Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C Clarke
It's still magic even if you know how it's done
Welcome to 2022, and another year of Strange Loop Canon. As the first post of the year I wanted to look a little further afield than normal, at the grand old year of 2050. A time that seems suitably futuristic, yet closer than one would like, being but seven years removed from now measured as my half-life.
Erik Hoel had a great set of 2050 predictions that looked at how current trends might help us understand where the future might lie, with the thesis that the future is already here, just unevenly distributed. And Slime Mold, Stephen and others have tried their hand at this too, as part of prediction-palooza 2022.
Last December, I’d taken a look at what lay ahead of us, The Next S Curve, which looked at some of the technological leaps we’re likely to make in the years ahead. I use that as a starting point and try to dig a bit deeper into what the world would look like.
The belief here at Strange Loop has been in agreement with the uneven distribution of the future but focuses more about the unseen power of combinatorial growth. This holds as true for the individual creations that emanate from the valley as much for the big scientific leaps. We can use it to look at broader theories of progress and specific cases like the emergence of SpaceX, but let’s put our futurist hats on and see what else we can proclaim.
The thesis that we’ve espoused time and time again has been that progress is combinatorial, and needs the ingredients energy (to build stuff), materials (to build them with), information (to know what and how to build) and life! And here let’s try and have some fun by pushing that thesis against time and seeing what 2050 is likely to look like!
Let’s get to work.
The Age Of Robots
Then you don't remember a world without robots. There was a time when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend.
A major part of science fiction futurism from the latter half of the 20th century, and the fuel for many an entrepreneur, has been the dream of robots. And now, Starship, Spot and other robots whose names don’t start with S, are working to make our world a lot more interesting! We have plenty of bipedal or quasi-humanoid robots now, but soon apparently we’ll start seeing ones with jet engines, the way god intended them to be.
The combination of computational power, AI and better materials means we should start seeing robots with better dexterity and increased intelligence enough for them to (hopefully) act as our butlers. While we have specialist bots already in manufacturing and warehousing, we will start seeing consumer applications pick up dramatically before 2050. The second half of the century is where we put Asimov through his paces.
This also includes different-shaped bots like driverless cars for driverless roads. Not because I think they’ll replace all cars, which depending on whom you ask are either “just the last 1% so can be solved easily” or “just the last 1% so probably impossible to solve”. Better social coordination mechanisms are likely to emerge, starting in defined lanes, or eg what White Rhino is doing via remote driving. Now, the car still might not be able to drive safely at night on a snowy day up to Lake Tahoe, but we might just make do as a society even without that.
Whether its as guard dog runs or helper guides or delivery bots, I don’t think it will be because we would’ve solved all the hard corner cases, but because we would have sliced out enough streamlined process-spaces where having a robot will be the sensible thing rather than the sexy thing.
AI, both boring and weird
Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.
I believe we’re going to see a version of intelligent AI by 2050 though not AGI or its super smart foom variant. The increase in speed of computation, the amount of data being collected and the systematisation of our knowledge is what, to me, makes a smarter GPT inevitable.
Mostly, I think we’ll end up with what I call both boring AI and weird AI (cheers to Sam Arbesman for the phrase). In the last decade or so I have seen handwriting and voice recognition go from a curio to being something my 4 year old can ask questions of. That trend will continue until we suffuse some intelligence into most devices. My 4yo asked yesterday why he can’t turn everything on in the house like Google. This is happening. That’s the boring bit.
This also means most of our consumer electronics market and overall appliances market are going to converge towards having better UI when dealing with us. It will abstract away the three-tap-selection complexity that exists in a huge number of tasks, and paradoxically will make the search paradigms that underlie the selection vastly more interesting.
There will be some no-humans-involved tasks, perhaps in the US military, but this is not going to be the majority. For one thing I think these systems will still be quite expensive, much more so than can be casually spent on a field somewhere.
Simultaneously, we’re entering a world where AI is gonna get far far better at creating texts, videos, poetry, songs, comic books, and maybe movies, and this will have strong implications on how we craft stories. I think this will drastically impact the way in which artists will create their works, and create an entire new world of citizen artists who treat storyscapes like a canvas and AI as their brush. This is the weird AI which will make curators and gardeners out of all of us.
Virtual worlds start to become real
With the increase in processing power, better AI, and the ability to help create exceptionally detailed maps of the world, VR will become real. I don’t think by the hands of Meta per se, but the trend here seems pretty damn clear. We won’t see the prophesied immersion all day and night amongst everyone, but at least in specific parts of the world, creating hyper-realistic locations for folks to spend time in will become feasible. Yes it’ll mostly impact gaming at first, but will likely become one of those capabilities that’ll see reasonably widespread use.
