Predicting the future is hard. It's nearly impossible to know what technological marvels await in the next few years, let alone the next eight decades. Undaunted, we've put together a list of 10 super-advanced technologies that should be around by the year 2100.
Image: Rick and Morty
Some of these technologies are rather "out there", but I'm reasonably confident in making these predictions. As radical as some of the items described here appear, most — if not all — should be around by the turn of the 22nd century. The reason has to do with an innovation that doesn't appear on this list: Artificial superintelligence. As computer scientist I.J. Good aptly pointed out in the 1960s, "the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make."
Once greater-than-human intelligence emerges in a machine — a development that could happen as early as the 2050s — all bets are off in terms of what's technically possible. Intelligent machines will replace humans as designers and engineers, constructing the technologies of our dreams, including some we hadn't even thought of. Here are just 10 of those technologies that could change virtually everything.
1. Brain-Linked Virtual Reality
Wearable VR-enabling devices like Oculus Rift are all fine and well, but no matter how sophisticated these sorts of gadgets become, a "true" sense of existing in an alternate reality will remain out of reach. What's required is something a bit more... invasive — and by the time we reach the 2100s we'll have found a way to create a virtual reality experience that's indistinguishable from the real thing. Incredibly, these experiences will be fed directly to our brain, bypassing our normal sensory inputs to make it all the more believable.
Image: Black Mirror Season 3 "San Junipero" Episode ponders an extremely realistic virtual reality experience.
To get that intangible feeling of what it's like to exist in our surroundings, we'll need to go to the source of that experience: The human brain. Indeed, the brain (among other things) is a sensory processing device. All of the things we sense on a regular basis, whether it be the smell of your tacos or the glaring glow of your computer screen, are routed to your brain. As Morpheus put it so eloquently in The Matrix: "What is real?... If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
I see this starting with nanobots in our bodies and brains. The nanobots will keep us healthy, provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the Internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence. But keep in mind that nonbiological intelligence is doubling in capability each year, whereas our biological intelligence is essentially fixed in capacity. As we get to the 2030s, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate.
Kurzweil's time lines are probably a bit optimistic, but his concepts are sound; we're finding new ways of breaching the blood-brain-barrier and creating microscopic machines that can travel around the body. And just as importantly, we're creating a detailed map of the brain, including areas responsible for processing incoming sensory information.
Once implanted in the brain, Kurzweil's nanobots would locate the brain's various sensory inputs and shut them down (for example, disrupting the electrical signals collected by the retina, ear and so on), making the person completely unaware of their actual surroundings (it would be the perfect sensory deprivation chamber. In place of these signals, the nanobots, fed by wireless transmission, would replace those missing signals, feeding the brain's cortical regions with artificial senses — and an entirely new subjective experience. To the person, it would feel like they have been transported to another world.
2. Utility Fog
Devised by nanotech pioneer J. Storrs Hall, utility fogs are a swarm of nanobots, or "foglets", that can take on the shape of virtually any object, and change its shape on the fly. Storrs came up with the idea when trying to imagine a futuristic seat belt. But instead of static straps and inflatable airbags, Hall imagined an intelligent cloud of interconnected snowflake-like foglets capable of morphing along with the movements of anything around it, including the passengers of cars.
Utility fogs defy the imagination in terms of the technological sophistication required. Each foglet would measure just 10 microns across (roughly the same size as a human cell), be equipped with a tiny, rudimentary onboard computer to control its actions (which would be controlled externally by an artificially intelligent system) and a dozen telescopic arms that extrude outwards in the shape of a dodecahedron. When two foglets link up, they would form a circuit, allowing for the distribution of power and communications throughout the network. The foglets wouldn't be capable of floating, but would instead form a lattice structure, called an octet truss, when holding hands in all 12 directions.
A utility fog would work like programmable matter, capable of moving around, enveloping and and even transporting an object or person. More radically, utility fogs could be used to create a virtual world around a person — and even host a person who has uploaded themselves into this nano-infused cloud (similar to the foglet beings in Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan).
3. Space-Based Solar Power
As our civilisation struggles to mitigate the effects of climate change and transition into a more sustainable energy economy, it's tempting to think we'll never be able to meet our seemingly insatiable energy needs. Space-based solar power — an idea that's been around since the 1960s — could solve this problem once and for all.
Conceptual image of a space-based solar power farm. (Image: JAXA)
Nearly 60 years ago, Peter Glaser envisioned solar powered satellites capable of transferring captured solar energy down to receiving dishes on the Earth's surface via microwaves. A number of different schemes have been proposed since then, with Japan leading the way in terms of having an actual plan to get it done. Called the SBSP System, the Japanese orbital farm would run in a stationary orbit about 36,000km above the equator, where it would transmit energy to Earth using laser beams. Each satellite would target a 3km wide receiving station that could generate an entire gigawatt of electricity, which is enough to power a half million homes. For safety, the receiving station should be positioned far from human habitation, such as a desert or island.
