It would be foolhardy to venture technological predictions for 2050. Even more so to predict social and geopolitical changes. The most important advances, the qualitative leaps, are the least predictable. Not even the best scientists predicted the impact of nuclear physics, and everyday consumer items such as the iPhone would have seemed magic back in the 1950s.
But there are some trends that we can predict with confidence. There will, barring a global catastrophe, be far more people on Earth than today. Fifty years ago the world population was below 3 billion. It has more than doubled since then, to 6.7 billion. The percentage growth rate has slowed, but it is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The excess will almost all be in the developing world where the young hugely outnumber the old.
If population growth were to continue beyond 2050, one can't be other than exceedingly gloomy about the prospects. And the challenge of feeding such a rapidly growing population will be aggravated by climate change.
The world will be warmer than today in 2050; the patterns of rainfall and drought across the world will be different. If we pursue "business as usual",
CO2 concentration levels will reach twice the pre-industrial level by around 2050. The higher its concentration, the greater the warming - and, more important still, the greater the chance of triggering something grave and irreversible: rising sea levels due to the melting of Greenland's icecap; runaway release of methane in the tundra.
Some technical advances - information technology, for instance - surprise us by their rapidity; others seemingly stagnate. Only 12 years elapsed between the launch of Sputnik and Neil Armstrong's "one small step" on the moon. Many of us then expected a lunar base, even an expedition to Mars, within 30 years. But it's more than 36 years since Jack Schmitt and Eugene Cernan, the last men on the moon, returned to Earth. Since that time, hundreds of astronauts have been into orbit, but none has ventured further.
The Apollo programme now seems a remote historical episode: young people all over the world learn that America landed men on the moon, just as they learn that the Egyptians built the pyramids; the motivations seem almost as bizarre in the one case as in the other. The race to the moon was an end in itself - a magnificent "stunt", driven by superpower rivalry. Thereafter, the impetus for manned flight was lost. But, of course, we now depend on space in our everyday lives (GPS, weather forecasting and communications). And robotic exploration has burgeoned. Unmanned probes to other planets have beamed back pictures of varied and distinctive worlds.
I hope that by 2050 the entire solar system will have been explored and mapped by flotillas of tiny robotic craft. Robots and "fabricators" may enable large construction projects, using raw materials that need not come from Earth. But will people follow them? The practical case for sending people into space gets ever-weaker with each advance in robots and miniaturisation. But I'm nonetheless an enthusiast for manned missions - to the moon, to Mars and even beyond - simply as a long-range adventure for (at least a few) humans.
Each mobile phone today has far more computing power than was available to the whole of Nasa in the 1960s. And advances proceed apace. Some claim that computers will, by 2050, achieve human capabilities. Of course, in some respects they already have. For 30 years we've been able to buy calculators that can hugely surpass us at arithmetic. IBM's "Deep Blue" beat Kasparov, the world chess champion. But not even the most advanced robot can recognise and move the pieces on a real chessboard as adeptly as a five-year-old child.
Deep Blue didn't work out its strategy like a human player: it exploited its computational speed to explore millions of alternative series of moves and responses before deciding an optimum move. Likewise, machines may make scientific discoveries that have eluded unaided human brains - but by testing out millions of possibilities rather than via a theory or strategy.
But will we continue to push forward the frontiers, enlarging the range of our consensual understanding? Some aspects of reality - a unified theory of physics, or a theory of consciousness - might elude our understanding simply because they're beyond the powers of human brains, just as surely as quantum mechanics would flummox a chimpanzee.
We can with some confidence predict continuing advances in computer power, in IT, in techniques for sequencing and interpreting and modifying the genome. But there could, by 2050, be qualitatively new kinds of change. For instance, one thing that's been unaltered for millennia is human nature and human character. But in this century, mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and "cyborg" techniques may start to alter human beings themselves.
And we should keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to concepts on the fringe of science fiction. Flaky American futurologists aren't always wrong. They remind us that a superintelligent machine is the last instrument that humans may ever design - the machine will itself take over in making further steps. Another speculation is that the human lifespan could be greatly extended, something that would wreak havoc on all population projections. At the moment this hope leads some to bequeath their bodies to be "frozen" on their death, in the hope of some future resurrection. For my part, I'd still opt to end my days in an English churchyard rather than a Californian refrigerator.
We can make one firm forecast that's important for all "citizen scientists". There will surely be a widening gulf between what science enables us to do, and what applications it's prudent or ethical to pursue.
