The world of 2050 is a world of contrasts and paradoxes. On the one hand, science and technology have continued to advance in response to emerging crises, challenges and opportunities. This has created radical transformations in genetics, nanotechnology, biotechnology and related fields. On the other hand, many of these same technologies have been so disruptive that it has led to a more frightening, unpredictable and chaotic world than ever before. Humanity is now at a crossroads that will determine its future path for centuries to come – survival or destruction, prosperity or collapse.
Some of the most cherished political, economic and social structures have been turned on their heads. In a sense, capitalism remains the dominant economic model, but is now evolving drastically in response to ecological impacts,* resource scarcity,* demographic trends,* technology* and a host of other factors.* The endless consumer culture that was prevalent throughout the first world has all but collapsed, replaced by a societal need to conserve.* Though there are still many wealthy people around, money is concentrated in a shrinking upper class. By 2050, "traditional" free market capitalism is largely viewed as a broken system.***
As more and more wealth trickles upwards to the hyper-rich elite, there is a growing consensus that money itself – the profit motive – is a major obstacle to future progress, and a new driving force may be required for civilisation to flourish. Debates are raging on what reforms to make in order to adapt societies to this rapidly changing world. People everywhere sense that a great transition is approaching, the likes of which has never been seen before in all of human history.* It is clear that some new global paradigm will appear; but it is still unclear what this will be.
Decades of stagflation have produced a fragmented, chaotic and perpetually sluggish global economy. Nearly half of the world's nations have "junk" credit ratings, effectively making them bankrupt.* US national debt has now reached almost 400% of GDP,* far exceeding even the levels seen during World War II. China and India, though surpassing the US in overall GDP,* have also stagnated.
In the face of economic catastrophe, international politics has faced enormous challenges. Although the number of democratic countries has risen significantly over the years,* many have turned inward, cutting off foreign relations. Revolutions, wars and failed states have produced a strikingly different geopolitical map than seen at the beginning of the century. To repair and maintain the fabric of society, an increasing number of regions have abandoned their national currencies in favour of interest-free, non-fiat, non-inflationary local ones.* Decentralised cash systems such as the Bitcoin* and other electronic alternatives have also exploded in use.
Social systems are under extraordinary stress today. The younger generations are increasingly resentful towards the elderly – seeing them as the cause of many problems, and a drain on capital as the ratio of workers to seniors continues to fall.** The rich and poor have continued to grow apart, now that upward social mobility has become next to impossible. Massive protests outside corporate HQs and gated communities are a daily reality on the news. Global warming has created almost 150 million climate refugees: a sixfold increase compared to 2010.* The influx of people to foreign lands has put a further strain on economies. Resentment towards migrants has produced an upsurge in nationalism with many isolationist parties sweeping government elections. To maintain order and stability, martial law and military occupation is a feature of many cities around the globe. Radical new political parties and movements have emerged, advocating the overthrow of the reigning system.
Recycling and waste management – for decades neglected by many countries* – are among the issues now taking centre stage.* New regulations and market pressures have forced corporations to move away from the model of planned obsolescence** and mass production, to one of conservation and responsibility. Most firms no longer sell entirely new models of their products when technological advances are made. Instead, replacement components and upgrades form the bulk of profits, with items made of universally interchangeable parts. In a world of increasing resource conflicts, "doing more with less" has become an essential mantra.* A system is also employed whereby customers return products at the end of their life cycle, to be used as materials for the next generation. In some of the worst-hit countries, mandatory resource dumps are organised, in which citizens are obligated to recycle any unnecessary possessions. Naturally such systems are highly controversial and intrusive.
Meanwhile, the widespread use of robots,* automation,* 3D printing* and other technology has rendered obsolete many traditional human roles. Though industries have made vast improvements in speed and efficiency, it has come at the expense of a declining labour force. Consequently, overall government revenues have seen a net reduction.
Radical Islam and its resentment of the West continue to produce new Jihadists. In addition, underground groups ranging from those angry at the first world's neglect, to anarcho-primitivists, have sprung up. By 2050, at least one terrorist nuclear attack on a major world city has been conducted by one of these groups. Large amounts of nuclear material had been missing from Russia since the 1990s and some inevitably fell into the wrong hands.* Being orders of magnitude greater than 9/11, the effects of this attack leave a deep psychological scar on many people alive today, fuelling much paranoia and suspicion between nations.
Despite this turmoil, progress has been achieved in cooperating on certain key issues, such as global warming. Carbon emissions have fallen substantially compared with 1990 levels,* thanks to a global carbon tax* and the widespread deployment of solar, wind and wave power,* together with 4th generation nuclear.* Fossil fuel reserves were declining in any case.** Fusion power is also becoming available now* and is being adopted by some of the leading nations. Orbital solar is another emerging industry.* Energy efficiency and conservation have provided further reductions in CO2 output.
However, carbon emissions from earlier decades remain locked into the system. This delayed reaction will continue to affect weather patterns and climate stability,* as will the ongoing destruction of the Earth's rainforests, some of which are transitioning from carbon sinks to carbon sources. Sea levels have risen over a foot by now* and are beginning to affect much of the world's coastal real estate. Large-scale carbon capture and sequestration** appears to be humanity's last and only hope of reversing these trends.
