the road. Highways will be made safe—by electricity!
Wool is one of man’s oldest materials. It’s been in use for at least 3,400 years, but it was not effectively utilized until selective breeding reduced the hard outer layer (known as kemp) that protects the usable fleece. While the industrial uses for this material have grown over the years, the potential now is rapidly expanding. Wool is both water retentive and water repellant, fire resistant up to 1,382 degrees Fahrenheit (and does not melt, unlike synthetics).
Much has been said about clean coal, and how it is a “wave of the future.” Clean coal refers to reducing or neutralizing greenhouse gas emissions at the burn point, but regardless of China’s continuing commitment to coal-powered electrical plants, the United States has a natural gas glut and increasingly cost-competitive wind and solar power. As well, mountaintop leveling, destructive chemical processing, and byproduct disposal challenges continue to complicate any solutions that billion-dollar U.S. projects such as the recently canceled FutureGen might have produced.
It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss the globe in 2030 on a country-by-country basis, but one dramatic shift in employment opportunities is likely to center on the continent of Africa. Between now and 2030, population growth rates in Africa will be greater than for any other country, including China (which has in fact reversed its growth trends through its political one-child policies). Africa is expected to quadruple in population over the next 90 years, with its greatest economic and political growth likely in North Africa.
Older workers are a burden and a salvation for the economic future. We are all aware that the graying populations in developed countries now, followed by developing countries, are a demographic force whose impacts will be felt over the next 50 years.
Problems such as poverty, global health, basic education, and environmental quality are systemic in nature, have both political and technical dimensions, and tend to require cross-sector and cross-profession collaboration. But there is a knowledge gap in developing and implementing viable solutions.
During my last year as president of the World Future Society, I had a very interesting experience concerning people’s feelings about the future. I had been asked to talk about the future of communications technology to a group of senior corporate vice presidents, largely U.S. based. After delivering what I thought was a rather effective (and well received) analysis on the growth of “white noise” in modern society and response strategies, we came to the Q&A discussion, which turned out to be 20 minutes or more.