Our World in 2040
No one may have expected decades ago that there will come a day when most people would carry around a small but powerful computer in their pockets and be uploading surreal images of themselves with cat ears on a public digital platform (such as Tik Tok and Instagram) to get virtual hearts and comments from people all around the world. Yet, those who have foreseen this future back then (Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Elon Musk, etc.) have become some of the most successful people today. For the young and eager readers, this article will provide a brief image of what the world may look like in 2040 to fuel your imagination and inform your decisions today. This article is full of broad strokes and intuitive speculations, so be sure to do further research and thinking based on it, not taking this for face value.
Technology and Media
First and foremost, 6G will most likely be developed in 2030. Yes, this is the generation of internet connectivity after 5G, which can be 3~100 times faster than 4G. Each generation of this technology has come every 10 years, with 1G (mobile phones) in 1980, 2G (emails and messages) in the 1990s, 3G (web pages) in 2004, 4G (smartphone games and video streaming) in 2010, and 5G in 2020. If we assume the pattern to continue, we will most likely have 6G around 2030.
What does this mean for us? As we have already reached a point where tech is sufficiently convenient, it may be difficult to imagine what we may see next. The development of technology means a more ‘personalized’ and ‘instantaneous’ way of life. This 5G/6G internet technology can be combined with advanced AI, the cloud, and virtual/augmented reality to make some of the following into reality:
The normalization of driverless cars and city-wide car-sharing, resulting in the loss of individual parking lots as people no longer see the benefit of having a car and needing to pay for maintenance, fuel, and parking space. Rather than each car being used for 1-3 hours a day and sleeping in a parking space for the remaining 21-24, each car can be driven 24 hours a day.
The loss of department stores as Amazon-like online shopping sites know your income, tastes, and relationships to only show you items that you want to buy. This personalization of services also applies to your entertainment and music (think Netflix, but it makes recommendations on your tastes and mood which you may watch using a VR or AR headset for a more immersive experience).
The meaning of intelligence may change as well, as memorization of facts no longer becomes a skill demanded by companies. We will most likely have instantaneous access to information on Google so we can have all simple questions answered just by asking your smartwatch/smart glasses (or possibly just thinking about it). As we are flooded by information, a more useful skill would be to think critically and creatively and evaluate the validity of the knowledge handed to us.
Smart fridges, smart air conditioners, and smart toilets surround you. While each person has 1 to 5 internet-connected devices per person today (phone, computer, tablet, smartwatch, TV), we may have up to 1000 per person by 2040 as the ‘internet of things’ continue to give you health advice. For example, your toilet, bed, water tap, treadmill, and fridges might record your day-to-day choices and tell you to eat less chocolate, drink 2 more glasses of water, go to sleep 30 minutes earlier, and eat more broccoli. It might even connect with your Amazon account and automatically purchase some broccoli for you, which is delivered a few minutes later to you through a drone at your window. This lifestyle probably seems like a far-fetched example but it is sufficiently viable using already existing technology.
Exponential growth in technology will enable us to get exactly what we want almost instantly, as data-driven algorithms know you better than you know yourself.
3D printing and the end of supermarkets
Another disruptive technology that has great potential to change our way of life is 3D printing. You may imagine the ones in the design lab that can materialize your CAD drawing with plastic, but 3D printers can print a wide variety of materials beyond plastics such as metals (stainless steel, gold, silver, titanium), food (meat), fabrics, etc. Today, it is already able to print cheap prosthetics for people in less developed areas, eco-friendly meat, entire houses, even human tissue to replace blood vessels and organs.
In our world in 2040, this technology may be able to bring the supermarket to our home as we can create close to anything in our home. With high-performance computers and instantaneous internet, we may be able to download and print extremely complicated 3D models of products, widening the variety of things we can print. This will revolutionize our supply chains that involve components being transported thousands of miles from the extraction site to multiple production locations until it reaches the consumer. As storage and transportation are removed from the equation the need for large warehouses where food can spoil will be eliminated. Furthermore, since people only print what they need, we can expect the waste of resources from unsold perishable goods and services will be removed. Although the repercussions on the second-hand goods market are uncertain, the growth of 3D printing will certainly make our lives more convenient but at the cost of a major disruption to many industries involved in global trade. Since coding is a good skill to learn to future-proof ourselves, maybe we can add 3D modeling to that list.
