I always find these fascinating, because Chairman Bruce is the pre-eminent thought leader of modern near-future SF.
He's been one jump ahead of the pack ever since the early 1980s (when I avidly subscribed to his pseudonymous crit zine Cheap Truth, the house self-criticism session of the early cyberpunks), then the mid-1980s when he basically invented the New Space Opera and moved on before anyone else had time to notice, and then the early 90s when he got the implications of the internet and climate catastrophe in Heavy Weather ... seriously, if I'm ever at a loss to know what the big near-term global issues are, I look for his footsteps and follow them. (It's no accident that a few years ago he seemed to lose interest in dying media and high-tech environmentalism and went after industrial design and 3D printers.)
I'm going to use some of his mojo as a jumping off point for asking: what is the world going to look like in 2032? And in 2092?
It's an important question. I expect to be around in 2032, albeit somewhat more creaky (I'll be 68) — the state of the world in 2032 is a matter of personal interest. By 2092 ... well, if I'm still alive in 2092 there will have been medical breakthroughs, because I'd be 128 years old, and that exceeds the current boundary with which human life expectancy converges (which is roughly 121-122). My grandfather died a couple of months short of his 70th birthday; my father is still going strong at 87: a straight line extrapolation would peg me at making it past 104, although I don't think I'm as healthy as dad. So it's a matter of rather more theoretical interest to me, but nevertheless worth worrying about just in case the next 20-80 years bring us some massive breakthroughs in life prolongation.
What do I predict for 2032?
Climate: the current remaining question marks over climate change will have been answered, and the answers won't be anything pleasant. Climate change denialism will probably be about as respectable as Lysenkoism is today — an intellectually corrupt pseudo-science emerging at the behest of a bankrupt ideology. Chunks of the world will be suffering heat stress with damaging effects on agriculture (notably Australia, where imported European-style agricultural practices are really not compatible with the local rainfall patterns and soil, but also chunks of North America, Africa, and the Mediterranean basin: China's rice basket will also take a battering). The main impact will be felt by poor communities (with inadequate shelter from increasingly violent storms) and coastal communities (Bangladesh will take a hammering).
Energy: oil will still be available and planes will still be burning it. Prior to Fukushima I was predicting a big renaissance in nuclear power. Now ... I'm still predicting it, but I think it'll take an extra 10-20 years and people are going to be a lot more cautious. Chernobyl could be written off as Soviet mis-management, but Fukushima, while a lot better managed and less damaging, is in some ways more alarming because it underscores the need to design nuclear plant to be fail-safe even in the face of a once-per-thousand-years event. Which drives the cost of nuclear right up from an already high baseline.
Solar is getting cheaper rapidly, and is now actually rolling out in significant quantities, but runs into the "how do you store it?" problem. What I think we may see is solar plant that, rather than producing electricity, is designed to produce electrons and use them immediately to electrolytically split water, liberating hydrogen, which can then be converted into something more storable ... like methane (using atmospheric CO2 as a carbon source).
Coal is going to get deeply unfashionable. It'll still be with us in 2032, but with expensive scrubbers and carbon capture plant and, more likely, subterranean gasification. Which is still fossil fuel, but is less obvious to the naked eye from the spoil heaps.
Fusion will be 30 years away. But by that, I mean commercial fusion reactors. There will be a prototype under construction, with a turbine hall that will deliver base load to someone's grid (probably France's), when it's running. Which won't be most of the time, because it'll be a prototype and a hangar queen. And they'll still need 30 years of research into the effects of neutron embrittlement on construction materials before they're ready to start building them on production lines.
Transport: The rich might have supersonic bizjets, but they'll be expensive toys rather than mass transport. For the rest of us, there'll be high speed rail in dense areas (India, China, Europe, the eastern and western seaboards of North America), subsonic jets for crossing the blank spaces, and automobiles.