Nearly half of the Amazon rainforest has been deforested
enforcement in the so-called protected areas has resulted in the Amazon
undergoing a catastrophic decline. Though army troops were sent into
regions of illegal deforestation, their numbers were simply
too small, and the Amazon too vast, to have sufficient impact. Political corruption also played a role in undermining protection efforts. Droughts
caused by global warming have further contributed to the decline, with many areas of jungle being turned into parched scrubland. By 2050, nearly 2.7 million sq km have been deforested.*
As a result,
over 30 billion tons of carbon have been added to the atmosphere.
Although clean energy sources are offsetting this,
it can't save the countless species of plant and animal life
dependent on the rainforest for survival. Substantial amounts of biodiversity
have been lost. Desperate efforts are being made by non-profit organisations
to obtain DNA samples, in the hope of resurrecting these species at
some point in the future.
red-eyed tree frog
have tripled in some regions
global temperatures are creating drier conditions for vegetation – producing
larger and more frequent wildfires. In North America, the geographic
area typically burned has increased by an average of 50%. Worst hit
are the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains, which
have seen a tripling of areas affected.*
much extra burning, air quality and visibility in the western
United States is being significantly altered. There has been a 40% rise in organic
carbon aerosols and other smoke particles. These irritate the lungs, but are especially dangerous to people who
have trouble breathing as a result of asthma and other chronic conditions. Southern
Europe is also badly affected – especially Greece, which has
been ravaged in recent decades.*
are triggering positive feedback loops. As more and more
carbon is liberated from burning material and released into the atmosphere, this is further accelerating the pace of global warming.
Traditional wine industries have been severely altered by climate change
By 2050, many of the world's most famous wine-producing areas have been rendered unsuitable for traditional grape growing and winemaking, with climate change having severely impacted land use, agricultural production and species ranges. The area suitable for wine production has declined by almost 85 per cent in some regions. California, Mexico, the eastern USA, Southern Europe, South Africa and Australia are particularly affected.**
In response to the crisis, many traditional vineyards have shifted to higher elevations with cooler conditions – putting pressure on upland ecosystems, as water and vegetation are converted for human use. Others have made use of genetic engineering, or indoor growing methods such as vertical farming. Geoengineering efforts are also getting underway, but have yet to be successful on a global basis.*
Although many regions have been devastated, others have actually benefited. This is particularly noticeable in the Rocky Mountains near the Canadian-US border, the westernmost parts of Russia, and Europe which has seen a massive shift northward in the areas suitable.
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Credit: Conservation International
Fish body size has declined by nearly a quarter
By far the greatest impact from global warming has been in the seas and oceans,* where changes in heat content, oxygen levels and other biogeochemical properties have devastated marine ecosystems. Globally, the average body size of fish has declined by up to 24 per cent compared with 2000.* About half of this shrinkage has come from changes in distribution and abundance, the remainder from changes in physiology. The tropics have been the worst affected regions.
Hi-tech, intelligent buildings are revolutionising the urban landscape
In the first half of the 21st century, a soaring urban population posed serious problems for the environment, health and infrastructure of many cities. In newly industrialised nations especially, urban centres became polluted, overcrowded and chronically inefficient. Throughout the world, metropolitan areas grew to unprecedented sizes – putting huge and increasing pressure on city planners to adapt.*
Amid worsening climate change and resource depletion, urban regions were forced to either evolve, or die off. Countless cities failed to make this transition in time, and went the way of Detroit, many being abandoned and left to decay, or subject to intense military control and martial law. In those that survived, a new generation of buildings and infrastructure emerged based on these rapidly changing social and environmental needs.*
Among the most important trends in modern architecture has been self-sufficiency. By 2050, environmental and resource degradation have become so obvious and huge, it has triggered a radical rethink of production and consumption by citizens. As such, many modern skyscrapers now come complete with the internalised creation of food, water and other resources. Farms often comprise multiple floors of a tower – regardless of its purpose – while rain, mist and condensation are constantly trapped and stored. Advanced 3D printers are available locally on site to manufacture everything from household furniture, to personal transportation, to replacement parts for the building itself. Energy is typically provided by photovoltaics and wind turbines. These are often integrated seamlessly into the building design, so as not to harm the aesthetic appeal. Solar power, for instance, can be collected by window panes or special photovoltaic paints applied to outside surfaces.* The efficiencies for solar have been improving steadily for decades.*
Nature features heavily in these structures. Many towers incorporate parks and sky gardens, helping to increase the overall biodiversity of a city, with numerous bird and small animal species finding homes and nesting places. Careful environmental controls ensure that these creatures are protected while not becoming a nuisance for human residents. The outside of buildings are often covered with vegetation, or special membranes, designed to filter pollutants and capture CO2.* Government regulations now require a large percentage of buildings to be fitted in this way, making it a dominant style of architecture today. The artificial parts of this outer layer can also adjust to wind conditions, temperatures, moisture levels and sunlight in order to produce optimal thermal comfort for the human and animal occupants. Algae bio-fuel cells adorning the facade can also absorb CO2 while acting as an additional source of electricity.*
Buildings are integrated into the city around them in a number of ways. Fuel restrictions and other factors have led to increasingly socialised transportation. The bottom floors of most towers have dedicated public car share (AI controlled) and bike share facilities, while bus and other mass transit stations are often built into the structures themselves. Pedestrian sky-walkways feature heavily in most modern cities, improving access and permeability of the urban realm, while shielding walkers from the elements. If ornamented with foliage, they can also function as elevated parks and gardens.
