23 October 2007

Life in 2020

It may be only a short while away, but the world in 2020 will be very different. Cosmos asked some of the world's leading scientists to forecast the future.
Life in 2020

Credit: Emrah Elmasli

Albert Einstein claimed he never thought about the future. “It comes soon enough,” he would say. And you can see his point. What would have been the good of worrying about our destiny when it was not of our making?

But life has changed since the great physicist’s day. Sweeping changes of our own creation now beset our world: carbon emissions, soaring populations, cloning, rising extinction rates.

We are changing our planet and its biosphere in ways that were once unimaginable. We are also developing lifesaving technologies that would have appeared equally incredible a few decades ago. Everywhere we witness change. But what will this bring and how will it affect our world?

In this article, we address these questions in detail and explore the issues involved, concerns that will shape the existence and lifestyles of ourselves and our children. Some, notably those involved in medical research, look very hopeful. Others, especially those concerned with climate and biodiversity, look far less optimistic. Indeed, they appear downright disturbing.

Overall, it is sobering stuff, though we should not be too downhearted about our prospects for life in 2020. As that other great guru of the 20th century, Charles M. Schulz, creator of the ‘Peanuts’ cartoon, once observed: “You needn’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia.”

Hot in the city

WHATEVER else we experience in 2020, the impact of climate change will be inescapable. That’s the clear message from virtually every scientist working in the field. Last century saw global atmospheric temperatures rising by 0.6˚C; in the next decade and a half, we can expect much the same.

“Climate change will become particularly noticeable at the poles,” says James Lovelock, the British scientist who developed the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that life itself makes existence tolerable on Earth. “By 2020, the North Pole will be becoming free of ice, and by the end of the decade we will be able to sail straight across it. At the same time, the great glaciers of the southern hemisphere and the West Antarctic ice sheet will be breaking up.”

The seas will rise dramatically, flooding Earth’s low-lying areas. Thus, by 2020, we will have a very good idea of the fate that is awaiting our planet: heat, flooding and desertification. “Essentially, for most people on the planet, it will be like living through war,” warns Lovelock. “It will be grim, but we are all going to have to stick together in our own communities.”

It is an apocalyptic vision. Nevertheless, Lovelock – one of the world’s most distinguished climate experts – is not alone in his prognosis. Graeme Pearman, of Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, also forecasts cataclysmic changes. “The Great Barrier Reef is already suffering from serious bleaching,” he says. “Temperature increases are killing off the coral and, with another one-degree increase in global temperatures in prospect, we are going to see serious damage being done to it. Not just from bleaching, but from damage from ever-worsening storms that are yet another consequence of global warming.” (See also ‘The late Great Barrier Reef’, Cosmos 9, p 32).

Around 90 per cent of people living today will still be alive in 2020, so these disturbances will touch almost every family on Earth. Neither can we do anything to halt them. Increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide that have already taken place make them inevitable. Preventing even greater horrors should therefore be a scientific and political priority for the next decade and a half, says Tim Flannery, professor at Macquarie University in Sydney and author of the climatic bestseller, The Weather Makers. And, most importantly, a new and comprehensive policy for curbing carbon emissions both at home and in the workplace is now desperately needed. As Flannery points out: “It’s now too late to avoid changing our world. But we still have time, if good policy is implemented, to avoid disaster.”

It’s life, Jim

NO FORECAST for 2020 would be complete without attempting to answer one of the most enduring questions in science: is there life elsewhere in the cosmos? And, if so, will we find it? The answer, according to Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California, is a simple “Yes”. By the end of the next decade we will have found evidence of extraterrestrial life. The only issue to be decided is how we will actually make that monumental discovery. And according to Shostak, it will be a three-horse race: between Earth-based radio telescopes, planetary probes, and space telescopes.