However. By 2032 I expect the developed world to have installed infrastructure for automated driving in many environments, and for many new cars to be largely (if not completely) automated. Even cheaper cars today can be bought with self-parking capability; Volvo are selling cars that automatically brake or take action to avoid pedestrians. This is a Moore's Law related tech, and by 2032 I expect collision avoidance systems to be mandatory on all post-2022 cars, and some self-driving. Cars will probably mostly be plug-in hybrids (battery for use around town, with a generator to take over for longer trips). And in dense urban centres (which is where most people outside the USA will be living) they'll be somewhat less popular. The 20th century was the century of the automobile, just as the 19th century was the century of the train.
Population: China's one child generation will be hitting retirement. China will, by 2032, be a primarily urban society with demographics like Japan circa the 1980s/1990s (villages where nobody is aged under 65; big cities: falling birth rates). India will be going in the same direction. The USA and EU are anyone's guess; the EU has seen a variety of local baby booms in the past decade which suggest the demographic transition may not result in a population crash but in oscillation around a couple of stable attractors. Been here before. The new insight I'd like to add is that, barring plagues like a pandemic form of H5N1 Bird flu or TDR-TB (which is worse than ferret-assisted plague flu), the global population will be a lot older, on average, than it is today.
If we play our cards right, that means the population won't be as physically able to carry out manual labour or farming activities (or to fight in mass armies) but will be better-educated and more experienced, albeit maybe less cognitively flexible. It'll also be overwhelmingly urban. Our species passed the 50% living in cities marker a few years ago, and the trend towards urbanization continues (as the countervailing trend towards farming being conducted on a larger scale by organizations also works to drive young rural people off the land).
Politics: It's fairly obvious that there's an ongoing global political crisis of legitimacy, and it's happening everywhere. In China, post-Tiananmen Square, the CPC is clinging on because it can deliver prosperity. In the Middle East, every government seems to have a crisis of legitimacy to a greater or lesser extent. In Europe, the crisis over the Euro needs to be considered in light of the democratic deficit in EU procedures, with one eye on Hungary's descent into one-party rule and, further east, to Russia where the aftershocks of 1991 continue to reverberate. The USA is not immune; while it has a solid democratic foundation, the mechanisms to enforce a police state are in place and a descent into plutocratic oligarchy is well advanced. About the only promising signs are that democratic forms are becoming the norm everywhere, even in areas formerly thought of as safe havens for tyranny, and that rapidly changing communications technologies combine to simultaneously inform and energize those people who are inclined to be informed and energized, and to narcotize those who aren't.
Space: Is a red herring in the short term. China will have a space station and maybe a flag on the moon. The USA will continue to send out increasingly sophisticated robot probes and might still be operating a space station. They might even have planted a flag on the moon (again) and have plans to go to Mars. (On the down side: a major political or fiscal crisis might be enough to do unto NASA what the collapse of the USSR did to the Soviet space infrastructure.) There will probably be continued commercial development in low earth orbit, including an orbiting hotel (for the plutocrats to play bunga-bunga games). And Elon Musk might still be in business and going balls-out for Mars. But by 2032 I don't expect there to be any major breakthroughs.
Food: Fish is probably going to cost more than beef products because we're on course to comprehensively fuck over the largest commercial fisheries, allowing opportunist species to replace the ecosystems we're strip-mining. Oceans are likely to be dominated by squid (edible) and jellyfish (not edible). There might still be freshwater fisheries with food species fed on processed jellyfish.
Cultured mammalian tissue is likely to be available. It'll be of about the same consistency as Quorn and will lack mouth appeal, but some folks will take to it (folks who like meat too much to go vegetarian today, but who have ethical qualms about eating animals and a big enough disposable income to pay).
There'll be widespread work in progress on genetically engineering plants to photosynthesize efficiently (or at all) at higher temperatures.
There will have been one or more famines or crop crashes and food price spikes caused by second-order effects of early and ill-advised GM crop roll-outs — see for example, Roundup-ready weeds (but I'm thinking it'll take something much more serious to get our attention).
Optionally, if we don't sort out the global plutocracy problem there will be famines and food price spikes caused by investors speculating on food price futures. (This has already happened; I'm predicting more of it unless we impose tougher controls on global food futures trading).
