Technologically, the 30-year jump from 2020 to 2050 will be huge. During that time some elements of our world will change beyond recognition while others will stay reassuringly (or disappointingly) familiar. Consider the 20 years to 2020. Back in 2000 we were in the early days of the internet, we worked in cubicles and our computers were slower and powered by Windows 8. There were no camera phones or smart TVs; people laughed at the idea of reading electronic books, Blu-Ray disc and Bluetooth technology. What about Facebook & YouTube were new ways of social media.
So, what will our world really be like 30 years from now? What does the future hold for the food we eat, the technology we use and the homes we live in? It would be tempting to roll out the clichés – food pills, flying cars and bases on the moon – but the reality will probably be less exciting. The world in 2050 will probably be much like it is today, but smarter and more automatic. Some innovations we might not notice, while others will knock us sideways, changing our lives forever.
The Future of Food:
The next major food revolution will be vertical agriculture in which we grow food in AI-controlled vertical buildings rather than horizontal land: hydroponic plants for fruits and vegetables and in-vitro cloned meat.’ This change is already happening. Green Spirit Farms grows kale, spinach and other greens under LED lights in an old plastics factory near Chicago.
Vertical farming, genetically modified (GM) crops and synthetic meat will be responses to the growing need for greater food efficiency as populations continue to grow. But there will also be a reluctant realization that we all need to eat a better diet, one that is more plant-based and less reliant on processed foods. Meatless Mondays are a start. If that doesn’t work, we could be eating insects in 2035. Already popular in parts of Asia, insects are protein-rich, low in fat and a good source of calcium. Hey, don’t knock a roasted grasshopper until you’ve tried one.
The future of Love:
The internet has forever changed the way people meet and fall in love. Online dating and location-based services such as Vine, Snapchat and Grindr have opened up possibilities that allow people to look beyond their immediate friends, friends of friends, and co-workers.
We are becoming more independent and less constrained by the old social norms. This will have an impact on the relationships we form, with fewer people choosing traditional marriage, a rise in official (and unofficial) civil partnerships, and more people remaining single for longer, if not forever.
Any prediction of the future should take into account the unquenchable, adaptable and primordial human drive to love. To bond is human. This drive most likely evolved more than four million years ago, and email and computers won’t stamp it out.
The future of Work:
Rather than humans working with machines, automation is likely to make some jobs redundant: taxi drivers replaced by self-driving Uber cars; receptionists replaced by robots; doctors outclassed by algorithms that can plug into vast medical databases; and travel agents wiped out by trip-planning, flight-booking web services.
Heck, even writers like me are threatened by companies such as Narrative Science, which currently uses AI to automate the creation of sports reports and financial updates.
Obviously, there will also be new jobs created: the computer engineer/mechanic who fixes the self-driving Uber taxis; programmers; genome mappers and bio-engineers; space tour guides; and vertical farmers. Technology will continue to disrupt businesses and eliminate jobs, creating new professions we can’t yet envisage.
Those of us who work probably won’t do so in a traditional office either. We’re already seeing a shift in the definition of work: it’s now a task you perform, not a place you go to. Productivity is no longer measured by sitting at a desk. There’s no nine to five. No job for life.
In MYOB’s report The Future of Business – Australia 2040, chief technology officer Simon Raik-Allen suggests we will see a return to more vibrant local communities as people work within walking distance of their homes.
‘Rather than the office, or even the remote work-space, localized centers will emerge as the home of business – giant warehouses, which are used by employees from many different companies, spread around the globe… Within each will be rooms filled with giant wall-sized screens allowing us to work in a fully virtual, tele-presence model. Banks of 3D printers would be continually churning out products ordered by the local community,’ Raik-Allen predicts.
The future of Health:
Hospitals are the costliest single element in Australia’s health system, representing up to 40 per cent of our annual health expenditure. No wonder future healthcare strategies will try to keep people out of them.
Prevention will become the focus as we gain greater control of our health information, using self-monitoring biosensors and smart watches to continuously gather fitness data; web apps will crunch the data, syncing to electronic health records. Using these numbers, companies will be able to build a model of your overall health that can predict future problems. Being forewarned, patients will be able to take action early, changing lifestyle habits or taking designer drugs tailored to their individual DNA.