More interestingly perhaps, better holographic projection tech means we will be able to finally make some parts of Star Wars real. Some have started making small proof of concept like offerings here. They don’t have in-person interactivity, and need enclosed spaces, and that’s likely to continue for a while. Some of them even start to provide some tactile feedback, which is great.
No holodecks yet for us though.
The science market corrects itself
Scott had a review of Inadequate Equilibria a while ago which had the following observation.
Suppose you thought that modern science was broken, with scientists and grantmakers doing a bad job of focusing their discoveries on truly interesting and important things. But if this were true, then you (or anyone else with a little money) could set up a non-broken science, make many more discoveries than everyone else, get more Nobel Prizes, earn more money from all your patents and inventions, and eventually become so prestigious and rich that everyone else admits you were right and switches to doing science your way. There are dozens of government bodies, private institutions, and universities that could do this kind of thing if they wanted. But none of them have. So “science is broken” seems like the same kind of statement as “a $20 bill has been on the floor of Grand Central Station for a week and nobody has picked it up”. Therefore, modern science isn’t broken.
While this is a facetious argument about how science isn’t broken, it was clearly lamenting the the counterfactual. But what we do see in 2022 already is that we already have an enormous number of new institutions that are being created to correct this market failure. Fast Grants, Arc Institute, multiple longevity grants and programs including at least one DAO, New Science, the list has been growing faster than I could collate it.
Part of the reason is that a lot of science, especially harder science in biology, can now be done either computationally or without as massive an investment in a lab. We’ve figured out the bottlenecks in institutional funding mechanisms, have multiple promising hypotheses both for talent selection and resource allocation, and gotten enough collective comfort to take action.
This will bear significant fruit over the next three decades, and by 2050 a more decentralised funding structure will seem straightforward and we’ll start to see the next wave of funding coalescence starting to happen. I predict at least a few Nobel prizes will come from this group though.
(A longer post on this to come later)
Behold, I will bring to it health and healing!
In health, we’re reaching the stage where production costs are starting to plummet, analytic and computational machinery will continue to get ever more powerful, and the ingredients are readily available. There are multiple companies explicitly trying to make platforms to help speed up the whole process. With all this, we’ll see a boom of bio-medicine, including those hacked together, with compounds synthesised from scratch, and applied to specific problems like obesity and mental health for which there is endless demand for cures, currently mostly filled with quackery.
And at least for the upper middle class, we’ll also start having constant health monitoring as standard. Not knowing basic facts about your body will seem ridiculous. This will go from the basics on heart health and blood pressure, to better and more systematic biological measurements via wearables, to easier home testing kits for blood and stool, measuring glucose and insulin. We’ll most likely also see much larger proportions of the population in developed countries sequence their genome, though probably without much explicit benefit yet.
We’ll also start seeing drugs for non-debilitative illnesses, especially like mental health or obesity. This holds true for both production of biologics which will drastically decline in price, and the creation of drugs aided by better simulations. And vaccines for a large chunk of illnesses like most respiratory ones and malaria. There is also likely to be the beginnings of gene therapy to help fix problems with your potential kids via polygenic scoring. This isn’t likely to be too widespread due to prohibitive cost, but that will be starting to come down. Polygenic risk scores are going to get better and people will use it for embryo selection. This will also mean that for a certain demographic IVF will likely become more attractive.
The synthetic biology movement will combine the benefits from computational techniques getting better and synthesis becoming cheaper. Creation of platforms like Gingko Bioworks enable bio to move much faster and this pace of innovation will catch up in the next two decades.
All this means it will also be the era of biohackers having fun! Not quite Orphan Black, but still.
We’ll have at least one city fed by vertical farming
The combination of better (and cheaper) robots, renewable energy, and automated management of the farm, means that we’ll start seeing highly cost efficient use of large buildings near city centers or neighbourhoods. This might be mostly for specialised produce at first, but its likely to start, and spread.
This is good for the environment broadly considering transport costs and water conservation, its better for the consumers because farm-to-table literally will mean from mere blocks away, and its good for unlocking huge tracts of land away from agriculture towards almost any other use, including conservation and forestry.
I’m especially intrigued with this considering the fake meat movement, which require different ingredients, and combined with it has the potential to truly free up a huge chunk of grazing land as well.
This is a solarpunk future we can build! I, for one, am extremely excited about being able to eat Sindhri Mangoes all year round.
