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Friday, January 13, 2017

The Next 100 Years

The New Year is a time to look forward, backward, and to contemplate the passage of time.  In that spirit, I wrote a list of predictions for the next 100 years.  I also asked my son and a good friend to write similar lists.  When I compared the lists, I was amazed at the convergence between our forecasts.  We envision sweeping changes that span the range of human experience; life in 100 years will be quite different than life today.  But for the most part, our forecasts represent the extrapolation of trends that are apparent today, using knowledge that we already possess or are actively seeking.  In general, this post is drawn from predictions that at least two of the three forecasters had in common.

I believe that we already have much of the knowledge that will change life in the next hundred years.  The fabric biplanes of 1917 foretold the Boeing 747 jetliners which were built 50 years later. Einstein’s publication of E = MC2 in 1905 foretold the atomic bomb in 1945.

It is clear from current trends that the scientific and technological achievements of mankind have just begun.  In one hundred years, society will have a ten-fold increase in its ability to produce wealth, but it will struggle with equitable distribution and meaningful employment, as it does today.  Our ability to produce technological advancement greatly exceeds our ability to produce social, political, and economic advancements.  In other words, our ability to build new gadgets is much better than our ability to work together, to avoid conflict, and to share our wealth.  Most of the positive developments of the next hundred years will come from technology.  Most of the scary stuff will come from social problems.

Science is just beginning to solve deep mysteries of reality and life.  The technologies which might result from these discoveries will fundamentally change how people live on earth, and where we go from here.

This post is organized into four parts: Technology, Environment, Society and Science.

  • A breakthrough technology will make energy much cheaper than today, and enable the reversal of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.  The breakthrough may be fusion energy, or solar power, in combination with advances in storage and transmission technology.  Cheap energy should enable huge strides in global prosperity, but results will depend on how wealth is distributed.

  • Self-driving cars will be the norm; only hobbyists will own drivable cars.
  • Domestic airline travel will soon reach a gridlock limit; alternatives of high-speed rail and/or hyperloop tube transport will be built within 50 years between American cities.  Trans-ocean hyperloops will be built by the second half of the century.
  • Sub-orbital passenger aircraft will briefly compete with hyperloops, but will be less economical.

  • Most cancers will be curable within 50 years, possibly sooner.
  • Spinal cord injuries will be curable, as well as other injuries requiring cellular regeneration, such as blindness, deafness, and paralysis. 
  • Mechanical aids will be better integrated with human bodies through bio-engineering, solving a variety of human illnesses.  Implanted mechanical aids will also offer the possibility of enhanced human performance for military or other purposes.
  • Lifespans will (potentially) be much longer.  Science will decisively solve the mechanisms of aging, and develop effective therapies to extend healthy life.  Availability of those therapies may be limited by cost and affordability of extended life.
  • Global population will not peak at 9 billion in 2050, as currently predicted, but will grow throughout the century due to extended lifespans.

  • Genetic therapies will be available to cure genetic diseases, especially in children.  
  • Genetic selection or modification will be available to create designer children, but with limited legality.  The topic of genetic child improvement will be as socially intractable as the abortion debate today.
  • Hybrid and synthetic life forms will offer solutions to some problems, but will be the subject of sharp ethical controversy.
  • All standard consumer meat will be synthetic.  Synthetic meat and food will provide healthier diets in developed countries, and eliminate malnutrition in currently undeveloped countries.
  • A number of Pleistocene extinct species will be restored, including wooly mammoths and mastodons.  There will be an ethical argument about restoring Neanderthal and Denisovan people –they will not be restored.
  • Biotechnology will emerge as the major threat in terrorism, assassination, and warfare.

 Computer Technology
  • Quantum computing will be as common as flash memory is today.   There will be huge progress in miniaturization and efficiencies.  Artificial intelligence will eliminate many jobs.  Deep technical problems in mathematics and computing will be solved.  [For example, my son informs me that the NP-complete solution will be discovered – whatever that is!]
  • Artificial sentience will not yet be a reality, but technologists will have a much clearer idea of what would be required to produce a sentient machine.

