Technological development is a continuous process, but since the second half of the 20th century we have been witnessing changes that are faster than ever before. Almost all researchers agree that the acceleration of innovations will not stop, but rather it will speed up. Therefore, technological changes are perhaps the most difficult to forecast. There surely will be solutions in 2050 that have no signs today. There are developments that do not yet work, or not with the efficiency required for their spread, but in a 30-year perspective this is sure to change. This analysis is mainly focusing on these key areas.
Medical Sciences / Biotechnology
Child mortality is expected to substantially decrease in the future. Between 1990 and 2012 there was a significant decrease from 90 thousandths to 48. This tendency is going to continue down to even 31 thousandths—as the Copenhagen Consensus Center’s assessment puts it. The most dramatic decrease (due basically to the currently very high levels) is expected in Africa.
According to the Business Insider, taking the current medical science trends into consideration, several diseases will be curable or prevented by vaccination by 2050. We understand better how our immune system works, what its relationship with viruses is, we will be able to cure for example Alzheimer’s disease and treat cancer (with nanoparticles for example).
With the computerisation of the human brain we can achieve “eternal life”. Brain researchers and neurobiologists say that by 2050 the human brain will be uploadable to computers, theoretically our mind can live forever in a robotic body or as a hologram. According to several futurologists, the necessary technology will be available for this by then, although some consider that it will be a privilege of the richest. Around 2075-2080, however, it may become a routine procedure.
Artificial organs have already appeared at research level. The isolation of stem cells made the reconstruction of any body cell possible; in the future, they will be used to build tissues and organs as well. The development and mass application will happen in the foreseeable future. With the spread of artificial organs, bodily deficiencies will disappear, which means a significant progress if we take into consideration that in the US alone an average of 18 people die every day while waiting for organ transplantation. Organs grown in labs would provide a solution for this problem, and the required technology will be available within 30 years (such organ transplantations are already being tested).
Genetic engineering enables screening for genetic disorders: in 2050 we may be able to “create” genetically perfect people, to determine even the tiniest features like teeth, height, hair colour, eye colour or eyesight. The supporters of genetic engineering claim that this is not different from teaching our kid to play a musical instrument, because both are aimed at developing a skill. Similar to several medical breakthroughs and innovations, the massive expansion of this is obstructed by legal and ethical concerns rather than technological feasibility.
Robotics / Artifical Intelligence
Now researches are conducted into the development of freely moving robots that surpass people both physically and intellectually, and are capable of managing whole companies on their own. People can have more time for social, recreational and artistic activities, similarly to the current retired or well-off classes. Artificial intelligence already exists; it is used every day. It is not just Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson or the Google Now assistant, but it is present in everyday devices like a washing machine, too. Today a washing machine with appropriately developed electronics is already capable of nearly human behaviour, it can individually assess the situation and work out a response based on the data measured by itself (this is the so-called Fuzzy technology, with which the device is capable of modifying its working while in operation, if it detects something that differs from the optimal).
The term ‘machine learning’ related to artificial intelligence shortly means that a system is capable of recognising regularities and rules by observing patterns, then making decisions based on them. Applying the algorithms of machine learning will be indispensable for companies to retain competitiveness. The technology is already applied in several areas, from spam detection through character recognition to photo labelling and different analytics (it can optimally be used for analysing big data, basically this was the reason for the emergence of the need for machine learning). With the understanding of the functioning of the human brain, artificial neural networks will also be possible to create, which will mean a new breakthrough in machine learning. Bill Joy, the leading researcher of Sun Microsystems says that this superhuman artificial intelligence will bring about such exponential technological development that will practically end the era of humanity (this is the so called technological singularity).
Most of the working processes can already be automated, and even more will be in the future. According to the pessimistic forecast of Roshe Vardi, Professor of Rice University, this can lead to an unemployment rate of as high as fifty per cent. Even more probably, due to these changes, work, income generation and the social benefit system will transform substantially, and it’s sure, that people in 2050 will do jobs that currently don’t even exist.
Another aspect is that by 2050 robots will most probably be capable of expressing emotions, what is more, they will have their own feelings, will be able to have meaningful conversations with us, and even emotional relationships will possibly occur between humans and robots, which raises several moral and other questions. David Levy, international chess master, who is engaged in researches about artificial intelligence in relation to chess, wrote a book titled ‘Love and Sex with Robots’.