In the first category, radio telescopes will probe the skies to pick up signals sent out by alien civilisations – either deliberate ‘here we are’ messages or old episodes of their equivalent of TV show Neighbours that have been leaking out across space since they were broadcast. And of all the instruments designed to detect these interstellar signals, the Allen Telescope Array – a joint project between SETI (which stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) and the University of California at Berkeley – is now rated the machine most likely to succeed. Consisting of some 350 separate radio telescopes, the array went into operation earlier in 2006 and, by searching the skies 24 hours a day, we should hit pay dirt sometime between 2020 and 2025, says Shostak.

Then there are the space telescopes, and in particular NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, and the Darwin Mission of the European Space Agency, which will hover in deep space and study the atmospheres of extrasolar planets (those beyond our Solar System) for telltale signs of oxygen, ozone and methane – gases that would indicate the presence of life. Both missions have been delayed by budget problems but are still likely to be in space by 2020. “They could still win the race,” says Shostak, “but are outsiders at present.”

And finally, there are planetary probes. Among these will be missions to land spacecraft on Mars as well as to visit the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, worlds that have ice-covered oceans where primitive lifeforms may be found. “My money is one of these winning the race – particularly a Mars mission,” adds Shostak. “Certainly, I am sure by 2020 or thereabouts, we will have good evidence that we have neighbours somewhere in the galaxy and will know that life is really just a form of dirty chemistry that happens on lots of worlds.”


YOU ARE sitting in your New York hotel room on a business trip, pining for your family. You could phone but conversations can often be stilted on satellite lines. Not in 2020. Technology then should provide you with a solution – and a new way to bond with your children: By playing computer games and sharing virtual entertainments with them, even if they are still at home in Brisbane.

It sounds strange. Nevertheless, computer experts say in little over a decade, electronic pastimes will not only provide us with rich, textured, multicoloured images, they will allow us to play games with any number of people no matter where you – or they – are. “You could join in a team with your children and hunt aliens, or shoot down enemy aircraft, even though you are thousands of miles apart,” says David Perry, head of the California-based company Game Consultants. “It will be the ultimate bonding experience.”

Nor will you be restricted to sitting before TV-based consoles. Future game sets are going to be light, fast and portable. “You will be able to play games on handheld devices that can connect with you with players across the globe – even when you are standing in a queue in Disneyland,” adds Perry.

Peter Molyneux, a game designer for Microsoft Corp, is equally enthusiastic. We will no longer buy games in stores but download only when we need them, he predicts. As for their quality, that promises to be breathtaking. “Fifteen years ago, we were playing Donkey Kong and Space Invaders. Now games are approaching the quality of movies. By 2020, playing them will feel as authentic as playing a sport or living life in the real world.”

Bye bye, cancer

BY 2020, several key research areas should be having considerable impact in the battle against disease, cancer in particular. “Cancer will not be cured in one massive battle,” cautions Robert Weinberg, the distinguished researcher who discovered the first human oncogene (a gene that causes normal cells to turn into tumours). “Nevertheless, during the next decade and a half, there will be many individual skirmishes that will result in death rates from most common cancers being pushed down progressively.”

For Weinberg, based at the Whitehead Institute within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of Boston, one of the main breakthroughs will involve discoveries of how to use drugs – currently administered on their own – in more effective combinations. In addition, the Human Genome Project, which has provided researchers with a complete inventory of all human genes, will make it increasingly easy to design drugs that attack very specific tumours. “My guess is that about 25 per cent of cancers that currently are fatal will be treated successfully, either cured or reduced to chronic but tolerable conditions,” he says.

Such optimism is shared by Ian Frazer, a cancer expert at the University of Queensland who famously developed a vaccine for human papillomavirus (Cosmos, Issue 5, p10). His concern is primarily focussed on prevention. “A quarter of all cancers are caused by chronic infections,” he points out. For example, the Helicobacter bacterium is linked to gastric cancer; the Hepatitis C virus to liver cancer; the Epstein-Barr virus to various lymphomas; and the HTLV-1 virus to leukaemia. “Vaccines against all these infections are likely to be developed by 2020,” Frazer says.