Buildings are making cities more comfortable and inviting in various other ways. By tightly controlling a tower's reflectivity, heat absorption and heat balance, for example, planners can significantly reduce the temperatures associated with urban heat island effects. This comes at a time when temperatures in less developed cities are soaring from the combined effects of climate change and urbanisation.*
The average modern building in 2050 is seamlessly integrated into a city's power supply, acting as another node in a city-wide smart grid. Nearly all buildings are able to transmit locally produced energy back into the system. Wireless electricity transfer is also common, with energy beamed invisibly between buildings, which eliminates the need for unsightly poles and cables. AI systems within each building direct its total power consumption, adjusting according to the varying needs of occupants and taking into account even the most minor of details.
Overall, this new smart infrastructure is helping to drastically improve the nature of urban living. Cities following this model are becoming far more liveable, clean, efficient and modernised. Though many regions have collapsed into chaos, others are now leading the way in providing a more sustainable path for humanity.
safer, hi-tech automobiles
living costs and environmental factors have resulted in smaller, cheaper,
more energy-efficient cars. More people
than ever before are choosing to live and work alone, while the number
of children per couple has also declined, two additional factors
which have led to these lighter, more compact vehicles, a large percentage
of which carry just one or two passengers.
The vast majority of cars in the developed world are now computer-controlled,* while traffic
flow and other road management issues are handled by advanced networks of
AI. The resulting fall in congestion has boosted some economies by tens
of billions of dollars.
safety of being controlled by machine, rather than human hands, allows
for greater speed of travel: over 100mph in many countries. Even when
crashes do occur, which is very rare, built-in safety features
and toughened materials (e.g. carbon nanotubes) mean
that fatalities are becoming virtually non-existent.
A mid-range car of 2050.
advances in air travel comfort
Commercial airliners of 2050 are safer, quieter and cleaner than those of earlier decades. The vast majority are based on some form of renewable energy. In addition, travel times have
greatly improved. Hypersonic engines, which entered use in 2033,
have seen further development, aided by the rapid growth of artificial
intelligence and the resulting advances in computer-automated design evolution.
It is now possible to reach anywhere on the planet in under 2.5 hours.
of most planes are breathtakingly luxurious compared to those of earlier
decades. New materials have enabled the use of transparent walls and ceilings,
flooding the fuselage with natural light. Seating areas are beautifully
spacious and filled with a range of interactive technology.
are running at less than full capacity, any unneeded seats are automatically shuffled to
the rear, where they collapse and are hidden from view. The remaining
seats are redistributed, rearranging themselves to offer everyone
the maximum possible legroom. These seats can also morph to perfectly fit passengers'
bodies. They can re-energise travellers with vitamin and antioxidant-enriched
air, mood lighting, aromatherapy and acupressure treatments.* In the mid-section
of the plane is a hi-tech zone offering a range of activities from virtual
golf, to conference facilities and bar/lounge settings.
"supergrids" provide much of the world's energy needs
for reliable, clean, cost-effective energy has led to the creation of
electrical "supergrids" across much of the world. These allow nations to share power from abundant green sources and distribute
it to those regions most in need. By cooperating in this way, it is
possible to greatly reduce waste and to optimise power supplies
on a continent-wide scale, at all times of the year.
winter gales in the North Sea can provide a surplus of wind power, which
is complemented by the summer winds of Morocco and Egypt. Meanwhile,
solar panels in northern Africa generate three times the electricity
compared with the same panels in northern Europe, due to much greater
intensity of sunlight. Up to 100 GW of power is being supplied from
Africa to Europe in this way.* Similar
large-scale infrastructure is now in place throughout America, Asia
and other parts of the world.
transmission technology has seen major advances over the decades. Each
country is connected to the grid using high-voltage direct current (HVDC)
transmission, instead of traditional alternating current (AC) lines.
This results in far greater efficiency, since DC lines have much lower
electrical losses over long distances.
China completes the largest water diversion project in history
The South-North Water Transfer Project – proposed almost a century ago* – is finally completed in China this year* at a cost of over $60 billion.* This becomes the largest project of its kind ever undertaken, stretching thousands of kilometres across the country.
Its main purpose is to divert water from the southern region of China to the dryer north. It is hoped that this will spur economic growth and stability in the more populous northern area, where the per capita share of regional water has declined to near-crisis levels. It consists of an extensive system of tunnels, dams, reservoirs and canals, all connecting and diverting water from China's largest rivers – including the Yangtze, Yellow and Hai River. At its peak capacity, the entire system can move nearly 45 billion cubic metres of water annually.
