Futurists have their heads in the clouds

On making good predictions for 2050

The problem with futurists is they trend toward being sci-fi writers without the plot. Consider the recent The Age of Em, by Robin Hanson, in which he predicts that “roughly within a century” human civilization will be composed mostly of uploaded digital minds. Robin Hanson is a very smart person, but this is a terribly bad prediction. More recently, when making his prognostications for the next 100 years, the blogger, economist, and other smart person, Tyler Cowen, said that:

. . . neural engineering might give us the power to move and alter physical objects just by using our minds.

And furthermore that due to genetic engineering:

. . . humanity will be divided into groups with different genetic histories. That has not happened in the recent history of humankind.

Or consider physicist Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future. Kaku’s own twitter profile describes himself as a “Famed Futurist” so you can bet the scenario he depicts in the year 2100 is going to be absolutely not ridiculous at all:

Leaving the bathroom, you wrap some wires around your head, which allow you to telepathically control your home: you mentally raise the temperature of the apartment, turn on some soothing music, tell the robotic cook in your kitchen to make breakfast and brew some coffee, and order your magnetic car to leave the garage. . . The magnetic car instantly accesses the Internet, the GPS, and billions of chips hidden in the road that constantly monitor traffic. With the car driving itself, you have time to scan the video mail left by your sister. . . “John, remember this weekend we have a birthday party for Kevin, who is now six. You promised to buy him the latest robot dog.” . . . You love cruising in your magnetic car. There’s no bumps or potholes to worry about, since it’s hovering over the road.

Why are such smart people so impossibly bad at this? Why do they jump to your “headwires” controlling your “robot cook” as you get ready to drive your floating car? The truth is that most futurists are attracted to speculating about the future for the same reason as science fiction writers: they like geeking out about technological possibilities and the associated metaphysics. That’s how you get a sci-fi book without the plot.

If you want to predict the future accurately, you should be an incrementalist and accept that human nature doesn’t change along most axes. Meaning that the future will look a lot like the past. If Cicero were transported from ancient Rome to our time he would easily understand most things about our society. There’d be a short-term amazement at various new technologies and societal changes, but soon Cicero would settle in and be throwing out Trump/Sulla comparisons (or contradicting them), since many of the debates we face, like what to do about growing wealth inequality, or how to keep a democracy functional, are the same as in Roman times.

To see what I mean more specifically: 2050, that super futuristic year, is only 29 years out, so it is exactly the same as predicting what the world would look like today back in 1992. How would one proceed in such a prediction? Many of the most famous futurists would proceed by imagining a sci-fi technology that doesn’t exist (like brain uploading, magnetic floating cars, etc), with the assumption that these nonexistent technologies will be the most impactful. Yet what was most impactful from 1992 were technologies or trends already in their nascent phases, and it was simply a matter of choosing what to extrapolate.

For instance, cellular phones, personal computers, and the internet all existed back in 1992, although in comparatively inchoate stages of development. So did the beginning of the rise of college costs, the start of an urban renaissance, a major crime bill was being passed, there were increasing standards of living, especially in entertainment, and meanwhile globalization was in full swing, the soviet union had already collapsed, islamic terrorism was considered a major threat, the big growing debates were PC culture and health care reform, and the USA was without a doubt the world’s leading superpower. Put all those things together and you would have had at least an adumbration of today. Stuff takes a long time to play out, often several generations. The central social and political ideas of our culture were established in the 1960s and 70s and took a slow half-century to climb from obscure academic monographs to Super Bowl ads.

So here are my predictions for 2050. They are all based on current trends. An important disclaimer: Please note that I am writing them as overly-dry observations, not moral judgements of what should or shouldn’t happen. This means broad and over-generalized language about the activity of demographics (“the western world”, “women”, “men”, “the rich”, “the poor”, “China” etc) which is at the outset unavoidably guilty of painting with a broad brush. In this vein, note that most of my predictions concern America and the globalized First World. The future of the Third World is easier to predict: it just becomes more like the First World.

Technological changes

1. There will be a Martian colony.
This might seem to contradict my point to be conservative, but I think we can make this judgement precisely by extrapolating the incredible progress in the private space sector over the last decade. By 2050 there will be an established and growing civilian presence on Mars—a city on the Red Planet. Founded by a joint-company consortium in terms of the actual ships and structures, it will also have NASA and other national space programs’ support. The whole world will watch in excitement and its development will be covered closely by Earth press, though there is already early controversy over the privatized nature of it. Jobs on Mars will be mainly either science, construction, or tourism. But the first city will experience surprisingly explosive economic growth, adding population in a way no Earth city is at the time. It’s very possible someone you know right now will be living on Mars by 2050. Once there is a steady fleet of ships heading off every couple years at each launch window, libertarian and religious groups will have put out their extremely early feelers to settling Mars in different locations. But in the year 2050 most activity will be in building up a single corporate-controlled city, which will likely be under USA governance in the beginning, due to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. What the treaty means is that whatever country you launch from and send supplies from is in control of that new territory. That first Martian city, likely America’s greatest historical achievement (and what America will be remembered for in the long run of humanity), will be the main focal point of extraterrestrial expansion.

