Imagine you are invited to address an international gathering of "young leaders" -- those brilliant, world-travelled, multi-lingual twenty-somethings who graduate from top schools with top honors and -- having walked away from six-figure salaries -- work for almost nothing in NGOs. Their driving force is the "common good"-- that is, to improve the lives of people they don't know. Just by looking at them, you know that one day, one of them will be your president. Imagine also that they want you to tell them how the world will look when they take the driver's seat two or three decades from now. What would you say?
You surely don't want to start with "When I was your age..." But you will think about it. Thirty years ago, the world was really very, very different. Technological progress has since changed everything -- if you don't believe it, try to picture life without the internet. And our leaders have had to adjust to the consequences -- both good and bad. What technologies could change us again in the next 30 years? What will these young leaders have to confront? Three guesses.
First, a limitless source of energy. Physicists may finally find a way to fuel us forever at zero or close-to-zero cost. [Don't laugh, they have been trying for a while to do just that through nuclear "fusion."] This would change all prices, and our perceptions of what is valuable. All things manufactured would be cheaper. So would food. As would anything that needs to be transported or whose production can be mechanized. Poverty would fall, almost by definition. In fact, the definition of wealth would change too. What makes a nation "rich" would have to be reassessed.
Oil, gas and coal would be as useful, and as valuable, as type-writers. In contrast, anything that is based on human intellect will be pricey. The design of blue-jeans, computers or cars -- if we still use such antiques -- will be more costly than their production. [We are not so far from that already, are we?] Lawyers, doctors and architects would get even bigger salaries than the unskilled. Economists would call this a massive change in "relative prices" -- the price of goods relative to the price of talent. In a world of endless energy, education would be king. Knowledge and ideas would matter much more than endowments and geography.
Second, a complete understanding of how the brain works. Think of the possibility of drastically expanding our capacity to think. Neurologists are far -- but not too far -- from opening the pathway into how exactly we process information, store memories, handle emotions, generate insights, and respond to stimuli. But say that they can crack the "brain code" -- sort of what Watson, Crick and their successors did for DNA. This would put us in a world in which people's ability to understand, learn, communicate and socialize could be easily scaled up -- not just a bit, but manifold. This would bring the concept of education to a new level. Learning would be a fast, life-long, and boundless process. Awesome mathematicians, critical thinkers and polyglots would be the norm. School years (when you are educated) and years of schooling (for how long you are educated) would be all but meaningless. "Teacher" would be a relative concept. Workers would be more trainable, and more productive. Professional qualifications based on "degrees" and "diplomas" would carry less weight. We would be able to say with scientific confidence that the new generations are indeed "smarter." [If you think raising teenagers is difficult now, wait a few decades.]
Third, a ten-year increase in our life-expectancy. This would put most people in developed countries -- and most countries may by then be "developed" -- to live into their 90s, especially women. Of course, life expectancy has risen before. But it took more than a hundred years for an average American male to live into his late 70s (in 1900, he would die in his mid-40s). Genetics might soon bring about a sudden jump in life's length across the board, for all countries and all sexes -- say, by vanquishing cancer, AIDS or hereditary diseases. Yes, the possibility of living longer will feel good for each of us individually, but it might cause huge collective problems. With most of us working into our 70s, where will the jobs come from? And, if we don't work longer, who will pay for our longer retirement? Not to mention the pressure on the planet's natural resources: with fewer people dying, the world's population would be permanently higher (until, that is, we decide to have less babies). We will consume more water, produce more trash, and make more trips. Political preferences will change too, hopefully for the better, if older humans mean, on average, wiser humans.
Now, to make it all the more exciting for your audience of young leaders, suggest to them that the three technological advances -- limitless energy, formidable brainpower, longer life-expectancy -- may happen simultaneously. In the next three decades, physics, neurology and genetics may deliver results that transform who we are and what we do. The new generation of leaders will have to deal not just with the benefits of that, but also with the problems -- technology can very well be used for harm. Life will not necessarily be easier, happier or more peaceful in the new societies -- it will just be fundamentally different.
All very futuristic, isn't it? Borderline fantasy? Well, imagine if in 1981, exactly 30 years ago, when most current presidents and prime-ministers where "young leaders," you had addressed them in a conference with a speech like: "One day, all of us will be connected by inexpensive hand-held devices that will, in the blink of an eye, carry messages across the globe, give us the power to search for and find virtually any information known to mind-kind, and guide us block-by-block through any city anywhere in the world. Trust me, you will lead a world of universal communication." It is difficult today to sense the respectful embarrassment that the audience would have felt with such an insanely Sci-Fi prediction. But technology proved it possible -- almost easy. It is nothing compared with what will happen by 2041.