Electronics: Moore's Law will have played out by 2032; we'll have circuitry where the feature resolution is on the order of one or two atoms. Can't make it smaller. Can stack it vertically. A 2032 smartphone (and literally everyone will have a smartphone, or its successor) will compare in power to a 2012 iPhone 4S or Galaxy Nexus as one of those compares to a 1992 computer — a Macintosh Quadra 840 or a 486DX PC running Windows 3.1. The distinction between RAM and static storage (SSDs) will have faded to a gradation of access speed dominated by caching, displays will consume very little energy and have pixel pitch so fine that the human eye can barely see them, battery life will exceed one day in ordinary use, and gigabit wireless connection speeds will be the norm outside the home or office (at home/in office it'll tend towards the bandwidth constraint imposed by the atmosphere, i.e. 1-2 tb/sec shared between the devices in any given opaque-walled room or cubicle).
Poverty-stricken tribesmen in Papua New Guinea will get their introduction to modern technology via something that makes a 2012 smartphone look like a Motorola DynaTAC.
The internet: Will still be dominated by English speakers, but they'll have an Indian accent. Everybody will be on the net. Commercial television as we know it will have been sucked into video-over-IP. Ditto commercial radio. Telephones? They're the handset you use for Voice-over-IP. (Phone numbers as we know them will be obsolete.) Half of Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, Sony and IBM will no longer exist (if I knew which half I'd be planning my investments right now) and the list of the top ten net-related corporations will be radically different. We'll probably have poor simultaneous voice translation (driven by statistical analysis) and somewhat better offline translation of text. Many governments will censor the internet, or try to, because it will have become critical infrastructure. Newspapers as we know them today will either not exist, or no longer print ink on paper. Publishers of all media (as we know them today) will either not exist or barely be recognizable. Internet access will be recognized as a basic human right, notwithstanding draconian copyright enforcement legislation that demands infringers be cut off. Yes, this is a contradiction. As someone or other said, "information wants to be free: information also wants to be expensive".
Medicine: HIV will be curable — either through better anti retroviral drugs or through gene therapy (note that this is a first step towards developing a prosthetic immune system). Cancer ... we'll know a lot more about it. Many types of cancer will be manageable, albeit as a major nuisance illness subject to recurrent outbreaks and requiring unpleasant medicines to treat it (like HIV today). Some will remain rapidly fatal. No single silver bullet will banish all forms of cancer. Diseases of ageing (notably dementia) will get a lot of research money. Diseases of affluence, ditto. Research into antibiotics, at a dismal low in 2012, will have returned, either via the public sector or by hugely inflated incentives to the private sector. There will have been epidemics; TDR-TB is a real incentive to get back in the saddle on antibiotic research. Anti-viral drugs will be in better shape, with broad spectrum antivirals available (hopefully only under medical supervision, unlike the 1950-2010 global antibiotic fiasco).
Let's look further ahead. What about 2092?
I agree with Bruce Sterling: it's going to be a world of old people living in big cities who are afraid of the sky.
The climate will be well and truly fucked because we're not able to take preventative action far enough in advance to avoid the worst effects. Large chunks of the earth will have heat emergencies every year that render them uninhabitable by human beings without powered refrigeration. These chunks include some of the most densely populated areas (notably India and China). On the other hand, they coincide with maximum insolation, so the solar power to run the aircon will hopefully be available.
20-40% of mammalian species, 20-60% of reptiles, 40-80% of amphibia, and maybe 50% or more of insects will be extinct. (If it's hot enough to kill unprotected humans, the rest of the biosphere isn't going to fare well, and those regions that suffer the heat crises are the ones that harbour most biodiversity).
There will be 5-10 billion people. The low end represents a scenario where there is no breakthrough in life extension, no prolonged birth rate rebound from the demographic transition, and plagues or wars. The high end is merely the absence of one or more of those (unwanted) constraints. Between 50% and 80% of them will be city-dwellers, and their average age will be rising. Instead of a population pyramid, our age distribution will resemble a beehive (vertical sides, then a rounded top as folks nearing maximum life expectancy die off rapidly). Average age will be rising towards 50, from as low as 16 in some countries at the start of the century.
