20 Big Questions about the Future of Humanity

We requested future predictions from eminent scientists. What they said is as follows
1. Is there a future for humanity after Earth?
To contemplate about mass exodus from Earth, in my opinion, is a dangerous fantasy. Nowhere else in the solar system is more comfortable than even the South Pole or the summit of Everest. The issues of the world must be addressed here. However, I predict that during the next century, there will be groups of independently wealthy explorers residing on Mars and possibly elsewhere in the solar system. We should unquestionably wish these pioneer settlers luck as they utilise biotechnology and cyborg techniques to adapt to unfamiliar conditions. The posthuman period will have started by the time they transform into a new species in a few centuries. Posthumans, whether biological or inorganic, engage in the business of exploring beyond our solar system.

—Martin Rees, cosmologist and astrophysicist from Britain


2. Do you think we will discover extraterrestrial life and if so, when and where?

“If there is a large amount of microbial life on Mars, I believe we will discover it within the next 20 years—if it is sufficiently similar to our kind of life. It will be challenging to find an alien life form if it is very different from what we have on Earth. Additionally, it’s probable that any Martian bacteria still alive are inaccessible to robotic landers and are scarce. The moons of Jupiter, Europa, and Saturn, Titan, are more interesting locations. Europa is a water world where it’s possible that more advanced life forms have developed. Additionally, Titan is most likely the most intriguing location in the solar system to search for life. If life occurs on Titan, it will be quite different from life on Earth because Titan is rich in chemical compounds but also exceedingly cold and devoid of liquid water.

— Carol E. Cleland, a professor of philosophy and co-investigator at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Centre for Astrobiology


3. Will we ever comprehend what consciousness is?

Some philosophers, mystics, and other nocturnal confabulatores preach that it is impossible to ever comprehend the true essence of subjectivity or consciousness. Even so, there is no justification for succumbing to such pessimistic rhetoric, and there are plenty of reasons to look forward to the not too distant day when science will arrive at a naturalised, quantitative, and predictive explanation of consciousness and its place in the cosmos.

—Christof Koch, member of the Scientific American Board of Advisors and president and CSO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science

4. Will everyone on earth have access to quality medical treatment someday?

“Over the past 25 years, the international community has made great strides towards health fairness, but these developments have not reached the most isolated populations. Mortality rates are highest, access to healthcare is most constrained, and care quality is at their lowest in the deepest parts of the rain forest, where people are cut off from roads and cellphone networks. According to the World Health Organisation, one billion individuals avoid medical professionals due of distance. The gap can be closed by hiring health workers directly from the areas they serve. Even in the event that medical facilities are forced to close their doors, they can combat outbreaks like Ebola and preserve access to primary care. In collaboration with the Liberian government, my organisation, Last Mile Health, is now deploying more than 300 health workers in 300 communities spread over nine districts. But working alone is not an option. Investments in health professionals who can reach the most remote places are necessary if the international community is serious about ensuring everyone has access to healthcare.

— Raj Panjabi, a Harvard Medical School educator and co-founder of Last Mile Health.


5. Will the study of the brain alter criminal law?

The brain most likely functions as a causal machine, changing states in response to antecedent circumstances. This has absolutely no ramifications for criminal law. One example is that self-control circuitry exists in all mammals and birds, and it can be trained by rewarding positive behaviour, especially in social settings. Public welfare and safety are other concerns of criminal law. Serial child rapists, for instance, cannot simply be let off the hook because they are likely to repeat even if we were to find the circuitry specific to them. If we came to the conclusion that John Geoghan, a Boston priest who assaulted 130 children, shouldn’t be punished because he has a brain, we would surely see vigilante justice. And things quickly turn ugly when a harsh judicial system replaces one built on years of enacting laws with fairness in mind.

—Patricia Churchland, an academic at the University of California, San Diego who teaches philosophy and neuroscience.


6. How likely is it that Homo sapiens will continue to exist in 500 years?

“I believe there is a strong chance we will survive. Even the major dangers, such as nuclear conflict or an ecological disaster that could result from climate change, are not existential in the sense that they would completely destroy humanity. And unplugging them will help you avoid the current problem, in which our electronic offspring outgrow us and decide they can survive without us.

—Carlton Caves, University of New Mexico’s distinguished professor of physics and astronomy


7. Are we getting any closer to averting a nuclear war?

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has made it a priority to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism by tightening security measures for highly enriched uranium and plutonium and removing them from as many locations as is practical. A nuclear terrorist attack could result in 100,000 fatalities. However, the greater threat of a nuclear holocaust—involving thousands of nuclear explosions and tens to hundreds of millions of instantaneous deaths—remains in the U.S.-Russia nuclear conflict three decades after the conclusion of the cold war.