2. The marketization of everything.
The 21st century will be one of mad markets. Nearly every imaginable thing, from your attention to your time, will be available to be monetized and tokenized by 2050. And nearly everything tokenizable will have truly wild dynamics, almost unimaginably disruptive in terms of wealth creation. Neighborhoods will experience flash booms and crashes. In-game tokens will surge and crash. Tulip frenzies will be rife and impossible to stop. This will present incredible opportunities, as many people will get rich off of these wild markets, and it will possible to have absurd generational wealth just from investing in some random cryptocurrency, decentralized company, or gamified tokenization early on enough. However, the state will use draconian measures to try to combat this as much as possible, keeping the worst of its excesses under control by simply making as much of this illegal as possible.

3. AI will be the most futuristic impactful change in day-to-day life.
AI will be controlled mostly by major corporations, and we will all interact with the same AIs. In other words, the advanced version of things like Siri will do things like manage your calendar, help you with writing and making presentations, and overall be a major part of people’s lives. These will be tightly controlled by a small number of Big Tech companies, almost all of which will have pivoted to AI, which will be the most profitable part of their business. This is because AIs that operate on a high level in terms of conversation and human-like cognitive ability will cost dozens if not hundreds of millions in compute time and power to train and deploy due to scaling laws for training them, and you will interact with it as an oracle (e.g., hosted by some major company and you can query it for your app, to make your appointments, etc). White-collar workers, like tax attorneys, lawyers, and programmers, will suffer the most from this automation, whereas plumbers and yard workers will still be unaffected. The worst hit will be artists like writers, painters, poets, and musicians, who will have to deal with a total saturation of artistic content by AI. By 2050 much of the words you read and content you consume will be generated by an AI, leading to a “semantic apocalypse.” By then AI will become a serious political issue (like whether humans should start a “Butlerian Jihad,” as I’ve argued for).

4. The supersensorium will grow in power.
I coined the term “supersensorium” to describe the all-in-one supermarket like experience of today’s entertainment. The ability to be entertained nonstop, from almost any of our ubiquitous screens, is one of the distinguishing features of our generation. The products will only grow more varied, more entrancing, and so on—superstimuli compared to the few dozen channels most had access to in the 20th century. And while it won’t have replaced TV or all traditional video games, virtual reality will have become the biggest growth sector of entertainment and media. VR addiction will be much more impactful than the ill-defined notions of “internet addiction.” At the same time, there will be some amazing art and experiences available, and some video games will become immortalized and recognized as Art with a capital ‘A.’

5. A mostly storeless society.
The majority of all current brick and mortar stores that are not located in scenic or tightly-packed downtowns will have closed. From stores that sell physical objects to chain restaurants, most of the physical locations you can go and shop will be gone. Instead, you will be able to get any product you would normally buy in a physical store delivered to you in under an hour, sometimes in mere minutes. You want a burrito for lunch? There’s an app for that, and you’ll receive it tin-foil wrapped and still warm via drone or human carrier in ten minutes. Buzzing drones of all shapes and sizes will be common the sky (last year Amazon won FAA approval for its delivery drone service, opening the door for this). Small robots will be everywhere, roving the streets in urban areas, mostly doing deliveries.

6. Education will take place mostly online.
The education bubble will have popped and in 2050 the majority of education will take place online. A combination of private tutors and MOOCs and testing centers will have become the most common form of education. Students will compile credits from these different courses for different degrees. Colleges and universities will have lost much of their prestige and most mid-tier institutions will be closed or closing. Institutions with names that aren’t Harvard will be in trouble. The colleges and universities that do remain will sell themselves on student-teacher involvement, will be extremely expensive to cover the costs of their massive institutional expansions for the last three decades, and students will not attend for the four full years (except in the Ivies and a handful of top institutions). Instead students will attend flexibly to fulfill the hands-on course requirements for their degrees, solely for the things they cannot get online (a chemistry lab, for instance). The notion of spending 18-22 at living on campus will be considered an anachronism or a wasteful indulgence of the rich. With only the very top colleges remaining to be attended full time by the wealthy and elite, it will become incredibly apparent who the aristocracy in America is—for there is indeed an aristocracy right now, it is just masked under mass college attendance.

