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June 27, 2017

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Looking ahead: what will the world be like in 2064?

Fifty years ago, a popular and prolific science fiction writer took an interesting guess at what the world might look like in 2014. Even though Isaac Asimov — "I, Robot" (1950), "The Naked Sun" (1956) and "The Bicentennial Man" (1976), just to name a few of his major novels — did not live to see the world's first artificial heart transplant a few days ago (he died in 1992), he made several predictions about life in the future that are worth mentioning after his 94th birthday on Jan. 2.

Published in The New York Times in conjunction with the opening of the third World's Fair, a futuristic exposition dedicated to "building the world of tomorrow," the article painted a contrasted picture of the United States. Some say he got a lot right; he foresaw that appliances would no longer have electric cords and that the world would be seriously automated and overpopulated. Others point out that he got a lot of things wrong: he mistakenly argued, for instance, that fission-power plants would eventually energize most of the world, while cars would fly and humans would have colonized the moon.

More importantly, the popular sci-fi writer highlighted that American society would fall into a sense of enforced leisure that would make the human race incurably bored: "Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine."

Today, as we consider our future, one thing is clear: the world has grown smaller and closer in some respects, but we are in no mood to celebrate. The world's economy is far from recovery and the growing gap between the rich and poor is poised to further widen. From Paris to New York to Beijing, the wealthy elite are virtually immune to regulations and are likely to be the best educated, informed and protected, as they have the means to be the first to leave.

In 50 years, for sure, we will see delivery companies transporting packages in 30 minutes or less using self-guided drones. Pizza, flowers, groceries and anything else will be dropped on our doorsteps. Just imagine how that might change our lives — let's say that you forgot your wedding anniversary. Oops, you check your phone and 30 minutes later you get her a new watch! The end of shopping! Amazing. The same is true if you need new organs. Last week a Frenchman received an artificial heart. In the future, such devices will allow you to replace your heart, liver, lungs or kidneys, mimicking nature using biological materials and sensors.

If we take the long view about science and human progress though, it doesn't matter when drones and artificial organs will ever come into place. What really matters, according to Isaac Asimov, are the implications these new technologies will have for our society. As mentioned, mankind is already suffering and will suffer more and more from the "disease of boredom" in the future. Life expectancy will one day hit 90 years in some parts of the world, while the world continues to become extremely automated. Faced with overpopulated cities, extreme unemployment and serious budget constraints, all governments will have to answer the same questions: why did we fail to prepare our people to live in the future? Why did we delay policies to address our aging population and brain drain issues? Why did we wait so long to develop our creative industries and fight mass markets? The truth, however, is that the answers to those questions won't matter anymore because it will all be too late.

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