Populations and climate change possibilities
Although the development in consumer technology is both exciting and frightening, I believe the most prominent development will be in medicine and healthcare. We managed to create a vaccine for COVID-19 in less than a year when it was expected at first that the feat could take several years. A possibility is that AI analysis of DNA may allow us to create personalized vaccines and medicine for diseases, alter our children’s DNA to enable them to become invincible to disease, and have stronger bodies. We may even experience difficulty dying. With every development in healthcare and sanitation, life expectancy increases. Today, the world average life expectancy is 73.4 years old. Some HICs such as Japan and Germany serve as a prediction of the future of other countries, where the elderly population continues to increase while the birth rate decreases. The death rate will be overtaking the birth rate, leading to a decline in population. As middle-income countries such as Thailand begins to age, the government may lose its ability to support non-economically productive members of society and will have to take measures such as extending the retirement age, encouraging immigration, and urging people to have more children.
The current human population on Earth is 7.9 billion. UN projections indicate that the population would be 9.2 Billion in 2040. Although this will eventually reach a peak and decrease, we would still be on the increasing trend in 2040. However, this population would be difficult to sustain with the limited amount of land and resources on Earth. Therefore, we can expect to see diverging scenarios depending on the level of our success to manage this increase.
The end of fossil fuels?
The past three centuries of both progress and pollution have been supported by coal, oil, and gas. However, as the threat of climate change is now as clear as day to the youth and some global leaders, we have begun to take action. In 2021’s Earth Day climate summit, US president Joe Biden proclaimed that the US will aim to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%~52% by 2030 based on 2005 levels, and have net-zero emissions by 2050. Many other high-income countries including Japan, China, and EU nations have made similar pledges. These promises alone probably will not bring an end to fossil fuels but will be an indicator for businesses that it would be more economically beneficial to be environmentally sustainable. Tesla was ridiculed several years ago for producing electric cars. Today, their stocks have explosively risen in value and other car manufacturers have been rushing to develop their electric models. Once our cars and industrial processes which have run on fuel for the last few decades begin to run on electricity, the transition to renewable energy alternatives will be accelerated.
However, this is an optimistic view that assumes that political determination towards addressing the climate crisis does not change over the next 20 years and the powerful oil companies who have enough money to influence politics do not resist this change. If we fail to complete this transition to zero emissions, we can expect to see an increase in global temperatures that push the climate beyond its tipping point.
No longer extreme
You may hear ‘a catastrophic increase of global temperatures of 2°C’ in the news and think ‘that’s not too bad, just turn the AC on’. However, the impacts this change entails must not be underestimated, as it heavily influences the lives of all of us on Earth. Although that sounds like hyperbole, I am afraid to let you know that it is not. The impacts of climate change on future populations are so elaborate that it deserves another article of its own, but to provide you a brief glimpse of the causes and impacts, see the diagram below from the IB Geography revision guide:
Heatwaves. Disease. Floods. Sounds familiar? If you keep a close eye on current events, you may notice that the impacts of climate change are already felt in many parts of the world, but the impacts are particularly harsh on low-income countries in deserts and river deltas such as Niger and Bangladesh with low resilience and high vulnerability. In fact, by 2050, the World Bank estimates that there will be 143 million more ‘climate refugees’ from Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia (25x more refugees than the Syrian refugee crisis). As we continue to throw Earth’s systems out of equilibrium, the ‘extreme weather’ may become a terrifying ‘new normal’.
