There’s nothing like the round number at the start of a new decade to get everyone prognosticating (yes, we know some of you are in the crowd that says the new decade doesn’t begin until 2011; OK, fine). To predict what the scientific scene will be like in 2020, the journal Nature brought in experts from 18 fields. Though the collection doesn’t encapsulate the “world of tomorrow” feel of, say, the old Omni magazine, it’s still packed with sunny (and scary) forecasts. Some show lingering uncertainty, some unbridled optimism, and some give warnings to the world to make a much-needed course correction. Here are five we thought were particularly telling.
1. In 2020, Google defines your reality (even more than it does already).
Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research, tackles the question of where search will be a decade hence. Advanced, he says, but also troublesome: Most searches will be spoken rather than typed, and designers will be experimenting with search systems that read your brain waves. “Users will decide how much of their lives they want to share with search engines, and in what ways”—such is Norvig’s polite description of a world with even less digital privacy than today’s.
What search engines give you back will change, too. Particularly, he says, they will come up with a way to judge relevance and quality that doesn’t rely on popularity: “Thus, a site that claims that the Moon landings were a hoax and seems to have a coherent argument structure will be judged to be lower quality than a legitimate astronomy site, because the premises of the hoax argument are at odds with reality.”
2. Designer babies? Just you try and stand against the tide.
From geneticist David B. Goldstein of Duke University, making a “confident but uncomfortable” prediction for 2o2o:
“The identification of major risk factors for disease is bound to substantially increase interest in embryonic and other screening programmes. Society has largely accepted this principle for mutations that lead inevitably to serious health conditions. Will it be so accommodating to those who want to screen out embryos that carry, say, a twentyfold increased risk of serious but unspecified neuropsychiatric disease?”
3. Astronomy sweats the dark stuff.
Adam Burrows of U.S. National Research Council enumerates a short to-do list for the next decade of astronomy—finding more exoplanets (especially ones like Earth), figuring some lingering mysteries of stellar formation, and funding all the satellites and other projects on the table. But there’s one thing that has to be cleared up before the field goes headlong into the future: sorting out what dark matter, which makes up the majority of matter in the universe, is made of, and thus avoiding ignominy. “It would be a major embarrassment if the dark matter paradigm was not verified within 40 years of its inception by the direct detection of the associated weakly interacting particles,” he writes.
4. Farming goes back to the future.
Nature’s prediction for the future of energy is like a lot you’ve already seen—the world needs to be well on the road to a post-carbon renewable energy future by 2020. But one consequence that sometimes escapes mention is that the energy revolution must drive another agricultural revolution. From the University of Washington’s David Montgomery: “In a post-petroleum world, as the era of cheap fossil-fuel-produced fertilizers comes to an end, conventional, high-input agriculture is neither sustainable nor resilient. Ensuring future food security and environmental protection will require thoughtfully tailoring farming practices to the soils of individual landscapes and farms, rather than continuing to rely on erosive practices and fertilizer from a bag.”
5. Nobody’s optimistic like laser experts are optimistic.
Many of the scientists who described the future in Nature held it close to the vest, offering more descriptions of the challenges in their field and fewer bombastic predictions of success to come. And then there are laser researchers. Meet Thomas Baer and Nicholas Bigelow. By 2020, they say, lasers with tiny apertures—the size of a single molecule—will help directly sequence DNA and RNA. Laser-based clocks will take note of the “drift in fundamental constants as the Universe expands.”
And that’s not all: “Next-generation lasers will allow the creation of new states of matter, compressing and heating materials to temperatures found only in the centres of massive stars, and at pressures that can squeeze hydrogen atoms together in a density 50 times greater than that of lead. The resulting fusion reactions may one day be harnessed to provide almost limitless carbon-free energy.”
Related content from DISCOVER’s attempts in 2000 to predict 2020:
What You Need to Know in 2020 That You Don’t Know Now
20 Things That Will Be Obsolete in 20 Years
20 Things That Won’t Change
20 Species We Might Lose
And, to go out on a cheery note, 20 Ways the World Could End
Image: Wiki Commons / Jay Dugger