Grasshopper nuggets, ambulance drones and self-driving cars… How different might life be 20 years from now?
Technologically, the 20-year jump from 2018 to 2038 will be huge. During that time some elements of our world will change beyond recognition while others will stay reassuringly (or disappointingly) familiar. Consider the 20+ years to 2018. Back in 1995 we were in the early days of the internet, we worked in cubicles and our computers were chunky and powered by Windows 95. There were no touch screen phones or flat screen TVs; people laughed at the idea of reading electronic books, and watching a home movie meant loading a clunky cassette into your VCR.
So, what will our world really be like 20 years from now? What does the future hold for the food we eat, the technology we use and the homes we live in? It would be tempting to roll out the clichés – food pills, flying cars and bases on the moon – but the reality will probably be less exciting. The world in 2038 will probably be much like it is today, but smarter and more automatic. Some innovations we might not notice, while others will knock us sideways, changing our lives forever.
The future of food
What it won’t be like: The scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) where Violet Beauregarde has a three-course roast dinner in a stick of chewing gum.
What it could be like: Google’s Ray Kurzweil says: "The next major food revolution will be vertical agriculture in which we grow food in AI-controlled vertical buildings rather than horizontal land: hydroponic plants for fruits and vegetables and in-vitro cloned meat." This change is already happening. Green Spirit Farms grows kale, spinach and other greens under LED lights in an old plastics factory near Chicago.
Vertical farming, genetically modified (GM) crops and synthetic meat will be responses to the growing need for greater food efficiency as populations continue to grow. But there will also be a reluctant realisation that we all need to eat a better diet, one that is more plant-based and less reliant on processed foods. Meatless Mondays are a start. If that doesn’t work, we could be eating insects in 2038. Already popular in parts of Asia, insects are protein-rich, low in fat and a good source of calcium. Hey, don’t knock a roasted grasshopper until you’ve tried one.
The future of love
What it won’t be like: The movie Her (2013), where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an artificial intelligence (AI) operating system that has Scarlett Johansson’s voice.
What it could be like: The internet has forever changed the way people meet and fall in love. Online dating and location-based services such as Vine, Snapchat and Grindr have opened up possibilities that allow people to look beyond their immediate friends, friends of friends, and co-workers.
We are becoming more independent and less constrained by the old social norms. This will have an impact on the relationships we form, with fewer people choosing traditional marriage, a rise in official (and unofficial) civil partnerships, and more people remaining single for longer, if not forever.
Dr Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute for research in sex, gender and reproduction and an adviser to dating website Match.com, thinks she knows where relationships are heading.
"Singles are ushering into vogue an extended pre-commitment stage of courtship," she wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "With hooking up, friends with benefits, and living together, they are getting to know a partner long before they tie the knot. Where marriage used to be the beginning of a partnership, it’s becoming the finale."
"Any prediction of the future should take into account the unquenchable, adaptable and primordial human drive to love," she added. "To bond is human. This drive most likely evolved more than four million years ago, and email and computers won’t stamp it out."
The future of work
What it won’t be like: The film Metropolis (1927), where battalions of sullen workers tend hulking machines in mind-numbing ten-hour shifts.
What it could be like: Rather than humans working with machines, automation is likely to make some jobs redundant: taxi drivers replaced by self-driving Uber cars; receptionists replaced by robots; doctors outclassed by algorithms that can plug into vast medical databases; and travel agents wiped out by trip-planning, flight-booking web services.
Heck, even writers like me are threatened by companies such as Narrative Science, which currently uses AI to automate the creation of sports reports and financial updates.
Obviously, there will also be new jobs created: the computer engineer/mechanic who fixes the self-driving Uber taxis; programmers; genome mappers and bioengineers; space tour guides; and vertical farmers. Technology will continue to disrupt businesses and eliminate jobs, creating new professions we can’t yet envisage.
Those of us who work probably won’t do so in a traditional office either. We’re already seeing a shift in the definition of work: it’s now a task you perform, not a place you go to. Productivity is no longer measured by sitting at a desk. There’s no nine to five. No job for life.
In MYOB’s report The Future of Business – Australia 2040, chief technology officer Simon Raik-Allen suggests we will see a return to more vibrant local communities as people work within walking distance of their homes.
"Rather than the office, or even the remote workspace, localised centres will emerge as the home of business – giant warehouses, which are used by employees from many different companies, spread around the globe… Within each will be rooms filled with giant wall-sized screens allowing us to work in a fully virtual, telepresence model. Banks of 3D printers would be continually churning out products ordered by the local community." Raik-Allen predicts.
The future of health
What it won’t be like: Any episode of Star Trek where Bones whips out a tricorder, diagnoses the illness and then cures it with a hypo-spray.
What it could be like: Hospitals are the costliest single element in Australia’s health system, representing up to 40 per cent of our annual health expenditure. No wonder future healthcare strategies will try to keep people out of them.
Prevention will become the focus as we gain greater control of our health information, using self-monitoring biosensors and smart watches to continuously gather fitness data; web apps will crunch the data, syncing to electronic health records. Using these numbers, companies will be able to build a model of your overall health that can predict future problems. Being forewarned, patients will be able to take action early, changing lifestyle habits or taking designer drugs tailored to their individual DNA.
Technology will be key. "Telehealth platforms will make in-home patient monitoring the norm for those who need it," says Dr Sarah Dods, health services research theme leader at CSIRO. Doctors will be able to consult over the internet – the perfect solution for people living in remote towns across Australia.
Genome mapping will lead to personalised medicines and 3D-printed replacement organs. Meanwhile, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology will be used in driverless ambulance drones. The New Zealand-based Martin Jetpack company has already developed such a concept.
Of course, greater awareness of what we need to do to stay healthy will be equally important, as will avoiding passing health fads such as juicing, weight loss supplements and weird detoxification rituals like eating clay. And if we can stay away from futuristic cosmetic surgery procedures such as JewelEye (implanting platinum jewels into the whites of the eye to give that movie-style sparkle), so much the better.
The future of technology
What it won’t be like: The film Elysium (2013), where the super-rich, led by Jodie Foster, have abandoned earth to live on a luxury space station.
What it could be like: Technology underpins everything we’ve looked at so far – food, health, relationships and work. We’re heading into a future where improved battery technology will enable better electric cars, personal flying machines, Hyperloop transportation systems, private space tourism and drone delivery services. We’ll wear Band Aid-style fitness sensors on our skin, charge our devices using wireless power, let algorithms optimise and guard our homes, and have virtual assistants (the next generation of Google Now, Siri and Cortana) to help us manage the flood of data and make sense of it.
Some of this might happen. Or none of it. Three things, however, are certain: technology will get smaller, smarter and cheaper. In fact, it will get so small, smart and cheap that we’ll be able to put computers and sensors into almost anything – fridges will tell us when we’ve run out of milk, bins will tell the council when they’re full, 4K televisions will notice when we’ve stopped watching and turn themselves off to save power.
We’re on the road to the internet of things where everything is connected, not only to the internet but also to one another.
The future is… unpredictable
Predicting the future is notoriously risky, especially if you claim to be an expert and then get it spectacularly wrong. In 1883 Lord Kelvin, president of Britain’s Royal Society, declared ‘X-rays will prove to be a hoax.’ Arthur Summerfield, the US Postmaster General in 1959, predicted that mail would be ‘delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles’. And we should be glad that Alex Lewyt’s 1955 notion of ‘nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners’ never made it to the drawing board.
But whatever happens next, it will be a great time to be alive.