The age distribution shift in turn may be a predictor (in the absence of cognitive enhancement drugs or technologies) for a socially conservative, risk-averse global society. Note that this is socially conservative by mid-21st century standards, not by 2012 EU or US standards; what that means is hard to predict, but it'll be socially conservative against a background where the demographic transition lies far in the past and family planning (female education/emancipation plus access to contraception and abortion) is normal.
Politics I have no idea about, but it's not unreasonable to expect a gerontocracy dominated by the elderly, with a small, poor, disenfranchised youth sector.
The USA will not have been the dominant planetary superpower for at least fifty years. The EU won't have replaced it. China will be over the peak and probably a long way down the down-slope. The future belongs to someone else. Maybe Brazil or India?
Energy: trying to burn coal may just annoy the neighbours so much that they sue you. And if you refuse to turn up in court, they'll send drones to bomb your power stations and mine heads.
Fusion will be available in commercial form, if anyone needs a centralized monolithic plant that isn't viable below 5Gw thermal output, requires a grid to distribute the current, is inflexible, and leaves you with a thousand tonne core of high level waste. (But hey, no nasty plutonium!) My bet is that fusion plants won't be competitive with fission but may catch on for political reasons in places that need lots of energy (e.g. centralized industrial zones).
Solar will be ubiquitous; cells as cheap as wallpaper will ooze carbon-neutral diesel oil, or come with built-in storage batteries.
Orbital solar power won't be used for ground-based applications, unless there has been extensive mining and fabrication of components in orbit from asteroidal resources. I'm not betting on it by 2092, but I'm not betting against it either.
Airliners ... will still be subsonic, for the most part. There may be sub-orbital shuttles for the rich, but the security issues are horrendous (anything capable of sending a 1%-er from London to Sydney in 40 minutes is functionally indistinguishable from an ICBM).
Automobiles drive themselves all the time. If you want to drive, you go to a track event. (Or you work on a farm or in an off-road situation.) You do not endanger third parties by driving manually in built-up areas. If you live in a city you don't own a car, but rent one or are part of a time-share coop for when you need one. Unless you're rich enough that circa 2012 you own a car and can pay a chauffeur.
Self-driving cars probably obviate the need for high speed rail in places like Asia east of the Urals or the US midwest: just get on a highway and tell the car to go as fast as it can within your fuel budget. For longer distances, tell it to take you to the airport.
Sea: much cargo will travel by sailing ship. Smart robot sailing ships that, thanks to weather satellites, never run into really bad storms and always know where the wind is blowing.
Land: low-speed rail (under 100km/h) predominates for cargo, and in the US, a lot of current long-haul trucking will move back onto rail. Rail will tend to electrify, for efficiency reasons, rather than relying on diesel.
But I expect there to be less cargo movement overall. Information flow can be used to find locally substitutable goods, and with energy costs remaining higher than during the 20th century there'll be a strong incentive to use them in preference to shipping stuff in from thousands of kilometres away.
I think in 80 years' time we'll have cracked genomics, proteomics, and the whole epigenetic can of worms that the human genome project ran into five to ten years ago. I expect cancers to be a recurrent problem for an elderly civilization, but a manageable one. We should have a very good idea of how to arrest or reverse the ageing processes, although it may be difficult or impossible to apply some of these ideas to people now living. (Or then again, we might have a cheap, efficient pill that resets everyone's body clock to age 18. Whackiness on an unprecedented scale will then ensue, and not necessarily in a good way.) We should be able to grow organs and limbs to order, cure diabetes as a side-effect, and know enough about gut functioning to control muscle/fat distribution medically.
If you make it to 2092 and you're in need of medical treatment, it should be a good time to be alive (as long as the Plutocrats haven't totally gutted the social provision of healthcare). However ...
The human invasion of all ecosystems currently extant on Earth will have concluded. This means that the attack surface we expose to zoonoses will be maximized; anything that exists and can infect and eat us will do so. One or more plagues as lethal as SARS will get loose and kill between 1M and 1B people.
