Fast-Forward to the Future
Through 75 tumultuous years, this magazine has held on to a fundamental optimism about tomorrow. Of course there are problems. But here's to all the promise.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – THE END OF CANCER. FREEDOM from the tyranny of oil. A World Series for the Cubs. None of that is impossible. In preparing this survey, FORTUNE canvassed numerous scientists and other respect- ed thinkers. Broad themes emerged: By 2080 the world's population will have peaked, we will be dealing with climate change, and microbes, not microchips, will be the primary vehicles of innovation.
To try to make sense of the future they described, we applied something we know works: human ingenuity. True, the species has done some terrible things. But resilience and intelligence will help it muddle through. We also believe that the human character will remain unchanged. People will always value hanging out with others, eating pizza, and exploring new things. The eternal questions--love, death, and why there is nothing decent to watch (on 20,000-plus channels!)--will endure.
Of course, we could be wrong. If so, drop us a line and tell us--in 2080.
The Postmodern Body
The next 75 years will make the pace of 20th-century medical advances look glacial. Drugs now in labs are already giving glimpses of a future in which life expectancy will approach 100 and we will have godlike powers to enhance our bodies and our minds.
■ Drugs that restore or strengthen memory can be bought over the counter. More old people can stay independent, education levels rise as teachers no longer have to spend time reviewing what was forgotten over vacation, and poker and bridge are transformed.
■ No-sleep drugs and fear inhibitors, originally for military use, are routinely used by football coaches, police academies, and concert soloists. Many drugs are activated through ingested or implanted chips that release dosages at the required intervals.
■ Individualized cocktails of neurotransmitter-tweaking drugs enable comprehensive shaping of temperament to accord with different situations. Those faced with tough work projects might take enhancers of mental focus, persistence, and self-confidence. Vacation-goers will be able to benignly heighten their receptiveness to novelty, libido, and sensory excitability.
■ Genomic-testing services let you find out whether you carry gene variants associated with everything from musical talent to the tendency to take risks. Humans remain romantics and passion counts, but they are also as calculating as ever: Dating services will match people according to their genomically analyzed behavioral profiles.
■ Custom-grown replacement parts. Doctors cut out the diseased bits, then thaw out and inject some of the patient's stem cells (routinely banked at birth). These rebuild the damaged organ.
■ Medical records include your complete genome, and medicines will be customized to your unique genetic configuration. That makes treatments more likely to succeed and less traumatic. Routine blood tests will involve thousands of measurements to test for various diseases.
■ The bloodstream is the highway for nanomachines and medicinal microbes. Equipped with tiny computers and genetically engineered antidotes, nanomachines will seek out and destroy cancer cells or other enemies without collateral damage. The microbes will generate healing compounds right where they're needed.
■ Male contraceptive pills have been around for decades, but women still wonder: Is he really using them?
■ Cell technologies can transform male cells into egg cells. Therefore, two men can make a baby, which can develop outside the womb.
■ No more menopause: Women are fertile all their lives.
■ Babies are often tweaked by their parents through gene therapies --either to eliminate problems (e.g., Down syndrome, alcoholism) or to implant desired attributes (intelligence, pole-vaulting skill).
■ No more glasses or contacts, thanks to natural replacement lenses and muscular regeneration treatments.
■ Solar-powered microchip retinal implants cure certain forms of blindness by converting light into electric currents that zap the optic nerve into action.
■ Brainstem implants that stimulate auditory processing centers eliminate most deafness.
■ No more cavities! Microbe mouthwash guarantees it. And if you lose a tooth? Grow a new one in a lab.
■ Anti-vice vaccinations. If lawsuits don't kill tobacco, this will. People can still smoke, but when they decide to stop, they do--once and forever. Ditto for drug addicts and drunk drivers: If they are charged and convicted, they get a choice of incarceration or vaccination.
■ No more love handles, thanks to drugs that tweak metabolism to let you gorge without gaining weight.
