The future scares a lot of people. Climate change, a growing population, and fewer natural resources will certainly pose new challenges for the human race in the next few decades.
But when you consider ongoing social and economic progress and all of the coming innovations in science and technology , there's plenty of room for optimism.
Making predictions is, by nature, a dicey business, but to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Smithsonian magazine Big Think asked top minds from a variety of fields to weigh in on what we might expect our world to be like 40 years from now. The result is our latest special series, Life in 2050.
Demographic changes will certainly be dramatic. Rockefeller University mathematical biologist Joel Cohen says it's likely that by 2050 the majority of the people in the world will live in urban areas, and will have a significantly higher average age than people today. In the U.S., cities theorist Richard Florida thinks urbanization trends will reinvent the education system, making our economy less real estate driven and erasing the divisions between home and work.
And rapidly advancing technology will continue ever more rapidly. According to Bill Mitchell, the late director of MIT's Smart Cities research group, cities of the future won't look like "some sort of science-fiction fantasy," but it's likely that "discreet, unobtrusive" technological advances and information overlays will change how we live in significant ways. Charles Ebinger, Director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution also thinks that by 2050 we will also have a so-called "smart grid" where all of our appliances are linked directly to energy distribution systems, allowing for real-time pricing based on supply and demand.
Meanwhile, the Internet will continue to radically transform media, destroying the traditional model of what a news organization is, says author and former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent, who believes the most common kinds of news organizations in the future will be "individuals and small alliances of individuals" reporting and publishing on niche topics.
But what will all this new technology mean? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, the director of the Information & Innovation Policy Research Center at the National University of Singapore, hopes that advances in technology will make us more empowered, motivated and active, rather than mindless consumers of information and entertainment.1 And NYU interactive telecommunications professor Clay Shirky worries that technological threats could endanger much of the openness that we now enjoy online.
Some predictions are downright dire. Environmentalist Bill McKibben says that if we don't make major strides in combating global warming, it's likely we could see out-of-control rises in sea levels, enormous crop shortfalls, over increasingly scarce freshwater resources. But information technology may yield some optimism for our planet, says oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who thinks that services like Google Earth have the potential to turn everyday people into ocean conservationists.
In the financial world, things will be very different indeed, according to MIT professor Simon Johnson, who thinks many of the financial products being sold today, like over-the-counter derivatives, will be illegal-judged, accurately, by regulators to not be in the best interests of consumers.
We will live longer and remain healthier. Patricia Bloom, an associate professor in the geriatrics department of Mt. Sinai Hospital, says we may not routinely live to be 120, but it's possible that we will be able to extend wellness and shorten decline and disability for people as they age. AIDS research pioneer David Ho says the HIV/AIDS epidemic will still be with us, but we will know a lot more about the virus than we do today.
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