First proposed by Mao Zedong in 1952, the project was officially approved in 2002. The first stage of construction, the 717 mile (1,155 km) long eastern route, was completed in 2013. This begins near the mouth of the Yangtze, crosses through the Yellow River and ends at the Beijing-Tianjin Metropolitan area within the Bohai Economic Rim. This brings much-needed water to one of the largest and most high density conurbations in the world. Along with the construction of new tunnels and pumping stations, the Grand Canal was upgraded in order to accommodate the increased flow of water.* Adding to this is the central route, completed in 2014. This brings water from the Danjiangkou and Three Gorges reservoirs, as well as the Han River, north to Beijing and its neighbouring provinces. This totals 787 miles (1,267 km) in length and by 2030 was diverting over 13 billion cubic metres of water annually. The third and final stage to be completed is the 310 mile (500 km) western route. This involved working on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau – from 3,000–5,000m above sea level – and posed major engineering and climatic challenges. This route diverts water from the headwaters of the Yangtze to the parched eastern plateaus.
Like the Three Gorges Dam before it, the South-North Water Transfer Project receives heavy criticism.* In addition to environmental damage through mining, construction and pollution, there are worries about the increased potential of floods in certain areas and droughts in others. Also of concern are the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes during construction. Meanwhile, other diversion projects in the south have provoked conflicts with neighbouring countries.*
Many doubted that China had enough water to begin with to make the project worthwhile. Indeed, by the 2050s, southern China itself is beginning to feel the effects of melting Himalayan glaciers and drying conditions. As a result, the water diversion project rarely operates at full capacity, primarily acting as a way to evenly distribute water around China, easing tensions between the inland and coastal regions. While of some benefit to China now, in the coming years, even projects of this magnitude will be insufficient to prevent serious water shortages.* Longer term, only desalination will be able to save the country.
Credit: Bo Song, The Middle Route Project Construction Authority
An interstellar radio message arrives at Gliese 777
The Yevpatoria RT-70, located at the Center for Deep Space Communications in Ukraine, was among the largest radio telescopes in the world, with a 70m antenna diameter. On 1st July 1999, it beamed a noise-resistant message named "Cosmic Call 1" into space. This was sent towards Gliese 777, a yellow subgiant star, 52 light-years away in the constellation of Cygnus. At least two extrasolar planets were known to be present in this system. In April 2051, the message arrives at its destination, for any potential alien civilisations to hear and decode it.
Credit: S. Korotkiy
holds its centennial national exhibition
national exhibition is held in the UK, in keeping with the precedent
set by the Great
Exhibition of 1851* and the 1951
Festival of Britain.* The opening ceremony is attended by King William
V, now aged 69.
Law reaches stunning new levels
Moore's Law, the average desktop computer now has the raw processing power equivalent to all
of the human brains on Earth combined. There is no longer a clear distinction between human and machine intelligence. Entities of astonishing realism and interactivity are widespread.
Many are in fact merging with human intelligence,
as the trend towards brain-computer links increases.
Video games of today provide fantastically lifelike experiences. Full immersion VR is now a mainstream phenomenon, having developed rapidly over the last decade. Recent advances
in AI have led to Matrix-style worlds of breathtaking scale and ingenuity.
Entire new societies have formed in cyberspace, with many in developed
nations spending their entire leisure time engaged in them. Mounting
stresses from the outside world have served to increase demand
for this form of recreation: as a means of escaping from reality itself.
engineered "designer babies" for the rich
to manipulate DNA has come a long way since its discovery in 1953. A
century on, wealthy parents now have the option of creating "perfect"
babies in the laboratory. This is done by picking and choosing their
best hereditary traits. Gender, height, skin, hair and eye colour –
along with hundreds of other characteristics – can be programmed into
the embryo prior to birth. The embryo is then grown in an artificial
advanced (and controversial) techniques involve manipulating the brain
to improve the child's intelligence, behaviour and personality. Many
conservative and religious groups decry what they see as the commercialisation
of the human body.
Rainfall intensity has increased by 20%
As the world warms, the increased evaporation is putting greater amounts of water vapour into the atmosphere. Rainfall intensity rises by 7% for each degree of additional warming.* With temperatures approaching 3°C (5.4°F) above the 20th century average, the most extreme rainfall events are now 20% more intense than before. Dramatic increases in surface runoff, peak river flows and flash flooding are being experienced around the world – exacerbating soil erosion and putting huge pressure on drainage and sewage systems. This additional rainfall is a particular problem in the tropics and poor regions with insufficient infrastructure or flood defences.
Spaceflight has taken a leap forward
Environmental catastrophes, overpopulation, war and other crises have made humanity painfully aware of the limitations on its home planet. Many now believe that exploring and settling space could be a way to alleviate some of Earth's immediate problems. As a result of this, spaceflight has advanced considerably since the beginning of the century. National governments are able to participate to a certain extent, but huge levels of debt and economic stagnation have left the bulk of the effort to private enterprises and wealthy individuals.
The cost of launching material into space has declined considerably by now.* Advances in materials technology, greatly improved fuel efficiency for rockets* and the proliferation of single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft* have all contributed to this fall in prices. Automated design evolution, facilitated through artificial intelligence networks (enabling rapid synthesis of optimal design requirements) has also played a role. This is allowing much greater frequency of flights, as well as heavier payloads.
