This long-form story, by environment and sustainability writer Bron Willis, was first published in Issue 100 of the Cosmos print magazine. We’re releasing it online to celebrate the new year; as many are reflecting on 2023 and looking at 2024, this story gazes forward to 2040 to ask what the world will be like. To read more of our in-depth, award-winning science journalism, head to our shop for the full issue.
In 2006, in one of the early issues of Cosmos, we asked astrophysicists, climatologists, oncologists, ecologists, robotics specialists and renewable energy experts to predict what life would be like in 2020. Now, to celebrate our 100th issue, Bron Willis reports on how those predictions stack up – and has another group of scientists look ahead to 2040.
Humanity has a special talent for imagining the future – encompassing both our deepest fears and our loftiest dreams. Hollywood is particularly good it. Think of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 existential conversation between an astronaut and his computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the 2013 film Her, which explored the relationship between a man and his virtual assistant; and 2008’s post-apocalyptic Wall-E, which showed us an uninhabitable planet Earth 700 years from now, to name just a few.
Here at Cosmos, we like to imagine the future too, but with a little more science to guide us: in 2006, our feature story “Life in 2020” hit the stands in Issue 9, taking a look at what life then might be like. The topics we discussed bore an uncanny resemblance to those explored by Hollywood but with a little more grounding.
As Cosmos celebrates 100 issues, we look at what science predicted for the 2020s: what we got right, what we got wrong – and what we still don’t know. The questions, somewhat depressingly, are largely the same. How long can our planet continue to support us? How will artificial intelligence change our lives and will that change benefit or undo us? Is there life in the Solar System, or further afield – or are we all alone?
Perhaps the greatest question for you, the Cosmos reader, is the role of science in all this rapid technological, political and social change. Dr Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist from 2016 to 2020, remains hopeful.
“The role of science goes up and down in society,” says Finkel. “2020 was definitely a good year for science: political leaders and society turned to medical science in particular during COVID. And now in 2023 you’re starting to see it collapse again. But science just keeps doing what it should do, which is – do the research, find the evidence and communicate the evidence. Science in the long term will prevail.”
The 2020 scorecard
In 2006, writer Robin McKie asked astrophysicists, climatologists, oncologists, ecologists, robotics specialists and renewable energy experts what they thought life in 2020 would be like. There were some big predictions (“by 2020 we will have good evidence that we have neighbours somewhere in the galaxy”), some that fell differently to prophecy (“intelligent clothes” made from “special fabrics, fitted with monitors that will study our health throughout the day, while we sleep, work and exercise”) and others that landed exactly as forecast.
Energy and robots
If a reduction in carbon emissions is key to reducing the climate disaster’s impact and biodiversity loss, then the development of clean energy is critical. For Alan Finkel, it’s a passion.
“In 2006, we were only very hesitantly around the world beginning the deployment of solar and wind electricity generation, and batteries for utility storage.”
Since then, geometric growth from that small base has continued such that now in 2023 we’re still seeing growth rates per annum consistent with a fourfold increase per decade, according to Finkel.
“If we can maintain that for the rest of this decade, we’ll start to see sufficient solar and wind electricity entering the global energy supply to actually turn around at the rate that oil, coal and gas continue to grow.”
Finkel also points to an “explosion of electric vehicles”, with battery electric vehicles taking 15% of the world sales in 2022, and rapid growth continuing this year.
There were high hopes in 2006 for relief from the daily grind of domestic life. Back then, we predicted that “home robots [would] be the next consumer ‘must have’ by 2020 when they [would] have become as ubiquitous as personal computers today”. Sadly, a one-stop solution for housework remains a dream.
“Robots doing the housework hasn’t happened in the way that perhaps people expected or at least Hollywood led us to expect,” says Toby Walsh, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales. Rather, development has jumped ahead in discrete areas and not others.
“Machines are good at the things we find hard, but bad at the things we find easy,” says Walsh (referring to “Moravec’s paradox” observed by US robotics expert Hans Moravec in the 1980s.) “It turns out, stacking the dishwasher might be easy for humans, but remarkably hard for computers,” Walsh says. Vacuuming the floor, however, is a breeze for robots (although arguably less breezy for some of their older or less technologically savvy owners). “The most common robot in the world is the robot vacuum cleaner,” says Walsh. One estimate suggests there were 17.3 million robo-vacs in service around the globe in 2021.
Robots have also changed some consumer experiences and industries immensely: checking in at an airport (whether for better or worse), our mines (“Australia has the most automated mines on the planet,” says Walsh) and our warehouses, which are now designed specifically to increase the efficiency of robots picking and packing products.
