A milestone is reached in the field of artificial intelligence this year, as a computer passes the Turing Test for the first time.** This test is conducted by a human judge who is made to engage in a natural
language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which
tries to appear human. Participants are placed in isolated locations.
For several decades, information technology had seen exponential growth – leading to vast improvements in computer processing power, memory, bandwidth, voice recognition, image recognition, deep learning and other software algorithms. By the end of the 2020s, it has reached the stage where an independent judge is
literally unable to tell which is the real human and which is not.* Answers
to certain "obscure" questions posed by the judge may appear
childlike from the AI – but they are humanlike nonetheless.*
automation of supermarkets and retail environments
nations, a large number of retail environments are now fully cashless. Automated
systems have made it possible for customers to shop with little or no
physical interaction with a checkout. By using a concept known as the Internet of Things (Iot), products are
simply "scanned" as they pass out of the door. Customers
are identified by a chip in their card, or with a prepayment transponder
obtained from a vending machine outside. Transactions are
then generated over the Internet. This
system greatly saves time, while reducing costs for the
retailer by eliminating the need for checkout staff. Customers
can also utilise Augmented Reality (AR) to quickly locate shop items. A
list on their mobile phone can direct them to the appropriate aisle
and shelf. Users can also make use of glasses with displays built into
advertising is widespread
Personalised adverts similar in style to those of Minority Report are becoming widespread by the end of this decade.* Microsensors embedded in posters and other outdoor media can identify people by chips in their wallet, smartphone or other personal/wearable tech. Adverts are then customised depending on the interests and lifestyle of the person in question. Pairs of
ultrasonic beams, targeted to intersect at specific points, deliver
a localised sound message that only a single person can hear. This means
that even in crowded situations, the adverts can be made personal and
Mass application of gene drives on mosquitoes
During the 2010s, it was estimated that nearly 700 million people were catching mosquito-borne illnesses, resulting in over a million deaths worldwide each year. In spite of the insects' tiny size, they were the deadliest creatures in the world, killing more humans than any other animal. Among the diseases being transmitted were malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, yellow fever, chikungunya, filariasis, the Zika virus and many others.
Affecting mostly tropical and sub-tropical regions, the majority of deaths were of young children in sub-Saharan Africa. However, in 2015 it was reported that – due to warming temperatures from climate change – mosquitoes had begun spreading historically rare diseases into Europe: malaria to Greece, the West Nile virus to parts of Eastern Europe and chikungunya to Italy and France. Malaria and West Nile virus were becoming more common in North America too.
The economic and social costs of mosquito-borne infections were often considerable. An individual could be forced to miss time at work or their place of education, pay for doctors' visits and related travel, obtain funds to cover prescription or over-the-counter medicines, pay for hospital bills or medical treatment, and buy insect sprays or repellents to prevent further bites. There were also funeral expenses in the case of deaths. At a national level, the costs to governments included the maintenance and staffing of health facilities, the purchase of drugs and vaccines, public education programs to warn about epidemics, research to prevent further outbreaks and to improve treatments, lost productivity and overall damage to businesses, negative effects on tourism and sports events, as well as compensation for affected communities.
Of the many and various mosquito-borne illnesses, malaria presented the greatest threat, with 3.2 billion people (106 countries and territories) located in areas at risk of transmission. It was a particularly acute problem in Africa, where an estimated 91% of malaria deaths occurred. This disease alone was causing $12 billion in economic damage to the continent each year, reducing the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of some countries by as much as 1.3%. In those nations where the disease was most common, it represented up to 40% of public health spending and could account for 60% of visits to health clinics, along with 50% of hospital admissions.
A variety of methods were in use to control mosquitoes – including the elimination of breeding places (such as pools, ditches, old tires, buckets and other containers of stagnant water); physical barriers like window screens and nets; sprays and repellents; attractant-laced traps; and biological control via fungi and nematodes or predators such as fish. Another strategy was the use of pesticides, but these were gradually becoming less effective as the insects developed resistance, plus the chemicals were damaging to the environment.
While research into vaccines and new medications was now showing promise, a more comprehensive and long-term proposal was to eradicate mosquitoes – or at least drastically reduce their ability to spread infections. Known as a "gene drive", it was hoped that such an initiative would either A) cause the extinction of several of the major vectors of malaria (and some other diseases like dengue and Zika) including Aedes albopictus and Anopheles, or B) induce a massive genetic change throughout the mosquito population, making them unable to transmit vectors.
The ability to modify animal and plant DNA had been around for decades already. The first genetically modified animal was a mouse created in 1973. The first genetically modified crop, an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant, was produced in 1982. These organisms were still subject to the laws of genetic inheritance, however, as first described by Gregor Mendel in 1865. In other words, if a mosquito carrying altered DNA were to mate with another mosquito, there would only be a 50-50 chance of the offspring inheriting the modified gene. The probability would be even lower that a subsequent generation would pass on the modified gene, and so on.
