Life a Hundred Years from Now: Part 2

Stephen DeAngelis

April 29, 2011

In part 1 of this two-part series, I discussed predictions, published in 2006 and 2008, about what the world would look like a hundred years from now. As I noted in that post, it is relatively easy to extrapolate the past into the future at the macro level (i.e., easy to predict that life expectancy is likely to increase, communications will improve, transportation will change, medical care will evolve, and new products will be invented). Today I would like discuss the article that started me thinking about this subject. I found the article in the New York Post [“Life in the year 2100,” by Michio Kaku, 31 March 2011]. The article is based on Kaku’s book Physics of the Future. Kaku writes:

“If someone from 2100 could visit us now, how would we view them? Probably like the gods of mythology. They would command everything around them by wishing for it. They would have perfect and ageless bodies. And they would ride across the universe in magical chariots. In the past, we feared the gods of mythology. In the next 100 years, we will become them. Based on interviews with 300 of the world’s top scientists, I’ve put together some predictions for what that world, 100 years in the future, will look like. This is not a work of science fiction, since prototypes of these inventions already exist, and all of them obey the laws of physics.”

With that introduction, Kaku provides ten predictions drawn from his book. The first prediction concerns the internet. He writes:

1. The Internet will be in your contact lenses. Imagine blinking and then instantly going online, accessing your home office or home-entertainment system anywhere or anytime. We will be able to download any movie, song, website, or piece of information off the Internet directly onto our Internet-enabled contact lenses. These lenses will also be able to identify people’s faces, translate their comments, and provide subtitles, so that we will always know exactly with whom we are speaking and what they are saying in any language. We will live in a cross between The Matrix and real life.”

My suspicion is that most people will prefer glasses to contact lenses, but I certainly won’t argue that the ubiquitous Internet (or as my colleague Tom Barnett has referred to it — the Evernet) is coming. Kaku believes that most people will welcome this connectivity because it will usher in enhanced reality. Even aging generations will warm up to this technology since “people suffering from illnesses, like diabetes, … will have immediate readouts of their heart rates, insulin levels, and other important conditions within their own bodies.” Additionally, I predict this information will available to medical personnel over secure networks. Technology may become so sophisticated that you may be automatically alerted to take an aspirin before a heart attack occurs. Kaku’s second prediction is that computers will disappear like slides rules did a generation ago. He continues:

2. Computers will disappear, as will cell phones, clocks, watches, and MP3 players. Chips, costing less than a penny apiece, will be hidden by the millions in the environment. We will be able to command these hidden computers telepathically, directly via the mind. … So we will be like the gods of mythology, mentally manipulating the world around us. We will also be able to conjure up almost any object just by wishing for it. This will be done via ‘programmable matter,’ which will consist of millions of microscopic computer chips that will be intelligent and capable of being programmed to suddenly rearrange themselves into any shape or object on command, so that we will be able to create almost anything we can imagine. (This is very similar to the replicator from Star Trek).”

Kaku may have taken this one a bit too far. The replicator on Star Trek was able to conjure up food. Edible microscopic chips don’t sound very appetizing to me! There is also the problem of durability. It’s hard to imagine self-assembling computer chips strong enough to replace a titanium bracket or blade in a piece of machinery. But, you never know. Kaku’s third prediction agrees with one of Prof. P. A. Varghese’s predictions noted in the previous post (i.e., pilot-less transportation).

3. Cars will be driver-less, using GPS to navigate without the help of an alert human behind the wheel. These cars will also fly (finally!) by floating on a cushion of magnetism. With room-temperature superconducting magnets, our cars and trains will glide effortlessly in the air, without bumps or potholes to worry about since the crafts hover above the treacherous road. Traffic jams and accidents will be a thing of the past as a central computer will be able to track the motions of all the cars on the road (or in the air), while each car will use radar in its fenders to sense obstacles and take emergency measures as soon as it senses an impending accident. Best of all, we will hardly ever need to fuel up, since there will be almost no friction to slow us down. This will also solve the energy crisis, since most energy is wasted, strangely enough, on overcoming the friction of the road.”

Hurrah! If Kaku is correct, we will finally get to be like Dick Tracy and his cohorts who used to fly around the city in anti-gravity buckets! It’s a good thing that computers will be used to direct traffic both on the ground and in the air in the future. With all the current reports about air traffic controllers falling asleep on duty, increased air traffic via flying cars could make the skies a nightmare without automated systems. Kaku’s next prediction is about a subject I’ve addressed before — growing replacement body parts [see my post entitled The Wild World of Medical Science]. Kaku continues:

4. Doctors will be able to grow ‘spare parts’ for our organs as they wear out. This will create a ‘human body shop.’ We will never need organ donors and will never die of organ failure. Even the typical doctor’s visit will change. For a routine checkup, we will talk to a robotic software program that will have a complete record of our genes. This robotic MD will be able to correctly diagnose up to 95 percent of human ailments. If the robot can’t help, then the patient will move on to a living and breathing doctor who can help figure out rarer diseases that take a more refined and sophisticated mind. By mid-century, doctors and scientists may be able to construct an entire organism using its genome alone. As this genome science progresses, researchers may be able to carry a small kit around with them and, in mere minutes, sequence the entire genome of any life-form they encounter. We will then be able to resurrect extinct life-forms, such as the mammoth, dodo bird, and even the Neanderthal. (There are ethical concerns with the Neanderthal. As one scientist asked me, ‘Do we put them in a zoo or put them through college?’)