Fossil fuels will seem quaint
In the US renewables generate around 19% of energy today. This has been climbing, and as the costs drop I think this will substantially increase. In the UK it’s already 43%. The govt is aiming for 100% by 2035, but you know what they say about best laid plans. Whether these particular ones go agley or not, the trend here is clear.
The question specifically here is on the spectrum. Wind and solar are going to be ubiquitous. I expect geothermal energy to become cost competitive at least in a few places.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the new nuclear revolution, both in terms of larger reactors but also better battery technologies and, in a nod to make the twelve year old me jump up and down, fusion! Its already getting plenty of funding, billions in fact, and trying to usher in a new age.
We are this close to energy too cheap to meter, and definitely in the world where decentralised energy generation becomes feasible.
Nanotechnology comes to forefront, ‘tis the resurgence of material science
A half century ago, Mr McGuire said that the future was plastics. This was a view on what the future would hold, and a view that held the tactile in great regard.
Similarly, after years of quietly revolutionising multiple sectors from the background, nanotech will come to the forefront. Some of this is because it will become more plug and play, by the creation of megalibraries to host and house the various combinations that are feasible.
The materials genome initiative, announced by Obama in 2011, aimed at creating the equivalent of human genome project. They mapped millions of combinations of elements to create an enormous map through the potential space of all materials. With a map and potential objects identified, we can combine elements faster and see what the impacts are likely to be. We can then also create fabrication tools to help make the materials that you can simulate and assess as sensible. Including at the atomic scale.
The combination of AI with the world of materials will help create an entire new libraries that can be searched and analysed, to help create new materials for everything, including carbon removal, superconductors, better catalysts etc etc.
This will go from great theoretical results to great practical results in the next couple decades. For materials that help make comfortable for us all, in clothing and shelter, to electronics and supersonic aircrafts. And more!
One new city as a shining beacon on the hill
There are enough DAO-like and otherwise projects to create cities, the spiritual successors of seasteading. As one of the three immortal Cs (cities, churches and colleges), there has been tremendous attraction to create one. From a personal standpoint, to be near your friends and interesting people, to professional, to be near those who seem most likely to create something of value.
This is likely to emerge from the fact that social coordination technologies are getting pretty damn good! This, combined with the fact that Whether that’s via crypto
There is a budding trend in the internet world where the urge to build a city meets the real world constraints of needing to relocate a large number of people to a particular geographic location which might or might not be interesting. But there are plenty of ways around it. Even if its from the point of view of buying out a few villages in Europe (which are startlingly cheap) and building amenities to make it a summer home, this feels like an idea whose time has come.
Add enough folks in their 20s and 30s who have enough disposable income, camaraderie with each other, and an interest in the idea, this feels inevitable. In fact I’m surprised I haven't seen this started to happen yet.
Space continues to be the final frontier
SpaceX, and Starship in particular, will bring space closer than it ever has been. I’m not sure about the Mars colony, since we only have an orbital launch window ever 26 months, which means we have another 13 launch windows at a stretch. That’s awfully few to get a self sustaining colony up and running, especially if you need to do tests and experiments before. (You do).
We will however find a small crew who are sent to Mars by then, with a payload of materials waiting for them, whether by Elon or the intrepid China who are working to restart a space race. Their fate isn’t something I’d want to speculate on though.
The ISS was the most expensive structure mankind has ever built, at c.$100B in the late 90s. Building it today would be cheaper due to cost deflation for the materials and more expensive due to the service cost inflation, but despite all that once Starship makes the per kilogram cost of sending something to space cheaper than Fedex ($20/kg), we’ll see several large semi-permanent installation built in space. There are already plans, and we’ll see it come to fruition.
Will this be enough of a spin to start us dreaming about orbital vacation homes or interstellar transport? Probably not as a whole, but baby steps.
Jobs will seem an anachronism
We look at the jobs that our parents had, a career spanning multiple decades at the same company, as an anachronism that can scarcely be recognised. Similarly our kids will look at us having a career that meant working at one job for the majority of our work time, as an anachronism.
Remote work will only increase this tendency. Right now the only folks who can do that are CEOs, already successful dilettantes, or self-employed consultants. But once you are no longer geographically bound, you can focus on doing a lot more of your intellectual work in a way that you enjoy. Whether that is through having multiple projects, working with your tribe separately, or focusing purely on delivery of work product rather than layering it with social approval, this is a one way train.
Our society already looks a little odd in that we have this at the top and the bottom of the income/ status scales. At the top you have multiple board seats, non profit work, work on multiple projects, or just different income streams from investments. At the bottom you have the absolute necessity to have multiple jobs to ensure you have sufficient cashflow.