One result of this has been a rapid growth in space tourism, with journeys available to even middle-income citizens. For the super-rich, even excursions to the Moon's surface are now possible. Lunar bases, already established in previous decades, have been expanded. In addition to room for tourists, new scientific modules have been added with greenhouses, ice harvesting stations for water, and solar arrays built from lunar regolith. Corporate interests are now looking to exploit the Moon commercially. Though human presence is still confined to the poles, a number of prospecting missions are underway in preparation for mining operations.* Other long-term plans include solar power stations capable of beaming energy directly to Earth. In the more distant future, these may expand to completely encircle the Moon.*
Asteroid mining has now evolved into a huge industry, with major firms competing in the business.** Thanks to progress in rocket technology and robotics, countless rendezvous with near-Earth and main belt asteroids have been conducted. A wide range of metals and minerals – including gold, platinum, nickel, iron, zinc, antimony, copper, cobalt and phosphorus – are being recovered.* Some of these materials became so rare on Earth that demand made them exceedingly valuable. This drove accelerated exploration. Swarms of automated probes are now involved in prospecting and mining on a constant basis.
Most asteroids are processed in situ, as opposed to Earth orbit, due to fears of an accidental impact. For now, manoeuvring larger asteroids is seen as expensive and unnecessary in any case. Water-rich asteroids are particularly useful as the constituent hydrogen and oxygen can be turned into rocket fuel. As part of the commercialisation of space, numerous fuel depots are in place around the Earth-Moon system and Lagrange points. These are further reducing the cost of spaceflight, with most ships only required to carry enough fuel to get into orbit. Longer and more complex missions are possible with supplies available en route.*
Asteroid mining has proven to be one of the great confirmations of people's hopes for outer space. A single rock just a mile or so in diameter may yield more platinum group metals than has ever been mined on Earth, and more fuel than every rocket launch in history.* The resources now being added to the global economy are helping to meet demand in many areas. However, significant portions of raw materials are being diverted to off-planet projects including the construction of new space stations. As a result, various non-profit groups have sprung up, aiming to ensure that poorer nations can benefit from space, not just the countries and rich individuals that can afford to go. The lucrative nature of this business and its growing influence on Earth has led to the passing of major new regulations, antitrust and monopoly laws.*
Ongoing conflicts around the world have spurred military powers to new heights. Developed nations are now turning to space to gain the advantage in next generation warfare.* The USA is prolific in this regard. In earlier decades, international treaties prevented the militarisation of space. However, some of the more powerful nations have moved projects forward in secret. In any case, the volatile and rapidly evolving political climate has led to new agreements being introduced.
A whole new dimension to war is emerging, in parallel with the commercialisation of space. The USA, for example, has established a comprehensive network of spy satellites, each equipped with a wide array of sensors able to observe people and objects on the ground with astounding resolution and detail. AI controls this system, automatically tracking known persons of interest and monitoring for suspicious activity. If enemy actions on the ground cannot be rationalised by the AI, government and military personnel are notified of it. Now controlling the most advanced and intelligent surveillance system in the world, America has regained some of its lost influence on the world stage.
Naturally, other countries object to what they see as a potential for abuse of power. Alongside the spy satellites are manned space stations, placed strategically in geosynchronous orbit. These act as command centres, able to view battles from above in real time while giving directions to forces on the ground. Notably, they allow the military to organise and deploy squadrons of autonomous aircraft and robots. They also ensure that there are repair crews constantly on call, in the event of spy satellites or other craft malfunctioning. In today's hi-tech, fast-moving wars, communication and information are of unparalleled importance. These stations act as intelligence centres of sorts, and as such become prized targets for enemy forces. Knowing this, no expense is spared when it comes to advanced shielding and warning systems.
The first space-based weapons systems are also in place. Most incorporate traditional missile capabilities, but other, more experimental systems are being utilised. One such weapon is an orbital kinetic bombardment platform operated by the US.* This consists of two satellites in parallel orbits. The first provides a target and communication function, taking instructions from the ground on potential enemies. The second satellite is armed with several 20-foot long, specially reinforced tungsten rods, each complete with tail fins and an internal guidance computer. Upon instruction, a rod is released over a ground target and begins to fall. Using nothing but gravity and pure force, these missiles can impact with the power of a tactical nuclear warhead – only without the deadly fallout. Almost no bunker is safe, as the weapon lands with utterly devastating force, penetrating deep underground. Several problems needed to be overcome before this system was operational, such as the cost of lifting the materials into space and creating rods of sufficient strength to withstand the energies involved. Years of experimentation have finally yielded a metal alloy tough enough to be used. This project – the ultimate in bunker busting technology – is highly secretive and only tested in the deserts of the American southwest.
Orbital solar power, since its introduction nearly 15 years ago, has grown considerably.** Various new stations are now in place, able to provide continuous power to Earth. In addition to commercial power production, orbital solar has been found to have military applications. Modern armies no longer require a fixed source of power, with energy beamed down to even the most remote locations. Naturally, these solar power systems, as well as much of the other activity in space, increase the danger of space junk. However, genuine solutions are now finally appearing that can eliminate such debris once and for all. One option is the use of ground-based lasers, which move larger pieces into decaying orbits to eventually burn in the atmosphere,* while massive aerogel nets guided by satellites can sweep up the finer particles in orbit.*
AI and robotics have played a major role in opening up space.* Automated construction of spaceships and supplies is another area of reduced expense, while AI is used by asteroid mining companies to operate their wide range of robotic explorers and miners. In general, the increasingly complex and chaotic network of spacecraft now in place has necessitated the use of strong AI to coordinate operations. Many jobs previously filled by humans have now been given over exclusively to robots and computer programs. Spaceships are almost never piloted by human hands, with everything from docking to refueling to landing completely automated. Naturally, many passengers view this level of AI control with trepidation, cultural fears still being a part of space travel.* Farther away from Earth, numerous robotic probes, each equipped with their own AI, are exploring the planets, moons and asteroids of the outer Solar System. These are yielding unprecedented amounts of empirical data about the nature of these bodies and the early history of the Solar System.
