Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire, taking a serious as well as entertaining world of possibilities for the world and the human race.
RALEIGH – Imagine what would happen if somehow, out of the blue, someone could hand us a real “crystal ball”. Finally! We would be able to accurately see into the future. Now we would no longer have to wonder or worry about the future – we would be able to KNOW what will really happen 10 years, 20 years, 50 years down the road.
If such a crystal ball actually existed, and if we could somehow actually own one, it would be a miracle roughly akin to finding Aladdin’s lamp with its genie. But the crystal ball would be even better. According to legend, the genie living inside Aladdin’s lamp grants only three wishes, and sometimes he is kind of a jerk about it. The crystal ball we are imagining would have no such limitations.
One obvious thing to do with an all-seeing crystal ball like this would be to use it for financial gain. For example, if you had a crystal ball like this 12 years ago, you could have accurately predicted the rise of Bitcoin. We could have been buying up all of the Bitcoins we could get your hands on, because we would KNOW that they would rise thousands of times in value in just a few years.
In the same way, if we had had a crystal ball 20 years ago, we might have been buying lots of Apple stock, and we would be getting ready for companies like Google and Amazon to first go public. We could have predicted 9/11 and the crash of the stock market then, as well as the collapse of the housing market in 2008.
The problem with the future …
Alas, there is no crystal ball. The big problem with the future is that we can’t predict it. Four years ago, who could have predicted that Covid would change our entire world starting in March of 2020? People could and did predict the POSSIBILITY of a new full-on global pandemic, as they had been doing since the Spanish Flu receded in the 1920s. But no one could predict the details of Covid or all of its side effects. And even now, no one can really tell what will happen in the future.
Will Covid fall into the background and become endemic like the flu? Or will a new variant of Covid arise that is much more transmissible and/or much more deadly, so it kills millions more people? Or will a new virus come out of nowhere, just like Covid did, to take Covid’s place? Or will it be another 100 years before the next global pandemic, and maybe by then our medical technology has advanced so far that a new pandemic becomes impossible?
What about climate change? Here is one side of the coin: what if humans continue on our current path, burning gigatons of fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide with abandon? If humanity follows this path, what does Planet Earth look like in 25 years, 50 years? What if humanity as a whole could become much more rational, so for example we could completely stop burning fossil fuels in 5 years? On that path, how would the future unfold? And is there anything that could make humanity rational before it is too late?
What will doom us?
I have some experience in this. In 2020 I wrote “The Doomsday Book” (Sterling Press) looking at 25 doomsday scenarios that humanity faces, along with potential solutions (assuming humanity were rational). I read over 800 articles and books to gather information for the book, and it was both fascinating and at times terrifying to peer into the future. We can bring many of these scenarios into the present moment here in this column.
The biggest problem with predicting the future is that things can happen out of the blue, like Covid did, and these unexpected events can change everything. If a small asteroid were to hit and destroy a major city, it would have an effect. If terrorists get hold of a nuclear bomb and use it to destroy a major city, it would have a different major effect. What if the Doomsday Glacier in Antarctica collapses, and the resulting sea level rise takes out 20 major cities? What if Aliens were to land on Earth and capture several major cities. This last one sounds far-fetched, but hundreds of books and movies have predicted it. What if it actually happens? Or what if a super-genius Artificial Intelligence arises from a university AI lab and decides it will take over the world?
Or what about something closer to home?
What if Raleigh keeps on growing at its current pace?
Will we start to see the kind of traffic Armageddon found in places like LA, Atlanta and Austin?
Or could Raleigh do things to reach a better outcome?
Possibilities and probabilities
Trying to predict the future can be difficult. There are so many unknowns (like Covid), so many bad actors (like ISIS), and so many alternate possibilities (like Bitcoin). Without a magic crystal ball to help us, we have no 100% accurate idea what is coming.
But we can often look into the future and see the possibilities, along with the high probability outcomes. We can see what might happen, and how things could unfold, and in many cases this kind of predicting can be both terrifying or fun. It can be terrifying to think about the full implications of climate change. It can be fun to think about the future of flying cars.
The goal of this column is to think about how the future of humans on Planet Earth could unfold, in both near and more distant time frames. Example: 50 years from now, will Earth be a utopia, will it be a wasteland, or will it be something in between? We will look at technology scenarios, doomsday scenarios, climate scenarios, economic scenarios and so on to understand both what is possible and what is likely.
My hope is that in the process, we will have a chance to think, to learn, to act, and in some cases to laugh both in delight and terror.
If you have topics or questions that would be interesting to you, feel free to send them in!
WriteMarshall at email@example.com