My response to a journalist’s inquiry about what I thought the five biggest changes would be in American life and society between now and 2020.
The first major change in American life and society will be the growing realization that radical life extension is possible. A number of new healthcare technologies will have become available by 2020, such as vaccines for cancer and treatments to prevent and repair Alzheimer’s disease, which will have extended healthy life expectancy. Some therapies will directly slow the aging process, and others will be in the pipeline.
The second and related major change will be a widespread discussion about ways to reform retirement, work, pensions and taxation to take account of the radical extension of life expectancy. Some will press for privatization, reducing entitlements, and raising the retirement age, while many Baby Boomer seniors will defend the status quo.
But a third trend will begin to change the terms of that “old age dependency” and “pension reform” debate: the growing structural unemployment as a result of robotics and artificial intelligence. After the global economy emerges from the current recession employment will recover very sluggishly because automation and information technology will increasingly be more attractive investments than human labor. Many redundant workers will need to be retrained for the shrinking occupations that humans do better than machines.
As a consequence of these three trends there will be discussions throughout the industrialized world about how to shorten the work-week and work-year, and increase subsidies for worker retraining, while expanding the work-life by raising the retirement age. The need for ongoing worker re-education will reduce our commitments to specific firms and careers, and encourage a strategy of diversifying our job skills and experiences in order to reduce our “precarity.”
A fourth trend will be the growing application of emerging technologies, such as genetic engineering of crops and nanotechnology, to the challenges of ecological sustainability and civilizational resilience. The investments begun with the Obama stimulus plan and budget to expand development and use of wind, solar and biofuel energy will be helping to reduce consumption of coal and oil. Crops more resistant to drought and severe weather will be spreading in use, and nanomaterials will be enabling reduced use of resources in manufacturing. Progress in nanorobotics and molecular manufacturing will make distributed fabrication of consumer goods an imminent prospect.
A fifth trend will be the merger of computing and telecommunications into ubiquitous interactive intelligence environment, at least for those with access to it. Our environments will be aware of our presence, and we will have glasses and clothes with constant connection to the web. Virtual displays will respond to our gestures and voice.
But, unfortunately for us futurists, the most important trend will be the rapid acceleration and completely unpredictable cross-fertilization of technologies. So 2020 will probably take the five trends above for granted, and be consumed with the issues raised by technologies we can’t even imagine today.