By Bram Vermeer
Overoptimism and overpessimism sells. But let’s face reality. Here are 10 things we won’t have by 2030:
1. Asteroid bomb
Asteroids with a diameter of more than 100 m (109 yd) reach our planet once every 2000 years. Distressing as that may be, their impact remains local. Bad luck if this asteroid hits Washington DC, but humankind as a whole will be able to survive that. The likelihood of a collision that has a real global impact is still 1000 times smaller. So we’d better prepare for more likely catastrophes, like flu pandemics and water shortages.
2. Moore’s law
The incredible miniaturization of microelectronics will inevitably come to a halt. Extrapolating the current pace, we will reach components of atomic sizes by 2020. But long before that, we will have given up the endeavor of making electronics smaller. We face tremendous technical difficulties in the next steps of miniaturization. Even if we succeed, the costs would be staggering. The speed of single processors already stalled at a few gigahertz. We would be better off investing in connecting processors with sensors and small motors, which would make clever devices that interact with us better.
3. Population stabilization
In many countries, birth and death rates are declining, but not at the same pace. It would require careful tuning of the number of babies to achieve demographic stabilization. There is no such stabilization in natural ecosystems, and we won’t see it in human society either. So be prepared for population growth, population decline, and an uneven age distribution in societies. All of these are concerning.
Will machines outwit humans and take over our civilization? For robots to procreate, they would have to take possession of mines, material plants, microelectronics foundries, assembling sites, and probably some military facilities as well. The collective power of 8 billion human minds will certainly prevent that in the next decades and defeat any machine “gone wild”. And what about our PCs, brain aids, and other appliances becoming increasingly part of us? I think we already crossed that boundary when we started to use cells. We live in a symbiotic relationship with technology, which means that we continuously have to nurture it. Technological evolution is about mastering science, not about submission to it.
5. The greenhouse flood
I live below sea level, as do many people in the Netherlands. The water authorities are already raising the dikes in preparation for climate change. By 2030 the sea level will have risen by only 4 cm (1.6″). So I needn’t be afraid for my house. Climate change is slow compared to the length of a human life. Precisely that makes it difficult for us to act. Also, counteractions only take effect slowly. But I am worried for the generations to come. The last time the earth saw a CO2 level comparable to what we are experiencing now, seas were 70 m (77 yd) higher. Long after 2030, we’ll probably have to give up the lowest parts of my home country. The same is probably true for cities like New Orleans.
6. Clean electric cars
Even in the most optimistic of scenarios, only 10 percent of all cars in Western societies will be electric by 2030. And even these cars won’t really be clean as they depend on fuels burnt in power plants. Worldwide we are still building two new coal-fired power plants a week; the pace of installing renewable power is much, much slower. Moving away from fossil energy is a huge task that requires more than adjustments. We have to prepare for a transformation that touches all aspects of society. Probably we’ll have to rethink the very concept of moving by car.
7. Invasion of nanobots
Crystal-gazers are dreaming about nanorobots that will swim through our veins and take over our internal functions one day. They will fire electrons at the right moment into our brains, triggering our neurons with artificial signals and fooling our senses. We’d hear the birds singing while, in reality, we are operating heavy machinery. But nanotechnology proves much harder to realize than initially thought. Scientists are now very glad they can produce nanodots, nanorods, and nanowires. No nanoarms and nanobodies, yet. And thanks to Moore’s law stalling, there will probably never be nanoelectronics on a small enough scale to equip a nanoinvader with enough intelligence to master our brains.
8. Terrorists taking over
It’s extremely difficult to kill a lot of people at once. Even a biological attack with smallpox would not kill many people, as there are many countermeasures in place, and this kind of attack is extremely complex. We should be more concerned with attacks on critical parts of our infrastructure: disrupting electricity networks, chemical plants, or communication links. That has the potential to knock out an entire society for much longer.
In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the recovery period for poor people was much longer than for rich people. As a result, the gap between rich and poor became wider in the city. The world is even more divided than New Orleans. Poor countries have smaller buffers to cope with financial crises, for example. We are facing a future with much variability in terms of weather, food prices, oil supply, and water provision. Each crisis will increase inequality. Equality requires stability. As long as our planet rushes from one crisis to the next, we cannot expect to have a more stable and therefore equal world.
10. The Mayan catastrophe
No, the world will not end in 2012. We probably just misinterpreted the Mayan calendar. We still have about 50 years’ respite, at least that’s according to cataclysmic arithmetic. For those who believe ancient fortune tellers, personally I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.
Bram Vermeer is a freelance science journalist with a background in physics who has been writing about technology for Dutch newspapers and scientific journals for 25 years. He lives and works alternately in Amsterdam and Berlin. He is author with Rutger van Santen and Djan Khoe of 2030: Technology That Will Change the World.