Space (Solar System)
  • Thousands of people will be living and working off-world.
  • Manned missions to Mars will be routine, but a permanent base will not yet exist.
  • A permanent base will exist on the moon, but will be fully dependent on support from Earth.
  • Asteroid mining will be a reality in the asteroid belt.  Projects will be underway to place asteroids into Earth orbit, lunar orbit, or Lagrange points.  The first sustainable colonies away from earth will revolve around asteroid mining activities.  International tensions will flare over the ownership of asteroids and the rights for colonization.
  • Simple life will be discovered in the solar system, with the possibility of fossilized multicellular life on Mars.

Space (Interstellar Exploration)
  • Interstellar probes will be returning the first data from other stars.
  • Planning will be under way for a manned interstellar voyage.
  • Signals from a distant alien civilization will be detected, but so far away (and long ago) that communication is impossible.

Wilderness and Wildlife
  • Many extinctions will occur due to climate change and pressures from a larger human population. 
  • Environmental degradation will be extreme in China, India, Africa and Latin America by mid-century.  Efforts to restore the environment will be a high priority by the end of the century.
  • New large park systems will seek to re-establish wilderness ecosystems, including large predators and herd animals which are now extinct or will become extinct.
  • Wilderness areas will be greatly diminished globally, and wildlife will be similarly diminished. 

  • Wild fish stocks will be recovering from severe depletion due to overfishing.  Commercial fishing will be illegal; fish for human consumption will be raised in fish farms.   Restoration projects for coral reefs will be underway, after the near-extinction of most reefs on earth. 

Climate Change
  • Sea level will be 1 to 2 meters higher than today, sufficient to cause flooding in many coastal cities and communities, and abandonment of some communities.  Substantial melting will be occurring from the Greenland and Antarctic ice-caps.  Rising sea level will be accelerating and inexorable, with the greatest impact expected in the second hundred years. 
  • Drought and desertification will spread northward and southward from the lines of 30 and -30 degrees of latitude as atmospheric convection cells grow stronger.  Areas affected will include Southwest and south-central United States, southern Europe, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of China, Argentina and southeast Australia.  Famines are likely to occur in affected areas.  The extent of the problem will depend on how quickly mankind can implement low-CO2 energy technologies.  

  • The world will endure a severe global financial meltdown, based on failure of credit systems.  The crisis will cause an extended depression, and result in re-organization of political, economic, and financial systems. 
  • Fewer than 15% of American workers are now working in industries with physical products.   Robots and artificial intelligence will continue to replace workers, as capital is more cost-effective than labor in many industries.
  • Automation of the economy will leave the majority of people unemployed.  This will cause significant civil unrest and conflict.  The world will be divided into three groups: 1) the talented elite who work; 2) a minority of people who own capital, do little and earn much, and 3) those who do not own capital, do little, and earn very little.
  • Sustained productivity growth of 2% to 2.5% annually will result in 7x to 12x total growth.  If distributed equally, average household income in the United States would increase from $52,000/year to about $500,000/year, adjusted for inflation.  Wealth inequality can be expected to grow for the foreseeable future, resulting in an extremely wealthy aristocracy and a moderately well-off middle class. 
  • The problems of what people will do for employment and how wealth is distributed will be the root cause of most social conflict in the next century.

  • The United States, as we know it, will be greatly changed or no longer exist.  The political organization of states will be changed, and the external borders will probably change.  There will be a slow regional consolidation of North America; economic integration will be followed by political integration.  Other megastates will also form, in Europe, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union. 
  • A third (or fourth) political party will emerge in the United States, winning substantial power in Congress and the Presidency.  One or both of the existing political parties will expire or be completely changed in a political transformation.  

International Relations
  • Most of Africa will be economically developed.  The African Union will exist as a meaningful political and military bloc.
  • There will be conflict between the major nationalistic interests (China, Russia, USA) and major trading block associations.   China will be involved in a major war against one or more of its neighbors. 
  • There is a high probability of another World War.  The war will involve many advanced weapons (AI, drones, space-based weapons, and computer warfare), but probably not nuclear warheads.

Natural Disaster
  • A global epidemic will result in up to 30% population loss.  
  • A solar flare will devastate electrical infrastructure, electronic communications and satellites.  Rebuilding the lost infrastructure will be uneven, and will require most of a decade.
  • Major earthquakes with huge damage and loss of life will occur in Turkey (south of Istanbul), California, Oregon, Italy, Chile, Japan, and Indonesia. 
  • The Mosul dam in Iraq will fail, with large loss of life downstream.
  • One or more meteors will hit the earth with enough power to obliterate a city.