Gene drives, by contrast, were designed to change the fundamental laws of inheritance. A powerful new editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 was demonstrated on fruit flies in the 2010s, showing that it was possible to engineer organisms in which every generation received a modified gene – and an entire population would get it within a few generations. With potential for large-scale transformation of species, attention turned to the problem of mosquitoes in Africa.
This process of artificially biasing inheritance of desired genes was described as a "mutagenic chain reaction" by researchers. While holding great promise, there were also a number of risks and ethical issues. By altering mosquitoes' DNA to ensure their offspring would always be male, for example, and releasing them into the wild to mate with natural mosquitoes, malaria and other diseases could be wiped out. However, there could also be side effects. Causing the insects' populations to crash might disrupt food chains or have other unforeseen consequences.*
Government reports highlighted these and other areas of concern, delaying the mass introduction of gene drives,* but this was only a temporary setback as major investment was going into research and development of the process. Among the biggest supporters in the fight against malaria was Bill Gates whose foundation had committed almost $2 billion in grants between 2000 and 2015 to combat the disease.
To safeguard against the dangers, a "reversal drive" was developed alongside the gene drive that could, if necessary, undo the process and spread the original genes back into the population. In addition, other alternatives to creating all-male offspring were considered – such as introducing genes to make the insects target animals rather than humans, or genes that stopped the parasite itself from multiplying inside the insect.
Laboratory tests were conducted before the introduction of these GM mosquitoes into the wild. Detailed studies then followed to determine the optimal numbers and best locations to release the insects, as well as the various cause-and-effect pathways in the environment. Following small-scale experiments in the early 2020s, the mass introduction of gene drives is becoming a reality towards the end of the decade. After years of mutagenic chain reactions, follow-up assessments and computer models, researchers have pieced together a trove of evidence and data, refining the process to be safe and with acceptable impacts on the environment. These and other issues have now been largely resolved, with most nations in Africa and elsewhere having approved the use of gene drives. A sharp drop in malaria is being witnessed by 2029.*
Other pests and invasive species are being targeted using this method – cane toads in Australia, for example; locusts that swarm and destroy crops; rodents that carry diseases. Unfortunately, given their enormous power and potential, gene drives are also now coming under intense scrutiny for an altogether different and more sinister reason: their ability to be used as bioweapons on human populations. This is leading to increased transparency, openness and cooperation between governments around the world to ensure better monitoring of scientific research activities and to make safeguards and countermeasures built into gene drives.*
Global reserves of silver are running out
Silver is a precious metal which has been used by humans for thousands of years in currency, jewelry and sculpture. In modern times it has a range of applications including dental fillings, mirrors, nuclear reactors, photographic film, solar reflectors and solder, along with alloys to make silverware, ornaments and the like. Due to its high conductivity (the highest of any metal) silver is very useful in electronic devices such as radios, antennas, computer keyboards and audio equipment, as well as wires and cables. As most silver ions are toxic to microbes, silver is also used in bandages and medical coatings.
Silver has long been a high value commodity, often used for investment and even as the base for entire economies. Mines were once found throughout the world, though the bulk was extracted in China and Poland. Between 1900 and the early 2000s, silver ores as a percentage of geologic formations declined by over 80%. New mine deposit discoveries peaked in the mid-1980s, with average annual discoveries declining over 60% between then and the early 2010s.* By the late 2020s, global reserves have reached critically low levels,** causing prices to rise considerably and driving demand for alternative materials.
In some applications, silver is able to be replaced by aluminum, copper and rhodium, but the lower conductivity necessitates new refinement techniques. Recycling is proving effective enough to keep the supply somewhat stable for a few more decades,* though demand continues to outpace availability.
Chad disappears from the map
19th century, Lake Chad was among the largest lakes in the world. It
supported a vast ecosystem of fish, waterfowl, crocodiles, shore birds
and other animals. Due to
a combination of drought, irrigation and human activity, it has
disappeared entirely by now.* This
is having a devastating impact on Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon
– with 30 million people depending on the lake for agriculture,
drinking water, livestock, fishing and other purposes. Famine and civil war have erupted as huge numbers
of refugees attempt to flee the region.
Madagascar's radiated tortoise is extinct in the wild
Years of unmitigated hunting and loss of habitat, as well as capture for the illegal exotic pet trade, have caused the wild population of the radiated tortoise to dwindle to almost nothing.* Like over 80% of the island's flora and fauna, the radiated tortoise can be found nowhere else on Earth naturally.
The government of Madagascar attempted to halt the decline by introducing a series of protection laws. Unfortunately, the size of the island's wildlife areas and poor economic conditions meant these restrictions were all but ignored. Even protected areas were invaded by poachers. Surveys in the 2010s revealed a shocking decline in the number of tortoises. The breeding population quickly shrunk throughout the 2020s.