■ We will be able to regrow appendages the way salamanders do, and the results will be indistinguishable from the original (except when they are better--for example, by not replicating unsightly moles).
■ High-tech replacements. When a limb cannot be regrown because of trauma or other reasons, manufactured replacements provide superior performance--i.e., knee joints that never wear out and can take tremendous stress, or elbows with freakish flexibility. The Olympic Games have given up on trying to stop doping but have drawn the line on this one. The new rule: original-limb athletes only.
This New House
No, this building doesn't look sci-fi. That's because we will still want to live in homes, not organic pods. But tomorrow's colonials and split-levels will be transformed--not just with hypersmart descendants of today's gizmos but also with biomaterials and friendly bugs.
■ The refrigerator has long been a networked device that monitors freshness, orders food, and provides us with the nutritional lowdown on what's inside. But after 2050, the fridge is obsolete because meat and dairy products no longer spoil. (Brewskies and sodas will chill themselves.)
■ Food. Remember when yogurt had good-for-you active cultures? Now all food is active. What people used to call nourishment, prescription medicine, and nutritional supplements are all rolled into one.
■ The meaning of "clean" has changed. Where once we nuked our counters with cleansers to obliterate bacteria, our kitchens have now become havens of healthful microbes that eat noxious germs--and have that lemony, fresh smell.
■ Mattresses are filled with wireless sensors that identify sudden medical conditions--a 4 A.M. heart attack or stroke immediately summons emergency services.
■ The floor is coated with material that kills harmful microorganisms and always feels cozy and warm.
■ Windows are membranes that filter air and light and clean themselves.
■ Pipes and chutes separate and send all garbage to an energy processor. Everything gets used, either as compost or as fuel. A small hydrogen fuel-cell unit also provides power.
■ A water system collects, filters, and recycles waste to conserve a resource as precious as fine wine.
■ Junk room. We'll still be pack rats.
■ Nanofactory. This is a desktop box, filled with chemical processors, computing, and robotics that can produce items from blueprints ordered online. See a nice blouse? After growing the silk in your basement bioworkshop, you will buy digital rights to the design online, then produce it.
■ Gizmos everywhere. Networked gadgets for communicating, displaying information, and organizing our lives are now so ubiquitous they've been absorbed into clothes and furniture. Even the walls attend to us, with eyes, ears, and memories.
■ Persistent technologies. The book endures. The paperless office never happens. That laptop on the desk? It's a quaint souvenir.
■ Carpet. It's alive! Sort of, anyway. Through the cross-pollination of inorganic carpet filaments and bioengineered organic compounds, the carpet ingests dirt, spills, and stains.
■ TV is holographic and always on, streaming live feeds from homes of friends and relatives you like to hang out with remotely. You also use your TV to participate in community events and to vote.
■Ritual shrines are the least techie feature. Religion--and the need for quiet contemplation--endure. And when you want to link to fellow believers, the interactive TV is right there.
■ The medicine cabinet is stocked with nanotech diagnostic devices that you can swallow, plus bioactive pills and lotions that produce what your body needs. The mirror uses face-recognition technology to remind you to take your medicine. (An early prototype advised women on makeup choices. It failed, amid a storm of criticism.)
■ Sink. Home to the diagnostic toothbrush, which takes samples of saliva and blood; a sinktop analyzer can check for disease. There are also facial wipes that change color to warn of skin cancer.
■ Toilet. The seat of modern health. It measures body fat and temperature, analyzes urine and feces, and automatically confers with your health providers to spot problems early.
■ Street addresses aren't used much. The house has GPS coordinates; all its occupants have personal network IDs that make them reachable pretty much anytime.
■ Power for appliances and gadgets is provided by tiny fuel cells. Backup wiring connects with the electrical grid and the fuel cell in the basement.
■ Smart monitors. If your 90-year-old grandmother collapses, the monitor knows why--and whom to contact.