It's sometimes wrongly imagined that astronomers, contemplating timespans measured in billions, must be serenely unconcerned about next year, next week and tomorrow. But a "cosmic perspective" actually strengthens my own concerns about the here and now.
Ever since Darwin, we've been familiar with the stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past. But most people still somehow think we humans are necessarily the culmination of the evolutionary tree. No astronomer could believe this.
Our sun formed 4.5bn years ago, but it's got 6bn more before the fuel runs out. And the expanding universe will continue - perhaps for ever - becoming ever colder, ever emptier. As Woody Allen said, "Eternity is very long, especially towards the end". Any creatures who witness the sun's demise, here on Earth or far beyond, won't be human. They will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug.
But even in this "concertinaed" timeline - extending millions of centuries into the future, as well as into the past - this century is special. It's the first in our planet's history where one species - ours - has Earth's future in its hands, and could jeopardise not only itself, but life's immense potential.
Suppose some aliens had been watching our planet for its entire history. Over nearly all that immense time - 4.5bn years - Earth's appearance would have altered very gradually. But in just a tiny sliver of its history - the last few thousand years - the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. This signalled the start of agriculture. The pace of change accelerated as human populations rose.
Then there were other changes, even more abrupt. Within the last 50 years - little more than one hundredth of a millionth of the Earth's age - the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began to rise anomalously fast. The planet became an intense emitter of radio waves (TV, cellphone, and radar transmissions.) And something else unprecedented happened: small projectiles launched from the planet escaped the biosphere. Some were propelled into orbits around the Earth; some journeyed to the moon and planets.
If they understood astrophysics, the aliens could confidently predict that the biosphere would face doom in a few billion years when the sun flares up and dies. But could they have predicted this unprecedented spike less than halfway through the Earth's life - these human-induced alterations occupying, overall, less than a millionth of the elapsed lifetime and seemingly occurring with runaway speed?
If they continued to keep watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next few decades? Will final spasm be followed by silence? Or will the planet itself stabilise? And will some of the objects launched from the Earth spawn new oases of life elsewhere?
The outcome depends on political choices. But those choices can be influenced by effective and idealistic scientists, environmentalists and humanists, guided by the knowledge and technology that the 21st century will offer.
Government groups and research agencies have chosen 2050 as the year to look towards. “It’s a nice round number,” as Kostas Stamoulis, the director of the Agricultural Development Economics Division of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization put it.
Countless official predictions are pegged to that year, which has a cascading effect: Once a major organization sets their research parameters to that year, it makes good organizational sense for other organizations to use the basis of that research to do the same for their respective topic.
The result? Lots of predictions for 2050 that suggest we will live in a very different world by mid-century. Let’s take a look.
Keep up with this story and more by subscribing now
There Will Be a Lot More of Us
There are roughly 7 billion people on the planet. By 2050, the U.N. predicts that number may be closer to 9.6 billion. That’s a leap of more than 30 percent. Put another way, that’s the equivalent of adding another India and China to the planet. The consequences, individually and societally, are not great, but there is still a lot we can do about it--like make birth control universally available to anyone who wants it.
A Greater Share of Us Will Be Old
The global population of old people is due to skyrocket by mid-century, as people live longer and fertility rates go down. By 2050, one in every six people on earth will be over 65, according to estimates by ... and governments will have a hell of a time figuring out how to care for them. As people live longer, they will get more age-related diseases. Dementia cases globally are set to triple. Cancer rates are set to double. Diabetes in the U.S. may double or triple too, according to the Centers for Disease Control, hitting as many as one in every three adults.
But, thankfully, medicine will also advance by 2050. Vaccines will likely be developed and widely distributed for diseases like malaria, which currently kills as many as 2 million people per year, and HIV, which, after 20 years of research, has proven notoriously difficult to effectively vaccinate against.
We may even treating disease with medicine that has been grown in tobacco plants.
Computers May be 1,000x Times Better - And Much Cheaper
According to Ulrich Eberl, author of a 2011 book titled Life in 2050: How We Create the Future Today, we are only halfway through an era of rapid advancements in computing. Over the last 25 years or so, information technology has become 1,000 times better, Eberl says. In next 25 years, he predicts that scale of improvement will happen again.
“We will see another 1,000-fold increase in computer power, data transmission rate, at the same price we see today,” Eberl toldNewsweek. “If you spend, say, $500 dollars on a laptop today, you would get the same power and performance and computing quality in a small chip for 50 cents,” he says. “This means we will have computing power everywhere, because it is so cheap. We will have it in small chips in our jackets. We will see robots, we will see automotives driving themselves on the streets. It will be accessible for people because it will be so cheap.”