Space-based telescopes have seen phenomenal improvements over the decades. Exponential progress has led to telescopic power increasing by a factor of over 100,000.* Thanks to this astounding rate of advancement, it is now possible to view extrasolar planets in close detail.
The number of known planets beyond our Solar System – about 800 in 2012 – has grown to 13 million by 2055.* Thousands of these bodies have been observed in the habitable "Goldilocks" zones of their respective star systems, including a number of Earth-like planets with liquid water oceans and active hydrological cycles. The possibility of finding alien life expands greatly during this time, as does the hope of achieving contact with intelligent civilisations. Despite the huge progress in this field, however, humans have still barely scratched the surface of the Milky Way.*
Recent progress has been achieved with antimatter propulsion – making human travel to the outer Solar System a real possibility in the coming years.* A permanent base on Mars is in the late planning stages, set to be established by a consortium of national governments and corporate interests. Longer-term projects are now being considered, with international talks being held over the future construction of a space elevator, to be located on the equator. Corporations are also looking to the massive, untapped wealth of the gas giants and outer Solar System as an eventual goal. By all accounts, private interests are driving a new era of space exploration.* Rapid progress in science and technology, combined with surging demand for resources, imply that humanity is well on its way to becoming a space-faring civilization.***
vast majority of countries have achieved democracy
spread of information – aided by mobile telecommunications, social media and
other technology – continues to nurture democracy. The vast majority of
countries now have free and fair elections.*
this general upward trend has begun to plateau in recent decades. Climate change is now
having a significant impact on regional stability, particularly in Africa
and the Middle East, where concerns over scarcity of resources have created
conditions allowing dictators and authoritarian governments to make a
In any case,
a number of cultures are simply more compatible with monarchies, theocracies
and autocracies at the present time. These parochial nations will remain
undemocratic for some time to come.
population is reaching a plateau
The global population is stabilising at between 9 and 10 billion.* Most of the recent growth has occurred in the
developing world. However, better education along with improved access
to contraception, family planning and other birth control methods is now markedly reducing the number of children per couple. Information technology has played a major role in boosting literacy levels and spreading knowledge to the world's poor.
The global population is also getting older, putting a huge strain on government
welfare systems and employment. More than a fifth of the
planet is aged over 60 now* – and with so many breakthroughs in medicine,
this trend will only continue.
More than two-thirds
of people live in urban areas by this time,* compared with 50% in 2010,* and there are vast, sprawling megacities in all corners of the globe.
In the very densest parts of the world, the tallest
skyscrapers reach thousands of metres in height, are occupied by millions of
people, and are effectively cities in their own right with
self-sufficient energy and food production. Many residents within these
towers spend almost their whole lives in these buildings, with
little need or want to venture outside.
of the USA has reached nearly 450 million now (up from 309 million in
2010), with Hispanics doubling their share of the population
to 30% and Asians going from 5% to 9%. Non-Hispanic
whites have become a minority, with their share dropping to below 45%.* They made
up 85% of the population in 1960. Due to climate change, living standards have been highest in the northern states, which have better access to water and are
generally more stable. California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have
seen huge declines in wealth and influence.
Despite recent advances in energy, food production and other technology, there are
still widespread conflicts around the globe – due to a rapidly worsening environment, coupled with a host of socio-political issues as the world struggles to adopt a more sustainable economic paradigm. Huge shantytowns have formed in some countries, with millions of people displaced. The worst-affected regions are so destitute that they have been reclassified as
"fourth world" countries.* Desperate attempts are now underway to sequester carbon from the atmosphere in the hope of reversing the effects of global warming.
media have fragmented and diversified
By the mid-2050s,
traditional Western news corporations no longer exist. News gathering,
analysis and distribution has fragmented – shifting to millions
of creative individuals, bloggers, citizen journalists and small-scale
enterprises. These work cooperatively and seamlessly, utilising
a "global commons" of instantly shared knowledge and freely
available resources. This includes information retrieval not only from
cyberspace, but also in the real world; embedded in everything from webcams
and personal digital devices, to orbiting satellites, robots, vehicles,
roads, street lamps, buildings, stadia and other public places.
themselves have become a part of this collection process. Bionic eye
implants (for example) can relay data and footage on the spot, in real
time, from those willing to participate.
Western TV channels have largely disappeared, replaced by unique "personalised"
web channels, covering practically any subject or combination of subjects
imaginable. These are filtered and customised to the exact tastes and
requirements of the individual and are viewable anywhere, at anytime.
