UK Telegraph – “Futurologist Richard Watson’s 2050 vision: goodbye Belgium, hello brain transplants”

Futurologist Richard Watson’s 2050 vision: goodbye Belgium, hello brain transplants

UK Telegraph | September 19, 2008

If you were surprised by the financial crisis, wait until you hear what’s coming next. Futurologist Richard Watson journeys into tomorrow’s world

After a week when it’s been impossible to predict which financial giant will still be standing at the end of the day, let alone the year, it would seem like a fool’s errand to talk about decades down the line.

These days, if you raise your gaze to the horizon, you’ll find experts warning of a host of problems: melting ice caps, global pandemics, terrorism, the end of oil, meteor strikes, even robot uprisings.

It’s all too easy to become paralysed by such possibilities – and yes, there are ideas, discoveries and events over the horizon that we can’t possibly comprehend. But while the future is unknown and unwritten, we can begin to trace its outline, and prepare the first drafts.

For example, the financial services industry has been in quite a state recently. Despite today’s troubles, we can say that we’ll always need banking and insurance. But will we get them from the same places? Asda and Tesco already sell insurance alongside carrots and spaghetti, and are certain to expand their offerings.

What would happen to the big banks if Wal-Mart, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Vodafone all applied for banking licences to deliver services such as electronic payment, as I believe they will? And will we still need high street branches staffed by human beings once artificial intelligence really kicks in, and you can talk to a machine that’s checking the market every second for the best loan or insurance policy?

Even the nature of how we pay for such things will be different. It is estimated that by 2020, only 10 per cent of financial transactions will be in cash. We can safely predict that the idea of money as a physical object might well become extinct not long after – especially if a global pandemic starts us thinking about all the germs on those grubby notes. Instead, digital transactions will be made through computers, or cell phones, or even chips inserted into our forearms.

Wherever you look in society, massive changes will be taking place. If my predictions are accurate, by 2050 there won’t be DVDs, or national currencies, or a monarchy, or a unified Belgium, but we might well have a ladder into space, robotic policemen and diets based on our individual genome. I’ve picked out some of the more important or exotic arrivals and departures in the list below.

If it feels slightly overwhelming, remember that too much information, twinned with not enough time, is something we will all have to get used to in the future.

However, if you want a simpler take, there are five key factors to remember.

The first is ageing. In Japan, the percentage of people aged over 75 is forecast to increase by 36 per cent between 2005 and 2015, meaning that taxes would have to go up by 175 per cent in a generation to maintain current levels of benefit.

We’re spending a record amount on pharmaceuticals, but we’ll spend more on them as we age – and on technology to replace or store our memories, and refurbish our worn-out bodies (not to mention ways of designing packaging that those with weak hands and poor eyesight can actually open).

Second, the environment will remain vitally important, but climate change won’t be the only game in town – the approach of peak oil, peak coal, peak gas, peak water, peak uranium and even peak people (a severe shortage of workers in many parts of the world) will also have an impact, and require a profound shift towards sustainability.

In political and economic terms, the shift of power to the east, and the rise of countries such as China and India, will continue – the third factor to remember.

We already know that the world is getting smaller, and the fourth idea – greater connectivity – will continue to change how people live, work and think. One billion of us are already online, and this is expected to double within a decade or so. As a result, privacy will be dead or dying – but we may get smarter at making decisions, because our connectivity will allow instant polling of a crowd whose wisdom is nearly always greater than any single member’s.

Finally, there is technology. As the “Grin” technologies converge – genetics, robotics, internet and nanotechnology – we could see self-replicating machines, with intelligence equal to or greater than our own. We might be able to download not only our memories but also our consciousness into such a machine, and live for ever inside it. And to think that in 2008 we were worried about getting too much email.

The future will not be a singular experience, and nor is it a foregone conclusion. Some of us will embrace technology and globalisation, while others will try to escape them.

If history teaches us anything, it is that revolutionary thinking can overturn so-called inevitabilities and impossibilities. But even when it feels, as it has this week, like the end of the world, it’s better at least to start thinking about the future, than not to think about it at all.

Published in: on September 20, 2008 at 6:35 PM  Leave a Comment  

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