The coming hundred years, in one hundred words
Recently I sent a twitter request out into the wider internets. I got 23 responses, which I am running (with permission) below. I’ll tell you who I selected as the winner in a moment, but first I’d like to tell you what I learned.
It’s a hard assignment. Compressing anything as messy as the future into 100 words is a near-impossible challenge. Almost like writing poetry. And 100 years is so immensely distant from us that we need to fictionalize it. But the most difficult part is imagining a scenario that is desirable.
This exercise began with my dissatisfaction with the visions of our future today available in movies and science fiction. For the most part they are dystopian. Name a Hollywood future you’d like to live in? I couldn’t. OK, maybe I could be talked into boarding the Starship Enterprise, but what about a future on this home planet, where we will all live for the next century? Minority Report? Elysium? Battlestar Galactica? These are repulsive futures you hope never materialize. They may contain one or two cool innovations we’d like, but the total culture of these future worlds is broken, scary, one-sided, and wholly unappealing. Even if we are the lucky 1%.
I am not asking for utopia. In fact, a world where everything worked perfectly, with no side effects, is its own kind of hell. I am a protopian. I believe in progress, an incremental betterment with corresponding downsides each year, inching toward a world that is desirable despite its many flaws. A protopian future would generate plenty of unexpected ills and unjust distributions, but overall the greater net benefits would draw us to it.
It might be that such a pragmatic protopia is so boring and square that it can’t inspire us beforehand. Just as we no longer marvel at the miraculous abilities we have today (cross a continent in 5 hours while watching movies, ask a stone in our pocket a question and have it answer) because each of these magics have arrived in small increments. We are no longer enthralled by simple betterment.
It also may be that there is a vacuum of desirable futures next century because none are possible. We can’t imagine a working technological future, because none work. We are just screwed. Hollywood is correct. The future means we go backwards, or blow each other up, or escape to our hideouts.
Yes, an inescapable dystopian future is entirely possible, but not inevitable. However, a trajectory towards dystopia will be hastened and aided by our lack of an imagined alternative to doom. Without a vision of a desirable future, it is unlikely we can head toward it.
On the chance that desirable futures ARE possible, we need to imagine them.
Thus, my quest for a desirable future scenario. The number of scientists and technologists who have been motivated by science fiction in the past are legion. Poke anyone today working on a disruptive technology and they’ll tell you of a forecast by a science fiction story or movie that inspired them. After hours, many speculation-averse scientists will admit they got started in their field by trying to make some sci-fi dream come true, such as the Star Trek tricorder, or an anti-gravity beam. In fact, the full influence of science fiction scenarios upon science proper is woefully unacknowledged in the official accounts, and under appreciated by the culture at large. The stories we tell about the future greatly affect our future.
At the moment we have no shared positive vision of tomorrow. We are unable to imagine it. I will be quick to add: that includes me. I too have difficulty in describing an exciting future for all of society in 100 years that seems plausible given what is happening today. I can imagine singular threads of the future rolling out positive — massive, continuous, cheap, real time connection between all humans, or total genetic control over crop plants, or synthetic solar fusion energy — but it is hard to see how all these threads weave into the other threads of climate change, population decrease, habitat loss, human attention overload, robot replacement, and accelerating AI.
I wanted some help. Maybe my future blindness was a lack of my own imagination. So I posted my request to the wisdom of the cloud, and quickly got back some revealing alternatives. I know none of the contributors, so I consider this a random sample of my tribe.
Upon inspection, the 23 submitted scenarios share some common dreams. The most recurring hope/expectation is of a new energy source. Instead of fossil fuels, they expect in 100 years we’ll rely on solar and fusion, which will be cheap and clean. Second is the deepening merger of the digital and physical into a holistic internet of everything. The third most common vision is the rise of artificial intelligence and artificially intelligent robots, who transform our economy into one of plenitude and creative work/play. A minor fourth thread is the spread of education in new modes, with universal reach around the globe, and lifelong.
That’s a good start. I certainly desire these. Abstractly the four trends are consistent and cohesive. Yet the specifics matter, as do the corresponding ill effects. But, hey, I only gave them 100 words! That tiny cell can only hold a few headlines, so I have to applaud each of the contributors for their attempt at this haiku. My choice for the most plausible vision of a future I desire goes to John Hanacek’s scenario. I think I’d like to live there, and I think it is plausible in 100 years. My $100 goes to him.
The purpose of this future fantasy challenge was to assist me in visualizing a cohesive, sensible future that I wanted to work towards. The submissions helped. After the 23 scenarios, I append a 100-word future haiku that I wrote, inspired by pattern of their common hopes.