They can be highly interactive and are often experienced in virtual
reality settings, rather than on a screen. This is especially true of
movies, many of which have non-linear plotlines allowing the viewer
to influence the outcome themselves, or even to become characters within
too, has undergone a revolution in Western societies. Some of the oldest
outdoor media still exist – such as posters, billboards and leaflets
– which continue to survive in holographic and other forms. However,
online web and televisual product/service information is now accessed
almost entirely from on-demand, advanced customer feedback networks
along with automated, semantic web assistants. Together these can provide
instant, factual and trustworthy information on a highly personalised
level: automatically filtering any marketing bias or corporate propaganda
which might have influenced a consumer in the past.
Despite the increased choice and empowerment, one major
consequence of this fragmentation (a trend which began in the 1980s) has been increased isolation of the individual. A decrease in the shared experience of media has led to a further decline in Western family life.
nations are still reliant on traditional forms of media, marketing and
information exchange. In the near future, however, they too will make the transition – thanks to rapidly improving access to web technology.
warming has begun to race out of control with temperatures fed by increasingly
strong feedback mechanisms. Melting permafrost in the Arctic is now releasing
vast amounts of methane – a greenhouse gas more than 70 times stronger
than CO2.* Plants are decaying faster in the
warmer climate, while the oceans are liberating ever greater quantities of
is now the hottest it has been since the mid-Pliocene, over 3 million
years ago,* and there are permanent
El Niño conditions* – resulting in widespread,
extreme weather events in regions around the world. Severe droughts, torrential
flooding, hurricanes and other disturbances are now a constant feature
on the news. Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa are the places
most affected. Developing countries dependent on agriculture and fishing
– especially those bordering the Pacific Ocean – are particularly
a calamity of epic scale is unfolding. The nation has been declared a
failed state, its government having lost control, with armed gangs seizing
what little food and water remains. Tens of millions of refugees are attempting
to leave the country as rivers run permanently dry.* India has fared little better. The country’s agriculture is now
under severe stress, with monsoons ranging from extremely wet seasons
to extremely dry ones. In the more intense wet years, the flooding is
catastrophic, submerging vast areas of land.
the east coast is being hit particularly hard now. Chesapeake Bay – the
largest estuary in the country – has been devastated by recent flooding
disasters, rising sea levels and storm damage. The economies of Maryland
and Virginia have suffered greatly.
Much of the
Gulf Coast region has been abandoned, while droughts are worsening in
the southwest of the country. More than 15m Americans now qualify as displaced
persons.* A surge in migration to Canada
is underway – one of the few areas of the world that still offers
somewhat favourable environmental conditions.
food riots have continued to spread. Temperatures that were previously
found only in North Africa and the Middle East have become the norm in
central and southern parts of the continent.* Britain now has a Mediterranean climate* and is engaged in a food-sharing process with its neighbour
Ireland.* Rising sea levels, erosion
and storm surges are wreaking havoc on the coastline.*
is being plagued by extreme heatwaves. The country is experiencing severe
and prolonged droughts, together with a huge increase in wildfires and
dust storms. The elderly are especially at risk from this hotter and drier
– which became ice-free in September months by the 2030s – now has up to three months of ice-free conditions per year. This
has made the region attractive to shipping and exploitation of natural
resources, with various new trade routes being opened up. Iceland is benefiting
from this, becoming like Singapore in some ways.* Many previously uninhabited islands in the Arctic are now being colonised.
synthetic humans are becoming technically feasible
2010, scientists created the first synthetic cell. Mycoplasma laboratorium was an entirely new species of bacterium, with a man-made set of genetic
code, placed on a synthetic chromosome inside an empty cell. Using its
new "software", the cell could generate proteins and produce
followed in subsequent years by a variety of specialised organisms.
Some were able to generate new vaccines and medicines; others produced
biofuels and similarly useful products.
decades went by, larger and more complex life forms were created in
the laboratory, including multi-celled animals large enough to be seen
by the naked eye.
genomics continued to advance exponentially, driven by the breakneck
pace of information technology. Large animals – variants of birds, fish
and mammals – became available with fully customisable limbs, sensory
organs and other features, for use in a variety of commercial, scientific
and industrial roles. New plants were created too, some with bizarre
yet extremely useful abilities. Certain trees, for example, could be
programmed to grow and shape themselves into furniture or building components.
the number of cells that can be synthesised in a single organism is reaching
almost 100 trillion: equal to the total number in the human body.* Debates are now occurring over "synthetic people" entering the
population. What rights and freedoms would they have? Countless moral,
ethical and legal arguments are raised.
the vast majority of countries are unable to authorise the technology;
the cultural lag is simply too great. Just as stem cells were controversial
in the USA during the early 2000s, the creation of synthetic humans represents
a step too far, for many people.
a small number of countries – notably China – secretly push ahead with
the project. Test subjects are successfully created, then made to take
part in biotechnology experiments. Although hidden from public view,
rumours begin to emerge of horrific abuses.
