Making Predictions for the Year 2030

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We often cover the big names in futurism: Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, Michio Kaku, etc, but what about the rest of us? Can’t we make predictions, too? Christian Henrik Nesheim is a self-described “layman” when it comes to understanding the years ahead. He recently published 11 Predictions for The World in 2030… – a small set of important changes he expects to see in the upcoming two decades. From poverty and longevity to space exploration and sex, Nesheim’s list covers a broad range of topics, and each prediction is supported by a previous story written on his site. So how does the layman do for his 20 year outlook? Well, I think he’s right on some points, dead wrong on others. Read his 11 statements below for yourself and see if you agree.

1. By 2030, learning a second language will no longer be necessary. A tiny computer that fits in your ear, and translates what you hear into your own language? It’s not far-fetched at all. In fact, all the requisite technology exists today, and all that’s missing is for someone to connect the dots.

Aaron: YES. Couldn’t agree more. Singularity Hub has been tracking universal translators for the past few years and they keep getting better and better. And cheaper. And on your phone. 2030 may be a conservative estimate as semi-effective translators are already here and are likely to get much better in the next 5-10 years. Not so sure about the “fits in your ear” comment as that will likely depend on user preference, but they’ll definitely be portable and easy to use.

2. By 2030, thousands, perhaps millions, of people will have a life expectancy of 150 years. Aubrey de Grey says: I think we have a 50% chance of achieving medicine capable of getting people to 200 in the decade 2030-2040. Presuming we do indeed do that, the actual achievement of 200 will probably be in the decade 2140-2150 – it will be someone who was about 85-90 at the time that the relevant therapies were developed.

Aaron: MAYBE. As people have commented on Nesheim’s blog, life expectancy is really a broad statistical measurement of a population, and maybe isn’t the best way to phrase this prediction. Some better questions to ask: Will we have 90 years old in 2030 who can hope to make it to 150 before they die? What about 9 year olds? Either way, I think this one is a gray area (no pun intended, Aubrey). Regenerative medicine is getting better, and technologies like stem cells could help repair and replace damaged bodies, drastically extending our lifespans. However, when we developed vaccinations, antibiotics, and sanitation we extended life expectancy considerably, only to run into cancer, heart disease and other age-related illnesses. I think we’ll be able to keep people alive longer by 2030, but 150 maybe be pushing it, even for a few thousand.

3. By 2030, only 2% of the world’s population will live in extreme poverty. The eradication of extreme poverty will happen in our lifetime. In 1990, 42% of the world’s population lived on less than $1.25 (constant 2000 dollars, PPP). In 2005, that number had fallen to 25%. The UN estimates that by 2020, only 10% of world citizens will live in absolute poverty. My bold estimate is that by 2030, only one in 50 will.

Aaron: NO IDEA. I really really hope this one comes true, but I feel very unqualified to comment on its chances. Yes, extreme poverty rates have declined in the last few decades and the UN hopes that trend to continue. There are upcoming technologies that could speed up this process and institutions like Singularity University that are seeking to employ those technologies in new businesses in the years ahead. Still, geo-politics and economics are not my strong suit, and I bow out of making a firm call on this one.

4. By 2030, the best food will be grown in skyscrapers. Soil-based agriculture is so passé. Nothing short of an agricultural revolution is underway, spurred on by visionary Dr. Dickson Despommier of  Columbia University. His plan is to build 30-story greenhouses in cities around the world, which will allow us to produce more food, for less money, in a healthier way, while freeing up arable land for nature.

Aaron: MAYBE. Ok, certainly some food is going to be grown indoors and in cities in the years ahead – this is already happening now. Singularity Hub has covered how urban agriculture is becoming more important around the world and urban aquaculture holds promise to advance the field even farther. I’m not sure if indoor food will be “the best” however, and I wouldn’t predict it would exist in one kind of architecture over another. Maybe we’ll have skyscrapers full of farms, or maybe we’ll have basements with gardens. It depends a lot on energy costs, especially the availability of cheap light and heat (via solar power?). I think we’ll see more urban agriculture in 2030, but I’m not sure it will be because we need to free up arable land for nature. We’re just going to need a way to get cheap nutritious food to city dwellers as efficiently as possible.

5. By 2030, driverless cars will be commonplace. I’m sure you’ve dreamed it: Getting into a car, kicking your shoes off and leaning back with a good movie and a cold beer while your self-driven car takes you safely to your destination, without your having to worry about directions or pedestrians. Well, the technology we need to make that car exists.