A New Energy Source
Blockchain-based technologies and structures accomplish what most major institutions did. Solar power runs everything, as it is 100X cheaper than alternatives. As energy is inexpensive food is grown in symbiotic aquaponic multi-story indoor “farms”, conserving water, the most precious resource. CO2 sequestration also becomes fuel source, albeit subsidized. We buy self-driving car service subscriptions. Nicotine and sugar are Schedule I and II narcotics. Much as empathy has served humans’ ability to collaborate and socialize, so will it be in the silicon species as they out into deep space to connect with their own kind. — Leonard Kish
Clean streets, cheap healthy eats, remembered wisdom on what humanity is, fused into city planning, food production and manufacturing. Polar shield arrays soak excess UV, beating weirding, concealing polar bear lairs to save something our soul needs. Hybrid solar-hydrogen motors make us free and clean. Solid circuit relay probes take the web to deep space, making nerves for this place. All countries with common purpose born from ultimate recognition that prisoner dilemma decisions on planet earth is a disease we can’t afford — our planet is in rehab at last. When the sun rises each day, we know we’re okay. — Chris McCann
A century hence I imagine civilization not to have added metal upon metal; heaping plastic and gnarled brambles of wrought steel wrapping the earth to form a solid mass of techno-pathocracy, instead to have evolved, prodded along by its new stewards, give birth, grown and green and basking in eternal sunlight. A techno-primitivism where mankind lives in harmony with its surroundings, a new eden, a cornucopia, a garden earth. Our ancient foes flora and fauna kept now as a momento of our past. Not to conquer nature with asphalt but the barefooted first steps of post-scarcity. A feast for the touch. A miraculous biology. — Sean Moriva
2030: The last of the unsustainable energy and fiscal policy edifices crumbles just as embedded intelligence emerges. We’ve got the wind in our sails. Billions of people rapidly move from wage slaves to participating in a decentralized, sustainable, opt-in economy which affords them the time to innovate and crowdsource a tsunami of solutions. 2060: Biodiversity blossoms. Consciousness comes under direct control. You can physically live on Mars, Antarctica, New Atlantis or in the asteroid belt. Many chose life in distributed mind servers and live centuries in a week. 2090: Boredom unthinkable. Conscious population: 10^20. Biome restored. 2114: Begin Second Earth. — Luke Cockerham
The future will be blessed by abundant free/cheap water and free/cheap energy. Water through the work of Dr Gerald Pollack (UW) and energy due to Dr Dan Nocera (Harvard). Dr Pollack’s re-discovery of the 4th phase of water (he calls it the Exclusion Zone, EZ, for lack of a better term) will permit the commercialization of a filterless water filter based on this effect. The EZ is powered by infrared energy. Why don’t we see this on sale today? Its settled science, now its a matter of getting it to scale. Dr Nocera has been working to perfect an artificial leaf. His leaf, when immersed in water and illuminated, breaks the water down to hydrogen and oxygen. Today this leaf is 7 time more efficient than a natural one. Why don’t we see it on sale today? Again its a matter of getting it to scale. — Chuck Petras
Solar and fusion have eliminated energy from most practical considerations. Due to automation, only 20% of the population is employed, mainly in creative jobs. World GDP has grown exponentially, making it practical for governments to provide a comfortable life without the need for work. Large projects are restoring ecological damage. Africa and the Middle East are rapidly developing to the standard of the rest of the world. Education has been reformed to help people to achieve life satisfaction and enjoy learning. Breakthroughs in the nature of motivation have enabled AI with an abundant life for all as a primary goal. — Douglas Summers-Stay
Rise of Artificial Intelligence and Artificially Intelligent Robots.