PCs now have raw processing power equivalent to all of the human brains
which ever existed on Earth.* This is
a result of Moore's Law – the trend in computer processing power which
has been increasing exponentially for over a century.
are becoming so powerful that many high-level tasks in business and
government are being handed over directly to them. For years, software
had lagged behind hardware in development, which impeded the spread
of AI, but this is no longer the case. Ever more sophisticated programs
have begun to create a chain reaction of self improvement cycles. This
has led to an "intelligence explosion", with some of the biggest
political decisions on the world stage now being influenced by sentient
there are controls and regulations in place to guide these actions (to
prevent the use of nuclear missiles for example). Nevertheless, it is
becoming obvious to everyone by now that machines are quite literally
taking over the world.
to scan, analyse and diagnose the body has taken a huge leap forward
by now. Hi-res, 3D imaging of internal structures and brain activity
is now possible using real-time video rather than static photos. This
can be accomplished with devices no bigger than a camera.*
early 2000s, these machines were so bulky that they filled whole rooms.* Scans typically required half an hour or longer to create. They were
also highly expensive: upwards of a million dollars for a state-of-the-art
model, with each individual scan costing hundreds of dollars.
A new generation
of machines began to evolve, based on supersensitive atomic magnetometers,
able to detect the tiniest magnetic fields. These replaced the huge
doughnut-shaped magnets that had been used in the past. By the late
2050s, MRI scans had become as quick and easy as taking a photograph,
with a hundredfold decrease in cost.* Healthcare programs in developing countries would benefit particularly
is 100m wide and located on the Moon's far side, giving it a stable
platform with slow rotation rate (0.5 arcsec/sec), beyond the interference
of Earth's atmosphere and cluttered radio background. This provides astronomical images with a clarity unmatched by any observatory
on Earth or in space. Individual stars, billions of light years away, can be seen assembling into the first galaxies.
The telescope is situated within an impact crater. Both it and the surrounding infrastructure are built using a mixture of epoxy, self-assembling carbon nanotubes and material from the Moon itself – drastically reducing costs.*
of the 20th century, prospectors discovered far more oil than industrial
societies could consume. This was an era of cheap and plentiful energy,
which saw huge growth in the world's economy and population. By the 1970s,
however, a major slowdown in discoveries was observed. This continued
into the 21st century – contributing to a financial crisis that persisted
for decades, led to a near-total collapse of the global economy and
drove nations to the brink of another World War. It was only
through massive government intervention, last-minute substitutes for crude oil and widespread deployment of renewable energy that a major catastrophe was averted. By the late 2050s, the end of the 200-year oil age is approaching, with
the final dregs being extracted in the Middle East.*
has a permanent human presence by now
By the end
of this decade, a permanent team of scientists is present on Mars.** This comprises a highly international mix of
people. The first
civilian tourist has also arrived. Travel to Mars was made cheaper and
faster thanks to nuclear pulse propulsion, cutting
journey times from six months to just a few weeks.*
will soon be expanded with new facilities providing more energy, food production and recycling systems, along with mining equipment and other tools.* Vehicles are being supplied too, improving the astronauts' mobility and
enabling them to roam hundreds of miles. More sophisticated long term bases are now
being planned to accomodate larger teams of scientists as well as corporate
modules are constructed partially underground, giving protection from
the Sun's ultraviolet glare. Radiation-absorbing materials
based on advanced nanotechnology are used in spacesuits, as well as on
the exterior of the vehicles. These same materials have filters
to block even the tiniest particles of dust, providing long term protection
against the environment outside.
All of the
above is providing the critical mass needed for self-sufficiency. Operations
will soon be conducted entirely independent of Earth. In the coming years,
the first children will be born on Mars.
117 This is assuming that synthetic genomics follows the same exponential
progress seen in other forms of technology. If the number of cells that
could be synthesised and conjoined were to double roughly every year,
it would reach 100 trillion by 2056.
118It's believed that around 106 billion humans may have existed
since modern homo sapiens first emerged: http://www.prb.org/Articles/2002/HowManyPeopleHaveEverLivedonEarth.aspx.
Based on Moore's Law, individual PCs should be equal to all of the human
brains on Earth by 2053 (see earlier in the timeline). Processing power
doubles about every year – and the population of Earth in 2053 will be
around nine billion – therefore, another four doublings will be enough
to exceed 106 billion. This may even be a conservative estimate, as technologies
may emerge which accelerate Moore's Law still further.
119"It's going to be an incredible tool. Fifty years down the road,
there could be small handheld MRI devices – like the tricorder in the
Star Trek television series – that enable us to see signals from molecules,
and there will be patterns for different diseases." See Thinking outside the box on MRI, Medical Physics Web: http://medicalphysicsweb.org/cws/article/research/30780
Accessed 17th October 2009.
125 "There could be less than 49 years of oil supplies left, even if
demand were to remain flat according to HSBC senior global economist
See Science: “Peak oil production may already be here”, Climate Progress: http://climateprogress.org/2011/04/05/science-peak-oil-here/
Accessed 31st May 2011.
127 "In the next generation or two—say the next 30 to 60 years—there will be an irreversible human migration to a permanent space colony. Some people will tell you that this new colony will be on the moon, or an asteroid—in my opinion asteroids are a great place to go, but mostly for mining. I think the location is likely to be Mars."
See The Coming Age of Space Colonization, The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/the-coming-age-of-space-colonization/273818/
Accessed 31st March 2013.
129"Learning to grow plants on Mars will be an important precursor
to humans living there. Future explorers will need oxygen, food, and purified
water -- items too costly to ferry from Earth to Mars on a regular basis.
But plants can help provide those essentials inexpensively and locally
as part of a self-contained 'bioregenerative' life support system." See NASA.gov: http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast01jun_1.htm
Accessed 18th October 2009.