Though there is hope of future repopulation using those bred in captivity, the shrinking habitats they once occupied make this prospect unlikely. In another 15 years or so, almost all of Madagascar's forests will be gone.*
Phase 1 of the California High-Speed Rail line is complete
The California High-Speed Rail line is a major transportation project to modernise the rail routes on the west coast of the United States, making them fit for the 21st century. It connects Los Angeles to San Francisco, with trains running at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour (320 km/h), enabling journeys between the two cities in under three hours. Plans for a high-speed rail system linking Northern and Southern California were proposed by Governor Jerry Brown in the 1980s, but it took until 2008 for funding to be approved by voters. Even then, criticism remained over the budget, feasibility, legal, environmental and other issues. Covering 800 miles and 24 stations, the total cost would amount to over $68 billion.
A ground-breaking ceremony for the project was held in January 2015.* Construction would proceed in various segments. The initial 130-mile (209 km) stretch from Fresno to Bakersfield in the Central Valley would open in 2022, followed by several other sections, leading to Phase 1 completion in 2029.* This would be followed by Phase 2, consisting of two extensions: a 110 mile (177 km) route from Sacramento to Merced and a 167 mile (269 km) route from Los Angeles to San Diego. Over a 58 year period (from the start of operations in 2022 through 2080), the system reduces auto travel on the state's highways and roads by over 400 billion miles; a significant reduction in air pollution and carbon emissions for the region. Other benefits include the creation of 450,000 permanent jobs through the new commuters using the system.
Alongside the California High-Speed rail line is a private venture known as XpressWest (formerly DesertXpress) that aims to build a high-speed route from Victorville to Las Vegas. Other rail projects are now taking shape across the USA. On the other side of the country, the Washington to Newark section of the Northeast Corridor route is nearing completion.*
The first sightings of a Great Red Spot on Jupiter were made in the 1660s by Robert Hooke and Giovanni Cassini. This feature – a monstrous, anticyclonic storm – was not studied in detail until the late 19th century. At that time, its diameter was found to be around 25,500 miles (41,000 km), large enough to swallow three entire planet Earths.
On 25th February 1979, NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft returned close-range photos of the planet. These revealed that its Great Red Spot had shrunk to 14,500 miles (23,335 km). Later studies by the Hubble Space Telescope, from the 1990s onwards, revealed that it was continuing to get smaller in size. By 2012, the rate of shrinkage was nearly 1000 kilometres per year and increasing. It was theorised that small eddies, observed feeding into the storm, were accelerating this change by altering the internal dynamics. The raging winds in this turbulent region were measured to be 384 mph (618 km/h), greatly surpassing even the strongest hurricanes on Earth.
Another space probe – Juno – orbited the gas giant in 2016. This provided a greater understanding of the atmospheric composition, cloud motions, temperature, magnetosphere, gravity and other properties affecting the overall dynamics of Jupiter. Once again, the Great Red Spot was seen shrinking and losing momentum. This process would continue into the following decade. By the end of the 2020s, it has vanished entirely.** Yet another probe, Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), arrives in 2030, just after its disappearance.
wreck of the Titanic has decomposed
late 2020s, the famous wreck of the Titanic has been reduced to a mere
rust patch. Metal-eating bacteria have dissolved what remains of the
once mighty structure. Though some artifacts were salvageable, any hope
of recovering the ship itself is now gone.*
We will have entities by 2030 that seem to be conscious, and that will
claim to have feelings. We have entities today, like characters in your
kids' video games, that can make that claim, but they are not very convincing.
If you run into a character in a video game and it talks about its feelings,
you know it's just a machine simulation; you're not convinced that it's
a real person there. This is because that entity, which is a software
entity, is still a million times simpler than the human brain.
that won't be the case. Say you encounter another person in virtual reality
that looks just like a human but there's actually no biological human
behind it – it's completely an AI projecting a human-like figure in virtual
reality, or even a human-like image in real reality using an android robotic
technology. These entities will seem human. They won't be a million times
simpler than humans. They'll be as complex as humans. They'll have all
the subtle cues of being humans. They'll be able to sit here and be interviewed
and be just as convincing as a human, just as complex, just as interesting.
And when they claim to have been angry or happy it'll be just as convincing
as when another human makes those claims.
At this point,
it becomes a really deeply philosophical issue. Is that just a very clever
simulation that's good enough to trick you, or is it really conscious
in the way that we assume other people are?"
4 Kurzweil's prediction is controversial, with some believing it to be rather optimistic. However, he has an impressive
track record of predictions – correctly forecasting the rise of the Internet, the completion of the Human Genome
Project, the date when a computer would beat a human chess player, and the collapse of the
Soviet Union due in part to information technology.