It seems to me that stem cell or gene replacement therapy would be preferable to organ transplants. If this technique can be perfected, an injection at the site of damaged tissue could clear up a problem before transplantation would be necessary. The rub to all this medical science is cost. Unless costs are somehow dramatically lowered, only the super rich will be able to afford these kinds of treatments. Cost will also affect the next of Kaku’s predictions.

5. The human life span will be extended. Aging will be slowed down by attacking it at the molecular and genetic level. We may be able to ‘cruise’ at the age of 30 almost indefinitely by growing new organs as they wear out or become diseased, ingesting a cocktail of proteins and enzymes, using gene therapy to alter genes that may slow down due to aging, and following the old adage of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Genetic engineering will also allow us to create ‘designer children,’ so parents can choose the physical (and perhaps even intellectual) characteristics of their children. (Laws will have to be passed to regulate this powerful technology.) Some of these children will be designed to have ‘superhuman abilities’ or become stronger, more intelligent, and happier than people are now.”

Extended life (even immortality) is a common threads running through many long-term future predictions. As I pointed out, cost of such treatments (and of extended life) will probably be enormous. Only the richest of people will be afford to live a long time. Do people really want to live forever? I guess if I live to be 150 years old, I’ll know. Kaku continues with two more health-related predictions:

6. Molecular ‘smart bombs’ circulating in our blood will home in on, zap, and kill cancer cells. Nanoparticles the size of molecules will seek out cancer cells and destroy them years before they become a problem, by either poisoning or rupturing them. We will view chemotherapy as we now view bloodletting and leeches, a painful relic of our ignorant past. Cancer will not be cured: There are too many types of cancers that mutate too quickly, so the disease will persist; however, doctors will be better equipped to diagnose cancer early and treat the disease successfully.

7. Our toilets and bathroom mirrors will contain DNA sensors, capable of detecting proteins emitted from perhaps a hundred cancer cells in a cancer colony, 10 years before a tumor forms. We will have a complete medical checkup every time we go to the bathroom, which will contain more computer power than a modern hospital. The word ‘tumor’ will disappear from the English language. Even our clothes will contain these cancer-finding chips, but these chips will also multitask, and will be able to independently call for an ambulance in the case of an accident, upload our medical history to nearby hospitals, and sense irregularities in heartbeat, breathing, and brain waves. In the future, it will be difficult to die alone.”

Kaku moves next into the industrial sector where he predicts the rise of the machine.

8. The robot industry will dwarf the size of the current automobile industry. Robots will be everywhere, performing dangerous and tedious tasks. They will have emotions. They will be friendly, polite, helpful (and with fail-safe devices to prevent accidents). Many robots won’t be human-shaped but will be hidden from view, the size of snakes, insects, and spiders, and will undertake various unpleasant and dangerous tasks in place of humans. They will also be used as cooks, surgeons, musicians, pets, store clerks, and so forth. By the end of the century, robots will be nearly as smart as humans and may replace many jobs. Among the worse off will be blue-collar workers who perform repetitive jobs that are easily replaced by robots.”

During the current nuclear powerplant crisis facing Japan, workers have been asking, “Where are the robots?” Although there have been some robots used, the heroic workers that have been sacrificing their health and lives to mitigate the disaster might have been spared had the right robots been available. In the future, the real trick will be finding the right balance between robot and human employees. Kaku next joins Patrick Moore (see yesterday’s post) in predicting the construction of a space elevator. He writes:

9. Tourists will soar into outer space via space elevators. We will push the ‘up’ button and the elevator will climb a long carbon-fiber cable that will extend thousands of miles into space. This will open up the solar system to wealthy tourists and the outer-space-obsessed. The key is to use nanotechnology to create superstrong cables made of carbon. In addition, scientists will be preparing the first starship capable of leaving the solar system and visiting the nearest stars. New propulsion systems, perhaps involving antimatter or fusion engines, will take us there. By the end of the century, we may have a small outpost on Mars, but an overwhelming proportion of the human race will still be on earth. For decades to centuries to come, space travel will be for astronauts, the wealthy, and maybe a handful of hardy space colonists.”

Kaku concludes his look into the future with a prediction that is as much warning as vision. He concludes:

10. With advanced technology also will come advanced dangers, especially biological warfare, nuclear proliferation, and global warming. Science is a double-edged sword. One side can cut against poverty, disease, and ignorance, but the other side can cut against people unless it is properly controlled. Global warming will become even more disastrous, as rising sea levels inundate many American coastal communities, and some cities, such as New York, take refuge by surrounding themselves with seawalls.”

Technology, of course, doesn’t come with moral biases. How humankind puts technology to use determines how we view it. The big questions surrounding technology is not whether it will continue to advance but whether humankind will be able to adapt quickly enough to regulate the moral dimensions of its use. Historically, technology has always won the race and I suspect that pattern won’t change. Politicians, even with the help of scientists and ethicists, aren’t smart enough and the regulatory processes they employ are not fast enough to keep up with technology’s potential applications. That shouldn’t shock anyone since inventors are often surprised at how their technologies are used. One thing I can predict with confidence — the world will remain an interesting place in a hundred years. Want to look even further into the future? Watch the attached video to see one individual’s view of how the future will unfold from 2100 AD to 4000 AD.