The middle group will catch up to this, through interest rather than necessity. A job taking up the majority of your waking hours is the last major bind that stands in the way of most people pursuing what they like to do. This will shift.
This means classic college education will also seem like an anachronism
If the normal procedure of “getting a degree, getting a job” doesn’t hold at its end, its beginning will not hold either. I don’t predict the demise of universities, since they are effectively one of our three immortal C institutions (the others being churches and cities). But their importance will fade, and refocus on those who are actually interested in scholarship. They will stop becoming high expensive country club gym memberships for those who just want to get a job at the end. For the rest, a combination of shorter duration courses, focus on work placements, and learning by real projects are going to be the major drivers.
This also means education will not be linear. Right now education is highly age-gated for no reason apart from that its geographically bound. Learning is likely to be atomised into usable chunks, and done via projects that likely as not will have paid components. We all are moving to a world where chunks of your work will be done to earn, which helps you learn, under the helpful supervision of others who have done this before. Colleges are going to be unbundled.
Homeschooling numbers will overtake private schools by 2x
Going to school is tedious and cumbersome for the vast majority of kids, and that’s without mentioning the drawbacks, the most severe of which includes increased suicides.
But after the pandemic experiment where several folks were forced to homeschool and create their own play-pods. We saw drastic increases with the pandemic. Currently in the US it seems c.3.5% of students are homeschooled and around 8% are private schooled. I’d expect the homeschooled rate to be double that of private schools by 2050.
The USCB data showed that of all school-age children during March of 2021, 85.8% were public schooled, 8.2% were private schooled, and 6.04% were homeschooled (while the USDE estimated homeschooling at 3.3% in 2015-2016).
This is partly because now we can, since core lessons can be taught remotely if need be, communication and coordination is vastly easier and projects are available on youtube and can be done by everyone. Democratisation of education is real and will be embraced by far more folks over the coming few decades, and sitting still in a room for several hours will seem barbaric (as it is).
We will have a science of complex systems
This is a little more speculative. We've moved into an era of complex systems. Our organizations are, our economies are interlinked, our lives are networked. The failure modes we see and the successes we claim rise from the fact that we live our lives instead a complex system.
We've been trying and failing to use our existing methods of analytic solutions and rigid KPIs to bring order to chaos, and getting increasingly frustrated with our collective failures, whether that's financial crises or pandemic responses.
This is likely be the biggest challenge we’ll have to solve, across multiple technology types and cycles, over the next few decades. Whether that’s in organisational design (DAOs), energy production and creation (solar on rooftops), financial services (DeFi), or medical conditions (constant monitoring), this is the challenge and opportunity ahead of us.
However with better simulation capabilities, better data collection, and far more experimentation, we're likely to see a resurgence in our ability to understand and come to grips with this phenomenon. I think by 2050 we'll get better at simulating a social change in broad strokes, and commercial competitive change in better fidelity, and using that to craft our responses.
It's likely to be akin to the early days of medicine than the early days of physics but it's still the beginnings of a science that's utilitarian and utilised.
Everyone is an artist, everyone is a dilettante
As art creation becomes ever easier, becoming the creator of art professionally becomes ever harder. We’ll be fighting this tail phenomena for a long while!
We have better AI and easier computation and this will substantially increase the abilities of the average joe to create better and better art. And while this will raise the waterline, it will also make the delta between the good and great less obvious than it could be! Markets are larger, reach is everything, distribution is king.
But we’ll start to see this in arenas of science and this will explode by 2050. Whether its debunking sleep science books, or doing research on pretty much all areas of meta-science, there is increasing interest amongst the general public in bringing back the old fashioned ways of trying to just figure stuff out. Whether it's biohackers or hobby chemists or those who just can't help make rockets in their backyard, we are going to see a hell of a lot of this happen.
There are metaphors on what it feels like to try and see the future. Standing at the edge of a mountain and looking at the black void in front. Standing on a shore and trying to look out at the see.
Personally, I think of our knowledge as a crystal, dark, of unknown dimensions, infinite lattices linked to each other, and immeasurable size. What we get to see are small slices, and as we connect what we see in those sources slices, they light up and illuminate what we know. With every effort we expend the circle of light expands, and we learn more.
And the paths that the advances develop through show us the contours of what's possible, the possible lit paths we see ahead of us as we stand at the edge looking at the vast inky blackness, trying to connect the few emerging dots and see the shape of the picture that emerges.
Arthur Clarke said how sufficiently advanced technology feels like magic. But when you look deeper into the advances perhaps we see a glimpse also of our humanity.