But Walsh differentiates between AI, computers and robots.
“We’ve got computers in our hands now that are faster than the fastest supercomputers we had 50 years ago,” he says. “But with robots, we’ve never had those exponential returns. It’s still a hard thing to design a robot mechanically.
“We’ve certainly been impressed by the developments in AI in the last 15 years. I think most of us have been surprised even by some of the speeds of recent progress in terms of giving computers fluency and language. But equally, we’re still missing some fundamental things – they’re not deeply understanding the language of reasoning.”
But there’s one application of AI that has not borne out as anticipated, according to Finkel.
“I think the vast majority of people in around 2010 would have thought that by now we’d have fully autonomous vehicles but they’re a rarity at the moment,” he says. “It turns out that it’s really, really hard to do, especially while there are still people-driven cars on the road.”
The most predictable yet still alarming result, perhaps, is just how right the climate prognosis was, according to climate scientist and former Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission, Professor Tim Flannery. “We’re on the upper edge of our expectations, in terms of emissions trajectory and the flow-on from that,” he says. “The projections that we had back in 2006 were for outcomes not quite so catastrophic as what we’re seeing now.”
The surprise, Flannery says, is just how quickly we’ve got here: “Parts per million in the atmosphere [of CO2 – we hit 424 in 2023, up from 315 in 1960 according to the NOAA], the accumulating heat in the ocean, the nearness of some of the tipping points – these are all of grave concern.
“Since Cosmos interviewed me in 2006, humans have emitted more than a third of all of the greenhouse gases that we’ve ever emitted in our history on the planet.”
Back in 2006, Flannery said: “It’s now too late to avoid changing our world. But we still have time, if good policy is implemented, to avoid disaster.” Flannery’s prediction for a changing world has certainly come to pass. In August 2023 the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that July 2023’s global average temperature was “the highest on record for any month”.
But have we avoided disaster in the past 15 years? Due to the delay in the impact of emissions, says Flannery, we don’t know yet.
“Some trends are absolutely embedded now – we’ve emitted enough pollution that we know for the next 20 years, things are going to keep getting worse, almost no matter what we do. Just how much worse is the question.”
James Lovelock, the late British scientist, futurist and environmentalist, warned in our 2006 article that “for most people on the planet, it will be like living through war. It will be grim.”
Most of us would argue that we’ve not yet been affected by climate refugeeism, but in 2016 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), reported that since 2008 around 21.5 million people per year had been forcibly displaced by weather-related events.
Consider events such as record-breaking 2023 Northern Hemisphere summer heatwaves, Australia’s 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires and a recent global litany of record droughts and floods and you could argue this looks a bit like disaster – and for many, might feel a lot like war.
Island nations have been the first to experience population displacement due to rising sea levels. A 2016 paper by Australian researchers found sea levels in the Solomon Islands were rising at a rate three times higher than the global average that year and were “the site of the first sinking islands of the 21st century”.
The study identified “five vegetated reef islands that have vanished” and “a further six islands experiencing severe shoreline recession”, including two sites where communities were relocated from villages destroyed by shoreline recession.
The solution to avoid an even worse outlook for humanity?
“We’ve got to do two very difficult things at once,” says Flannery.
“We’ve got to cut our use of fossil fuels and at the same time, we need to draw down CO2 out of the atmosphere, and sequester it in the rocks. We need to do both of those things simultaneously at a very large scale. And we need to get really serious about restoring our forests.”
Anyone out there?
Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI Institute smiles amiably into his screen, recalling his predictions for the “three-horse race” he described in 2006 – our race to find extra-terrestrial life either by Earth-based radio telescopes, planetary probes, or space telescopes. “By the end of the next decade we will have found evidence of extraterrestrial life,” said Shostak at the time.
“Those horses are still in there,” he says on video call from California. “You know, they were fed a lot of hay to begin with but the race is obviously still going because nobody has won – we still haven’t found it. In fact, we haven’t found any life in space.
“It’s a little surprising. If we talked about this question, even 40 years ago, I’m sure most people would have said that by now we would know. Have we found life on Mars? Well, there’s a lot of hardware on Mars, manufactured here on Earth, but it still hasn’t found any life.”
According to Shostak, funding of space exploration is one of the most exciting developments in the past 15 years, and the search for intelligence in the universe has also been reinvigorated by private supporters.
“It’s still pretty much the same experiment that it has always been – using big antennas to try and eavesdrop on radio signals,” Shostak says.
