2050, Part II

In Part 1, I looked at the predictions Robert A. Heinlein made in 1950 for what would happen over the course of the 20th century. Back in 2000, I wrote out my own predictions for the first half of the 21st century. I thought, 16 years in, I’d take a look at how I was doing.

Overall, it’s not so bad. but the unifying theme is that I wasn’t bold enough. Nothing I predicted was as interesting as what Heinlein predicted. So while I did “better” in terms of batting average, I did way worse in terms of slugging. My predictions are right, to steal a phrase from P.J. O’Rourke, in the same sense that a fortune cookie saying, “You will soon be finished with dinner” is right.

Prediction 1: Anti-biotic resistant strains of bacteria will continue to develop. This will necessitate a change in the way we treat pathogens. Current anti-biotics will one day be obsolete. Failure to address this problem will cause a massive bacterial plague.

Just this week, a last-resort resistant E Coli was found right here in Pennsylvania. MRSA has spread like a literal plague. This is even more of an obvious problem now than it was in 2000 and is being taken very seriously.

Prediction 2: As long as the government keeps their hands out, the environment will continue to improve. Global warming, overpopulation and pollution will be problems of the past without any harm to the economy. Endangered species and jungles will continue to perish unless current laws are changed.

I mostly got this one right, although I underestimated the importance of government action (I was more of a market fundamentalist then). There are very legitimate concerns about ocean stocks, biodiversity, global warming and pollution. But I don’t think many people would doubt that the planet is better off now that it was 16 years ago in every aspect except global warming. And by 2050, I think we will have turned a corner on global warming as well.

Prediction 3: We’re all getting older.

Birth rates continue to fall and developed countries are now actively encouraging women to have more children because underpopulation is a growing concern. It looks like global population will peak about mid-century but the demographic changes in China and Europe could be extremely damaging to their economy, barring giant breakthroughs in robotics.

Prediction 4: Advancements in medicine will continue unabated, with the focus shifting to improving the quality of life, rather than the length of it. Cancer, stroke and heart disease will plague our lives to a much smaller extent. By 2050, the leading causes of death may be accident, homicide and suicide. The greatest potential lies in cloning and genetic engineering.

No comment necessary. Lifespans have been leveling off and genetic engineering is becoming a big deal. Some of the biggest struggles now are about improving life quality — fighting Alzheimer’s, for example. I wrote a whole novel about medicine designed to fight the effects of age (although it also extended life well past 100). I stand by the prediction that, by 2050, accident and violence will be the leading causes of death. And not because we’ve descended into a Mad Max hellscape.

Prediction 5: The solar system is ours – if we get off our asses.

We haven’t gotten off our asses.

Prediction 6: The computer revolution will leave us with a society that is almost unrecognizable.

I overstated things a bit. I no longer think our society will ever become “unrecognizable”, at least not in the short term. But computers are even more infested in our lives than ever. We can literally carry them in our pockets. And it has transformed society. People who used to be isolated from the world because of age or infirmity now have a link to the outside world. I have friends that I only know from online. I have a great sister-in-law my brother met online. My children can talk to their grandparents via video chat. My 2-year-old can work an iPhone better than many people my age. This is all new, dramatic and wonderful.

Prediction 7: The present trend toward more conservative sexual mores will retreat if/when venereal disease is conquered.

Sort of. We’re more open about sexuality. Gays can now marry and the big pushes are for the rights of transexuals and sex workers. It does seem like people are having fewer partners. But, overall, I would say we are moving toward a more sexually mature society. Sixteen years ago, major politicians could bash gays and “sluts” with impunity. That’s no longer the case. And if we conquer venereal disease, I expect a lot of the remaining Victorianism to retreat.

Prediction 8: Religious fundamentalism will produce some ugly incidents, possibly some big wars. It will prove the greatest remaining threat to human liberty.

A year after I wrote those words, fundamentalist fanatics attacked New York and Washington. And we are now engaged in a great struggle against radical Islam. So, yeah, I think was right about that. Although Russia could start getting dangerous again for purely secular reasons.

Prediction 9: Marijuana will be legalized in the United States and most of the civilized world. The emphasis on drugs will switch from criminal to medical.

I thought this one was risky. Now I see it wasn’t bold enough. My daughter will grow up in a world where marijuana is treated the same as alcohol.

Prediction 10: Despite climbing literacy, there will be a perpetual shortage of scientists, especially engineers and physicists.

I have no idea what to make of this one. I always hear about shortages of scientists but then hear that the shortage is a myth. I’ll punt this one for now.

Prediction 11: Automation and robotics will start playing more significant roles in our lives. By 2050, almost everyone will have some robot-like assistance.

I thought this was a risky proposition. Again, I can see I wasn’t bold enough.

Prediction 12: Advances in psychology will make today’s psychology seem quaint and obsolete. This field is desperate for a mathematical breakthrough.

Psychology has advanced more in an evolutionary sense than a revolutionary one. The huge breakthroughs I predicted haven’t happened. I don’t know that they ever will.

That’s a pretty good track record for my predictions. So does this mean I’m a genius? No. It indicates I was far too timid. Nothing I said was particularly bold or adventurous. So to close out, I’ll make a few bolder predictions where I have a better likelihood of falling on my face.

Prediction 13: We will find evidence of life outside of our solar system..

Maybe this is too timid as well. NASA has made this one of their top priorities and I don’t think it’s impossible that we will detect signs of life in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet. I think it’s even possible we may detect signs of intelligent life.

Prediction 14: Africa will become an economic powerhouse, eclipsing Europe and Asia.:

Eh. A little better. The improvement of Africa’s economy is one of the great unmarked stories of the last decade. I don’t think the Asian or European economies will fall. I think they will just stagnate while Africa surges ahead.

Prediction 15: We will return to the moon for good. And we will send people to Mars.

That’s more like it. This is the one most likely to be dead wrong. I have little confidence in humanity’s ability to explore space. We will need major breakthroughs in propulsion to make it cheaper to send people into space to make it work. It can be done. I just don’t know if it will.

And I’m not sure at all that the people going into space will be Americans.

Prediction 16: Automation and the sharing economy will change our economy dramatically. But the supposed wave of unemployed or marginally employed people will not happen..

There are some economists who regularly predict that the sharing economy is going to lead to a massive class of unemployed people. Maybe. But it sounds way too glib to me. Humans needs to work. We need to be busy. So while I think these changes are disruptive, I am dubious that they will lead to millions of people sitting on their butts pulling in a universal basic income.