Population demographics are evolving, biotechnology is advancing, artificial intelligence is growing, and people are migrating across the globe. As a result of these changes, our world is different from how it was just a few years ago. The forces shaping our society are multipronged and complex. They can be difficult to predict and have far-reaching implications.
This essay discusses four major trends that are reshaping our world:
Population demographics are changing globally. In August 2011, the world population officially surpassed 7 billion and is expected to reach 9.3 billion by 2050. Yet by 2050, the populations of people over the age 65 will vastly exceed those under the age of 5 years. This is not a consequence of ‘overpopulation’, but rather a result of a jaw-dropping decline in birth rates across the globe, coupled with a steady increase in life expectancy. In the past 50 years, the number of live births per woman has nearly halved globally, and is projected to fall below 2 by 2050. By around 2064, the global population will start to fall.
You’ll discover in countries where women have control over their own bodies, where they have education, where they have birth control, where they have facilities and where they are literate, when those things happen, the birth rate falls.David Attenborough
In many ways, falling fertility is a success story – the result of more women pursuing higher levels of education, careers, and having greater access to birth control. However, it introduces a problem that is increasingly becoming a concern for countries around the world: the number of elderly people in need of long-term care is increasing faster than the number of younger people available to administer that care.
23 countries are expected to see their populations halve by the end of the century. Japan is amongst them: this graph shows the forecast effects on age demographics.
Besides the obvious solution of encouraging an increase in birth rate (which is easier said than done), how can this situation be reversed? Though an increase in lifespan may have helped to create this problem, longevity technology may provide the solution by extending our healthspan, allowing us to live disease-free for longer and reducing the number of people in need of care.
Advances in biotechnology are creating new opportunities in agriculture and medicine, creating ethical challenges, and shifting our relationship with the environment.
We must address, individually and collectively, moral and ethical issues raised by cutting-edge research in artificial intelligence and biotechnology, which will enable significant life extension, designer babies, and memory extraction.Klaus Schwab
In order to treat diseases, modern medicine has taken the approach of studying disease pathways, identifying important proteins within those pathways, and attempting to design a drug that will target those proteins. This is an incredibly roundabout approach that often ends in failure. With gene editing technology, we can talk directly to the cell in the language of DNA, allowing for precise tuning of protein production and the deletion or introduction of new genes to correct genetic defects. This, when combined with advances in genome sequencing, will open the doors to personalised gene therapy for everyone, and may fundamentally change the face of medicine.
Biotechnology is allowing us to alter or even synthesise new organisms to help us deal with some of the biggest challenges the world is currently facing. GM crops are already allowing food to be grown in areas where plants would not normally flourish, helping us to feed the 800 million people on the planet who remain undernourished. GM organisms may greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and free up land by allowing meat to be grown in labs. Microorganisms can be engineered to synthesise drugs, degrade plastics or even act as microscopic computers.
We’ll continue to heal human bodies through biotechnology but we’ll also increasingly feed, clothe and house the world through bioengineered systems. Ultimately, there’s no reason why live animals should be used in any part of our food or goods chain and we’re working to make that a reality.Ryan Bethencourt
Biotechnology is likely to touch many aspects of our lives, but just as with every revolutionary technology, it brings its own set of concerns and new problems. Many fear the damage that biotechnology could inflict on our environment, but when used cautiously and for the right reasons, these technologies have the potential to make an overwhelmingly positive mark on our world.
The use of AI in both public and private sectors is becoming commonplace. This includes the use of AI for military purposes and for functions related to logistics, finance, and healthcare. Robotics and AI have been a trend for a while, but that trend is picking up speed as the increasing capabilities of AI enhance our ability to automate complex processes that would otherwise require human input.
The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race….It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.Stephen Hawking
AI was once limited to tasks with a clearly defined set of rules and boundaries, such as games. Thanks to the development of more advanced artificial neural networks and machine learning, AI has made leaps and bounds towards doing things that typically only humans could do. AI can now write fiction, paint paintings and even debate politics. However, perhaps the greatest strength of current AI is its ability to handle vast amounts of data, allowing us to detect trends and relationships that would otherwise not be possible, such as detecting subtle disease signs and discovering new drugs.
The promise of artificial intelligence and computer science generally vastly outweighs the impact it could have on some jobs in the same way that, while the invention of the airplane negatively affected the railroad industry, it opened a much wider door to human progress.Paul Allen
In the workplace, AI is being used to automate monotonous tasks, make workers more productive, and generally make their lives easier. However, many fear that as AI approaches human levels of intelligence, it will create massive job shortages – and they are right to be concerned. Society has overcome many job shortages created by new technology in the past, from the industrial revolution to computing, but AI is different. While technologies of the past have destroyed jobs, the initial turmoil has always been overcome through the creation of new jobs not previously imagined. Conversely, when AI surpasses human intelligence, there are theoretically no jobs that it could not do when combined with automation.
That humans not having to work for over half of our lives is considered to be a problem, rather than a triumph, is an indication of how badly placed our society is to take advantage of automation and AI. This technology is developing rapidly whether we want it to or not. We need to start thinking now about how to restructure our society so that it no longer revolves around work. If we get this right, AI will allow humans to spend more time with those we love, instead of carrying out tedious tasks in a factory or behind a desk.
Today, the number of individuals living in a country other than that in which they were born is 270 million – close to twice what it was in 1990. Migration is driven by factors such as job opportunities, civil conflict, and increasingly, by climate change. Migration is now easier than it once was – travel has become cheaper, opportunities to study abroad are more numerous, and the internet makes it easier for migrants to learn about their destination and remain connected to their country of origin once they arrive.
Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family.Ban Ki-moon
Many fear that migration leads to job shortages and destroys economies, but research suggests that migrants contribute significantly more to their destination country in taxes than the benefits and services they receive in return. Furthermore, migration may be of great help alleviating the effects of an ageing population in those countries most affected.
This is not to say that migration has no downsides. Large movements of people can strain schools, healthcare systems and housing markets. Intuitively, it may seem like migration should also negatively impact the countries of origin, but this is not always true. The prospect of migrating to a country with more opportunities motivates some individuals to achieve higher levels of education, many of whom will remain in their home country. Migrants may return to their home country, bringing with them the education and values they have acquired abroad. Unfortunately, this ‘brain gain’ tends to happen the least in smaller, poorer countries that need it the most.
I think massive migration is inevitable. As sea levels rise, as climate change happens, as fertile fields become arid, as wars are fought, people are going to move. They always have.Mohsin Hamid
Migration is not only beneficial, but necessary to the global economy, and will become increasingly necessary due to population ageing. Unfortunately, the positive effects of migration are often intangible in comparison to the negative effects, which hit hard for a small group of people (at least in the destination countries). Mitigating these negatives should be our focus for the future, rather than heavy restrictions on migration that only harm economies and perpetuate global inequality.
This convergence of 4 global trends – population demographics, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and global migration is transforming the world in more numerous ways than we can imagine. Any one of these trends would change the world, but taken together, they will make the next 50 years unlike anything we have seen before. What makes the world of the future particularly hard to predict is that we cannot foresee how these trends will interact with each other. Migration may be necessary to fill certain jobs, but what if those jobs are first filled by AI? Is there a risk of biotechnology extending lifespan further than healthspan, making population ageing even worse?
It is natural to fear what the future may hold, but history has taught us that attempting to stall such trends, especially technological and scientific progress, typically succeeds only in making us less prepared for the inevitable. It is better to welcome the positive aspects of how our world is changing, while focussing our efforts on mitigating the problems that will emerge alongside them.