In honour of Pearl Harbour, the United States has positioned its nuclear weapons for the prospect of an unexpected first attack by the Soviet Union in which it would attempt to kill all of the targetable U.S. forces. We don’t anticipate such an attack today, but both sides maintain a launch-on-warning posture with a total of 1,000 intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Ballistic missiles having a flight period of only 15 to 30 minutes, therefore decisions that could cause hundreds of millions of fatalities would need to be made in a matter of minutes. This increases the likelihood of a nuclear disaster or even launches caused by hackers.

Because it always possesses around 800 warheads on submersibles that are impossible to target, the United States does not require this posture to sustain deterrence. But in the event of a nuclear conflict, the U.S. Before they are destroyed, Strategic Command and Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces want to be able to employ their weak land-based missiles. The Doomsday Machine that sprang from the conflict with the Soviets is still with us—and on a hair trigger—so even though the cold war may be finished.

—Frank von Hippel, co-founder of Princeton University’s Programme on Science and Global Security and emeritus professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.


8. Will sex eventually be obsolete?

“No, but using sex to get pregnant is probably going to become lot less popular. We will be able to produce eggs and sperm from stem cells in 20 to 40 years, most likely from the skin cells of the parents. This will make it simple to perform preimplantation genetic testing on many embryos, or simple genome editing for individuals who prefer modified embryos to merely selected ones.

— Henry Greely, director of Stanford University’s Centre for Law and the Biosciences


9. Could engineering one day allow us to replace every tissue in the human body?

“Joseph Vacanti and I wrote articles for this publication in 1995 about developments in artificial pancreas technology, plastic-based tissues like artificial skin, and electronics that may allow blind people to see [see ‘Artificial Organs,’ by Robert Langer and Joseph P. Vacanti; Scientific American, September 1995]. All of these are either becoming actual products or are now through clinical trials. Nearly every tissue in the body may be able to be replaced by such techniques within the next several millennia. It will require a tremendous amount of research to create or regenerate tissues as complicated and poorly understood as those found in the brain. However, it is hoped that research in this field will advance swiftly enough to aid in the treatment of neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

—Robert Langer, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology David H. Koch Institute Professor.

10. Can the “sixth extinction” be stopped?

“If we act quickly, it can be slowed down and then stopped. Loss of habitat is the main factor in the extinction of species. Because of this, I have emphasised the need for a global reserve to be constructed and I demonstrate how to do this in my book Half-Earth. It will also be necessary to find and characterise the 10 million or so species that are thought to still exist; we have only discovered and named two million as of this endeavour (and the development of a considerably better species-level ecosystem science than the one we now have). Overall, a significant scientific endeavour for the rest of this century should be the expansion of environmental science to encompass the living world.

Edmund O. Wilson, former Harvard University University Research Professor


11. Is it possible to feed the world without endangering it?

“Yes. In order to achieve sustainable agriculture, we must reduce crop waste, consumer waste, and meat consumption; integrate appropriate seed technologies and management practises; educate consumers about the challenges that farmers in developed and developing countries face; increase public funding for agricultural research and development; and concentrate on advancing the socioeconomic and environmental aspects of farming.

—Pamela Ronald, a professor at the University of California, Davis’ Genome Centre and Department of Plant Pathology

12. Will humans ever establish colonies in space?

“That depends on how you define ‘colonise.’ If setting down robots counts, then we’ve already accomplished that. Unfortunately, it’s not unlikely that we’ve also done that if sending microbes from Earth involves them surviving and possibly growing—possibly on Mars with the Phoenix spacecraft and almost certainly inside the Curiosity rover, which carries a heat source and wasn’t completely baked like Viking had been.


Within the next 50 years or so, it’s possible that humans will live in other places for a longer amount of time without reproducing. However, if the goal is to create a self-sustaining environment where humans can survive indefinitely with only modest assistance from Earth—the working definition of a “colony,” according to the various European colonies outside of Europe—then I’d say this is very far in the future, if it’s even possible. I believe that the problem of the contained ecosystem will prove to be much more difficult than the vast majority of proponents of space colonisation currently believe. We currently have a very poor understanding of how to construct closed ecosystems that are robust to perturbation by introduced organisms or nonbiological events (Biosphere 2, for example). There are many technological issues to be resolved, one of which is air handling. On Earth, we have not yet bothered to colonise any underwater regions. Colonisation is far more difficult in an area with little or no atmosphere.