Aaron: MAYBE. Will we have automated cars that can match humans in performance by 2030? Oh hells yes. I think we’ll have them by 2020 if not sooner. Will such cars be ‘commonplace’ by 2030. [Non-committal mumbling] …Look, I’ve ranted about this before when discussing Google’s robot car, and Stanford’s recent driverless race up Pike’s Peak: engineers will make automated cars that can driver us safely, the real question is whether or not we’ll accept them on the roads. Social and legal issues are the big hurdles here in my opinion, and I’m uncertain when they’ll be cleared. Nesheim’s estimate of 2030 is totally reasonable, but one child killed by an automated car, or one well-publicized legal battle over robot-related damages, and we could be set back by years. On a related note: commonplace where? Different nations are likely to adopt automated vehicles at different times and in different applications.

6. By 2030, 18 cities will have more than 20 million inhabitants, and New York City will be the 16th largest city in the world. I actually think this is a conservative estimate. Although global population is increasing at a staggering pace, the world’s cities have an ever higher growth rate. At present, 50% of the world’s population live in urban areas, but by 2030 that figure is projected at 60%. And 93% of that urban growth will occur in developing countries.

Aaron: YES. I totally agree in spirit. Urbanization is likely to continue for years to come, and it will take major changes in society (the dominance of digital interactions over physical ones?) to curtail the trend. Now, as to whether there will be 18 cities with 20M+ and where NYC will rate in the list – I honestly think those sorts of details are a little unimportant. Besides “cities” are socio-political constructions and are divided, aggregated, and redefined all the time. Maybe Nesheim should say “metropolitan areas”? Doesn’t really matter. 60% urban population is the key figure, and it seems almost inescapable.

7. By 2030, automated flying drones will transport humans. Probably a lot sooner, actually. Developing a well functioning delivery drone network will pave the way for confidence in a practical network of drones delivering people. Humans have notoriously poor navigation skills in three-dimensional environments, so unmanned aerial vehicles seem a safer option than those prone to human error.

Aaron: YES, but only if we take a broad definition of what counts as an “automated drone”. Look at a modern commercial aircraft and you’ll find many automated systems, including those that handle landing and flight corrections (i.e. flying the plane). Considering the sophistication of modern military drones, I think it’s reasonable to assume aircraft are only going to become more capable of robotic flight in the future. By 2030 we’ll probably have many aircraft whose human pilots are really just a backup system. Like automated cars, however, I have my doubts as to when we’ll have the social and legal guts to accept unmanned aircraft carrying human passengers. So yes, we’ll have automated drones that can pilot people, but I’m not sure under what circumstances we’ll let them.

My biggest criticism with this prediction, actually, is that Nesheim links to an article about a small electrically powered drone. I have a hard time believing that anything that runs on batteries is going to be carrying people in the next twenty years. Many of the micro aerial vehicles that qualify as “automated drones” are only capable of ten minutes of flight. Less when lifting heavy loads. Flight is one of the places where I think we’ll be dependent on fossil fuels for a long time, which means any plane is a flying bomb, which means we’re going to want human pilots in charge of them, if only in name.

8. By 2030, space tourism will be common, and 40,000 humans will be working in orbit. The Space Island Group, in cooperation with British Airways, is planning to build an international, multi-purpose, commercial space station which, to begin with, will include hotels, research facilities, gourmet restaurants, and sports arenas (for new zero-gravity sports) along with dozens of other uses which can’t be imagined today. SIG is but one of a handful of companies working on similar projects.

Aaron: NO…but I go back and forth on this one. The Xprize foundation has proven that private spaceflight can be encouraged, and there are several companies pursuing (and succeeding with) manned and unmanned missions to orbit. The history of spaceflight, however, seems to be a fairly tumultuous one. I’ve argued with friends over whether or not the first private spaceflight that results in a human death will cripple the industry or be suffered as a necessary part of the dream to conquer space. There are too many factors here for me to fully understand. My instincts say that Nesheim is wrong, but if you had asked me in 1950 if we would have put a man on the moon by 1970 I would probably have been pessimistic then as well. …Assuming that you could have asked a gamete its opinion on anything.

9. By 2030, most film actors will be out of work due to competition from cheap computer animated actors. Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) technology will enable us to create movies with animated characters so lifelike that they become indistinguishable from humans, rendering actors (in film anyway) obsolete.

Aaron: YES (With a few caveats). First, from a certain point of view most ‘film actors’ are probably already underemployed. There are only ~150,000 actors, directors, and producers in the US. Does that count all the people who try and fail and try again to be actors? When we think of actors, we think of the famous ones, but most are not famous and struggle to find employment.

