When making predictions, I have two criteria: the laws of physics must be obeyed and prototypes must exist that demonstrate “proof of principle.” I’ve interviewed more than 300 of the world’s top scientists, and many allowed me into laboratories where they are inventing the future. Their accomplishments and dreams are eye-opening. From my conversations with them, here’s a glimpse of what to expect in the coming decades:
1. Computers Will Disappear
According to Moore’s Law, computer power doubles every 18 months. That means in a decade or so, chips will cost about a penny, the cost of scrap paper. Computers as we now know them will disappear; they will be everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous yet hidden, just like electricity and running water. The cloud will follow us silently and seamlessly, carrying out our wishes anytime, anywhere.
2. Augmented Reality Will Be Everyday Reality
Remember the movie “The Matrix,” where virtual information popped up to help inform physical day-to-day reality? Such things won’t always be the stuff of Hollywood. If the Internet is accessible via contact lenses, biographies will appear next to the faces of the people we talk to, and we will see subtitles if they speak a foreign language. (College students taking final exams will be among the first to buy Internet contact lenses.) These lenses would revolutionize the lives of actors, politicians, surgeons, tourists, soldiers and astronauts by delivering maps, scripts, speeches, translations, biographies and charts with the blink of an eye.
3. The Brain-Net Will Augment the Internet
In decades to come, we will control computers with our minds, not a mouse.The European Union and the United States are committing hundreds of millions of dollars to map the neural pathways of the brain, the next big project in science. This could alleviate the misery of those suffering from mental illness and allow paralyzed people to control computers, video games, appliances, wheelchairs and mechanical arms and legs with sheer thought.
As in science fiction, via the Internet we will be able to experience telepathy (mind-to-mind contact) and telekinesis (mind controlling matter), to upload memories, create a brain-net (memories and emotions sent over the Internet), and record thoughts and even dreams. Basic proofs of principle for all of this have been demonstrated.
This could have an enormous social impact. If memories can be uploaded, unemployed workers might one day be retrained to learn new skills. Students could take college courses while sleeping. Facebook will be full of emotions and memories. Movies may offer emotions, feelings, sensations and memories, not just images and sound.
4. Capitalism Will Be Perfected
We are headed toward “perfect capitalism,” when the laws of supply and demand become exact, because everyone knows everything about a product, service or customer. We will know precisely where the supply curve meets the demand curve, which will make the marketplace vastly more efficient.
One by one, multibillion-dollar industries are being digitized. The first was music, where digitization drove down costs and increased efficiency and competition. To its misfortune, the music industry thought people would continue buying music the old-fashioned way. As a result, Apple Inc. controls much of the music industry. The lesson is that companies are free to ignore digitization; they are also free to go bankrupt. Adapt and surf the rising digital tide, or drown.
Now, media is being digitized. In the coming decade, education, medicine and transportation will make the change.
5. Robots Will Be Commonplace
After false starts, artificial intelligence is slowly entering every day life. “Robodoc” and “robolawyer,” animated doctors or lawyers, will soon give instant, reliable advice any time of day in simple language.
As transportation is digitized in the next decade, driverless cars, guided by GPS and radar, will share our highways. “Traffic accidents” and “traffic jams” will become archaic terms. Thousands of lives will be saved every year.
The robotic industry could grow bigger than today’s auto industry. Japan, which makes 30 percent of all robots, is already building robot nurses to prepare for an aging population. Not just nurses, but mechanical maids, cooks, musicians and assistants could be part of our homes.
Humanoid robots that can think, however, have been a disappointment. Robots today, and for the near future, will not exercise creativity, imagination, experience, analysis, talent, common sense or leadership. Those traits will likely remain fully in the human sphere for decades to come.
6. Aged Body Parts Will Be Replaced
Diseased and old body parts will be replaced just as we now replace auto parts. Already from your own cells scientists can grow skin, cartilage, noses, blood vessels, bladders and windpipes. In the future, scientists will grow more complex organs, like livers and kidneys. The phrase “organ failure” will disappear.
7. Parents Will Design Their Offspring
In a few decades, parents may be able to choose many genetic characteristics of their children. Our genes will be sequenced and recorded at a cost of less than $100. Many damaged and dysfunctional genes in our genome may be cured using gene therapy, possibly leading to genetic enhancement. Already, “smart mouse” and “mighty mouse” genes have been isolated that can create mice with superior memory and strength, and these genes have human counterparts.
This amounts to tinkering with the genetic heritage of the human race, so there must be a vigorous ethical debate about how far to push this technology.
8. Cybermedicine Will Extend Lives
The aging process may be slowed. We now roughly know what aging is: the buildup of errors, at the genetic and cellular level. Our life span might be extended if we can repair error-correcting mechanisms naturally found in cells. For example, we are 98.5 percent genetically identical to chimps, yet we live decades longer. Among a handful of genes are those that increase life spans. We will find these “age genes” soon.
In the meantime, DNA chips, perhaps placed in our toilets and bathroom mirrors, may detect telltale traces of cancer proteins and individual cancer colonies years before a tumor forms. With these tiny sensors constantly and silently analyzing our bodily fluids, the word “tumor” may be excised from our vocabulary.
With nanotechnology, scientists can target individual cancer cells and kill them, one by one, which may one day render chemotherapy obsolete. (Because there are hundreds of different types of cancer, however, we may never have a total cure for all cancers. Cancer may come to be viewed like the common cold, not totally curable, but tolerable.)
MRI machines that once filled entire rooms have been miniaturized to the size of briefcases. Eventually they will be the size of cellphones, becoming similar to the “tricorders” in “Star Trek,” capable of analyzing diseases with a simple wave over a body.
9. Dictators Will Be Big Losers
The digital revolution empowers the disenfranchised, especially people living under dictatorships. The Internet frees people to realize they don’t have to live like slaves. Dictators, who fear the Internet, and their own people, will be big losers.
Democracies usually do not go to war with other democracies. Think of the wars we memorized in grade school – all were between kings, queens, dictatorships, but never between two major democracies. Democracies are slow to anger and hesitant to go to war: Voters don’t want to sacrifice their children for the glory of a selfish king. We will still have wars, but nations will mean less in the future, and there will be fewer wars.
10. Intellectual Capitalism Will Replace Commodity Capitalism
A historic shift is underway from commodity capitalism, where goods are primarily exchanged, to knowledge-based intellectual capitalism. The cost of food relative to income, for example, has dropped steadily for 150 years. Centuries ago the king of England probably could not afford the dinner you had last night. Nations that invest solely in agriculture will most likely find their economies shrinking.
Nations that use commodity capitalism as a stepping-stone to a mixed economy based on commodity/intellectual capitalism will most likely become rich.
Toward the Future
How will we reach such a future? The key is to grasp the importance of science and science education. Science is the engine of prosperity.
Leaders in China and India realize that science and technology lead to success and wealth. But many countries in the West graduate students into the unemployment line by teaching skills that were necessary to live in 1950.
Years ago, pundits worried about a “digital divide.” It never happened, because access to computers became cheaper and cheaper. The real problem, however, is not access; it is jobs. Plenty of jobs are begging to be filled today, but those jobs require workers with a technical and scientific education. As Winston Churchill once said, “the empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”
Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Future of the Mind: the Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind”.