— Catherine A. NASA’s planetary protection officer Conley


13. Will we find a second Earth?

“I’m betting on yes. We’ve discovered that planets orbiting other stars are much more numerous and diversified than astronomers had previously thought. We’ve also discovered that water, a necessary component for life on this planet, is widespread in outer space. I would suggest that nature appears to have stacked the deck in favour of a variety of worlds, including planets that are similar to Earth. All we have to do is look for them.

—Aki Roberge, a research astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre who specialises in exoplanets


14. Will Alzheimer’s disease ever be cured?

I’m not sure if there will be a specific cure, but I have high hopes that Alzheimer’s disease will be successfully treated with a disease-modifying drug within the next ten years. Biological therapies are being tested in preventative trials that have just begun, even before patients start exhibiting disease-related clinical signs. Furthermore, we only need to postpone dementia by five to ten years rather than cure Alzheimer’s disease. According to estimates, Medicare dementia costs would be cut by close to 50% if the awful and expensive dementia stage of the disease were delayed by five years. Most importantly, that would imply that many senior citizens might pass away while ballroom dancing as opposed to in nursing homes.

—Reisa Sperling, the Centre for Alzheimer Research and Treatment’s director and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School


15. Will we monitor our emotions via wearable technology?

Every organ in our bodies receives biochemical and electrical signals from emotions, which explains how stress can affect both our physical and mental health. We can measure the patterns in these signals across extensive time periods because to wearable technology. Wearable technology will eventually allow for the equivalent of personalised weather forecasts for our health: an 80% increase in likelihood that you’ll be well and happy the following week based on your recent stress, sleep, and social-emotional activities. Contrary to weather, smart wearables can also identify patterns that we can alter to lessen unwelcome “storm” events. For example, increasing sleep to at least nine hours per night while maintaining current levels of low to moderate stress can result in a 60% reduction in the likelihood of having a seizure within the next four days. Wearables and the analytics produced by them over the next 20 years have the potential to significantly lower psychiatric and neurological disorders.

—Rosalind Picard, the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Affective Computing research group’s founder and director.

16. Are we ever going to understand what dark matter is?

“Depending on what dark matter turns out to be, we may be able to identify it. Some types of dark matter can be discovered through minute interactions with visible matter that have up to now been undetectable. Others may be identifiable by their impact on formations like galaxies. I’m optimistic that experiments or observations will help us learn more. However, it’s not a guarantee.

—Lisa Randall, cosmology and theoretical physics professor at Harvard University and Frank B. Baird, Jr.


17. Will we be able to control fatal brain conditions like autism or schizophrenia?

Autism and schizophrenia are still difficult to treat since neuroscience hasn’t identified a structural issue. Some interpret this to suggest that biochemistry, not neuronal circuits, is the only source of future solutions. Others contend that the key is for neuroscientists to begin thinking in terms of the entire architecture of the brain rather than particular neuronal malfunctions. The amazing thing about a new concept is that you don’t know about it, as Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes once said, comes to mind when I consider the future.

—Michael Gazzaniga, head of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s SAGE Centre for the Study of the Mind


18. Will technology eventually make animal testing for pharmaceutical research unnecessary?

Early proof-of-concept studies indicate that if human organs on chips can be demonstrated to be reliable and reliably recreate complicated human organ physiology and disease phenotypes in unrelated laboratories around the world, then we will gradually see them replace one animal model at a time. This will ultimately result in a considerable decrease in the usage of animal testing. Importantly, these tools will also enable novel drug discovery strategies that are currently impractical using animal models, including personalised treatments and the creation of therapies for certain genetic subpopulations utilising chips made from patient cells.

— Don E. Ingber, the first director of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering


19. Will there be gender equality in the sciences?

“We can achieve gender equality, but we can’t just wait for it to happen. We must ‘correct the statistics’ by bringing in more women to the fields of science and technology. By enacting regulations supporting dual careers, family-friendly hiring practises, and fresh perspectives on leadership, we need to repair the institutions. The knowledge needs to be fixed most importantly by utilising gender analysis’ creative potential for creativity and discovery.

—Londa Schiebinger, the John L. Hinds Professor of Science History at Stanford University


20. Do you believe that one day we will be able to forecast natural disasters like earthquakes with days or hours of warning?

Natural disasters vary in their ease of prediction. Tornadoes hit in a matter of minutes, while hurricanes approach over days and volcanoes frequently erupt over days to hours. Perhaps the biggest problem is earthquakes. According to what we know about earthquake physics, we won’t be able to make earthquake predictions days in advance. However, we are able to anticipate the destructive ground shaking and give seconds to minutes of advance notice. Not enough time to leave the city, but sufficient to travel to a secure area.

— Richard M. Allen, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Berkeley Seismologica

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