Things to Come

Posted on 2013 December 19


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Over time we’ve gotten used to jet airliners, car stereos, microwave ovens, trash compacters, the Internet, flat-screen TVs, smartphones, endless Kardashian weddings, and twerking. What can we look forward to in our future that might seem like absurd pipe dreams today? Let’s brainstorm.

• We’ll order our groceries online and they’ll arrive at our doorstep within minutes, delivered by service drones. Or we’ll order products online and receive them instantly via a 3-D printer at home. (When we run out of materials, drones will deliver more.) Meanwhile, should we become lost or injured while hiking in the wilderness, emergency drones will locate us, drop supplies, and direct rescuers to our location. And celebrities will have no choice but to put up with insect-sized flying cameras that follow them everywhere.

• If we need a ride, a driverless car will show up at our address, take us quickly to our destination, and then redeploy to its next customer. Swarms of these automated taxis will, in effect, self-organize into cheap and efficient mass transit. Everyone, rich and poor, will find them convenient and affordable. The big arguments about expensive rail trolleys will be remembered as quaint moments in history.

• Meanwhile, it will be unlawful to drive your car manually on the high-speed lanes of freeways and expressways, which will be reserved for automated vehicles. If you wish to use those lanes, you’ll have to set your car to auto-pilot so it can join the traffic flow, which will be much more densely packed — cars inches from each other’s bumpers — because computerized cars will have vastly better reflexes than human drivers. As a practical matter, most of us will simply step into our vehicles and, blasé, command them to take us where we want to go. Manual driving will be left largely to hobbyists, who will operate their old-school piston-engine cars only on private racetracks, as internal combustion will otherwise be outlawed or superceded by quicker, more efficient electric vehicles.

• Medical researchers will likely cure cancer first, then aging, then communicable disease. (If they solve aging first, that could cause an increase in cancer, as our bodies would host mutations that ferment decades longer than before.) Ageless, free of disease — subject only to death by accident, murder, war, suicide, poisoning, or natural disaster — humans will attain an average lifespan of 300 years, with some lucky individuals reaching centuries beyond. Old people who look young will be commonplace. To prevent overcrowding, laws against reproduction without a license may become the norm.

• On the other hand, in the coming decades it’s entirely possible that one or two billion of us will die from a sudden epidemic or massive war. Plants and animals whose populations rise quickly tend to fall back toward their average number; though people have changed the environment to make room for more people, this doesn’t guarantee they’re immune to the same laws that apply to the rest of the kingdom of life. Hence, prepare for an occasional pruning of the humanity tree. But it’ll probably only happen once in the foreseeable future, so don’t expect to get used to it.

• International travel will involve brief visits to space as airliners get launched ballistically over the atmosphere to speed up the process. We’ll think nothing of looking out our passenger windows to gaze down at the curving Earth or upward at the stars on a bright, sunny day while taking a quick jaunt across an ocean toward our destination. For nearby hops, we’ll ride in a maglev or pneumatic-tube train; a 400-mile journey will take less than an hour.

• Climate change will be controlled, but not before farms and cities adapt themselves to the rising temperatures. Therefore it will be politically difficult to pull those temps back to pre-warmed values. We’ll have become accustomed to a more tropical planet — entire cities having relocated inland to escape rising tides, and no one any longer owning a snowblower — and we’ll resist the costs associated with a return to a cooler clime.

• People will be able to purchase and use fully humanlike robots for sex. Couples will resolve the issue of mechanical envy in different ways, sometimes by banning them from the house altogether, at other times by having the robots join them in three- and foursomes, occasionally by setting up each partner’s robot with the other and then voyeuring them, and so forth. With drone grocery service and an Internet job, single people equipped with such robots may never leave their apartments. As with Internet junkies today, there’ll be a hue and cry, followed by social campaigns to bring robot-using individuals out of seclusion. Some regions may try to ban sexbots, but gangs will move in to sell and service them on the black market, enforcing their territories by redeploying bots as drive-by shooters.

• And: the Kardashian grandchildren will get married in elaborate weddings … over and over.