[Updated to add a link to Drum’s follow-up post.]
Kevin Drum, one of the best political bloggers in the business, offers up some interesting speculation about technological, environmental, economic, and political changes over roughly the next three decades (link) and the following day added a second post in response to the suggestion his original one was too pessimistic (link). It’s nothing more than informed guesswork, but it’s worth reading and thinking about.
Following is a quick summary of what he says, as paraphrased by me, together with some of my own thoughts, such as they are:
Artificial intelligence and robotics will advance a lot. This will drastically reduce the need for human workers and create major economic disruptions.
[DGG: Among other things, this will inevitably have drastic consequences for conservative ideology and might lead to a some form of guaranteed income, which has been advocated by some conservative, liberal, and even laissez-faire economists. As noted in this Wikipedia article, support for the idea goes back to Tom Paine, Napoleon, and even the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who implemented it. More recent advocates have ranged from Martin Luther King Jr, Paul Samuelson, and John Kenneth Galbraith on the left to to Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman (who advocated a “negative income tax”), and Charles Murray in various outposts of the right. This Atlantic Monthly article describes the conservative case. See also this piece from Reason Magazine and this interesting blog post with some additional information and discussion. Advocates of the so-called “Fair Tax,” which would replace the federal income tax with a huge national sales tax, propose pairing it with a tax “prebate” amounting to a sum of money roughly equal to the poverty level to be paid to everyone.]
Medicine will be revolutionized as well, and implants will enhance both physical and mental abilities.
Climate change will start being a serious problem in no more than about 15 years, especially in the tropics. We’re not likely to do enough soon enough to prevent that, even though solar panels are getting cheaper fast enough to offset a lot of fossil fuel use. As things get rapidly worse, there’s a significant chance (or risk) of turning to geoengineering to attack the problem.
[DGG: Among other reasons to doubt an adequate response, Republicans are putting James Inhofe, who calls climate change a “hoax,” in charge of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Geoengineering means massive human intervention into the environment, such as seeding the oceans with minerals and other nutritents intended to promote the growth of phytoplankton in the hope that they’ll draw a lot of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis. This might not work, or it might work too well and cause an ice age, and there’s no telling all the effects it might have on ocean life.]
The average age will continue to rise everywhere.
Personal privacy will all but disappear, which will at least mitigate the growth of terrorism [DGG: or may be used to suppress political dissent].
On-line shopping will improve to the point that there’s little need for physical stores. Drum says a shopping center near him is turning into a medical complex and this may be typical of future development. Technology will allow more product customization for individual purchasers.
Driverless cars will take over the roads with major consequences. (If driverless taxis become sufficiently cheap and efficient, maybe operating on a subscription basis like telephone service, many more people might give up the hassle of owning and maintaining their own cars.)
Drum is pessimistic about crewed space missions, predicting we won’t colonize the Moon and we’ll at most send one or two missions to Mars, which will learn nothing that robot explorers haven’t discovered already. FTL (faster-than-light) travel will remain impossible. (“Thanks a lot, Einstein!” he complains.)
Russia will decline and China will advance, but the U.S. will still outperform most of the world.
More countries will get nuclear weapons, and a few may even use them. There will be more terrorists but also more means to control them. (See above on the loss of personal privacy.) There will be likely some biological attacks, but natural pandemics may be a greater threat.
In his follow-up post Drum suggests that there are two key technological developments required for a positive future: benign artificial intelligence and sources of abundant clean energy.