To find out more on climate change impacts, see NIST Geographic’s articles ‘A Sinking Feeling’ and ‘Shrimp, Dirt, and Clay: The Retreat of the Samut Prakan Coastline’
Many wars have been fought over natural resources such as land, water, oil, and food throughout history. Whenever societies run out of resources and fail to trade for them, they resort to brute force. As climate change influences rainfall patterns, floods and droughts are intensified and become more frequent. Physical water scarcity damages the foundations of societies, as water is an absolute necessity for sanitation, hydration, food production, and energy generation. Therefore, countries at particularly high risk such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and sub-Saharan nations may escalate conflicts over water.
There is already conflict over water in the Nile Basin. In the next 25 years, the population of Nile Basin nations is expected to double, thus doubling demand on food, water, and energy. Yet, there is no equitable agreement on water usage at the moment that involves all 11 countries in the area. As each nation pursues its interests by building dams that disrupt vital water supplies for countries downstream, tensions escalate. To prevent armed conflict from breaking out, we can only turn our attention to diplomacy and expensive desalination technologies.
On the flip side, considering this possibility, if a company or country manages to revolutionize desalination, filtration, or any other water-producing technology to make it affordable and efficient, it may be able to prevent catastrophic loss of life while making a lot of money.
Governments and economies
The next few decades will serve as a milestone and turning point, as we establish our relationship with technological development and environmental challenges. A key stakeholder in deciding these will be our policymakers that navigate our society.
Rise of emerging economies
Although the USA, China, and Russia are currently viewed as absolute global superpowers, between now and 2040, there will probably be a shift in power towards Asian countries. In particular, India is expected to see rapid development in the next few decades as its large, young, educated, English-speaking population will fuel technological and economic growth similar to that seen in China in the last half-century.
According to the seventh edition of the US National Intelligence Council's Global Trends report on this topic, India (currently 6th largest economy) will be the 3rd largest economy in the world, with China and the USA as 1st and 2nd place respectively. One takeaway from this is that developing countries and low-income countries will not stay in their current level of development forever. Therefore, be prepared to have your preconceived notions of low-income countries challenged as lives get ‘better’ (on the whole) everywhere, especially around Asia and Africa.
Although there is quite a lot of dialogue on the ability of AI, with people wondering if they’ll eventually come with guns to shoot us as they do in Hollywood movies, it would be reasonable to consider them as mere calculator-like tools that can make predictions and decisions based on large amounts of data. Therefore, it only has a tangible objective when we (humans) give it one. Put simply, we can use AI to find early signs of cancer but the machine itself has no interest in human health. Taking this perspective, the more realistic threat would be the abuse of AI surveillance by a handful of powerful people.
AI-embedded cameras are already able to tell people’s identity, gender, ethnicity, and emotions, with surprising accuracy using face recognition. This technology alone may seem harmless if it’s just unlocking your phone, house, and helping you pay for stuff. However, depending on whose hands this technology is used by, it can lead to alarming scenarios that are already beginning to unfold in 2021. The society in George Orwell’s ‘1984’ will be made possible as we have devices all around our houses, on our wrists, and in pockets that record data. For example, when a political leader makes a speech, cameras can analyze how our facial expressions change and identify potential threats to the autocracy, deploying a weaponized drone to swiftly and silently eliminate them. Similarly, the ethnic cleansing we have seen towards minority groups in countries such as China and Myanmar will be far easier for the government to conduct. At this point, it would be almost impossible to overthrow an oppressive government with absolute power.
At the end of the day, we have no definite idea of what the world will look like in 2040. All of the above were mere speculations based on current trends with lots of my imagination, so take them with a massive grain of salt. Yet, the main idea to keep in mind is that disruptive technology will change the way we live, climate change should not be underestimated, developing countries will develop, and this new power created by technology should not be abused. To prepare for this future, the best thing you can do for yourself is to learn about current trends in technology, science, economics, politics, and the media, then imagine your own 2040. By starting to come up with a version of the future you want, you may be able to trace back from that goal to find what you should be doing today. If you succeed in doing so, you may be the next Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos……only time will tell.