For Professor Alan Duffy, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University of Technology, one of the leaps forward in space exploration since 2006 has been discoveries of exoplanets (planets that orbit stars other than the Sun and outside of our solar system), which are now so commonplace that they pass unnoticed by most.
“The big surprise is that exoplanets are not only theorised and detected, but we have now detected thousands of them,” Duffy says. “In the last five years, new planets are being detected almost as a daily occurrence. We can estimate that there are four billion Earth-like worlds around Sun-like stars in our galaxy alone.
“We don’t know how many are habitable, let alone inhabited. But this is an absolute transformation in our understanding of our place in this galaxy.”
One of the things that’s most surprised Duffy about space exploration in the past 15 years is who’s doing it. “We have nations joining the search of the Red Planet that I think would have been unthinkable: the United Arab Emirates, the first Arab nation in history to have a satellite around the planet; India has launched incredible missions. These were new entries that I think would have surprised people, 20 years ago.”
“Truly unthinkable” in 2006, according to Duffy, was also the idea that we would have thousands of satellites in orbit “and in particular, that many would be operated by a start-up that was less than 10 years old [SpaceX, which owns Starlink].”
Looking forward – life in 2040
Scientists (with the help of a little AI) are adept at making predictions based on measurable data such as ocean temperatures, population growth, cancer mortality and methane levels in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. But understanding the impact of changes in that data is less tangible. As we look to 2040, what do the scientists say about the future? What might life be like two decades from now?
Despite what we knew about protecting biodiversity in 2006, the key threats of land clearance, habitat fragmentation and climate change haven’t altered.
During the decade ending in 2019, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared 160 species extinct. These include the Australian natives the Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi), a microbat, and the Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola), a small rodent that has since been declared the first mammal to become extinct due to climate change.
Some biodiversity experts have begun to predict an even less certain future for Earth’s diverse plants and animals – a sudden, “cliff-edge” loss of biodiversity rather than a slow and steady demise.
A 2019 study published on Nature.com suggested that biodiversity losses could happen “much sooner this century than had been expected” and “that a high percentage of species in local ecosystems could be exposed to potentially dangerous climate conditions simultaneously”.
And it’s not just species that will likely be affected, but entire ecosystems. The coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef, having already experienced seven mass coral-bleaching events between 1998 and 2022, are at similar risk according to the study: “The risk of climate change causing sudden collapses of ocean ecosystems is projected to escalate further in the 2030s and 2040s.”
Climate change may be particularly problematic for animals with highly localised habitat, such as the beautiful nursery frog, which is found only above 1100m elevation on one mountain – Wandu or Thornton Peak – in Queensland’s Daintree Rainforest. Unlike “typical” frogs, nursery frogs lay their eggs on land under rocks or logs in moist soil, and skip the tadpole stage altogether.
“One of our key concerns with nursery frogs is whether their terrestrial breeding makes these frogs even more vulnerable to climate change,” says Conrad Hoskin, an associate professor in terrestrial ecology at James Cook University Townsville. In coming years there’s likely to be a reduction in the cloud moisture levels that traditionally give Wandu a beautiful nursery frog-friendly climate.
“In our opinion, it has about a about a 50/50 chance of going extinct in the next 20 years,” says Hoskin.
Can technology, which promises so much in other fields, help in the fight to arrest biodiversity loss? The growth of such things as environmental DNA analysis and acoustic sensors to constantly monitor species and collect data would seem positive.
Jacinta Plucinski is a software developer at conservation technology company Freaklabs. Plucinski predicts that the falling cost of conservation technology – and therefore its widespread use – will continue to improve the collection of data for imperilled species.
“The cost of technology goes down every year, so over time, sophisticated technologies like satellite imagery, bioacoustics, and camera traps will become more affordable and accessible,” Plucinksi says.
But she cautions that the data that technology gathers is only as good as the systems and policies it informs.
“AI will play a big role in conservation technology in the next 20 years – but technology is just a tool for collecting data. Data needs to facilitate understanding and decision-making, and ideally be transformed into policy that can help promote conservation and biodiversity.”
Far from the moist clouds of the Daintree, the future of our polar ice caps doesn’t look much better than that of the beautiful nursery frog, according to Tim Flannery.
“The projections are that by the mid 2030s, we will be seeing ice-free summers in the Arctic,” he says. “For Antarctica, the collapse is so catastrophic and unexpected, nobody has any idea really what’s going on or what the future holds.”
The collection of data and its beneficial application to solving biodiversity issues has come on in leaps and bounds in the past 20 years, and will surely expand exponentially in the next 20. But what if we were able to access untapped data that has accumulated over – let’s say – the past 20,000, 30,000 even 40,000 years?