Technology will be key. ‘Telehealth platforms will make in-home patient monitoring the norm for those who need it,’ says Dr Sarah Dods, health services research theme leader at CSIRO. Doctors will be able to consult over the internet – the perfect solution for people living in remote towns across Australia.
Genome mapping will lead to personalized medicines and 3D-printed replacement organs. Meanwhile, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology will be used in driverless ambulance drones. The New Zealand-based Martin Jetpack company has already developed such a concept.
Of course, greater awareness of what we need to do to stay healthy will be equally important, as will avoiding passing health fads such as juicing, weight loss supplements and weird detoxification rituals like eating clay. And if we can stay away from futuristic cosmetic surgery procedures such as JewelEye (implanting platinum jewels into the whites of the eye to give that movie-style sparkle), so much the better.
The future of Healthcare:
Wearable and implanted technology will become the norm:
By 2050, new and more sensitive monitoring devices, some wearable, some implanted and some built into the home will be continuously measuring physiological and biochemical parameters, observing behaviors and tracking location.
Wearable's of 2015, such as Fitbit and Jawbone, will gradually shrink and disappear into the clothing, smartphones and watches of tomorrow. They will require no conscious input from the patient. Sophisticated algorithms will tailor responses to individual patients based on continuous machine-learning processes, reminding them to take medicines and alerting patients when necessary, nudging them to activity and healthier diet, and encouraging positive thinking.
All of these sensors and devices will be networked, which raises the real possibility of software viruses and malware causing physical disease and illness. So, a visit to your GP in 2050, whether virtual or real, is likely to require the attentions of software and hardware clinicians to address any glitches and update your anti-virus software – a digital immunization.
Artificial intelligence will analyse test results:
By the time a patient visits their GP in 2050, they will already have provided a wealth of health and wellness data effortlessly through their normal daily activities. In addition to this, when everything is connected (the so-called ‘internet of things’), patterns and trends that were previously invisible will become subject to analysis by artificial intelligence.
The early machine intelligence in the clinical systems of 2015 will follow the lead of IBM’s Watson1, and bring the sum of biomedical research and population data to inform decision-making when required.
Patients will have full electronic access to all their health records:
By 2050, the data revolution we have long been promised in healthcare will be well established. All sectors of the NHS will be fully computerized, with data linkage allowing the creation of person-based electronic health records that include all aspects of healthcare.
Patients will have full access to their medical records and many will have ‘expert systems’ that use data from their medical records to support them to lead healthy lifestyles and manage their long-term conditions.
Computerized decision-support systems will help ensure that patients receive the most appropriate tailored care. But information governance procedures must keep pace with technology to ensure this open access is not abused – for instance, with unique identification chips placed under the skin of patients to ensure that they alone are able to access their records.
Tele-consultations will be the first port of call:
Face-to-face consultation with a GP will remain the gold standard, but patients will also be able to video-consult from their own home or workplace using a range of technologies, from Smart TVs and mobile phones to virtual reality. In Aberdeen, researchers are already using Skype conferencing and remote ultrasound to work with oil rigs that do not have onsite clinical support.
They are streaming signals from handheld ultrasound devices on the rigs to computers at the hospital so specialists can decide whether to transport someone off the rig for treatment. This type of remote triage will become commonplace. We will also see ‘augmented reality’, where computer graphics appear within the real world, as demonstrated by Microsoft’s HoloLens system,3 so patients can review diagnostic results wherever they are.
GP's will be replaced by avatars:
Developments in artificial intelligence, synthetic speech and animation will see the creation of GP's avatars. The appearance and sound of the avatar interface will be almost indistinguishable from a human except that it will never seem flustered or impatient, but more like a good, capable friend. Only when the machine-led interventions fail will GP's be called. They too will consult virtually – at least initially – but will need to be physically present when necessary. Advances in haptics – tactile feedback technology – and robotics will potentially allow GP's to conduct a physical examination at a distance and the practice nurse to provide care remotely.
Hospitals will be only for the most desperately ill.
GP's carry around portable miniature laboratories:
Home visits will still be a GP's responsibility, but in 2050 the doctor’s bag will incorporate a miniature portable laboratory that can take immediate measurements of a range of disease and physiological markers, such as basic haematology, biochemistry and immunology tests.
