From virtual brains and Matrix-like thought connections to disease-making bacteria, what the next decade could bring Nothing much is going to happen in the next 10 years. Of course, that’s not counting the diesel-excreting bacteria, the sequencing of your entire genome for $1,000, massive banks of frozen human eggs, space tourism, the identification of dark matter, widespread sterilisation of young adults, telepathy, supercomputer models of our brains, the discovery of life’s origins, maybe the disappearance of Bangladesh and certainly the loss of 247m acres of tropical forest.
As I said, just another decade really.
These days, “just another decade” always means 10 years of future shock. Science, technology and the contemporary mania for change combine to stun the imagination. It is the way we live now, in a condition of permanent technological revolution.
In 2000 — remember? — the internet all but died when the dotcom stock market bubble burst. You could stand on top of the World Trade Center. And mobile phones were just, er, phones. Today, you still get up and eat breakfast, but, outside, it’s a different world.
Next? Well, as Woody Allen said, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans for the future. But, taking a punt, I reckon the brain is the one to watch. Science has been zeroing in on the 2lb 14oz of grey and white custard-like stuff between your ears for some time now. It’s not been easy. In spite of the evidence of The X Factor, the human brain is very complex custard indeed. But some people are getting very excited.
“By 2020, genetics and brain simulation will be giving us personalised prescriptions for marriage, lifestyle and healthcare.” This is Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain project in Switzerland, an attempt to reverse engineer the brain by building one from the ground up inside a supercomputer.
“We won’t need a psychologist to tell us why we feel unhappy. All we’ll need to do is log into a simulation of our own brain, navigate around in this virtual copy and find out the origins of our quirks ... Computers will look at a virtual copy of our brains and work out exactly what we need to stop our headaches, quiet the voices talking in our heads and climb out of the valley of depression to a world of colour and beauty.”
Gosh. But isn’t there still that pesky problem of other people and their brains? It’s their quirks that tend to get in the way of my happiness. No problem, we can climb inside each other’s brains.
“The big thing for me is being able to link two brains together for communication.” This is Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics scientist at Reading University. “This could have great implications for teaching. Sometimes, no matter how you explain something, it takes forever for the penny to drop.
It would also help to avoid misunderstandings.”
But, eek, what would it be like?
“Well, just like The Matrix with a plug in the back of the head into the brain, or yes, like a Bluetooth earpiece. It would have to be bidirectional, though, so thoughts could travel from you to someone else and back,” says Warwick, who has already implanted a microchip in his own arm so that he can open doors without needing to use a doorknob.
James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, thinks gene sequencing will be the key to unlock the custard and even stir it. “Disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disease, unipolar depression, obsessive-compulsive disease, attention deficit disorder and autism will finally have their genetic guts open for all to see.”
Some of the most impenetrable and harrowing mental illnesses known to man will, Watson believes, be understandable and maybe even curable.
“The exact location and biological function of the DNA variants causing many depressive disease and related disorders cannot be revealed too soon,” he says.
Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at Warwick and Oxford, agrees that brain diseases are the really big nasties. “Some leave sufferers horribly aware as they lose the ability to walk, to talk, to swallow. Others corrupt and destroy the mind, leaving an empty body. Some, such as CJD, are very rare, others frighteningly common. About 700,000 people in the UK have dementia.”
We are seeing more of these diseases because death rates from cancer and heart disease are falling so people are living long enough to develop them. Hope for cures is coming from stem-cell research, genetic and molecular analysis.
“There will be a breakthrough. My hunch is that research on motor neurone disease will provide crucial clues and by 2020 we will know why cells die in some, perhaps many, of these diseases. It could be another decade before we see the impact on health, but by 2020, we must be on the way to this ultimate goal of modern medical science,” says Blakemore.
Meanwhile, sex — you knew it was coming — will be even more recreational than it is now. The pill will continue to be the primary contraceptive device, says its inventor, Carl Djerassi, but sterilisation will be catching up.
“At present, people tend to have children and then are sterilised later on in life. In the future, sterilisation will happen earlier on in a person’s life, with gametes, male and female, extracted and stored in a reproductive bank account... Already we know that male sperm can be frozen for decades, but it is far more difficult to freeze women’s eggs. The problem is not yet solved — this is where research should be directed.”
Baroness Deech, a lawyer and bioethicist, agrees about the freezing thing. Women, she says, will have children later. “Late child-bearing will be assisted by advances in reproductive technology, enabling young women to freeze their eggs in their twenties and postpone child-bearing until it is convenient.”
The other breakthrough that Deech would like to see is “a return to stable two-parent families”. “It should be as acceptable to criticise a man who leaves his family as it is to criticise a smoker,” she says. “We have a great deal of law to protect children from potential abusers, but at the moment we say and do nothing when the greatest harm occurs to children, namely the break-up of their families. In 10 years’ time Britain will no longer be at the bottom of international tables of children’s happiness; marriage rates will rise and divorce fall.”
All very nice but, remember, humans may not be around long enough to enjoy all this. The environment is definitely going to get worse.
“I would love to be able to predict that all tropical deforestation would be halted by 2020,” says George McGavin at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, “but as humans can’t agree on the colour of shite, it is unlikely. My prediction is that the world will lose at least another 100m hectares [247m acres] of tropical forest.”
James Lovelock, our greatest and gloomiest deep green, doesn’t think humans can do much about global warming. It’s just the planet saying that we’ve outstayed our welcome. Nobody knows exactly how bad it will be and how quickly it will happen. But the possibilities are clear.
“As everyone is aware, one of the most threatened of places in the world is Bangladesh, which is in danger of flooding as the sea level rises — and the sea level really is rising. And once Bangladesh floods, there is almost nowhere else for people there to go but India, and it’s difficult to see how things like that could take place peacefully. And it’s things like that, I think, which will be drivers for trouble up ahead.”
Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum and professor of climate science at University College London, says we cannot cut emissions fast enough, so we need to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, perhaps using artificial trees that eat it.
“If it can be achieved, it will allow us to exploit the substantial reserves of oil, gas and coal to sustain society through the inevitably long and hard transition to a low-carbon world, without causing dangerous climate change. If ever there were a technical project that humanity should invest in, this is it.”
Craig Venter, the genetic maverick who first sequenced the human genome, may have one solution. He’s working on making bacteria that excrete diesel, leaving the Saudis wondering what to do with all that oil. “The debate on fuels and energy is blown out of proportion. We are very close to solving the energy needs in a way that will make our children enjoy cheaper and more efficient energy than what we see today,” he says.
We may all be in the same warming, flooded gutter but some of us are looking at the stars. Lord Rees, the astronomer royal and president of the Royal Society, is excited by the fact that we have discovered that most stars seem to have planets, and planets mean life. Possibly.
“Efforts to detect a signal from ‘ET’ are being pursued,” he says. “A new telescope in California, privately funded by the ex-Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, will allow much more sensitive searches than hitherto. I’m enthusiastic about these searches. It would fascinate all of us to detect a signal from space that’s clearly artificial.” Then he adds: “But I’m not holding my breath.”
Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin tycoon, is even more enthusiastic about activity in space in 2020. “Space tourism will have taken off,” he says, Nasa will have a “clear plan to get to Mars with a manned mission” and there will be a space station built on the moon.
“Oh, and before I forget, in 2020 I will be an astronaut along with thousands of others,” he adds.
It’s just another decade of future shock. So it goes. Of course, the real shock will be what actually happens, which is never the same as what people say will happen. But, anyway, the shocking Noughties are over, happy new ... good grief, we haven’t even predicted a name for it!