Society and culture can change beyond recognition in a lifetime—people with bitcoin petaflops computing convictions for homosexuality are today seeing gay marriage become legal. A bunch of you are reading this on a multifunctional device that would outperform any supercomputer from 20 years ago, and when you’re finished, you’ll put it in your pocket. Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
As correct as that may be, the world will definitely evolve in the next few decades, and we’ve got a good idea just how some of those changes will play out. Yet its importance has faded dramatically since this whole computer thing took off. The cost of maintaining hard currency is up to 1. 5 percent of a country’s GDP. 848 million minting coins and used tens of thousands of tons of metal in the process.
So will there be a cashless society soon? You can no longer get on a bus in Sweden using cash, a direct response to robberies of bus drivers. A bank workers’ union calls for ditching cash altogether to stop bank robberies, and their campaign has attracted supporters such as Bjorn Ulvaeus from ABBA. There are possible disadvantages to going cashless. The US would need to rethink its tipping culture, for one.
There are privacy concerns, as everything you spend would be tracked. Human psychology seems to make us spend more sensibly when we’re forced to part with physical objects from our purses and wallets. The worldwide human population has been going up for the last 15,000 years and has increased tenfold in the last 300. Could population peak and start going in the other direction?
Some studies say it will, and in the not-too-distant future. One study by demographers from Vienna suggests there’s an 84-percent chance the population will peak before 2100. Of course, there’s the possibility it’ll keep growing. We might hit 10 billion by the end of the next century and see a decline after that. In that case, you might need to live to 150 to see Earth’s population peak. But milestones are what they are, and they resonate with people. British aging expert Aubrey de Gray thinks the first person to hit 150 has probably already been born.
It may well be you, in which case congratulations in advance. You’ll have plenty of time to see humanity pass other milestones. The world’s first trillionaire is likely to come in the next few decades. Computing will hit a big milestone with the advent of exaflop supercomputers in place of today’s petaflops. Many of you will be familiar with Moore’s Law, an observation that reflects the exponential improvement in computing over the last decades. Originally, it noted that the number of transistors we can fit on integrated circuits doubles roughly every two years.
Yet we are reaching the limits of what we can do with silicon computing. Computing giant IBM is keen on carbon nanotubes as the solution, and researchers at Stanford have already made a small circuit to demonstrate the technology. Nanotubes are smaller, lighter, and quicker than silicon, and so could allow computing power to continue to increase. Many people say that the future is going to be all about 3-D printing, and it does offer some pretty awesome potential. But we can go one better in a very literal way using a related technology—4-D printing, which involves objects that assemble themselves.
Getting manufactured goods to do the manufacturing has a number of advantages. For one, it means you won’t have to puzzle over instructions from Ikea as your furniture could put itself together. Programmable materials—that is, materials that change their shape or behavior based on conditions such as temperature—could also enhance 3-D printing. Furniture, buildings, and vehicles that can help put themselves together would be particularly helpful in space exploration. Engineers are already working on spacecraft that assemble themselves while in orbit to create the big, bulky solar arrays needed for power. But 4-D printing really comes into its own on a much smaller scale. Putting together nanomaterials requires a lot of energy and effort using traditional methods.
Self-assembly is the most promising route for mass production of nanostructures. Such fantastic new medical advances are becoming increasingly necessary as we see our current methods start to fail us. Antibiotics, which have likely already saved you or someone you know from death, won’t be around for much longer, as we’ve mentioned before. Bacteria are getting resistant, and we need a new tool to fight them. One possibility is to fight bacterial infections with viral infections—that is, viral infections of the bacteria. Viruses that attack bacteria are known as bacteriophages, and they cause their hosts to literally fall apart.