■ A rotating platform allows the house to shift to catch the best rays, or just to change the view.
■ The roof has a garden that captures and cleans rainwater to replenish the household system. There are also self-renewing solar panels.
■ Sensors test for CO , anthrax, environmental contaminants, allergens, and radioactivity, and defend against the release of chemical and biological agents.
■ Keyholes no longer exist. A biometric control pad monitors entry.
■ The exterior is coated with a substance that can change color on demand--for example, a dark shade in winter or pink for your little girl's birthday party. The outside is made of bio-produced material that looks just like wood or brick. (Twentieth-century retro is very big in 2080.)
■ The lawn is a harmonious ecosystem that regulates itself.
■ The family car has been running on hydrogen for years and is mostly biodegradable.
Four Tech Frontiers
It's the law: Every list of predictions must include space vehicles for the common man. Call us conformist, but we are happy to oblige-- because NASA seems genuinely serious this time. Plus a fearless look at how three of today's most promising technologies will play out.
Highway in the Sky
In the opening credits of The Jetsons, George flies to work in his own space car. If NASA has its way, that fanciful image will become a reality sometime around the middle of this century. For the past few years the agency has been quietly building something it calls the Highway in the Sky, a computer system designed to let millions of people fly wherever they want and whenever they want, in their own vehicles.
The dream of zooming around in "skycars" or "planemobiles" is as old as flight itself. But you don't want traffic jams in the sky. So, using Global Positioning System navigation and other technologies, NASA is working on a collision-deterring device that will function as an onboard air-traffic controller.
Boeing, NASA, and several entrepreneurs are constructing such vehicles. One motorcycle-like machine called the AirScooter is now being built by longtime inventor Elwood "Woody" Norris. Powered by a small engine and two sets of blades, it can rise to 10,000 feet above sea level. Norris expects to begin selling it later this year for less than $50,000. NASA hopes to debut its first "personal air vehicle" in the next five years.
In another 25 years or so, many of us will have tiny aircraft parked in our driveways that can drive as well as fly. We'll cruise about two miles to our local airfield, take off on short runways, fly up to 500 miles, and land at another airfield before finishing the trip by driving a couple of miles to our final destination. Eventually we'll have vehicles that can take off without runways, lifting vertically like helicopters. Coming soon: air rage. -- David Stires
Nature is the ultimate engineer, building trees and flowers without fuss; nanomanufacturing, in effect, attempts to mimic the mechanics of nature, building devices from the atom up, as though they were Legos or building blocks but incredibly small and flexible. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; for comparison, a nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles.) These qualities will allow us to make things of unbelievable refinement with little use of energy, in small quantities, and without big centralized factories--indeed, even at home. The consequences are huge. Scientists have already created a molecular machine known as the nanovalve that will eventually deliver drugs capable of blasting a single cell. Nanotechnology will harness the sun's energy and split water into hydrogen and oxygen--thus creating a clean pool of hydrogen for fuel cells and other applications. Nanomanufacturing techniques are already being used to develop sensors that can detect a single molecule of a poison gas. -- Cait Murphy
Any kind of information is available anytime you want it. Simply speak a question, or even think it, if you have trained your personal information receiver that way. You will always be connected wirelessly to the network, and an answer will return from a vast, collectively produced data matrix. Google queries will seem quaint. Point your always-on camera (in your glasses, your hat, or your hairpin) at someone on the street and get as much information as you want about them. You can locate anyone at any time and learn the outcome of any event worldwide instantly. Efforts to protect privacy have been long abandoned. Information is controlled by no one, because digital storage is essentially free. An individual can thus have archives as large as the government's, which makes efforts to restrict data hopeless.