For ecologist Dr Jack Pascoe, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences and leader of the Conservation Ecology Centre, that’s what makes First Nations people around the globe so central to the ongoing fight for biodiversity.
“More than ever before, the conservation movement is seeking input from indigenous peoples, not only for traditional ecological knowledge, which is so valuable to practical land custodianship, but also in an effort to understand the complex reciprocal relationship the mob had with Country that enabled such a light footprint.”
Pascoe says indigenous peoples also play a critical role in the science of conservation.
“Science is based on knowledge derived from repeated observation. Tens of thousands of years of repeated observation builds quite a data set. This explains the complexity of traditional knowledge systems and also gives some insight into how Australia’s First Peoples were able to adapt to such drastic changes in the climate and landscape.”
Cancer will likely still be a feature of life in 2040 says Will West, CEO of CellCentric, a UK-based cancer research company.
“We will never ‘cure’ cancer, but we can certainly prevent more cases, and keep people alive for longer, and healthier,” he says.
For people diagnosed with cancer – a projected 1,958,310 people in 2023 in the US alone – this may be grim news. But as we predicted in 2006, cancer research, detection and treatment continues to be as multi-faceted as cancer tumour types themselves.
“An increasing number of cancers are cured,” says Paul Grogan, senior strategic adviser for the Daffodil Centre. “Rates are around 40% higher than they were three decades ago, with a significant percentage of survivors living cancer-free. Five-year survival over the same period has improved for all cancers combined from around 65% to 70%.”
Two of Australia’s biggest cancer success stories in the last decade, according to Grogan, have been bowel and stomach cancer. Bowel cancer mortality rates having fallen by around 40% over the past 15–20 years, mainly through improved early detection.
One of the gold stars for cancer research is the development of vaccines for cancer-causing infections, including the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, research for which commenced in the 1980s.
“The availability of a vaccine for HPV, which causes almost all cervical cancers, was a gamechanger,” says Grogan. “It has enabled the introduction of a more effective screening test and a three-pillar strategy integrating immunisation, screening and improved treatment pathways to eliminate the disease as a public health issue. Australia is on track to be the first country in the world to achieve this, by 2035.”
According to Grogan, however, it’s not just vaccines or improved detection and treatment technology that stand to further decrease cancer’s impact by 2040.
“Some of the greatest gains will be in equitable application of interventions which we already know are effective.”
The future for cancer in Australia depends largely on prevention, says Grogan, pointing out that “one in three cancer cases are preventable, yet Australia continues to invest only around 1.5% of its health budget in disease prevention.”
Cardiologist Johan Verjans, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide and deputy director at the Australian Institute for Machine Learning is seeing AI assistance in many areas of cardiology, but perhaps not in the ways that people might have imagined.
“We do a lot of measurements when looking at medical imaging and it’s very manual,” Verjans says. “AI is starting to take over easy tasks like this in detection and it’s good at it. The good thing is that we’re still supervising it. So it’s making life easy, but we’re still in charge.”
It’s a surprise to hear that AI is more likely to change medical diagnosis than treatment.
“Language models like ChatGPT are now going to quite radically change a consult,” says Verjans.
“Provided the patient allows it, we could just record a conversation and AI will write a summary. The human is still in the loop – you can supervise what’s written and make modifications.”
The key in this is that humans remain informed and alert, says Verjans. “AI, like humans, is pretty good. But it still makes errors. So if the computer is right 98% of the time, how can you actually be alert to something that is wrong 2% of the time? How do you find the 2%?”
Verjans predicts that AI will be diagnosing broken bones in the next 5–10 years. Clinical trials will also be done in a more affordable way by recruiting large numbers of study participants via smart technology. And diagnosis is more likely to happen at home, based on data collected at home, rather than at the GP clinic.
“We’ll see at-home diagnostics, at-home treatments will happen, and that will save a lot of money… we won’t need a stethoscope anymore,” Verjans says. “So basically, everything will be run from home unless you’re really, really sick. It’ll become harder to see a GP if you have just something that can be solved by a robot.”
Thinking of AI more generally… Alan Finkel has one last point he’s happy to make before hanging up the phone at the end of our interview.
“The last thing that you haven’t asked me,” he says, “is whether artificial intelligence will have taken over the planet by 2040. The answer is I don’t know. At this moment in time no one – governments, entrepreneurs, technologists, scientists – really knows the extent of the threat and how to manage it. It does feel like a scary moment in time. But I’m confident that we’ll work it out.”