What will the future look like? That's what we wanted to know. "Good Morning America Weekend Edition" told you what the future would look like in 2031. But some of you still had questions, so we asked leading futurist Paul Saffo to weigh in. This is what he had to say.
Q: On the show, flying cars were shown zipping between city buildings. But if they're traveling up to 300 mph, what prevents them from crashing into buildings? And even if they're communicating with each other to avoid accidents, what prevents other factors (mechanical breakdowns -- or wind, as in the Cory Lidle case), from undermining that system? Doesn't this all endanger the people on the ground, in the buildings and in the other flying cars?
Saffo: I am a skeptic when it comes to flying cars for several reasons, including the ones you note. Of the many problems holding up flying cars (power supply, aerodynamics, cost), the most serious is navigation.
Most people can barely manage driving a car, so it is not hard to imagine the trouble they get in when one adds the vertical dimension. The good news is that this may be the easiest problem to solve, and we will solve it by basically handing control of flight to computers.
Humans may still have something that looks like a yoke or control stick, but it will simply communicate the driver's desires to the computer and not directly to the control surfaces. This leverages the steady advances in computer power (for example, a Furbie has 100 times the computing power on board the original Apollo command module) which has already put supercomputers in our homes in the form of games machines, and also uses sub-meter GPS and other navigational technologies. This sounds futuristic, but it actually is not far away from use in private light aircraft and also in automobile navigation systems, as well as in robotic (land) vehicle control. For an example of the latter, take a look at the upcoming 2007 DARPA Urban Robotic Grand Challenge (http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/index.asp) which will demonstrate autonomous robotic vehicles driving in an urban setting.
So we will definitely be able to build a "flying car" that is driver-safe, but this still begs the question of whether we will come up with a safe/efficient power plant that is also affordable for the masses. My forecast is that within the next 25 years, this will be a plaything for the wealthy, not transport for the public. But there will definitely be lots of interesting transportation surprises nonetheless.
Q: If personal transportation such as jet backpacks replace walking in the future, will it lead to people being even fatter than they are today? If so, how will the jet packs lift them?
Saffo: I doubt jetpacks will ever become commonplace for ordinary travel, though jet-powered devices (more likely micro-wings than jetpacks) will become popular if slightly esoteric sports devices. To get an idea of where this is headed, take a look at the strap-on wing that Felix Baumgartner used to cross the English Channel in 2003 (www.felixbaumgartner.com ). This first wing was just a gliding wing, but he and others (especially the military) are hard at work prototyping powered versions. It is rumored that the U.K. military is already using powered wings for secret operations. Just as the Rogallo wing originally developed by NASA to land space capsules turned into hang gliding, it is a safe bet that these strap-on wings will grow into some very interesting extreme sports.
Now, about not walking, the problem is with us today with automobiles. When the Segway was introduced a few years back, people were worried that it too would further reduce exercise. So your fear is very real, but let's hope people are sensible about knowing when to walk. Just as various health agencies advertise to take the stairs instead of the elevator/escalator today, perhaps we will see public service ads reminding us to use our feet more!
Q: Will personal communications devices reshape how we vote? Could we possibly vote with a text message?
Saffo: Great question! Imagine a future when informal polls conducted by personal devices (phones, PDAs, etc) actually reflect in absolute numbers a larger portion of the population than formal votes do. We would be in a strange world where public opinion could be quantified and empirically demonstrated to be different and more accurate than actual voting. This, of course, would create all sorts of problems.
Now, about conducting an actual formal vote by cell phone, it is technically plausible. After all, one can use one's phone in places like Finland to buy gasoline and in Japan to buy all sorts of items. If a system is reliable enough to allow people to part with their money, it is reliable enough to vote on. In fact, compare the reliability of ATM machines to voting machines. ATM machines are extraordinarily reliable. Voting by phone or some other existing system has another advantage; if the system used to vote is a system used every day, then both the supervisors and the public will have a higher confidence level in its accuracy compared to a system that is used only once every two years.
So it is practical and appealing compared to current systems. But will it happen? I doubt it because of the entrenched interests in Washington and among the voting machine makers who will do everything to avoid a change.
Q: Do you have any theories on how the world will end? Meteorite? Drought? Nuclear attack?
Saffo: Well, first distinguish between the end of the world and the end of the human species, for the events you note would be disastrous for humans, but would not cause the planet to disappear. More generally, as a culture, we become fascinated with the question of the end of the world whenever we cross a major calendar event, like the year 2000. We were preoccupied with this in 1900, and way back in 1000 A.D., Western Europeans were obsessed with the coming end times. And of course some people have been convinced on religious gorounds that the world will end at any moment for quite some time -- there has never been a time since the birth of Christianity when some portion of Christian believers were not utterly certain that the world would "end" in their life times, and today is no different.
Personally, I worry more about human stupidity than I do about natural events. And I worry most about environmental degradation in general and global climate change in particular. And I worry most about gradual degradation rather than the dramatic one-off event. Nukes are dramatic and attention-grabbing, but it would take a lot of nukes to erase the human species. Global climate change would be vastly more lethal.
Q: What about the future of media? Will there still be newspapers and evening newscasts in 2031? Will print media still exist or will everything be TV and online?
Saffo: I believe we are in the middle of a vast shift from the Mass Media world of the last 50 years to a brave new personal media world, and I've written at some length about it at: http://www.saffo.com/essays/essay_farewellinfo.pdf.