Physical and virtual realities are meshed together with no distinction. Ideas are given sovereignty with their creators rewarded fairly and directly. The world itself does the drudgery of assembling itself across all sectors that information science has been applied, which is limited only by the quantum information underpinnings of the universe. Humans have taken up their primary purpose of creativity and now work with other intelligences of any kind to ask questions and achieve answers, with an eye toward more questions. “Human” has taken on flourishing new meanings. Imagination has been unleashed upon the world in a literal sense. — John Hanacek
I worried I’d never be as well-off as my parents. I never expected this. We call it “the Euphoric Age”. It’s over-the-top, but it’s a good description of what happens when you trade human judgment for algorithmic optimization. Took a while to for systems to tune themselves. I panicked when my doctor got replaced by an app. Money quickly got tight. There was always enough to eat, though. The air got cleaner; the Internet and (Amazon) PackageNet got even faster. We’ve stopped looking for things to do. And started looking for ways to live our lives. Together. — Andy Hickl
You will sleep in a sort of bathtub for taking care of your skin. The bathtub will be enclosed in an atmosphere enriched with substances to take care of your organs. You will never have to take a bath again. Your clothes will be made from a special polymer and you choose from more than 1.000 looks, and the fabrics will be molded to the look you choose. You will eat all food you like. You will have special lanes for whose prefer to drive, but 80% choose self-driven cars. People will work 4 hours/week. No Police and no Politics. — Augusto Camargo
Immortality had shifted the focus on short term thinking, to long term goals. A new era of responsibility had dawned. Body modifications and rejuvenation were only a virus away (new exotic options were available on the free market), and many people changed appearance weekly, to keep up with the latest trends. This invalidated the past trends of judging by gender and race meant we distinguished entities by expertise and experience only. Since robots harvested the food we needed and built our houses in self-chosen tribal groups with independently chosen government structures, humans were free to imagine and create utopian worlds with more art and research than ever before. — Jean Rintoul
The basic needs of all people will be met, because having everything we need (especially without working for it) is the fastest way to realize that we need to work, serve, and create in order to feel fulfilled. All drugs will be legal, reducing crime, and taxes that fund recovery groups will be built into their retail prices. Technology will make life decisions more reversible, allowing people to take more risks. Your early 20s won’t be considered your last opportunity to go to college. Algorithms will analyze statements made by public figures, pointing out fallacies as an impartial third party. — Michael Elias @harmonylion1
2114 AD. Post-scarcity is reality; all wants, all needs are met with zero marginal cost. Aging is optional and trivially repaired. A superhumanly complex network of AIs, robots, and automated systems manage all stellar resources, transportation, food & energy supply, and explore the interstellar frontier. Nations have passed and splintered into a network of megacities. Repair of the environment and human depredations to a pre-industrial state is nearing completion. Humans have splintered into a spectrum of beings measured by merger with technology, from none to total. The individual is free to explore physical and virtual realities, experiences, and relationships across many lives. — Mark Bruce
Food is the same, but not genetically engineered. Air travel becomes extremely expensive. Companies make money from information asymmetry and selling secrets. Consumers pay for preserving their experience and sharing life data securely and privately, and pay for gadgets that enable more sensory processing power (i.e., to be a super human). A startup incubator becomes the top #1 university in the world. Drivers need to enable self-piloting on highway. A smart gadget company owns 50% data traffic of the world. Without face-to-face or voice, it is hard to tell if someone interacts with you is a person or a robot. — Jackie Lee
A guaranteed income brings prosperity to jobless China in the aftermath of the robotic manufacturing revolution. Hundreds of millions pour out of cities where they no longer need to work, and return to smaller villages which are quickly recovering from the brutal pollution of the early 2000s. Previously quixotic living arrangements like houseboats, remote intentional communities and nomadic vehicles explode in popularity as virtual reality matures and the number of people doing physical labor drops precipitously. Art flourishes and IP restrictions mostly disappear in the face of ubiquitous micromanufacturing. Extinction is off the table. Mars and the Jovian moons beckon. — Eric Meltzer
A Holistic Internet of Everything
The technological advancements in data-rich information networks has reached such a height that self-replicating and -arranging nano-bits have become infused into all matter. What was once inert atoms that made up glass, steel, wood, concrete and plastics, are now richly infused with information technology. Everything human has been understood at such a deep level that these information-rich materials can respond in real time to all human thoughts, emotions, and actions. It starts with a single room morphing into a space with the most ideal lighting, materials, and form as it responds to its inhabitants. Over time entire cities have the ability to transform their entire urban fabric as a democratic response to its population. — Sean Fright
When we have the “internet of things” and ubiquitous sensors, here’s one small use that would warm my heart: anti-vandalism. Consider graffiti: First of all, spray paint cans won’t operate on a surface if you don’t have the owner’s permission. If some young punk somehow manages to start to tag some graffiti, his identity is captured, and he hears, by name, that he is being fined. On second offense, not only is the fine multiplied, but a swarm of paint drones tag swatches of his hair, his body, his clothes, his bag, and his ride. Etc. — Rodney Hoffman
