What will life be like in 30 years’ time? We asked six forecasters to do better than Back to the Future II’s predictions
Although several of the film’s predictions, like video calls and wearable technology, came true, Back to the Future II showed the pitfalls of making long-term forecasts. The world of 2015 was one of hoverboards, flying cars and power clothing, and instead we got Snapchat, selfies and man buns.
With that in mind, we asked five experts what the world of 2045 will look like:
Alex Ayad, head of Imperial College London’s Tech Foresight Practice
You’ll be able to purchase high-quality emotions online. Emotion-sharing experiences are the latest fad in 2045. Imagine your friend at Glastonbury can post a photo on Instagram and with it comes bundled a faint twinkling of what she was feeling right there in that moment, so you too can share emotionally in her social experience.
Recently, techniques for direct brain stimulation, like optogenetics, have made it possible to not only read but also write information into single neurons. At the moment data transfer rates are still very slow, the best we can do is a few bits per second, but this could well increase to kilobits or maybe reach broadband speeds by 2045. This means the range of human perception could expand beyond its current design limitations. One could foresee a new and extraordinary world where there is a virtual marketplace for trading high quality emotions – where artists looking for a particularly high strength brew of melancholy, or actors needing to channel regret or compassion for their next play, could purchase emotions online.
Our cities will be made from living, dynamic materials that respond to the environment. In 30 years, tall buildings made of glass and twisted steel will be seen as relics from a bygone era, in the same way we think now of 1970s concrete tower blocks: ugly, out-dated and unfit for contemporary purpose. The urban environment of 2045 blends architecture with living materials that are mouldable, adaptable, responsive and disposable.
Entirely new synthetic life forms, or biological machines, made of engineered living cells from bacteria, fungi and algae will grow and evolve with the changing needs of a building’s inhabitants. They breathe in pollutants, clean wastewater, and use sunlight to make useful chemicals, energy, heat and vibrant vertical gardens. We will start to see a convergence between biology and technology, to the point where there is no longer a perceptible difference between the two. Today, synthetic biology labs are looking at the full diversity of what nature has to offer and using this to mix, match and edit genomes to design synthetic life forms. Right now, this field is just getting started and the science of synthetic biology is going to be tougher than most will admit.
We will use invisibility cloaks to “disappear” ugly objects. Invisibility has forever been a tantalising prospect. The key to cloaking lies in the way the electromagnetic spectrum (including visible light) interacts with objects. The human eye picks up electromagnetic radiation that falls and scatters from objects and we perceive this as light. In recent decades, scientists figured out using mathematics that it might just be possible to imagine a new class of artificial materials made of intricate tiny features with light (and sound) bending properties. They named them metamaterials.
Using nanotechnology engineering, scientists have since shown cloaking actually works – in principle at least, for a narrow range of colours and only from certain viewing angles. In my view the future applications of cloaking are highly uncertain and will likely be determined by the fads and social contagion of the time. They may be used in everything from novelty gimmicks to making unsightly construction sites and power stations seemingly ‘disappear’.
Oren Etzioni, chief executive of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence
AI will find the answers to many of the humanity’s biggest questions.By 2045, we will not yet achieve human-level artificial intelligence, but we will have intelligent tools that augment our abilities to an unprecedented degree. No human can read even a tiny fraction of the one-hundred million or so scientific papers available online. But what if a cure for cancer is hinted at within the millions of medical articles that are published each year?
In 30 years’ time, AI will be able to read – and understand – scientific papers, both text and figures! These AI readers will be able to connect the dots between disparate studies to identify novel hypotheses and suggest experiments that would otherwise be missed. AI will help us to find the answers to science’s thorniest problems. At the Allen Institute for AI in Seattle we are working towards this future with the Semantic Scholar project. Our broad mission is to contribute to humanity through high-impact AI research and engineering.
You won’t be able to tell the difference between VR hoverboards and real hoverboards. By 2045 quite a few of us might have a hoverboard, but it will be struggling to compete with the thrill of the virtual reality version. What we are likely to see is the breakdown of much of the current distinction between the real and the digital, and the artificial and the human.