4. Mind Uploading
By the turn of the 22nd century, many humans will have opted for a purely digital existence, one free of all biological constraints. Called mind uploading, or whole brain emulation, this will involve the meticulous copying of an existing biological brain. The scans would capture every cognitive detail down to the molecular level, and include memories, associations and even a person's personality quirks.
Mind uploading as portrayed in the 2015 film, Self/Less.
Futurists aren't entirely sure how mind uploading will happen, but a critical step will be to make sure the important parts of a brain are copied, particularly those tied to a person's sense of identity (namely the parahippocampus and retrosplenial cortex). This could involve "destructive" copying, where an existing brain is sliced or otherwise taken apart in order to record a person's brain state and memories. Alternately, a sufficiently powerful brain scanner could be used to take a snapshot of a person's brain, and then "pasted" into a computer capable of translating that information into a functioning mind. In order for an uploaded person to function "normally", they would have to be equipped with a virtual body and environment.
An important scientific and philosophical question to ask is whether or not this represents a true "transfer" of consciousness, and not just the mere copying of a person's brain. What's more, it's not entirely clear if conscious self-awareness can be replicated in digital substrate. Frighteningly, each upload could be a kind of zombie that behaves and functions like the pre-existing person, but would in reality be nothing more than a script-driven bot.
5. Weather Control
It's unlikely that our species will be able to completely control the weather by the end of the current century, but we should be able to put a serious dent into it. We're already seeding clouds with particles to stimulate precipitation, and California has been doing this for nearly 50 years. During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Chinese authorities fired 1100 rockets into the clouds to trigger downpours before the storms reached the capital city. There are even efforts to fire laser pulses into thunderclouds in hopes of drawing out lightning in a controlled manner.
Image: Horns Rev Offshore Windfarm
Looking ahead to the future, weather engineers could build massive wall-like structures to prevent devastating tornadoes from forming, or construct massive — and very strong — arrays of offshore turbines to suck the energy out of hurricanes. On that last prospect, a study in 2014 showed that a wind farm consisting of tens of thousands of individual turbines could reduce peak winds by up to 148km/h and decrease storm surges by up to 79 per cent. That would in effect reduce a hurricane's power by an entire magnitude.
More radically, we could eventually build a weather machine to create a programmable atmosphere. A particularly intriguing plan calls for a thin global cloud of small transparent balloons lifted up into the stratosphere, where it would shade or reflect the amount of incoming sunlight. A mirror would be placed inside each balloon, along with a GSP to monitor its location, an actuator to control its orientation and a small computer. Lifted by hydrogen, the "programmable green house gas" would come to a rest about 32km above the Earth's surface. When the millions of mirrors face away from the Earth, they would reflect the sunlight back into space. This system, guided by AI, could influence weather patterns around the world, and turn marginally habitable areas into temperate regions.
6. Molecular Assemblers
Think 3D printers are amazing? Just wait until the arrival of molecular assemblers, a hypothetical fabricator described by nanotechnology pioneer K. Eric Drexler in his seminal book, Engines of Creation. Drexler described a molecular assembler as a device capable of manipulating individual atoms to build a desired product. If you've ever seen an episode of Star Trek in which a member of the crew uses a replicator to churn out a steaming hot cup of Earl Grey tea, then you've basically seen a molecular assembler, which some futurists refer to as fabricators, or fabs for short.
The Star Trek replicator is basically a molecular assember. (Image: Star Trek: Voyager)
Drexler basically argued that biological assemblers already exist, producing complex and wonderful structures like bacteria, trees and even you and me. Using the same logic, he figures we'll eventually be able to tap into the mechanical properties of the uber-small, and use similar principles to produce objects of any shape, form or consistency.
Fabs could introduce the world to an era of "radical abundance", allowing us to produce items and materials that would otherwise be impossible to build, constructing them from the ground up (or more accurately, from the molecules on up). But these devices could even be used to produce items we're familiar with, like food. To make a steak, for example, the fabricator would take base materials, such as carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, and then arrange them into amino acids and proteins, which would then be assembled to form a steak.
Disturbingly, the effects of climate change are likely irreversible. No matter what we do from now until the year 2100, the levels of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere will continue to warm the planet.
Conceptual image of an unoccupied ship designed to generate clouds and reflect sunlight away from Earth (Image: Stephen Salter)
To prevent the many environmental calamities wrought by climate change — from rising sea levels and megadroughts through to superstorms and mass extinctions — we'll begrudgingly have to start geoengineering the planet.