In fact, by 2045, computers might be so good that we may be able to upload digital versions of our brains and live forever some speculate, though that brings up all manner of philosophical questions about what “living” really means.
We’ll Need to Get Serious About Recycling for a Resource-Starved Planet
Eberl says much of the biggest leaps and bounds in computer innovation will happen by roughly 2035, well before the century’s middle point. By 2050, the rate of technology innovation will slow down some. Innovative efforts will begin to focus instead on the reality of what will, by then, be our rapidly dwindling natural resources. On a planet with 9.6 billion people, resources will be stretched extremely thin.
Eberl believes these new circumstances will result in an era focused on advancing what he calls “holistic health;” or the relationship between human health and environmental health. That will mean dramatically shifting how we think about consumption.
Growing middle classes in countries like China, Brazil, Russia, and India will result in a swollen population of consumers, and a “very big hunger” for copper, oil, and other finite materials. “We don’t have enough resources on earth for 9.5 billion people with growing wealth. So there will be a new recycling. A reuse of molecules,” Eberl says. “For example there is now more weight in gold in your smartphones than in ore from a gold mine. There’s much we can do about that.”
Eberl predicts that recycling technology will be improved so that the quality of the product never diminishes even after recycling, which is a major problem for recycling now. (In their book Cradle to Cradle, German chemist Michael Braungart and U.S. architect William McDonough predict a similar future, where products are designed explicitly for their ability to be “upcycled,” or recycled while retaining 100 percent of their original integrity.)
Solar Power Might Be the World’s Biggest Energy Source
Converting the sun’s rays into power is becoming cheaper and cheaper. The average cost of solar panels per watt in 1972 was $75, according to research compiled by Mother Jones. Today, it’s just shy of $1, with the price continuing to fall. By 2050, solar power could generate as much as 27 percent of the world’s energy, becoming the world’s largest source of electricity, according to recent research from the International Energy Agency.
If that happens, the combined emissions savings could offset around 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year, which is roughly equal to all current carbon emissions from the U.S. energy sector combined, IEA reports.
There Might Not Be Enough Food for Everyone, Unless We Play Our Cards Right
The more of us there are, the more food and water we’ll need to survive. The worst consequences of climate change will still be in the future, but the rates of flooding and drought will have begun to increase, exacerbating food and water shortages. The swelling population will simultaneously exacerbate climate change, creating a dire feedback loop.
Last year the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said that in order to feed a population of roughly 9 billion in 2050, the world will need to increase its food production by an average of 60 percent compared to current food production levels. Not doing so would risk serious food shortages, which could prompt major social upheaval, conflict, and civil wars. By comparison, wheat and rice production have grown at a rate of less than 1 percent for the past 20 years.
By 2050, the FAO predicts the need for food will lead to an additional 70 million hectares being converted to agricultural land, especially in the developing world. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
“In theory, we have plenty of land to grow stuff,” says Kostas Stamoulis, the director of the FAO’s Agricultural Development Economics Division. “But the world may move in on land that they shouldn’t move in on.”
About 75 percent of the land that may be newly farmed is in 35 countries in Africa and Latin America, and mostly in sensitive ecosystems, he says. “We are afraid a lot of this potential growing will go on in areas that are developing through deforestation, and on environmentally sensitive land, like wetlands.”
“So in terms of global figures, we do have the land. But the world may move in on land that they shouldn’t move in on.”
Stamoulis says global governments must intervene to give desperate farmers real alternatives to farming on places like wetlands or old-growth forests, and encourage multinational corporations to use sustainable farming methods.
“Sometimes people expand into sensitive areas out of desperation because they have no other choice. Small farmers should get incentives and be given access to places to grow food in an environmentally sound way. We also need measures to prevent farmers from growing stuff in a way that’s not sustainable--different policies for the different types of producers.”
But Stamoulis is also hopeful. He says the technology exists to fulfill 80 percent of the increased need for food by 2050 by simply increasing productivity. Methods like “double cropping” and “triple cropping,” or growing more than one crop on rotation in a single field, has already shown impressive returns in parts of India and China. Agriculture scientists also know how to prevent potentially devastating fertilizer overuse, and the methods for increasing productivity on dry land are improving all the time. The problem will be getting the technology and education to make some of these changes into the hands of everyone who needs it.
“We need to take these technologies down to the small farmers,” he says. “We have to think about actions that have to be taken now for problems that will come 30, 40 years down the road,” Stamoulis says.
“I’m optimistic that we’re looking at a brighter future than in the past. The world has an ability to respond.”