But to your specific question about paper, media are intrinsically conservative and nothing really ever goes away. For example, TVs did not make radios obsolete; radios just found a new niche in our cars. Paper will not become obsolete, but the percentage of information that is put on paper will continue to plummet. And paper may itself become smart -- with electronics imbedded in it. And we will definitely have paper-like displays that are basically flexible computer screens; these already exist as laboratory prototypes. But overall, the form factor of paper is immensely practical, and thus the form will remain even if the details change dramatically. Take a look at: http://www.saffo.com/essays/epinata.php
Q: Will we see affordable health care in our lifetime for all?
Saffo: This is a matter of public will as much as technological advances. And also the answer depends on which part of the world one refers to. Affordable health care will remain a dream for the vast bulk of the world's population who lack access to the most basic of services like vaccination and basic paramedical services today. In the developed world, apart from social and political will, the biggest issue is (as you suggest) cost, and its biggest influencing factors are discovery and technology. Discovery, especially in the genetics/genomics area, will reveal new predictive methods and treatments that may have a huge impact on health care cost and availability. For example, treating cancer with drug regimens, rather than surgery would greatly lower cost and increase effectiveness. Other technologies will have a big impact on cost and availability. Robotic surgical suites (see, for example, www.intuitivesurgical.com) will greatly expand the productivity of surgeons, and broadband communications will make effective telemedicine possible.
A subtler, but even more important shift will be the use of ubiquituous sensors to allow a shift from discreet to continuous health monitoring. For example, a doc checking your pulse at the office is a discrete test, while wearing a Polar cardio monitor while exercising is continuous. There is a vast array of sensors arriving that will allow continuous unobtrusive health monitoring at low cost, and this in turn will allow for new innovations. Today, implanted defibrillators and pacemakers rely in such sensors to be effective. In the future look for systems that do site-specific delivery of drugs in micro-quantities as just one example.
But, will health care be more equitble than it is today? I hope so, but I doubt it will happen. If anything, the line between haves and have-nots will get even greater as new, exotic and expensive procedures become available. And the advent of low-cost genomic testing (the cost of reading the genome of a specific person will plummet -- imagine a cost of under $10), and of course employers and the government are going to want to look at the results. We are all likely to discover that we are all members of one genetic underclass or another.
Q: Will we see public transportation improve -- from the city to the suburbs?
Saffo: Let us hope, but the bigger shift may be an ever more restless population. Information technology has unlocked us from the tight connection that once existed between where we worked and where we lived. This allows people greater choice in where they live, and the result I think will be a migration by some to the far exurbs (think Aspen and Mendocino) and others back to the newly appealling urban core (think NYC and San Francisco). The big losers will be those suburbs being built today whose only appeal is affordable housing within driving distance of a job. I suspect these places (think Tracey Calif., Colorado Springs, Colo.) will in 20 years become the new blighted areas.
Q: Will we see a move to one world order?
Saffo: I doubt it, but I also doubt that the nation state will survive as we know it.
Q: With the development of extremely durable and strong nanotechnology and nanomaterials, i.e. carbon nanotubes and their future progeny, is it likely that some country or group of countries will invest in a Space Elevator? It almost seems like a bargain to build one considering how cheaply it will make getting payloads into low Earth orbit for every country on the planet?
Saffo: It is a fascinating idea, first described by Arthur Clark in "The Fountains of Paradise," and modest tethered systems have already been tried off the shuttle in space. Meanwhile, there are a host of innovators trying to design such a system. In theory it would be a great way to get stuff out of Earth's gravity well, but the technical challenges go way beyond the obvious problem of building the cable. For example, there are fascinating issues around static electricity, for such a system would be in effect a huge power generator. And many of these problems will be discovered only as someone attempts to build a system. Will it happen in 25 years? I doubt it, but the issue of how to get out of the gravity well will become only more and more important and frustrating.
Q: Will we be able to genetically design our pets from scratch (the perfect pet)?
Saffo: People are already attempting this. Consider Alba, the glowing bunny who was grown back in 2000. Thanks to the relentless advance of computing power and genomic tools, I would be very surprised if the community of amateur breeders (e.g., pets, flowers, orchids, etc) didn't have access to desktop genetic tools within 25 years. And of course if the government outlaws it, it will simply go underground and offshore. Humans have been messing with the genetics of pets for centuries, they just haven't had the tools they will have very soon.
Q: The show mentioned the availability of genetically engineering children. But would scientists/doctors ever really go along with that, considering the ethical implications?
Saffo: Oh, there are plenty of scientists who would happily dive recklessly in this direction. And parents as well. We already have parents of otherwise-normal kids who are giving their kids human growth hormone to make them taller. Such people will happily embrace risky new genetic tools in the years ahead. And even if it is outlawed in the U.S. or Western Europe, you can bet on finding someone in China or elsewhere who will happily perform the procedure.
Q: Do you foresee any new sports being invented that might correspond with improving technology? For example, could there be airborne football where they players wear jet packs?
Saffo: You have put your finger on an area about to see huge changes and surprises. Technologically augmented extreme sports is very much a growth industry. Jet pack football players isn't likely, but strap-on powered personal wings are already closer than most people realize. See my mention of Felix Baumgartner ( www.felixbaumgartner.com ), who crossed the English Channel in 2003 wearing an unpowered wing. Jet-powered personal wings have been tested and will definitely find their way into the hands of extreme athletes over the next two decades. But this is just the most obvious of all sorts of neat, death-defying sports options ahead.
Q: Who will win the World Series in 2031?
Saffo: As a forecaster, I know when not to make a forecast!