Incidentally, epidemics don't give a shit about whether your neighbour hasn't paid their health insurance fees or whether you believe in vaccination. By the end of the 21st century, government provided public health and epidemic suppression is going to be one of those things that is taken for granted, like having a standing military force: it's defence procurement against invading unicellular aliens.
There may also be human engineered plagues, because the necessary know-how to bolt together something really unpleasant will be as widespread as the know-how to build a primitive A-bomb is today, only without the need for unobtanium to fuel it. I'd normally poo-poo the idea of bioterrorism, and it seems particularly unlikely to come from governments or political non-state actors (like, oh, Al Qaida), but apocalyptic nutters like Aum Shinrikyo can't be ruled out.
Not many changes, except synthetic meat indistinguishable from the real thing (Kobe beef steak made from vat-grown Kobe beef muscle tissue!) will be available and is probably cheaper than the real thing. Not to mention not requiring the land surface and secondary energy inputs of animal husbandry. There's time for social accommodation to make the foodie scene get truly weird. Expect Charles Stross gammon steaks to be served at SF conventions.
We will have working molecular nanotechnology. This may be a wet squib equivalent to very-very-efficient-biotechnology, but it might go as far as Eric Drexler's wilder projections circa Engines of Creation. In which case, most other bets are off (and Elon Musk will get that retirement villa on Mars).
We will have completed experimental particle physics, insofar as it can be experimentally conducted in a gravity well on a planet only 40,000Km in circumference. To probe higher energies we'll either need new breakthroughs in accelerator technology or a particle accelerator bigger than the Earth's circumference. Maybe do-able in space.
There may be unforeseen side-effects, such as widespread deployment of technologies based on quantum physics (such as programmable matter or actual teleportation of macroscopic objects). There may be widespread deployment of quantum computers or quantum entanglement as a high bandwidth transmission channel for classical data.
We should have computing systems powerful enough to manage a synapse-level simulation of a human brain in real time and then some. We'll also have had time to map out the human neural connectome, even allowing for it to be harder than is currently apparent. Either we have the ability to simulate a human mind, or it's impractical (either for ethical reasons (what happens when you switch it off?) or because the quantum woo-woo pedlars like Roger Penrose are correct, or because synapses are a distraction and the real mechanics happen at a molecular scale).
Aside from neural connectome stuff and quantum weirdness, computing, networking, and software will be about as interesting as railroad train design: a mature field in which breakthroughs are still possible but which the general public ignores, except when it's time to buy a ticket. It's certainly not where geeks go to work on cool new shit.
One interesting effect is that computing will be cheap—if a process can be sped up by adding microprocessors to it, it will be. Expect farms where every single plant has a solar-powered computer tagged to it, monitoring it for stress caused by pathogens and parasites and need for nutrients. Expect sofas with springs that remember your personal preference for firm or soft support and adapt to whoever's sitting in them. Expect more intelligence in your environment than you can possibly imagine a need for.
A tale is told of two computer scientists back in the 1970s, discussing the new microprocessors. "They're going to be cheap! A dollar each!" One of them explained. "But who needs computers that cheap? What are they going to do, use them as doorknobs?" Asked his friend. Ten years later, the computer scientist was checking into a hotel room and suddenly looked at the card-key in his hand and realized, yes, there was a computer in every doorknob.
Imagine a very smart networked computer attached to every genetically engineered maize plant in a field in a poor rural backwater of Uganda. And that they discuss how fast they're growing via wifi and agree a nutrient plan to optimize growth, including restricting water to one particular plant that's shadowing a couple of others. The farmer, aged 80, harvests them via a quadrotor drone from the comfort of his air-conditioned farmhouse. (The quadrotor is powered by methanol fermented from their discarded husks.) When he needs to sell them, he hires a self-driving cargo truck to come and pick them up. And maybe hitches a ride to the clinic in town in the unoccupied cab. to get his anti-cancer booster shots updated Implausible? Partly because in the long term, things change more than we expect. But mostly because he's one of the 20% who don't live in cities.
But. The elephant in the living room that I've ignored in this discussion is the effect of all these changes on the psychology of the people living through them. And so I'm going to try to find time to talk about the psychological effects of the 21st century later this week.