By 2050 3D printers will be present in our homes. 3D printing, with the help of which three-dimensional objects can be printed using digital models, has been available since the 1980s. Its main application area is prototype printing, but with the advancement of the technology (that has had an exponential trend in recent years) huge perspectives will open up for applying it in the industry, medicine or education. The possibilities offered by 3D printing are practically endless: we can make any dish with it (this technology is available today!), we can reuse our old clothes by printing new ones from them, but its industrial utilisation is also diverse. 3D printing can totally transform mechanical engineering (even airplanes will be printable).
According to a WWF study on renewable energy sources, if we invest enough in developing and installing renewable energy sources, almost all of our energy consumption can be supplied from renewable sources—and the greenhouse gas emission of the energy sector can be decreased by 80%. But for this serious effort would be required and preparations should be started right away. Especially because this would not use irrationally huge resources, two per cent of the global GDP would be sufficient and development could be done with technologies currently available. The largest ‘energy suppliers’ would be the Sun and the wind, other important energy sources moving to the fore would be the oceans (wave energy), biomass, geothermic energy and hydro power plants would also play a major role. This would be a huge step forward also because the global energy consumption is likely to be the double of the current by the middle of the century. As far as mining is concerned, the raw material appetite will probably grow along the population growth, says the forecast of the World Economic Forum on the mining industry in 2050: this means a demand of 50 billion tons by 2050 if calculated with the current 4-4.5 tons/person/year global demand. There are researches and recommendations concerning sustainable mining. A primary aspect in mining is environmental protection and repair or remediation of environmental damage, increasing the intensity and efficiency of extraction, and improving the recycling of raw materials.
By 2050 we will be able to cover most of our resource demand from space. Currently researches are conducted into how raw materials can be extracted from asteroids or the Moon. The area can substantially develop in the future (some authors compare the significance of the future of space resource exploitation to that of the great geographical discoveries, or they even dub the possibilities as the space ‘gold rush’). NASA researchers consider that by 2050 it is realistic to build a settlement on the Moon, the purpose of which will be to launch the mass extraction of the Moon’s mineral resources and to extend the opportunities of space tourism common by then. Strategic planning at NASA extends until 2100.
What concerns space travel, NASA currently focuses on the Earth-Moon relation, but it is hoped that by 2050 there will be at least one opportunity to send a human to Mars. Other experts go even farther, in their opinion by that time there will be human settlements on Mars. Beside government aspirations, private enterprises become more represented in space industry. SpaceX led by Elon Musk plans Mars trips for the 2020s and has set the goal of establishing a Mars colony. Amazon also starts engaging in the 21st century ‘space competition’ that can present genuinely new perspectives in the long run.
Car transport will be far safer, simpler and cleaner in 2050: the advancement of self-driving cars is not a novelty today; experts say that by 2035 we will travel exclusively by such vehicles. Self-driving cars are safer, because accidents that happen due to distraction can fully be avoided. Just in the United States there will be by 4.95 million less accidents and by 30 thousand less deaths and the time spent commuting will decrease by 4.8 billion hours. The reduction in the number of accidents, fuel costs and production loss will result in saving 500 billion dollars per year, says the Milken Institute in its study.
Electric cars will also become common by 2050, which will mean a 30% reduction of road carbon dioxide emission; with the wider spread of the technology the petroleum consumption will also be substantially reduced. With the development of the technology, there are five factors that contribute to the major improvement of the electric cars’ situation: production costs of batteries will drastically decrease (already by 2022 they will be real competitors of traditional cars as far as the full life cycle is concerned); their range will become much longer at an affordable price; electric recharging stations will spread; the car industry itself will invest considerable resources into electric car production, more and more models and types will appear; there will be a global pressure on car manufacturers to reduce pollutant emission and to ease the dependence on petroleum, writes Roland Hwang, Director of the Energy and Transport Programme at the Natural Resources Defence Council in the US.