7. Genetic engineering of embryos to avoid disease will have become common.
Sex and reproduction will become even more separated, and screening multiple embryos for their health before implantation will be common, although not universal. Superficial genetic upgrades for babies (heterochromatic eyes, for instance) will be a trend among the super rich or pop stars. However, there will be no genetic engineering that improves the fundamentals of human traits like intelligence or athleticism or even anything like attractiveness above and beyond all-natural humans—the available technology will still be focused solely on avoiding downsides, like genetic diseases or disabilities. This will ultimately cure a lot of potential suffering, but not lead to some sci-fi split between the “geners” and the “normals,” or anything ridiculous like that.

8. Anti-aging technology will extend the health-spans of the rich.
There will be no immortality pill. However, there will be a suite of techniques that celebrities and the super rich will have access to that will extend their health-span (the period of time in which they are active and healthy), possibly by decades. Already it is quite obvious that people at the top are not aging in the way they used to. Jennifer Lopez, Paul Rudd, and The Rock are classic examples of celebrities over 50—even our president, Joe Biden, is unimaginably old for a president in the 19th century.

The same is true for billionaires. Jeff Bezos at 57 does not look like Conrad Hilton did at 57. Although there is some evidence of age delaying already happening to the more general population, the “health gap” will become more and more obvious, as greater assets translate into a longer health span.

Demographics

9. Huge improvements to standards of living.
Standard of living has been going up very consistently basically since one can measure it, and this will continue to increase. Everything will just get nicer. Entertainment systems will be more high def, cars will be all electric, houses will be smart, and even food will taste better and be more locally grown. The Apple aesthetic that Steve Jobs founded is already well on the way to becoming the background aesthetic to the entire century, perfected by the recent polygonal Tesla aesthetic. By 2050 pretty much everyone will be wearing smart glasses for augmented reality, and eventually these glasses will replace a lot of phones (no one will carry a wallet in 2050). At the same time, the future will not look particularly high tech, not really. It will look minimalistic and seamless and integrated and white and sleek, and devices will be inset, and your coffee will make itself automatically when you wake up. Wealth inequality will be skyrocketing, but who cares? Your coffee will make itself. No robot butlers flying around the kitchen though.

10. Families will continue to decline in importance.
A near majority of children will be being raised in single-parent homes by 2050. For those who think this number is too high, this rate has been climbing consistently, especially in the EU and countries like Sweden and Norway. In Denmark, for instance, the total percent of single-parent households in 2019 was around ~33%, up from only ~20% in 2009).

The probability of reproduction of most women will remain high, but for men it will fall on average. To compensate for this, the state will necessarily become more socialist in terms of childcare and universal basic income. Normally, large number of single men without mating prospects and with little societal status would nearly guarantee societal collapse. However, the standard of living will be so high and the supersensorium so effective that this isn’t a problem.

11. The future really is female.
By 2050 there will be near-domination of society and the economy by women. This trend has been consistent for decades now, so I think there is good probability it will continue. In 2021, women get the majority of all degrees, from high school degrees all the way up to graduate school degrees. The access of billions of women to this socioeconomic opportunity will continue its building momentum. As of now something close to ~60% of all college degrees go to women: by 2050, it will be well above 70% (although this will be decentralized from traditional colleges and universities, as discussed earlier). And while women’s salaries are not as high on average as men’s now, this has already switched in urban areas, which is generally a predictive indicator, and therefore women’s wages in the workplace will indeed be greater than men in terms of their salaries by 2050. Just as the invention of the teenager as a consumer category reshaped popular culture, the ever increasing rise of independent women with disposable income will reshape society, from what entertainment is produced to who is an elected official.

12. The rise of the throuple.
Polyamory, the fastest growing cultural movement when it comes to novel forms of relationships, will continue to increase and become more open in the public eye and likely be legalized nation-wide by 2050. It is difficult to see what in the USA’s current legal system or culture firmly naysays why a man and two women, or two women and a man, or any combination thereof or on the spectrum, could not effectively raise a child or form a married family unit. In the city of Cambridge in Massachusetts domestic partnerships with more than two members are already legal. The admittance of gay marriage and gay adoption in the early 2000s created an inexorable form of logic, which will continue its advance to apply to relationships that are currently considered extremely experimental. The economic rise of women plays into this, since the number of male partners who are of equal or greater socioeconomic status than women will be ever-more limited, eventually only a small percent. Debates around gender and sexuality will never go away in full, but the many distinct identities of today will lead to a more fluid conception wherein, for instance, bisexuality is not so much a concrete separate identity as an occasional fact of life experienced by most.

13. A minority-led country.
Princeton’s incoming class for 2021 is 68% non-white. In fact, currently across the Ivy League (except Dartmouth), whites are significantly underrepresented in their incoming student bodies in proportion to the overall population. This trend of outperformance by minorities in the upper echelons of society like at elite universities, major corporations, and in creative endeavors (books published, movies starred in, etc), will continue and intensify—even just by demographics alone 2050 America will itself be majority non-white.

