By Ariel Schwartz
No futurists worth their salt will tell you definitively what they think the future will look like. They'll present you with a series of scenarios, much like we've seen in analyses from the Forum for the Future and Institute for the Future. This report from the National Intelligence Council (the intelligence community's strategic thinking arm) offers a range of scenarios for what 2030 will look like. But what's really interesting is the array of new technologies--and current ones--that the government's resident futurists think will be pervasive (or not) in less than 20 years from now.
Maybe Twitter will still be around. Facebook, too. But social networking of the future will go far beyond status updates and games--it will, speculates the report, drive the adoption of alternative currencies (we're already seeing hints of how this might happen) and lead to "human social predictive models" that can be useful in everything from counterterrorism to advertising.
Again, we're already starting to see signals of that happening in academia. But we can't even imagine what the popular social networks will be. The report offers a vague but not entirely unrealistic prediction: "The dominant social networks of the future may not even be formal organizations, but rather anarchic collectives built on sophisticated variants of peer-to-peer file-sharing technologies, against which developed- and many developing-world governments might have no meaningful negotiating leverage."
The solar market isn't exactly thriving now (with the exception of solar leasing companies), and the NIC doesn't expect that to change, especially if emerging technologies keep natural gas prices down. It probably won't happen in the immediate future, but if the government's solar energy incentives fall by the wayside, solar may not be cost-competitive with coal and gas in the next two decades.
Want to remain spry by the time you turn 90? No problem! NIC imagines that elderly in the future will wear "powered exoskeletons" that help them with daily activities. Bonus: "Brain-machine interfaces could provide 'superhuman' abilities, enhancing strength and speed, as well as providing functions not previously available." So-called "neuro-enhancements" could boost your memory and how quickly you think, while retinal eye implants might give you enhanced night vision. This isn't entirely new--the military is already working on exoskeletons for soldiers, and brain-machine interfaces are currently being tested on people with paralysis.
One disturbing aspect of the NIC's body-enhanced future is the issue of cost, which could for decades lead to a divide between the wealthier augmented classes and the non-augmented classes that lack superhuman abilities. And just pray that no one figures out how to hack that interface attached to your brain.
Today, personalized medicine is limited to patients with hard-to-treat and deadly diseases. Not so in the future, when genetic sequencing will continue to drop in cost. The NIC speculates: "Molecular diagnostic devices will revolutionize medicine by providing a rapid means of testing for both genetic and pathogenic diseases during surgeries. Readily available genetic testing will hasten disease diagnosis and help physicians decide on the optimal treatment for each patient." Once you have an accurate portrait of your disease, doctors will have new tools to treat thanks to advances in synthetic biology. By 2030, NIC predicts that replacement organs like livers and kidneys could be developed. Artificial kidneys are, however, already in the works.
The NIC report goes far beyond these predictions, looking at all the alternative worlds that might be possible, demographic patterns, regional instability, and more. Take it all with a grain of salt--any of the "black swan" events mentioned by the report (solar flares, sped up climate change, etc.) could throw every single one of these predictions off balance.
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.