editorial opinion

Forecasting the next 150 years

Some events are certainties but you can bet on some wild cards as well.

By Marvin Cetron
Pres, Forecasting Intl

By 2060, settlers could live in a permanent base on Mars, but Ladbrokes sets the odds at 33 to 1 against.

Three forecasts have recently caught our attention. The first considers developments the world is more or less likely to see over the next 150 years. The others look at war and weaponry in the near term—both areas that have advanced aviation from the biplanes of World War I through the drones of today's conflicts. All 3 are worth a little of your time.

Tomorrow's world

The first and broadest report comes from the BBC (bbc.com/future/story/20130102-tomorrows-world). The BBC gathered several dozen specific prophecies from news organizations, from researchers at IBM, NASA and the United Nations, and from Long Bets—a website that styles itself "The arena for accountable predictions."

The BBC staff classified many items as belonging to a utopian or dystopian future. Then they handed the list to Ladbrokes, the London-based gaming company, to set the odds that each forecast would come to pass. The result may not be a definitive look at the years ahead, but it offers some interesting possibilities. Here are some highlights, along with our comments.


Ladbrokes gives odds of 3 to 1 that fusion power will be demonstrated successfully by 2020. We think this prediction is too optimistic. No fusion experiment has yet released enough power to be captured and delivered to a customer, and none is likely to in the next 8 years. It takes a long time to build a fusion reactor and get it working properly, and the US has been cutting back on research funding in this field. A date of 2020 is just too soon.

Pilotless commercial flights will not take to the air by 2030, if Ladbrokes is right—but we rate the chances at 50/50.

The proposition that "many commercial flights take place without pilots" is rated 3 to 1 against by 2030. For cargo flights, we rate the odds no worse than even, and nearly inevitable by 2035. Given an incident rate no higher than that of piloted flights, we expect drone passenger service to begin 5 years thereafter. So far, unmanned executive flights are not in the cards.

By 2037, automated cars are given odds of 4 to 5 to take over from human drivers. We think Ladbrokes is about right. It looks now as though the first autonomous cars will on the road before 2020. Seventeen years later, manual driving will be almost purely recreational.

Computing and robotics

BBC reports 7 to 4 odds that the "Great Firewall" will fail this year, allowing the Chinese people ready access to information from around the globe. It could be, but we have tried to give up underestimating Beijing's technical capacity to hem in its citizens. It will be at least a few years before ordinary citizens, as opposed to skilled hackers, can get past China's Internet censors.

"People can touch one another though their phones." Ladbrokes says this is 100 to 1 against through 2017. At least. What puzzles us is why the BBC staff ranked this technology as part of some future utopia, rather than a minor gimmick.

"You can upload the contents of your brain to a computer." Call it 100 to 1 against by 2024. Okay—this requires a breakthrough in our understanding of the human mind, and we have no idea when it will occur, if ever.

For 2035, the proposition that "you can log on through a brain/computer interface" is given 10 to 1 against. If by logging in directly from your brain we mean using the brain's electrical activity to control an Internet browser, we expect to see a working prototype before 2020. Barring a spectacular and unpredictable breakthrough, translating actual thoughts into computer-usable form will take much longer.

Science and nature

China has the world's largest Internet-connected population. The BBC study gives 7-to-4 odds that Beijing's "great firewall" will fail this year, giving free access to uncensored information.

China is not likely to overtake the US in scientific research this year. Ladbrokes rates this dystopian idea at 8 to 1 against. We agree, of course, but it is too bad they did not look further into the future.

We remain optimistic that the US will regain its footing in such critical areas as science education and research funding, but failure could tip the technical balance 2 decades or so from now.

The first immortal mouse has been created. For 2015, this comes in at 6 to 1 against. We agree with this, too. Ten years later, we would put the chances closer to 50/50.
"By 2016, the Arctic is free of ice throughout the summer" was given odds of 3 to 1 against.

This, along with the drying of the Aral Sea (4 to 5 by 2020), ranks as one of the most likely dystopian possibilities. Again, it is a matter of timing. At the current rate of change, 2016 is too soon—2030 may not be.

The first cloned humans have appeared. At 33 to 1 against for 2062, Ladbrokes almost surely got this wrong. Half a century out, this is not a technical issue but an ethical one. Human cloning almost surely will be possible.

Just as surely, it will be banned in the US, Europe and most other places. In some lands, money talks louder than conscience. If someone wants badly enough to clone himself, or perhaps a lost child, an unscrupulous scientist will be willing to do the job.

Politics and business

"A digital currency is universally accepted in America" gets 1 to 5 odds only 2 years from now? We don't think so. It will take too long to develop the legal framework and customer recognition to put such a notion across by 2015. Give us 1 to 5 odds for 2025, and we might consider them.

By 2025, a third-party candidate has become President of the United States. Ladbrokes gives 25 to 1 against. We think the odds are at least that high. The date is, after all, only 3 election cycles away. For a third party to win, both of today's dominant parties would have to self-destruct. At least one shows no immediate sign of doing so.


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