From algae to AI, the 12 themes experts predict will shape the world in 50 years

In 2018, Cape Town almost ran out of water. Other cities could face the same issue in the future.
In 2018, Cape Town almost ran out of water. Other cities could face the same issue in the future.
Image: AP Photo/Bram Janssen
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If you had to imagine what we will be obsessing over in 50 years, what would top your list? We put versions of that question to dozens of entrepreneurs, scientists, academics, and artists, including Richard Branson, Temple Grandin, Ian Bremmer, Ann Kim, and Bright Simons. From their 550 answers, some clear themes emerged: AI will be transformative, climate change will dominate, the genetic revolution will be in full swing.

When taken together, these themes paint a fascinating picture of our future world, from the perspective of people who have laid the groundwork to shape it. The themes show that, while experts anticipate that technology will play a big role in our lives in the future, it won’t take away our humanity. That’s important because we’ll need both to collectively face the challenges ahead. You can read all their responses here.

Here are the 12 main themes that emerged:

AI. Artificial intelligence, or more accurately, machine learning, is today leading to all kinds of breakthroughs for uses like diagnosing disease, producing the food we eat, and how we talk to each other. Progress, however, has been specific to each application. We don’t yet have general artificial intelligence, an entity that can learn constantly and be useful for a number of different applications. Though some researchers are skeptical that we will ever have general AI, others think it will likely happen in the next 50 years. Since it doesn’t yet exist, guessing what kinds of applications it could be used for is just that, guesswork. But one thing is certain: If we ever do have truly intelligent AI, it will transform our lives.

Algae. If you’ve only heard about the negative aspects of algae, like how its blooms clog waterways and kill off species, you’re missing half the story. Now scientists and engineers are discovering new ways to harness algae’s unique qualities. They are putting it on our plates, using it to sequester carbon dioxide, even making sneakers out of it. Proponents are touting algae as a way to break some of our most damaging habits, from petrochemical use to eating meat. If the trend continues, perhaps algae will have helped us mitigate some of the effects of climate change.

Implantable tech. Over the past few years, researchers have made incremental steps towards connecting computers to the human brain. A monkey controlled a computer with only its thoughts; paralyzed people have been able to move artificial limbs, as well as computers directly, thanks to brain-computer interfaces. Right now, the devices are still invasive and clunky, and there are questions about how the device would function, but it seems increasingly possible that a minimally invasive, highly functional device implanted in the human body could be close.

Climate changeTo be worried about climate change is to be tuned into the national conversation that, of late, has reached a fever pitch. As weather becomes more extreme, coastal cities slowly sink, and businesses swoop into a melting arctic, it seems that climate change is at a tipping point. The world has a lot of work ahead to mitigate its effects. The race is on.

CryptocurrencyThough cryptocurrency as we know it today is somewhat deflated, experts still believe there will be a need for it. As financial institutions have been the targets of security breaches and companies like Facebook have thrown their weight behind their own cryptocurrencies, a method for secure, digital payments will only become more important in the future.

EmpathyIt’s hard for us to imagine what the future might be like. Some things that seem important today might, even just a few decades down the line, not be nearly as relevant as we predicted. But several experts touched on a force that they felt confident would play a role in our collective future: human kindness and understanding. Without empathy, little else matters.

GeneticsWe’ve come a long way towards understanding genetics over the last century. While the discovery of the double helix (1953), the first cloned animal (1996), and the sequencing of the human genome (2003) all helped with our understanding, it wasn’t until the advent of CRISPR/Cas9 in 2012 that the genetic revolution seemed to be in humans’ hands. Researchers are now working to apply our sophisticated technology to preventing and treating disease, creating hardier and more nutritious crops, engineering new fuels, and maybe even reviving extinct species. Who can even imagine what gene editing will be like in another 50 years?

Lab-grown meatEven as people can afford to eat more meat, a growing number are balking at consuming it for a number of reasons, such as cruelty to animals, their own health, or its environmental impact. While some companies are exploring plant-based meat substitutes, a growing number are devising ways (Quartz member exclusive) to grow meat in the lab. As my colleague Chase Purdy writes (Quartz member exclusive), “The startups creating this next generation of meat products are betting they’ll be able to ride that same wave of public interest to sell something closer to the real thing than plant-based meats—and indeed, better than the real thing for a range of reasons.”

SurveillanceThere’s no doubt that devices like smartphones, internet-connected appliances, and home security systems have made our lives easier. But they’ve also created a new, deeply personal avenue through which companies, government entities, and hackers can monitor our movements and habits in exquisite detail. If we become even more reliant on technology, or it’s somehow integrated into our bodies in the next 50 years, it’s reasonable that surveillance would be a growing concern.

Universal basic incomeMany people are worried about automation in nearly every industry. To lessen the impact that this shift will have on society, one idea that has bubbled up is universal basic income, or the practice of giving a certain amount of money to every citizen in order to supplement or replace the income they would gain from working. Small-scale tests have not yielded very promising results, but some people, including Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, are still keen on the idea. After all, the world will need to conjure up some way of organizing society that’s not based on work.

Virtual realityVR, it turns out, doesn’t just offer an immersive way to experience video games. It can help treat some psychiatric disorders, train people in a number of technical professions including medicine, and allow historians to explore ancient sites without ever setting foot there. The technology has only become sophisticated enough to not be clunky within the past few years. But everyone’s agreed it has huge potential.

Water. Growing demand, dwindling supply, increasingly built up waterways, and more unpredictable weather patterns are a recipe for future conflict. Cities like Cape Town have already tipped towards drought, and it’s a decent prediction more cities will deal with the same issue in the future.

To read more answers, including those that don’t fit neatly into any of these themes, visit the World in 50 Years project.