You record your entire life on video. Most people make their personal video histories freely searchable by others. Not doing so reduces the trustworthiness ratings that are a primary source of social status. Any book, magazine, or entertainment product is available free. You pay for digital material only because you choose to, for moral or practical reasons. You may, for instance, want to encourage an author to continue writing novels. There is still a place for storytellers, but computer programs automatically extract news and information relevant to you from all the data that is being created by individuals and organizations. Every challenge in life has become like an open-book test. -- David Kirkpatrick
After decades of teasing apart the molecular gizmos inside living things, researchers put them together in novel ways to radically retool cells. They'll start by building multigene modules for desired metabolic functions. Analogous to computer plug-ins that give PCs new functions like wireless data transmission, the modules will be designed to plug into microbes to make them churn out everything from fuels to medicines to spider silk for ultralight body armor. Reengineered cows implanted with such modules will give human milk to use as infant formula, and Lewis Carroll--inspired synthetic biologists will use the technology to engender pigs with wings. (The animals won't fly, but barbecued pig wings will become all the rage at trendy, upscale restaurants.) Dark prospects will also loom--easy-to-use plug-ins will enable terrorists to create supervirulent infectious microbes. To counter that threat, bioengineers will have to come up with microscopic artificial life forms to single out and destroy all manner of disease-causing microorganisms. -- David Stipp
The World, 2080
We don't anticipate the massive boundary shifts or the dizzying creation of new countries that has marked the past 75 years. But we do think the way the world works will change--a lot. A sampling of scenarios from around the globe.
■ Middle East. Weary of all the drawbacks associated with fossil fuels, the world makes a concerted effort to kick the habit. In 2040 oil consumption begins to fall in absolute terms, and by 2060 oil is a boutique fuel. Oil-dependent Middle East economies, which had never diversified, take a brutal hit--sparking violence. But then a promising generation of reformers emerges to replace their blundering predecessors. Their stated mission: devising a freer political system.
■ Iowa. Pushed by the effects of 2030's oil shock, the alchemy of turning crops into energy is finally mastered. Biofuels become big business, and young entrepreneurs flock to the heartland.
■ Singapore is the first country to ban nonhydrogen cars. By 2050, hybrid hydrogen-electric vehicles are king of the road everywhere. Tooling around in an oil-fueled SUV is regarded with as much horror as clubbing baby seals for fur.
■ Africa. Other than a handful of new nuclear plants, large-scale power projects are rare. Instead, micro-turbines fueled by a variety of sources provide on-the-spot power. One big beneficiary: Africa. No longer reliant on corrupt politicians to extend the grid, many communities finally have reliable power. And the civic organizations that made it happen gain force. These two trends bring new spirit to the continent.
■ Bangladesh. Water has become the world's most valuable commodity, as efforts to control the weather are still unreliable (and the politics are a nightmare). Extremely wet Bangladesh builds an export business, farming water and piping it to industrial centers in China and India.
■ Micronesia. Global warming brings more and worse weather disasters; a melting polar ice cap raises sea levels. The low, flat, sparsely populated islands of Micronesia are swamped. Their people are resettled. Population centers that are uncomfortably close to sea level, such as Venice, lower Manhattan, and Egypt's Nile delta, struggle to cope.
■ Italy. In 2059, with falling birth rates and increased intermarriage and immigration, Italy becomes the first European country to have a nonwhite majority. By 2075 all the traditional large centers of white skin--the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Oceania--have followed suit.
■ Japan. It happened here first, but all over the rich world, old age is transformed. Aging has slowed and Alzheimer's has disappeared. The fragile elderly get around in exoskeletons. Intelligent machines and elder-care robots shoulder more of our cognitive burdens. Condé Nast launches a celebrity magazine for great-grandparents. The retirement age is 82.
■ China. Today's toddlers will have to figure out how to cope with the social problems caused by China's urban-rural inequal- ity and the huge disparity between the number of men and women (caused by two generations of parents who favored the birth of boys over girls). Another challenge: how to close the gap with India, which in 2068 overtakes China as the world's largest economy.