In addition, scientists stress that lifestyle changes could also have striking effects on general health by 2020. “If there were serious reductions in cigarette smoking, then overall cancer deaths would decline by 30 to 35 per cent; while serious changes in diet, moving from meat to vegetarian diets, would produce another 10 to 15 per cent,” adds Weinberg. And given the plunge in cigarette consumption now occurring among men in the West, there is hope that lifestyle-related cancers will continue to slump over the next two decades.

And then there is stem cell science, the revolutionary technology that could be used to create neurons, heart muscle and pancreatic tissue for patients, using cells taken from their own skin. Using cloning technology, an embryo would be created from an individual skin cell. Then stem cells would be extracted from that embryo. In turn these would be used to create cell lines, such as heart or pancreas cells that could be put back into patients as lifesaving transplants that would not trigger immune rejections.

It is a breathtaking prospect. However, the reputation of stem cell research was badly undermined last year by the revelation that pioneer scientist Hwang Woo-suk, of South Korea, had faked much of his research (Cosmos, Issue 8, p64). Experts remain confident, however, and argue that stem cell treatments should be well established by 2020. “We will be able to use stem cells not only for transplants but also to create banks of human tissue, both healthy and diseased, in order to test potential new drugs on them,” says Huseyin Mehmet of Imperial College London. “It will bring unprecedented accuracy and cost-effectiveness to drug development.”

Robot dawn

FLOOR SWEEPING, dusting, window cleaning, picking up after the kids, sorting the laundry, folding clothes, ironing, tidying the house: such activities are the banes of our lives. Yet if engineers are right, by 2020, we may be able to forget such chores, thanks to the development of domestic robots.

“We already have grass-cutting robots the public have happily accepted scuttling around their gardens,” says robotics expert Gordon Wyeth of Brisbane’s University of Queensland. “Now robots able to walk and balance on two legs are becoming commonplace in laboratories, and computing power is constantly rising while costs fall.”

As a result, home robots will be the next consumer ‘must have’ by 2020 when they will have become as ubiquitous as personal computers today. They will be smart, ready to attack their tasks out of the box and will team with humans and other smart robots.

“I am betting most home robots will end up being named and treated like pets of sorts,” adds Wyeth. “It will create a whole new industry where major players will reap the rewards just as Microsoft has done with personal computers.”

Smart dressing

ROBOTS WILL not have it all their own way, however. Indeed, they can expect to face considerable technological competition in the home, thanks to developments in materials science and nanotechnology. At the University of New South Wales in Sydney, for example, researchers – led by Rose Amal and Michael Brungs – are developing self-cleaning surfaces for use in hospitals as well as domestic kitchens and bathrooms. These surfaces will be coated with particles that absorb ultraviolet light at a particular wavelength, exciting electrons and giving the particles an oxidising quality stronger than any commercial bleach. The surfaces will also be designed so that droplets cannot form on them – water will run off, washing as it goes.

In addition, scientists are working on materials that will not only change our homes but will transform the way we dress through the creation of ‘intelligent clothes’. Special fabrics, fitted with monitors, will study our health throughout the day, while we sleep, work and exercise. For example, at the University of Wollongong, south of Sydney, researchers have created a fabric that emits a groaning sound to warn sportsmen and women if they are stretching or moving in ways that could harm them.

Another concept being developed by scientists involves embedding clothes with mobile phone chips. “The idea is that if you get injured out hill-walking or skiing, sensors will detect physiological and temperature changes to your body,” says Jane McCann of Derby University in England. “The garment will alert the mobile phone chip to call the nearest hospital.”

Energy diversity

JUST HOW we power the technology that will be offered in 2020 depends on the world’s response to the threat of atmospheric warming. If global agreements are reached soon over carbon emissions, major changes in power production should have begun to make an impact on life across the planet. New-generation nuclear plants, based on pressurised water reactors perfected by the French, Germans and Americans – along with wind, water and tidal power generators being developed across the globe – will spring up across the landscape and power our homes. Or perhaps thorium-based nuclear reactors – generating power while burning up old nuclear waste – might have been perfected by then and be operational (see Cosmos, Issue 8, p40).