But let’s view this prediction in the right spirit: the rise of computer animated actors versus live actors. I know very little about how the entertainment industry really works, but I’m supporting Nesheim on this one. Already actors have a hard time competing with reality TV. Add in CGI that looks and acts more human and I think the profession is in for a rough future. In general I think the film industry is heading towards difficult times because of the growing importance of the internet as the medium for entertainment.

My caveats: we define ‘most’ as greater than 50%, and we ignore the term ‘cheap’. There will always be the need for some lives actors, and I think that one of the big changes that advanced CGI will bring is the ability for a few popular performers to be used as a template to create dozens of virtual characters. Instead of being in a few films each year, actors (via their virtual copies) could be in dozens. Or all of them. With the right technology you could have a cheap version of Al Pacino as a background extra in a movie. Instead of all actors loosing their jobs, think about this prediction as “only the most famous actors will be needed”. The end result is the same: most actors will be out of work. Still.

10. By 2030, China will have 250 cities with more than one million inhabitants. Today, 90% of people in the UK and 80% of Americans live in cities, while in China only 46% do. The UK has five urban areas with more than one million inhabitants. The US has 37. China has 90. That’s today, and whereas the UK and the US have peaked in terms of urbanization, China is only half-way urbanized. The consultancy firm McKinsey predicts that China will have 220 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants by 2025.

Aaron: YES, but see my comments from number 6.

11. By 2030, a large number of people will have robot lovers. This is perhaps my boldest prediction. When I ask guys if they’d get a robot girlfriend, most of them intuitively say no. They think robot and they think metal, wires, awkward motions and an empty stare. I’d say no to that too, if those were my associations with the word robot. But what if your robot partner looked, felt, sounded and even talked like a human? Robots that are physically indistinguishable from humans are only 15-20 years away.

Aaron: NO. Despite Nesheim’s claim that this is his “boldest prediction” it actually has some of the most ambiguous wording. This could already be true depending on how you look at it. Do we count the millions of people who buy “adult toys” every year? I guess the spirit of the prediction is that we’ll have humanoid robots that we can have sex with. Well, we’ve got that in some form already with “real dolls“. Those have sold hundreds of thousands. Does that qualify as “a large number of people”?

In my opinion, what people have sex with isn’t really about the believability of the object, it’s about the desires of the person. Humanoid robots are going to become more realistic in the next 20 years that’s certain. I seriously doubt that they’ll be physically indistinguishable from humans…and I seriously doubt people who want to have sex with non-humans will be bothered by that. Will more people be having sex with objects in the future. Almost certainly, but I’m not sure outsiders will ever consider such objects to qualify as ‘lovers’. We are going to make meaningful emotional connections with machines, but I think that will happen after we develop human level artificial intelligence, not before.

Also, on a side note: “When I ask guys if they’d get a robot girlfriend, most of them intuitively say no.” –Well, stop asking them in front of their human girlfriends!

So in summary: 4 Yes, 4 Maybe, 2 No, and 1 abstention. Not bad for a layman, but when taken in the spirit of the futurist’s intent most predictions will seem fairly reasonable. Any detailed examination, however, is going to give you more questions than answers. Almost all of the 11 statements above really belong in the “Maybe” category because almost all leave a lot of wiggle room. Phrases or terms like “no longer be necessary”, “the best”, and “commonplace” can be interpreted in different ways. There are some of the predictions above that could be achieved by a single success, but that are explained in way that suggests multiple successes. This isn’t a condemnation of Nesheim, it’s a critique of predictions in general. Even the best futurists make statements whose accuracy depends more on subjective opinions than objective facts.

What really interests me in Nesheim’s predictions aren’t their testability, or their accuracy, however, but rather their origin. For a while I’ve wanted to get an idea what the average person on the street feels about the future. Christian Nesheim is far from the average person, but he’s closer than the famous scientists and philosophers I discuss on a regular basis. With respect to Nesheim for all his hard work, his predictions about the future really could have been made by any of you. All you have to do is read about emerging technologies, look at some of the background science, and start making educated guesses. Predictions really are that easy.

Which is sort of a problem. It doesn’t take much to predict the future, and I’m uncertain how valuable such statements really are. I would love to know what the average person predicts about the future because I would love to have a baseline for comparison when I talk about Ray Kurzweil, Michio Kaku and the rest. If we all knew that digital books were coming by the early 21st century does it matter if the professional futurists predicted their arrival with accuracy? You have to look at the unexpected events and see how well those were foreseen by the experts.

So, please, add your own predictions for 2030 in the comments below. Or go add them on I Look Forward To. It doesn’t matter as long as you make a record of them somewhere public. Until we have an idea about collective expectation, we can’t really judge the individual futurists very well. And who knows, if 2030 rolls around and a majority of your predictions come true, you might be the next expert we all look to for answers.

Good luck.