By Jacob Foxx
Realclearscience had an interesting article detailing nine predictions about the world of 2025. The predictions come from Thomson Reuters, a research firm with a prestigious reputation. All of them are positive and exciting, but a bit too optimistic.
The predictions include improvements in treatment and prevention of dementia, rise of solar power as primary energy source, electric cars and planes, increases in food production and efficiency, the end of petroleum based plastics, better pharmaceuticals with fewer side effects, and DNA mapping.
All of them are certainly possible but a couple are more long shots. First, I have been hearing about solar power and the end of plastics since I was a kid. Its been two decades and neither has come to pass. The electric car has been a dream for decades as well. We are definitely moving towards electric cars but it will likely take longer than 10 years for full conversion. Prevention of dementia is definitely a long shot in the next ten years. These four will take longer than 10 years in my opinion.
There will certainly be progress but I think the pace of technological innovation will slow slightly in the coming years, particularly in the United States. The main reason is the student loan bubble. A large portion of tuition payments from students funds research activities that provide the foundation for technological innovation.
There has been so much money available to pay tuition that colleges have jacked up their rates to capture the extra dollars. However, this trend is reaching its end. Parents and students are becoming much more weary of taking on so much debt or paying outrageous tuition rates. Government funding for higher education is also due for major cuts. Less funding and tuition means less funds for research.
Universities do primarily basic research. It is a vital component to R&D but not the only component. Major corporations, small tech startups, and nonprofit research organizations conduct what is called translational research and development, which is turning research breakthroughs into commercial products. Lately there’s been more than enough capital for these kinds of operations but that might be at an end soon as well. The federal government has been pumping billions into the banking system, allowing companies to raise capital cheaply. This is creating yet another bubble. It won’t be nearly as horrible as the 2007-2008 housing bubble, but the burst will dry up all the cheap money floating around.
Not all countries are facing this problem but the United States is the premiere innovator in the world today. Tough economic times means innovative people don’t have has many chances to make their ideas a reality. They have to be more practical, taking jobs that aren’t challenging and don’t allow them to innovate. The innovators are less happy and society loses out on what great things could’ve come from them.
Of the predictions mentioned above I agree with a couple. In 2025, I think the majority of cars sold will be electric but not all of them. Most cars on the road will probably still be gas-powered. By 2025 I would not be surprised if we see the beginning of the end of oil. I’m not sure if we will completely eliminate it as a commodity, but we won’t use it for as many things as we do now. Solar power might be the energy source of the future but I will hedge my bet on that one. There are other potential energy sources that may prove more efficient.
Making predictions about medicine is extremely difficult because they tend to overshoot. The human body is extremely complicated and each one is different. Recently there has been an increase in interest in targeting neurological diseases such as dementia, Altzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Pharmaceuticals are also getting better in terms of limiting side effects but I don’t expect any major jumps in ten years.
As for DNA mapping I strongly agree with that one. I think we are a generation away from predicting our children’s traits and appearance, before they are even born.
The end of plastics would be a huge breakthrough. It would reduce demand for oil and decrease waste pollution from plastic crap that doesn’t break down for hundreds or thousands of years.
Drone technology will progress dramatically leading to the possible elimination of the combat pilot. We might also see the very first laser weapons in use (I’d give it 30 percent chance).
Unfortunately, my view of the next ten years isn’t positive in other respects. The United States faces very serious challenges and, to date, we haven’t been willing to take them on. Social Security and Medicare are nearing collapse. Medicare might go before 2025. The crisis will force us to either raise taxes or betray the promise to the elderly. Both would profoundly damage confidence in the US, limiting new investment.
In addition, the disappointing economic recovery has slowed the career development of young American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Many are taking jobs in areas they didn’t study for in college or graduate school. As a result, they are not gaining the necessary skills and experience to contribute to science and technology. American innovation will slow and you will see more Nobel Prizes and breakthroughs come from other countries.
Wars also divert resources away from science and technology (aside from weapons development of course). The Middle East and North Africa are already embroiled in violent conflict. However, tensions are rising in Europe and the Pacific. Countries are starting to divert resources away from science and education spending towards defense spending. I am not saying we are going to have a world war. We may not have any major wars at all in the next ten years but there will still be a diversion of resources away from research and towards weaponry.
The 2030s and 2040s might go a lot better, in my opinion. Still, there is enough promise for people to be optimistic about the future. Thomson Reuters might be a little too optimistic but there’s nothing wrong with that. Its nice to dream.