“Energy systems will be a lot more diverse,” says the CSIRO’s Graeme Pearman. “Wind, wave and solar energy will become a lot more important. Similarly, cars will emit far less carbon dioxide: either we will drive the new generation of highly efficient diesel cars that are being developed, or hybrids that use a mix of electric power and petrol. However, cars running on fuel cells and hydrogen will not yet be upon us. As for four-wheel drives – we will hardly see them any more.”

The consequence of greater energy diversification, and the fragmentation of habitats triggered by global warming, will also produce major changes in the manner and places in which we live. “In 2020, we will be witnessing the fragmentation of society,” says James Lovelock. “Individual regions, never mind countries, will be compelled to depend on their own resources. We can expect a future not necessarily of misery but of privation and austerity.”

Dead end

HUMANS WILL not be the only ones facing uncertain futures as changes sweep our planet: Earth’s plants and animals are also in for a grim time over the next 15 years. “Basically, humanity has taken over nearly all the low-lying land that can be farmed on Earth today,” says ecologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University, North Carolina. “Wild creatures have survived by holding on in highland areas, but now these are threatened; not by agriculture, but rather by climate change. And when these mountain refuges are destroyed as they warm up, there will be nowhere else for these creatures to go.”

A classic example of this double whammy, land clearance and climate change, is provided by the case of the ptarmigan, a distinctive flightless bird found in Scotland. It likes cold weather and has survived nicely in the Cairngorms for aeons. But now the area is warming up and ptarmigan numbers are dwindling fast. Its chances of making it to 2020 are therefore slim – as are those of Australia’s Thornton Peak nursery frog which now clings to life on a single mountain in Queensland’s tropical forests. When that refuge goes, there will be no more frog.

The danger is summed up by rainforest expert Nigel Stork, of James Cook University in Queensland. “As the world warms, cloud cover will rise. It is a simple climatic fact. High rainforests such as those on Thornton Peak get their moisture directly from clouds, not rain, and so will start to dry out, with unhappy consequences.”

Nor are the ptarmigan and the nursery frog alone. The prospects for many forms of wildlife now look bleak. The polar bear, the lowland gorilla and the chimpanzee, the tiger, many species of freshwater dolphin, and even the Great White Shark, now face devastating drops in numbers that could result, ultimately, in their extinction. “Take the freshwater dolphin,” says David Cowdrey of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s London office. “There are 15 or 16 different species and all are in peril. All the great dam projects in Asia are blocking off their habitats, while water extraction downstream is reducing rivers to mere trickles.”

Then there is the case of the polar bear. As Arctic temperatures soar (climate change affects regions in high latitudes far more quickly than equatorial areas), so the impact on these animals becomes increasingly worrying. Polar bears – and particularly mothers of newly born cubs – need to find food (usually seals) quickly after they wake from hibernation. But as sea-ice melts earlier and earlier each year, the platforms from which to mount their hunting expeditions are disappearing. The result is starvation.

But it is hard to calculate how many species will be lost by 2020, for the simple reason that we still do not know how many exist now. Lord Robert May, the Australian population expert and former head of the U.K.’s Royal Society, estimates there are around 7 million different species in the world, of which we have studied about 1.5 million.

“If we just consider birds and mammals, however, we have only about 14,000 different species of these and we are losing on average one species a year,” says May. “That may not seem much, but it is about a thousand times the natural background rate and, more importantly, it is going to increase as climate change worsens.

“There will not be the wholesale, instant slaughter that some activists have predicted,” he adds. “But species losses will accumulate over the century until we reach a level equal to the wave of extinctions that destroyed the dinosaurs and so many other creatures 65 million years ago. That was one of the five great extinctions that have affected life on Earth over the past few hundred million years. We are now entering the sixth.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in Cosmos in July 2006 so may refer to future events that have (or have not) now taken place. For more info on future European Space Agency missions click here.

Robin McKie is science editor of London’s The Observer, and a contributing editor of Cosmos.

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