James Burke: I’ve seen the future

In 1973 James Burke predicted the rise of PCs, IVF and cheap air travel – so what about the next 90 years?

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The year 2103 is a long way away, the other side of a multitude of changes so complex and vast as to be almost unimaginable. But such is the human imagination. I’ll have a go. Little of what follows is wild speculation. In many cases, first steps have already been taken towards the future I’ll suggest. The hardest factor to incorporate into my prediction, however, is that the future is no longer what it has always been: more of the same, but faster. This time: faster, yes, but unrecognisably different.

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Let’s say that 2040 sees the start of worldwide wi-fi distribution of software kits to make a nano-fabricator. Sits in the back garden, spare room, somewhere. Uses dirt, air and water and a bit of cheap, carbon-rich acetylene gas. Manipulates atoms and molecules to produce anything you want, virtually free. Each fabber can make copies of itself, so: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 etc: one each for nine billion of us, say, by 2042.

Sixty years later, we’ll have adapted to the new abundance and are living in small, no-pollution, autonomous communities, anywhere. Energy from spray-on photovoltaics makes any object (like a house) its own power source. So, here you are in your fabber-fabricated dwelling, filled with Mona Lisas if that’s your wish, with holographic reality transforming any room into anywhere (like: beach, sun, wind ruffling hair). So nobody travels any more. Want to see a pal, have dinner with your mother, join a discussion group? No problem: they’ll be there with you as 3D holograms, and you won’t know Stork from butter, unless you try to make physical contact (I’m avoiding sex and reproduction because that might have to be wild speculation).

The entire global environment will also be covered with quintillions of dust-sized nano-computers called motes. So your life will be constantly curated by an intelligent network of ubiquitous cyber-servants. The “motes” will know you need more food, or that it’s a bit chilly today, or that you’re supposed to call Charlie. And they’ll take the relevant action. Your shirt (motes in the fabric) will call Charlie. Either his avatar will appear, or you’ll hear his voice. Not sound waves, but brainwaves. Brain-to-brain communication (it happened for the first time in summer 2013).

No travel means no need for infrastructure, such as high-speed trains (unnecessary by mid-century, along with superhighways and airports). No need for anything that Government does, because, in our millennial culture of scarcity, Government was primarily there to tax, spend, and re-distribute the wealth. In 2103, with no scarcity, what need for Government? And with abundance, everybody has everything, so what need for criminals?

Health? No diseases. There will be the vexed issue of cloning humans. Possible, but the motes won’t do you the favour. Privacy? That was only ever to protect what we had or did from prying eyes. Once we have everything, what secrets would we want to keep (outside the boudoir)? Of course the motes will know everything (including what happens in the boudoir) but, with no bureaucracy, who would they tell?

Education, when there’s no “work” to “qualify” for? Instant access to the entire corpus of human knowledge will make learning-for-fun… fun.

On the subject of fun, entertainment 2103: all in-brain, with accompanying holograms. Which means no more museum-piece clunky radio and TV stations. The motes will make any amateur’s imaginings look like Hollywood. Tailored to your most idiosyncratic wishes. Possibly pornographic and violent beyond anything today’s law permits. But also: all the beauty and poetry of our entire history of the arts. A holographic symphony orchestra, or Shakespeare’s Globe, in your living room.

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Well, for those of you in 2103, reading this yellowing scrap of 2013 Radio Times archive, that’s it. I hope you’re having a good laugh at how wrong I was.