  • A major terrorist attack will occur causing tens-to-hundreds of thousands of deaths.  The incident may spark a major war, possibly along the Christian/Muslim divide.  The incident will increase global surveillance and eliminate most privacy protections around the world. 

Civil Rights
  • In the United States, the trend of acceptance of alternative lifestyles will continue.  Some structural change will occur in a small percentage of American families, equivalent to the legalization of gay marriage.  The change may be in terms of polygamy or polyamory, limited marriage contracts, three-parent children or children raised by communities instead of families.  In other words, something weird by today’s standards.
  • A number of forces, including the threat of terrorism, will challenge the principles of privacy in most countries.  Most people in the world will live in what we consider to be surveillance states.
  • Racism will diminish as genetic mixing makes the separation of races less distinct.

Science and New Technology
There will be at least one completely revolutionary discovery in physics in the next century, which will enable some transformative new technology.  In the last century, most of the science for 20th century technologies was already known by 1917 (airplanes, E = MC2, etc.).  Application and implementation of that knowledge produced the new technologies which changed the world.  Likewise, I believe that we already have the science for the technologies of the next century.  The breakthrough scientific discoveries of the next one hundred years will produce the transformative technologies of the following century. 

The first list shows potential revolutionary scientific discoveries, in order of likelihood.  All of the items on the list are areas of current research.  I excluded potential discoveries which are outside the boundaries of known physics, such as faster-than-light travel or telepathic telekinetic dragons.

The second list is of potential technologies which might result from such discoveries and completely transform human life and human destiny, also listed in order of likelihood.

Potential Scientific Discoveries
  • Full understanding of the processes of human aging.
  • The discovery of a habitable planet orbiting a nearby star.
  • Full understanding of gravity, and how it produces distortion of space-time, or the discovery that gravity is an emergent phenomenon, i.e., a product of other, more fundamental forces.
  • The ability to alter time for small, table-top objects: to accelerate or decelerate time; to reverse time, or to put objects into a closed time-loop.
  • The discovery and proof of sentient machines.
  • Discovery of intelligent alien life.
  • Discovery of how to manipulate space-time. 
  • Proof that we live in a multiverse.
  • Proof that reality is non-material.

Potential Transformative Technologies
  • Cheap fusion power.
  • Asteroid mining and orbital manipulation.
  • Permanent, independent, communities in space.
  • A practical and efficient space-drive which does not require thruster propellant.
  • Artificial Intelligence smarter than people, and capable of self-design with improvements.
  • A cure for aging. 
  • The ability to generate localized, focused artificial gravitational fields.
  • Faster-than-light communication, using separated quantum entangled particles.
  • Sentient machines.
  • Terraforming planets in our solar system.
  • Manipulation of planetary orbits.
  • Teleportation of physical objects.
  • The ability to adjust current reality, in terms of modifying physical laws, physical objects or actions, or past events, based on a new understanding of reality.
  • Communication with parallel universes.
The Black Swan
Most of the predictions in this post are consensus ideas, given by at least two of the three forecasters.  But life-changing developments may be completely unexpected, in the sense of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan events. (Even if, as Taleb writes, the Black Swan events are completely predictable in hindsight.) 

It is therefore worth noting a few of the non-consensus predictions. 
  • Science will find evidence that the human soul exists beyond death.
  • Marine archeology will discover ancient civilizations flooded by sea level rise, dating back to 30,000 years or more.
  • Society-wide panopticon surveillance will challenge and possibly end the liberal, democratic, rule of law society of the west.
  • Wealth inequality will bottom out, having reached a nadir in about 20-40 years, and be improved in 100 years compared to today.
It is entirely appropriate that these last predictions are about what we are, who we have been, and how we will live.
References and Credits
Many thanks to Steve R. and Greg B., whose thoughtful correspondence enabled me to write this post and in other ways enrich my life.

Bill Gates, February 2016, interview with Charlie Rose,

David Deutsch, 1997, The Fabric of Reality, 390 p.

David Deutsch, 2011, The Beginning of Infinity, 496 p. 

Jacob Bronowski, 1973, The Ascent of Man, 448 p.


