As we enter the year 2015, it seems like the headlines have never been worse. A conflict in Ukraine has sparked a new Cold War between Russia and the west. Deadly terrorist groups like ISIL and Boko Haram threaten entire states. The Ebola outbreak threatened to become a global pandemic.
And economically, except for the US—which just reported 5% GDP growth for the 3rd quarter and appears to be taking off—the rest of the developed world, including Japan and the EU, still remains mired in recession. It almost seems like we might never get back on track.
Yet still, despite these data points, we’re doing pretty well. While the problems we face have never been greater, our capacity to meet challenges is outpacing them. That might not grab headlines (for example, the decline of Ebola received far less coverage than its rise), but, in the end, it’s what really matters. Here’s why we can be optimistic about the future in 2015.
1. There Will Be Less Poverty And War
Although the developed world has been sluggish lately, global incomes are on a steep upward trend. The World Bank reports that extreme poverty has declined by 43% since 1990. This had led to other positive trends, such as increased global life expectancy and ever.
That’s not all, as Steven Pinker shows in a recent article in Slate, violence is also in decline. We have fewer wars that are less deadly than ever before. Genocides are way down as are homicides generally. Even other types of violent crime, like rape and violence against children are falling (except school shootings in the US, which are up).
Not all the news is good. Income inequality in developed countries is rising at an alarming rate. The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 report shows a number of looming challenges, such as food and water shortages and increased access to deadly weapons, but it also makes clear that these too can be met, with effective action.
2. Our Technology Will Become A Million Times More Powerful
Ten years ago, the world was very different. In 2004, Google was still relatively new and just had its IPO. There were iPods, but no iPhone and no real mobile Internet. A 42 inch flat screen TV would cost you $4000. There was no social media, no cloud and very few location based services. Life was recognizable, but certainly not the same.
Twenty years ago there was no commercial Web. Even simple mobile phones were expensive, relatively rare and so big that we mostly kept them in our cars. We listened to music on CD’s and had very little personal technology. It’s hard to imagine a present day millennial living in 1994.
In very much the same way, life today will look very different in the not-too-distant future. By 2030, our technology will be a thousand times more powerful and by 2045, it will be a million times more powerful. Things that seem futuristic today, like virtual reality, will be old hat by then.
Another difference is that for the past generation most of the progress has been confined to information technology, but now the world of bits has begun to invade the world of atoms. We are beginning to see similar trends in manufacturing, healthcare and, perhaps most importantly, energy.
3. We Are Likely To Solve Climate Change
Climate change represents the greatest challenge humans have ever faced. Scientists have estimated that the environment is degrading at the fastest pace in 300 million years. The consequences may be dire. As the journal Nature reports, we will likely see higher temperatures, rising sea levels, food and water shortages, and heavy economic impacts.
Yet even here, we are beginning to see progress. A recent report by Citibank sees the cost of renewables falling so fast that the boom in shale gas will likely be merely a bridge technology. Solar energy will hit general grid parity by 2020 and will fall below the price of fossil fuels after that. By 2030, it could be half the price of coal.
It looks like these trends will accelerate. The US and China signed a historic deal on carbon. President Obama’s CAFE standards have already increased mileage requirements and fuel efficiency is set to nearly double by 2025. New EPA regulations on power plants will reduce emissions by as much as 30%.
We’re already starting to see the effect of improved energy technology. Carbon emissions in the US and the EU have already begun to fall. While there’s still a long way to go—many believe we need to achieve zero emissions by 2050—at least we’re starting to make some serious progress.
4. Our Kids Will Become Super Intelligent Beings
Kids today can seem a bit odd. They listen to strange music, cover themselves in tattoos and piercings, call us “brah” and think we care about how they like to “roll.” Instead of carrying around books and learning multiplication tables, they take computers to class and have technology do the work for them. It can make you fear for the future.
Yet our kids are actually a lot smarter than we are. On average, intelligence increases by about 3% per decade, so the little snots you see jabbing at their mobile phones are actually about 10% smarter than when my brothers and I were growing up. Back then, we would watch Tom & Jerry and then chase each other around the house with hammers.
What’s more, an average kid with a smartphone today has more access to information than even a genius working in a research lab a generation ago. So with increased intelligence, along with the ability to collaborate with machines—which, as I noted above, are getting exponentially more powerful—our kids will truly be super intelligent compared to us.
The one catch is that our education system is poorly equipped to develop them. Kids today need to learn different skills than we did. Rather than rote memorization of facts and arithmetic, they will need to be able to work effectively in a team, focus on the math of systems rather than calculus and develop a working knowledge of logic.
So don’t judge today’s youth by the standards of yesterday. We need to prepare them for the challenges of tomorrow.
5. The Search For Intelligence
In 1971, NASA made a proposal to start looking for intelligent life in the universe. At a cost of more than $10 billion, Congress balked. We have enough trouble dealing with aliens from other countries, so I guess it’s not surprising that they didn’t find room in the budget for aliens from other planets.
Yet the idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. As Michio Kaku reports in his new book, The Future of the Mind, there are likely thousands of earth-like planets in the universe that could support life similar to ours (two were identified just this past year). So the odds are that we will find extra-terrestrial life sometime this century.
And while governments have mostly balked, the private sector has kicked in about $5 million per year for SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Millions of ordinary people also help power the effort by allowing scientists to use their computers during downtime by way of the SETI@home program.
Unfortunately, even if we do find aliens, it will likely take thousands of years to communicate with them, because of the great distances involved. Still, in an age where we can’t seem to see beyond the next quarter’s plan or the next year’s budget, the fact that we’re actively engaged in a collective project that may take millennia to bear fruit gives me hope.
Maybe we’re not so bad after all…