■ Saudi Arabia. States that keep their women uneducated and oppressed suffer economically. Those that figure out how to nurture female potential surge ahead. As the Arab woman goes, so goes the region.
■ Latvia. Thanks to the example set by fast-growing Poland and the Baltics, the idea of a flat and simple tax system spreads. By 2080 everyone has adopted it, partly in response to the fiscal challenges posed by rapid aging. Except the French. They note that while a flat tax may work in practice, it is hopeless in theory.
■ Brazil. Shrinking populations cause local shortages of talent. So while countries still have border patrols, they also have recruitment bureaus to compete for immigrants with spe- cific skills. A São Paulo entrepre- neur sets up a global labor auction market where nations bid for talent.
■ California. The entrepreneur in the garage remains one of the world's most important people.
■ The oceans. When tuna prices spike in 2035, the world finally gets serious about species depletion and bans all commercial fishing. There is some cheating, but a multinational sea force does an effective job of policing. All fish for consumption is farmed; sport fishing is still allowed.
■ Planet Mars. In a race that has galvanized the world, America lands an astronaut on Mars in 2060, just beating China. It will be another 75 years before Mars can be developed as a proper frontier.
Ten to Watch
Fame is fleeting. But even if these men and women are not household names in 75 years, what they're doing now will have lasting influence.
President in waiting. An MBA who worked as an investment banker in London, Mubarak--despite protestations to the contrary--has been groomed to succeed his father, Hosni, as President of Egypt, the intellectual capital of the Arab world. Gamal, 42, is regarded as an economic reformer with a worldly outlook. Some believe he has the capacity to do what his 77-year-old father could not--make Egypt a workable model of tolerance, freedom, and prosperity.
U.S. Senator (D-Illinois). The most charismatic politician of his generation, the 44-year-old Obama is a crossover politician with strong appeal among both black and white Americans. He will be a key player as the U.S. becomes a more racially diverse society.
Oceanographer. Myers's work on the dynamics of fish species provided startling evidence of the 90% population decline since 1950 in bluefin tuna, giant blue marlin, and other big fish. A professor at Canada's Dalhousie University, Myers is working to develop new and better ways to husband the wealth beneath the sea.
Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Jimmy Wales
Web stars. Brin and Page, founders of Google, brought to market the favorite roadmap for the web. In Wikipedia, Wales created a reader-written, interactive encyclopedia. The innovations this trio pioneered have accelerated the democratization of information on the Internet--a phenomenon that is only beginning to show its potential. In a future where information is everywhere all the time, the splashes Google and Wikipedia made will cast ripples in ways that are unpredictable but profound.
Hwang Woo Suk
Stem-cell researcher. A national hero in South Korea, Hwang, with his team at Seoul National University, has won headlines for cloning a cow, a pig, a human embryo, and a dog. The implications are huge. Cloned human embryos could yield therapeutic stem cells to provide breakthrough treatments for conditions as varied as Alzheimer's and spinal-cord trauma. The ethical debate is just beginning. But one thing is certain: Hwang's research will be a major factor in defining the future of medicine.
Nanotechnologist. Based at MIT, Belcher specializes in biomimicry--investigating how nature grows things and then trying to replicate the process in the lab. The idea is to create forms that produce other things, such as genetically engineered viruses that can grow electronic components much as an abalone grows a shell. Possible applications run the gamut from vaccine storage to superstrong materials to improved computing.
Economist. The emerging discipline of neuro-economics says that economic decisions are the product of interactions between different brain parts that evolved at different times and for different reasons. Armed with this insight, scholars like Harvard's Laibson are beginning to reconstruct economics from the prefrontal cortex up. That might take us to a far better understanding of why consumers buy, why investors buy and sell--and how everything from 401(k) plans to marketing strategies to tax policies should be put together.
Soccer phenom. One final brave prediction: Adu, now 16, leads the U.S. to victory in the World Cup of 2020, providing the breakthrough that makes soccer a major sport in America.