Brave New World: What will the future look like?

Brave New World: What will the future look like?

4 November 2015

by David Wood

Futurist David Wood explores how the future might look with trends that are already in evidence. 

David Wood is chair of the London Futurists and has organised regular meetings in London since March 2008 on futurist and technoprogressive topics. David was lead editor of the volume 'Anticipating 2025: A guide to the radical changes that may lie ahead, whether or not we’re ready', published in June 2014.

Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ may offer possibilities and, above all, warnings, of how the world will be in 525 years time, but what can we predict from trends that are already in evidence?

Events are changing so quickly nowadays, at an accelerating pace. More change is likely in the next fifty years than in all of the previous five hundred years. Computers will become thousands of times smarter and smaller. The miniaturisation trend from desktop to mobile to wearable will continue with nano-sized computers embedded inside our bodies. This will revolutionise healthcare, fitness, and medicine.

3D printing will transform all sorts of industries, with remarkable new designs created almost on demand. Other new technology will interact directly with our senses (Virtual Reality on steroids) and with our brain (telepathy).

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Robots of all shapes and sizes will coexist with humans, becoming conversational partners, emotional coaches, and more. These changes are all likely within just a few decades.That’s the big picture. But the details of any prediction of the future are deeply uncertain. What makes the task of prediction particularly hard is the way in which small changes are likely to magnify in unexpected ways.

It’s said that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the globe can set air currents in motion that can magnify through many stages to form cyclones on the other size of the planet. It’s the same with ill-considered remarks by politicians. Offhand comments can bounce around the world, changing the course of the future. Experiments with new technology could go wrong too: attempts at “geo-engineering” to reverse climate change could trigger horrendous droughts and floods in different parts of the world. Experiments to suppress new variants of the flu, or other infectious diseases, could boomerang out of control if deadly pathogens are inadvertently created and released in the process. And even the friendly robots mentioned above could prove less friendly than expected, if they turn out to be better than humans at doing almost every sort of job.

Despite these uncertainties, we can consider four main types of scenario for the next fifty years. The first of these types is existential disaster – the advent of a new Dark Age (or worse). This scenario involves technology going horribly wrong, in one way or another. For example, a rogue state could trigger the detonation of a stockpile of nuclear or biological weapons. An electronic virus could cause our entire modern network infrastructure to self-destruct. Or our love for the convenience of oil energy might set in motion a spiral of rapid global warming.

The second scenario is technology going magnificently right. That’s sometimes called “the positive singularity”: technology will allow humanity to do many things that previously we could only dream about. The resulting “abundance for all” would include an abundance of low-cost energy (from solar power), an abundance of healthy food, an abundance of fresh water (generated from sea-water if needed), an abundance of health,an abundance of intelligence (with our brains augmented by computers), and even the reversal of aging.

Then there are some in-between scenarios – scenarios which we may reach sooner than the first two. Scenario type three is “techno-feudalism”: technology serves the need of a small class of well-positioned technocrats, but leaves everyone else at a disproportionate disadvantage. Existing trends towards growing inequality will accelerate, with the “winner takes all” nature of the information technology economy having even wider impact. The 99% who aren’t able to win the race will end up excluded from decision-making, workforce participation, and access to the best education and healthcare. This could, in turn, lead to worldwide riots and revolutions. It’s equally likely to lead to a worldwide distractedness, of the sort Huxley imagined when everyone blisses out on the drug soma.

Finally, the fourth scenario can be called “techno-progressive”: society decides to ensure that the benefits of technology are spread fully throughout society, and that risks of technology going bad (the existential risks) should be carefully studied and wisely regulated. In this scenario, politicians spring free from effective control by corporate lobbyists.

My own favoured trajectory is that we’ll follow the techno-progressive route until we reach a positive singularity. However, I recognise that we’re in severe danger of sleepwalking through techno-feudalism to an existential disaster. The way we can wake up from this sleepwalk is if enough people start to pay more attention to the future. When future scenarios become more vivid – in part, due to public discussions inspired by Brave New World - we’ll all start to become more passionate about steering our course for an outcome in which the best potential of humanity is realised.

That will be a society with tens of billions – and eventually hundreds of billions – of people, living not just on the surface of the earth, but increasingly in enormous constructions in the sky (and even reaching into space). These constructions will embody both nature and technology, and will provide a sustainable basis for us to explore whatever fills our heart at that time. I foresee new kinds of music, games, art, and exploration. We won’t have to work, since software and robots will keep the entire infrastructure running smoothly. We’ll be free to become whatever we want to become. Provided we see that possibility in advance, and decide to grasp it.

Brave New World premieres at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, where it runs from 4 to 26 September 2015. It then tours to Edinburgh, Blackpool, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Bradford where it concludes on 5 December.