I want to live in a future in which governments cannot hide the actions of corrupt officials as easily, because the very technologies they use to eavesdrop upon us, can be used against them as well. A future in which computers allow us to make informed legal decisions without being at the mercy of an expensive attorney. A future in which injustice and corruption is broadcasted to the public, and those who wish to commit injustice and corruption are more afraid of us, than we are of them. A future in which schools cannot fudge their numbers, in order to mask that they are committing a horrible disservice to the future of our world. A future in which transparency of government spending allows us to quantify the actual costs of medical care can be quantified, so that those who are exploiting the system can be eradicated. A future in which there is a clear understanding of personal vs. public information, with multiple technologies acting as independent safeguard against infringement. — Dallas John Slieker
I usually sleep with my implant on. It lets my dreams mingle with those of my friends, diffusing anxiety, heightening creativity. I wake up naturally, full of energy, excited to start my day. My implant automatically quiets for my morning toilet. I cook breakfast the old fashioned way. Boil an egg, squeeze fresh juice. The bread I made yesterday still has a wonderfully crunchy crust. I open up my implant, listening for what my friends are creating, what they need help with, and adding a few aspirations of my own. Then I pick up my tools and we all get to work. — Steve Hoefer
If the human civilization ended right now, our entry in the ‘Galactic Encyclopedia’ would read: “Terrestrial bipedal omnivores. Created vast cities and virtual worlds rich with information. Although impressive, their existence was mired by an overwhelming failure to understand themselves.” If we can successfully aim the scientific process at how humans work, and why we do what we do, than the next 100 years will be totally unlike the last 100. With the answers to these questions, we will build technologies that push levels of fulfillment beyond anything we can currently imagine. For the first time, our technological innovations would be a reflection of our fundamental wants and needs rather than some hopeful striving in what we think is the right direction. — Oliver Carefull @smollie1
Imagine a future of distributed networks with preset standards. Where important parts of infrastructure are locally maintained. Power, water, sewer, data, transport. Everything available to a community by a combination of worldwide resource markets and local manufacturing. Every town’s things are little bit different, because the look and feel were organized locally, and yet the same because everyone used the same base resources. Distributed manufacturing, local power making transportable power, local food, swift delivery of goods. Clever people online to offer aid. Open engineering. Open communities. Mesh networks. Only the most basic units are standardised. A “lego” economy. — Laston Kirkland
Education in New Modes
The survivors of climate change, heartbroken by the massive die-off, are the gene pool for the next iteration of homo. In adapting to a hostile environment, the latent inclination to compassion and generosity become heritable traits. Systems, culture, commerce, and government have the explicit purpose of providing well-being for all. Knowledge sharing is revered as the most celebrated human propensity. This results in a self-aware global cerebral cortex; humanity functioning as neurons, networks as nervous system. Scientists learn to encode human knowledge on quantum fluctuations that can survive the heat death of the universe, although for whom remains a puzzle. — Alan Chamberlain
For what is desirable to me, may not be to desirable you. This “difference”, in all its forms is a theme for my proposed desirable, technological future. McLuhan suggests, our connected, technological tomorrow won’t be one of tranquility and uniformity. Extending this idea, the tomorrow I foresee is one of a greater awareness of difference, through education, provided via technology. This deeper, more fundamental understanding of “things” won’t prevent wars, or stop all conflicts. I’ll close on the following quote by Aaron Griffin: “Relying on complex tools to manage and build your system is going to hurt the end users. […] If you try to hide the complexity of the system, you’ll end up with a more complex system” — Andrew Stace
Technologically enabled worldwide mass education could lead to rationality replacing superstition, rejection of sectarianism and nationalism, thus shrinking population through volition, not war, famine, pestilence. Fossil fuel use would be reduced by lowered demand and replaced by renewable resources, mandated by a world treaty to freeze military budgets and redirect them to renewable energy development, removing the immediate threat of climate catastrophe. Local sourcing of organically produced foods could further reduce transport burdens and increase basic human health, reducing health care costs. These steps plus redistribution of wealth would provide full employment, less pollution and would save the environment. — Allan Rubin
2121: Population 4 billion; 85% urban. Cities boom, empty suburbs struggle. Agriculture acreage reduced with GMOs. Nature monitored quantitatively; green lands expand with genetic engineering. Solar, fusion, mini nukes generate cheap power. Climate change adapted. Creative middle class the new majority, globally mobile. Computer pilots make travel common internationally. Eco and heritage tourism primary income for poorest. Robots takeover remaining blue-color jobs in Asia and Africa. Internet of everything physical continued. Universal library, and universal lifelong education for free. All humans always on the net anywhere. Brain interface, wearables. Co-veillent tracking ubiquitous. Quantified self for personalized medicine. Techno-literacy (managing) skills mandatory. — Kevin Kelly