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A Better World in 2050?

Will science, technology and the Internet make the world a better place for humankind 50 years from now?

November 4, 2001

Will science, technology and the Internet make the world a better place for humankind 50 years from now?

By 2050, the world had finally achieved a global economy that appeared to be environmentally sustainable, while providing nearly all people with the basic necessities of life — and the majority with a comfortable living.

The resulting social stability created a world in relative peace, exploring possible futures for the second half of the 21st century.

Different explanations have been given for the series of astounding successes achieved by 2050. Some believe that breakthroughs in science and technology were the key.

Others argue that development of the human potential was more fundamental — and still others that political and economic policies made the difference. All three themes were important and mutually reinforcing.

The Internet became a right of citizenship. The connection of virtually all people to the global information and communications systems accelerated the pace of scientific research and the introduction and diffusion of new technology.

Biotechnology, nanotechnology and closed-environment agriculture fed the world. New and improved sources of energy made for cleaner economic growth.

Brain-like intelligence systems used neural networks to augment human intelligence and improve decision-making.

Molecular manufacturing lowered manufacturing unit costs, requiring less volume of materials and energy usage. This approach also lowered the environmental impact of production for a population that had reached almost 10 billion.

Cyberspace had become a major medium of civilization, creating a constantly growing, non-zero sum economy. It had changed day-to-day life as significantly as the industrial revolution did 200 years earlier.

Because of the speed and ubiquity of communications systems, decision-makers and the general public became increasingly aware of the consequences of their decisions — almost as they occurred. Feedback on the results of actions was so rapid that real time self-correcting decisions were the norm.

This mechanism has reduced the time from early warnings to timely and effective responses and contributed to the solution of many of the seemingly intractable problems of the 20th century.

The number of wars decreased as democracies and respect for cultural diversity increased in the early 21st century.

Although old cultural conflict wounds of the past still flared occasionally, people could successfully avert and prevent them from growing into larger conflicts. The resulting social stability nurtured economic growth and created two billion people in the global middle class by 2010.

This increased conditions for further stability and sustainable growth that moved over five billion people in the middle class by 2050. Increasing numbers of people now accept that access — not possession — is the measure of wealth.

This new cultural norm helped to change consumption patterns.

The success of the International Space Station led to other orbital habitats. By 2050, nearly 250,000 people work in space communities in orbit, on the moon — and on the pioneer communities on Mars.

Human consciousness became more compassionate with the daily flood of images of Earth from space. Many children born in space have developed careers related to conflict prevention and reinforcing the value of ethnic diversity.

Their increasing interaction with Earth-based groups has provided a calming influence on potential social conflicts.

Advances in cybernetics and human cognitive development increased the use of machine intelligence to augment human intelligence, while emphasizing social and emotional development for improved decision making.

In short, it became fashionable to be intelligent and virtuous. Philosophers and artists created terminology and imagery that communicated that the strength of diversity is its underlying unity and our ethical responsibilities to future generations.

Psychonauts exploring the mind and cybernauts exploring cyberspace helped create new forms of notation and symbols that enabled the general public to understand the sophisticated world of 2050.

Adapted from 2001 State of the Future, © 2001 by the American Council for the United Nations University. Reprinted with the permission of the United Nations University.