There were numerous attempts in the near past to develop high-speed rail; solutions will most probably be found by 2050. One of the most promising plans is the Hyperloop announced by Elon Musk, which in his formulation would mean a new transport method, but its structure will be similar to that of railway lines. The concept is about an evacuated pipe system, where people can travel in capsules with a speed of more than 1,000 km/hour. The prototype was planned to be built between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but the project is halted by high costs and other uncertainty factors, and it is little known what phase it is in. However, with appropriate financing, the idea could be implemented within a few years.
Many experts forecast the future ‘renaissance’ of railways, because environment-friendly transport forms are moving to the fore and railways can transport large numbers of passengers relatively fast without pollutant emission. The vision of 2050 by ARUP engineering consulting firm says that significant railway developments can be expected mainly in the developing, quickly urbanising Asian/African regions in the following decades.
Communication / Mass Media
Harish Shah, Singaporean futures researcher thinks that in 2050 computers in their present form will be no longer needed, instead of the monitor and the mouse we will have a foldable, flexible, pocket size device that will not require power source because it will be charged by body heat. It will receive voice commands and we will be able to control all our other devices (from our self-driving car to any smart device) with it. Its ‘screen’ will be projectable to anywhere, but also we will be able to ‘see’ it directly through our eyes as augmented virtual reality. There will be a comprehensive social network through which we will be able to communicate with anyone in the world in a much simpler way than today (we will not have to remember any passwords or user identifiers). In certain cases, if voice commands would be disturbing, there will be an option to control our devices by thoughts, with the help of so-called neuroimaging. However futuristic this may sound, this technology already exists.
Jonathon Porritt environmentalist (author of the book The World We Made) forecasts that the Internet will reach every corner of the Earth: by 2050 8 billion people, 97.5% of the population then will have access to the internet. At present 40% of the population has internet access and 68% of users are from developed countries, 32% from emerging countries. This means around 2.85 billion people. The MIT centre dealing with collective intelligence sees the online expansion as one of the greatest innovations of modern history: it opens up innumerable possibilities for humankind and creates a certain collective consciousness (but to a much larger and developed extent than today).
Internet will affect traditional media products more directly. Since 2010, it was in 2015 when the number of printed magazine copies dropped most dramatically, and at the same time digital publishing shows an increase. According to Bradley Wilson, Professor of Midwestern State University, if the drop in printed paper copy numbers continues the current trend, by 2050 the whole sector may disappear.
With the advancement of translation technologies, language barriers will diminish: by 2050 automatic simultaneous interpretation will become default all over the world. We will be able to speak a foreign language with the help of special glasses and a mobile application (the text appears on the glasses like subtitles) or other devices. These technologies are present already in test versions; by 2050 they will be perfected.
In the context of expanding opportunities provided by information technology, the internet and by the spread of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality will permeate our everyday life and drastically transform our habits. Among others, it will make it possible to do the shopping without actually leaving home, shopping will be done virtually. We will select goods virtually (we can even try on clothes), service is done by artificial intelligence instead of real shop assistants, delivery will be done by drones, as Engineering UK describes a possible future vision in its report about the research on ‘The Future of Shopping’.
Technology Doesn’t Solve Everything
Although numerous positive developments can be expected, certain processes, like global climate change, present a worrying outlook. The consequences will aggravate by 2050 and it is a question whether technological achievements will offer solutions:
|– hundreds of millions of people will probably be displaced;
– Dengue fever and malaria may spread and cause casualties even in the USA because of hotter and more humid summers;
– significantly bigger territories will be burned by wildfires (eight times as much land by 2100 as in 2010);
– additional 8% of the world’s population will experience water scarcity;
– hurricanes will cause 10-20% more intensive destruction than today;
– millions will be affected by sea level rise in coastal cities;
– wheat and maize yields will be threatened;
– wildlife of reefs and several islands will be endangered;
– territories suffering from droughts will face greater risks;
– 63% of wine regions will be at risk.
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László Gere graduated in 2009 at Eötvös Loránd University as a geographer, with specialization in regional and settlement development, in 2016, qualified as a specialized and literary translator from English and from Hungarian at Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, began his PhD studies in autumn 2015 at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences of the University of Pécs. He works as senior researcher at PAIGEO Research Institute from 2015. He is specialized in urbanism, the global role and social economic processes of the cities.