Political changes

14. The world will not war.
The Pax Nuclei will hold. Established in the 1950s, the Pax Nuclei has lasted longer than any other world peace in history. Inter-state wars between the larger nations are not just on the decline, but nonexistent. For instance, it’s notable that

…since 1945, Europe has been free from substantial interstate warfare for probably the longest period of time since the continent was invented as a concept some 2,500 years ago.

There will not be a World War III during this period. Indeed, nuclear disarmament will continue. Both Russia and China will likely make territory grabs, but America, tired of endless war in the Middle East during the early part of the 21st century, will not be able to muster up any will for resistance, and soft power will continue to dominate both internationally and domestically.

15. The age of the mob will spur domestic turmoil.
Social media will ensure an endless culture war and internal social upheaval. For our stone-age brains built to handle the social relations of 200 tribesmen, social media provides a supernormal stimuli. Various forms of public shaming will have become ritualized in their ubiquity and methods, similar to the stockades of Medieval Europe. Many people will undergo public shamings at some point in their lives, creating a divided and bitter underground of quiet dissidents and lower caste citizens. Society will be extremely sensitive to heresy, with what constitutes heresy shifting continuously so as to reliably signal social virtue and status in massive online social networks in which it is difficult to gain prestige in other ways.

16. Soft totalitarianism will make the West more like China.
The vision of Fukayama and other proponents of the neoliberal order was that it was only a matter of time until Russia, China, and indeed the rest of the world joined the world at history’s end in the form of a free market democracy. The opposite appears to be happening, and recently the US has made clear it is comfortable being more like China and Russia. The truth is that social media has concentrated speech in the hands of a small number of major corporations, which will work hand-in-hand with Western governments to control discourse in a manner the government likes, just as a small number of corporations control the Chinese internet at their government’s bidding. Quite simply, it has become too technologically easy to steer the ship of the culture with the rudder of social media, and putting a hand on the rudder is irresistible for political parties. So there is nowhere to go but toward China, toward stricter speech laws and codes, toward state observation and censorship and policing of debate and ideas. Western political parties are like two people in a fight who have both seen a gun lying on the floor and are in the process of leaping to wrestle for it. There is now no chance it does not go off.

17. People and culture will become boring.
Ultimately, this soft totalitarianism will be more like contemporary China’s and less like Stalinist Russian. There will not be obvious gulags or firing squads in the streets, although eventually there may be disappearances or jail time. The “gestapo” will mostly just ban you, cancel you, fire you, and lower your social credit score; essentially it will be a caste system. Being boring will become a survival trait. And look around. It already has. All socially risky behavior is on the decline, and has been in the decade since social media and the introduction of the smart phone. People in 2050 will have less sex, do less drugs, have less affairs, smoke less, and conform more in their opinions. Creativity will decline in correlation. The panopticon of social media and state control will lead to cultural stagnation. We already see early hints of this. Consider the remakes of older movies: 2050 will be a stew of remakes of remakes, and familiar and boring intellectual property (like Star Wars) will be king. Creativity vivacity will suffer, especially in the arts and humanities. The coming half-century will be a great one for innovations in finance, engineering, space travel, and artificial intelligence. It will be a terrible one for the arts and basic scientific advancements (like a new physics), for such advancements require iconoclastic and creative lone individuals. This prediction is already augured by judging the 2000-2020 creative period overall in areas like art, music, literature, film, and scientific discoveries, and finding it severely lacking compared to, say, 1950-1970.

My final prediction

18. It will be the winter of my life.
I cannot help but ask: What will happen to me? I am 33 now. By 2050 and the age of 62, I will have made any scientific discoveries I will ever make. I will have written all the books I have inside of me, left hollow like an exhausted mine. Rap my old chest and you’d hear it echo back. I’ll likely be successful but existentially restless and world-weary, or perhaps gruffly chafing at a political situation I disagree with. My mother’s brick and mortar bookstore I grew up in will have long ago closed. My future children will be adults in this strange new world, almost as old as myself at the age of this writing. They will not share the analog experiences of my childhood, like people carrying cash around, dial-up tones, spouses meeting outside of apps, or the incredible lightness of being that existed before everything was recorded and observed by cellphones. It will be the beginning of the end of my time here. All around me it will be snowing, though others will not see it.

Yet despite the oncoming cold I will comfort myself by finding Mars at night and listening to the news of the growing colony there. I will imagine all the different and beautiful civilizations and cultures that may one day exist across the stars. I will reflect on the brief role I played onstage in this, the play of plays. Those younger will not hear it, but I will—the swish of the great pendulum of decades far above my head, ushering in new forms of society, none any better or worse in the eyes of the universe, all of them all too human.