Humans will upgrade themselves continuously. As human enhancement becomes increasingly widespread and sophisticated, prosthetic add-ons and improvements will move further into the realm of the possible and everyday. Bits of exoskeleton hanging by the front door for Marty to put on as he goes into the street to make him a little bit faster, better coordinated, stronger.
Those who can afford it will have better eyesight and hearing, and just the right cocktail of food/medication to be the very best that they can be for the day ahead, based on micro performance analysis of the day just gone.
Driverless cars will just be…cars. And for many driving will have become only a leisure pursuit, a kind of sport.
Buildings will power themselves. Being optimistic, Marty and Doc won’t find themselves in a smoggy apocalypse in 2045. Rather, a powerful mix of sense and/or fear will have continued the momentum behind increasing the efficiency and reducing the cost of alternative power sources. Solar panels will be built into lots of different building materials, so the whole of Hill Valley can quietly and cleanly power itself.
Richard Watson, futurist, writer and founder of online magazine What’s Next
Your phone, car or home can read your feelings and adapt accordingly
Machines will be able to sense and then adapt themselves to the emotional state of an individual user. At the moment machines can work out where someone is, who someone is and perhaps what they are doing or “like” but that’s about it. The next stage will be for machines to intuit human feelings. This can be done by ‘harvesting’ facial expressions, body language, heart rate, voice and so on. If you are typing text into a computer the computer might consider the speed you are typing, decide you are stressed and conclude that this isn’t the best time to allow you to read negative emails.
If you are driving a car, the car might consider how you are driving and infer certain conclusions. If the car decides you are angry and in danger of driving unsafely it might adapt itself to make things safer. On the other hand a shop might use this technology to work out when customers are more likely to buy things, including things they probably don’t really want.
Robotic insect swarms will help farmers and the military
By 2045 we should see insect-sized robotic insects capable of flying in co-ordinated swarms. They might be used for crop pollination purposes or as battlefield or crowd control cameras. These flying robots could be fitted with air sniffing or sampling technology to test air quality, search for pollution or give early warning about biological or gas attacks. They could also be programmed to interact with real insects. Gives the term police SWAT team a whole new meaning!
3D printed pizza
An invention that featured in Back to the Future II was the Black & Decker Hydrator . This was a kitchen device that could turn raisins back into grapes and stale pizza into a freshly delivered snack. By 2045 many kitchens will feature a 3D Printer that can turn out a fairly respectable printed pizza, biscuits, pretzels and so on. NASA is already experimenting with 3D printed food for missions to Mars and beyond. Unlikely to put any top-end London restaurants out of business, but a fun kitchen gadget to sit alongside the Soda stream and waffle maker, although if you have a 3D printer you wouldn’t need a waffle maker.
Peter Cochrane OBE, advisor and former BT chief technology officer
Almost everything about you will be monitored, analysed, and responded to by sensors and connected everyday objects.
In 2045, upon waking, you’ll walk into the bathroom, whose mirror will check your pulse and blood oxidation. An ultrasonic teeth cleaner samples and analyses your saliva, while bathroom scales, built into the floor, check your weight and skin salinity. Your toilet analyses all body matter issued, and all data is checked against your wearables to consider the recorded activities of the previous day, including food and drink intake.
By the time you are dressed and enter the kitchen your general health and bodily needs have been assessed and a suitable smoothie and coffee will have been prepared, along with a suggested breakfast menu of food, which is optimised to match the day’s activities, pulled from your diary and messaging systems. Everything will be tailored to your own needs, and by the time you leave the house, you will be completely refreshed and energised for the day ahead.
Poverty and hunger have been all but eliminated – by Uber
Uber, the world’s premier logistics, transportation, and energy company, has entirely eliminated urban “food islands” in developed areas of the world, and the Uber Foundation has leveraged the company’s technology along with outside partnerships to make significant contributions to reducing global hunger and poverty.
Through massive R&D efforts in renewable energy, autonomous vehicles, and technology-governed transportation networks, food, water, and other critical goods are available at extremely low cost to virtually anyone in the world who needs them. Such innovation can be traced back to the Gates Treaty of 2025, which was driven by philanthropist Bill Gates and President of the United States Pharrell Williams.
It for the first time brought together the most economically productive 25 nations to agree to a mutual reduction in military and other spending and an increase in R&D spending and corporate incentives to pursue environmental and climate change reseach.