Some notable geohacking proposals include cirrus cloud seeding to reduce reflectivity, stratospheric particle injection for solar radiation management, sulphur-aerosol injection to induce global dimming and simple solutions like tropical reforestation to restore the carbon balance. Other ideas include a giant space reflector (though that might be beyond our technological capacities by 2100), ocean fertilisation to spawn carbon-sucking algal blooms and ocean alkalinity enhancement to make the ocean less acidic. Clearly, there are no shortage of ideas, and we won't be restricted to just one.
The problem with geoengineering, of course, is that we could royally wreck our planet should something go wrong, and we may become dependent upon it. But desperate times will require desperate measures, and we'll have little choice but to rely on complex climate models and supercomputers to ensure safety and efficacy.
8. Mind-to-Mind Communication
Ongoing advances in communications technologies and neuroscience will transform humanity into a telepathic species.
Image: Ghost in the Shell: Innocence
The advent of direct mind-to-mind communication will bring us even closer together as individuals, and conceivably give rise to a "hive mind" — a vast network of interconnected minds working together over the future instantiation of the internet. In such a future, we may start to see the dissolution of the individual, and the rise of a collective mass consciousness.
Remarkably, this future may be closer than we think. Back in 2014, an international team of researchers were the first to demonstrate a direct and completely non-invasive brain-to-brain communication system. During their experiment, two participants were able to exchange mentally-conjured words despite being separated by hundreds of kilometres. A year later, a separate team of researchers transmitted brain signals over the internet to control the hand motions of another person, allowing them to collaborate on a computer game. These systems, though extremely rudimentary, point to a future in which we can simply use our thoughts to converse with one another, and "telekinetically" control smart devices in our environment.
9. Fusion Power
Earlier this year, physicists in Germany used a two-megawatt microwave pulse to warm low density hydrogen plasma to 80 million degrees. The experiment didn't produce any energy, and it only lasted for a quarter of a second, but it was an important step forward in the effort to harness an extremely promising form of energy production known as nuclear fusion.
Hot, hot, heat: Hydrogen plasma warmed to 80 million degrees. (Image: IPP)
Unlike nuclear fission, where the nucleus of an atom is divided into smaller parts, nuclear fusion creates a single heavy nucleus from two lighter nuclei. The resulting change in mass generates a tremendous amount of energy that scientists believe can be harnessed into a viable source of clean energy. Eventually, fusion power could replace fossil fuels and conventional nuclear reactors.
But to get there, scientists will have to figure out how to reliably and safely manage conditions typically found on the Sun. The problem is that fusion plasmas do not like to be contained; these free-flowing streams of protons and electrons are tough to wrangle. Our Sun holds on to its plasma with its intense gravity, but here on Earth, we'd have to rely on magnets or lasers to perform the same trick. Should a tiny fraction of the plasma escape, it would scar the wall of the machine, causing the fusion reactor to shut down.
10. Artificial Lifeforms
Not content to stop at genetic engineering, scientists of the future will be able to design and create new organisms from scratch — from microscopic synthetic bacteria through to redesigned humans reminiscent of the Replicants in Blade Runner. This burgeoning discipline, known as artificial life (or Alife), is the effort to recreate biological phenomenon with the help of computers and other synthetic media.
JCVI-syn3.0, a synthetic bacterium derived from just 773 genes. (Image: J. Craig Venter Institute)
The quest to create synthetic forms of life is already underway. Earlier this year, researchers from Synthetic Genomics and the J. Craig Venter Institute successfully created an artificial bacterial genome that, with its scant 473 genes, is smaller than anything found in nature. Further breakthroughs in this domain will help biologists explore the core functions of life, and to categorise essential genes within cells. Researchers could use "building block" cells like these to construct organisms with capacities not found in nature, including bacteria that can consume plastic and toxic waste, and microorganisms that can function like medicines inside the body.
In a related breakthrough, a new initiative co-founded by Harvard Medical School's George Church is seeking to create a synthetic human genome from scratch. The researchers say they're content to stop once they figure out how to power cells with synthetic human DNA, but the same technology could conceivably be used to create artificial organisms and even designer humans.
Any one of the technologies listed here has the potential to reshape our civilisation. What's less clear is how these marvels will work in tandem with one another; the convergent effects of technology are often hard to predict. For example, the convergence of brain-linked VR, mind uploading and AI could result in a hybrid computer-based civilisation consisting of real-world humans, emulated brains and artificial intellects. Future geoengineering schemes could integrate weather control systems and engineered nanoparticles. And so on.
The more predictions we make about our future technologies, the more difficult it becomes to know what the future might actually look like.