This will provide helpful diagnostic data and information about disease severity, to improve the safety of care decisions for acutely ill people. In particular, this will benefit elderly patients, who are usually better off being cared for in their home environment, avoiding the distress of an unnecessary attendance at the local hospital assessment unit.
There will be a massive increase in the use of ultrasound to diagnose and visualize disease. This will pick up the differences between bone, fluid and air, making it suitable for a lot of diagnostic work including decision-making in stroke thrombolysis. There will be handheld ultrasound devices that GPS can hang around their necks instead of a stethoscope.
With melanoma already the fifth most common cancer in the UK at the moment, a dermatoscope will also become a commonplace piece of kit for every GP. To help the GP to interpret images of skin lesions safely and to streamline record-keeping, the dermatoscope will save images directly to the patient record. It will also enable the GP easily to send an image for a specialist opinion from a dermatologist. Software will analyse the images and score the risk of malignancy, to help the GP and patient decide together on the best course of action.
Diagnosis will be done by computer:
Clinicians will become increasingly reliant on computer decision-support tools to diagnose. Such tools will evolve far beyond their current simplistic nature (for example, NHS 111), allowing for interaction between multiple clinical conditions, and factoring complex genomic and proteomic data into risk stratification and therapeutic decision-making. Framingham will be a distant memory.
Genomic treatment will revolutionize patient care:
Genomics will rapidly gain traction in mainstream medicine and by 2050 whole-genome sequencing to identify disease-causing genes and risk-profiling will be universally available at very low cost, quite possibly being done at birth or as part of a prenatal screen.
Every surgery will have a genome reader, able to read a person’s genetic make-up in five minutes. Under strict ethical and privacy conditions, sections of the patient’s genetic code will be checked for identified markers. This will enable the GP to determine how effective a medicine will be for that individual and what side-effects are likely to be experienced, enabling the dose to be adjusted or an alternative chosen.
The genome reader will also enable the GP to play a role in case-finding genetic disease, supporting the patient in making decisions as to whether to undergo a genetic test, and counselling the patient and their family about the implications of any findings. Most of the decision-making and interpretation will be computerized but there will be significant challenges for GP's in helping patients understand their disease risks. General practice will also need to find ways of dealing with a range of ethical and societal issues, for instance risk-profiling children for adult-onset genetic conditions, inadvertent disclosure of non-paternity, and employment and insurance discrimination.
Drug dosing will be fully automated:
Our aging, increasingly multimorbid population, coupled with a new generation of novel, personalized pharmacotherapies, will mean that general practice in 2050 will have to cope with even greater clinical complexity than it does now. Although GP's of the future will be far more au fait with the issue of polypharmacy, they will be helped in their management of patients through automated dose adjustment, based on home monitoring and the availability of custom-made polypills. Drug adverse events will be monitored remotely, with abnormal results interpreted by computer and passed to the GP practice automatically.
Print your organs:
The chronic diseases of 2015, such as diabetes, heart and kidney disease, will have moved beyond medical therapeutics into a period of ‘rejuvenation medicine’. Stem-cell research, genetic engineering and 3D printing will allow patients to have bespoke replacement tissue and organs made, or tailored therapies created onsite. GP practices will incorporate these fabrication functions for a wide range of treatments that can be delivered in the community. The world’s first 3D-printed, bio-engineered trachea was transplanted in 2013, and between now and 2050 the NHS will become able to design and fit increasingly complex structures, such as kidneys, livers and lungs.
The future of technology (AI & Blockchain):
Technology underpins everything we’ve looked at so far – food, health, relationships and work. We’re heading into a future where improved battery technology will enable better electric cars, personal flying machines, Hyperloop transportation systems, private space tourism and drone delivery services. We’ll wear Band Aid-style fitness sensors on our skin, charge our devices using wireless power, let algorithms optimize and guard our homes, and have virtual assistants (the next generation of Google Now, Siri and Cortana) to help us manage the flood of data and make sense of it.
Some of this might happen. Or none of it. Three things, however, are certain: technology will get smaller, smarter and cheaper. In fact, it will get so small, smart and cheap that we’ll be able to put computers and sensors into almost anything – fridges will tell us when we’ve run out of milk, bins will tell the council when they’re full, 4K televisions will notice when we’ve stopped watching and turn themselves off to save power.
We’re on the road to the internet of things where everything is connected, not only to the internet but also to one another.