The Boeing 747
Not long ago, I watched a Boeing 747 airplane take off from our local airport – that was the inspiration for this post.  The 747 is a massive airplane, and appears to hang in the air as it is gaining altitude.  The 747 has been in service since 1970 – nearly 50 years.  The plane’s startling size immediately garnered nicknames: jumbo jet, queen of the skies, and my favorite, the aluminum overcast.  Recent versions of the plane are still among the largest passenger planes in the world.   

Despite the fact that the plane has been in service for 46 years, the sight still inspires awe.  It made me wonder what people would have thought, if they had seen this aircraft one hundred years ago.  The year 1916 was the midpoint of World War I, and airplanes were still crude novelties made of fabric and wood.   The idea of an airplane weighing nearly one-half million pounds, capable of carrying up to 600 passengers, or another half-million pounds of cargo, would have seemed beyond comprehension.  And yet within little more than 50 years, such planes flew. 

The sight of this plane made me wonder what the world will see in the next one hundred years.  What technologies will become commonplace in our grandchildren’s lifetimes that are beyond our comprehension today?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Questionable Safety of Low Cabin Pressure on Long Flights

Actress Carrie Fisher, age 60, died December 23, 2016, after experiencing a heart attack fifteen minutes before landing on an eleven-hour flight from London to Los Angeles. 

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, age 79, died of natural causes, one week following a return flight from China, on the night following another flight from Washington to Texas.

Actor James Gandolfini, age 51, died of a heart attack two days after a flight from the United States to Italy. 

My uncle, Floyd S., age 73, died of a heart attack a few days after a flight from the United States to China. 

These deaths, and others, should raise the question about whether extended air travel is safe for middle-aged or older people, who suffer from poor heart health.  The safety of extended air travel should also be examined for pregnant women or other people who may be at risk in extended periods with low oxygen.

During the 1960s, they called it “the Hawaii heart attack”.  It was common enough that it had a name.  When middle-aged or elderly couples would take a romantic, late-life trip to Hawaii, the man sometimes had a heart attack.  The heart attack usually about three to four days following arrival on the island.  My parents took a trip to Hawaii with another couple when they were in their early 50s, and the husband of the other couple had a heart attack on the third day of their trip. 

Airplane cabins are pressurized, but not to the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level.  Instead, cabins are pressurized to the air pressure equivalent to about 6500’ to 8000’ of elevation.  United States regulations require that commercial airlines pressure their cabins to an equivalent altitude of no more than 8000’.  I have no idea how well this regulation is observed or enforced.

I live in Anchorage, Alaska.  Travel to and from Alaska requires long flights, by necessity.  I have noticed variability in the physiological responses of passengers during these flights.  That variability makes me suspect that cabin pressure is not very uniform.  My wife developed altitude sickness on flights twice in the past few years, passing out on one occasion.   On other flights she has been fine.  I have also been on flights where nearly all of the passengers have fallen asleep in the middle of the day.  I don’t think this is normal, and I think it indicates insufficient oxygen in the cabin.

Anecdotal evidence is not proof.  Further, all of the people that I mention in this post had existing issues of poor health, a history of unhealthy habits, and probably engaged in unhealthy eating or drinking immediately before their heart attacks or deaths.  Nevertheless, the proximity of these heart events to long exposures to low oxygen is a reason to question the safety of low cabin pressure on long flights.  A long period of low oxygen is a reasonable explanation for a traumatic health event, through the process of stress on the heart, lungs, and blood vessels.

According to Wikipedia, many, but not all, newer models of airplane are being designed to provide a lower equivalent altitude in cabin pressure.  This suggests to me that plane manufacturers have recognized the issue.  But without a rigorous epidemiological study, the risk cannot be quantified nor appropriate standards set. 

Airplane manufactures, airlines, the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Centers for Disease Control should all be interested in a scientific appraisal of the safety of 8000’ equivalent altitude limit.  The burden of proof should be on the airlines and airplane manufacturers to prove that this limit is safe.  Like the manufacturers of cars or electrical devices, they need to do the work which proves that their product is safe.  The study should include a statistical appraisal of heart health for older customers on long flights, and analog studies in animals to demonstrate the safety of 8000’ equivalent altitude in fetuses before birth.