Thought the future was going to be all flying cars and space elevators? You might also have to take into account acute water shortages, unprecedented natural disasters, and disease-spreading insect-machine hybrids.
Those are all part of the vision of the future presented in a think tank report published by the UK’s Ministry of Defence. The “Global Strategic Trends Out to 2045” report sets out a future context for defence and security. And wow, is it a bit grim.
In a video intro, a creepily hypnotic and emotionless voice lists some of the major changes we can expect to see: an increase in population of three billion, scarcity of resources, increased vulnerability of overpopulated cities, and so forth. “Inequality will endure, and the world will remain fraught with conflict and complexity,” the voice says, and animations map imagined disasters across the globe. It certainly shows the less shiny side of the future.
The MoD stresses that the report is not trying to predict the future (though according to the report, advances in computer processing power and big data may make that easier). “Rather, it describes those phenomena that could have a significant impact on the future and combines these differing perspectives to produce a multifaceted picture of possible outcomes,” it says.
The report is huge, covering everything from the environment to defence spending across all geographical regions, and space. While many aspects of it seem positively dystopian, it’s perhaps a necessary reminder that with the positive opportunities brought by emerging technologies come potentially less desirable, even dangerous, consequences.
Over at Wired, Chris Higgins points out some examples of this double-edged sword. Fended off the antibiotic resistance apocalypse and cured disease? Great! Except the cure will probably only be available to the rich, exacerbating inequality. And if it was available to everyone, that would only contribute to even greater overpopulation and stretched resources. Travelling by driverless car or unmanned jet? Cool! Except the increase in automated systems could be a boon for cybercriminal hijackers. You get the picture.
It might all seem a little over the top, but the fact is, we already know that many of these apparently scenarios do present a legitimate threat. Some of them—antibiotic resistance, unmanned systems taking over human employment, robotic warfare—are already starting to happen. Others, like inequality in terms of income, resources, gender, and geography, are as germane to our past as the MoD predicts they could be to our future.
What it all goes to show is that how the future really pans out doesn’t just depend on the scientific and technological advances we make, but on how we use them. The report includes many interesting thoughts on how broader societal shifts could change the world as we know it, and the real potential adversaries, as we’ve seen before, are the powers pulling the strings.
Large private, or semiprivate, companies and non-governmental organisations will very probably grow in number and power.
In the MoD’s imagined future, corporations command a lot of authority. “Large private, or semiprivate, companies and non-governmental organisations will very probably grow in number and power, seeking to influence national and international decisions,” it writes, noting that Apple is already economically bigger than Ecuador and Ford bigger than Morocco. These multinationals could gain greater control over markets and resources as populations become more dependent on them, and the report even highlights the very real risk of private security forces. Shell, it states, already has a private security force of 1,200 in Nigeria alone.
These corporations could have a hand in our daily lives and long-term prospects, such as by running or sponsoring schools. “As corporate involvement in education grows it may encourage children’s entry to one or other stream at even earlier ages, as corporations and organisations (including the armed forces) seek to identify—and train accordingly—the strongest future performers,” it suggests.
As corporations grow, the potential for corruption will also increase, though a glimmer of optimism posits that there “might be” greater transparency.
The report still thinks the state will play the main role in international affairs, but suggests that “individuals may define themselves less by their nationality, with growing migration and stronger links to virtual communities.” Regarding the latter of those, you can expect to see a decline in personal privacy.
While the overall report comes off as rather bleak, it’s a reminder that we shouldn’t just let technology take its course and assume that everything will work out all right. By recognising where we could be headed, we leave open the opportunity to change course, and decide how to deal with the increased capabilities we expect to wield, along with their potential negative impacts.
And if you’re finding yourself succumbing to despair around this point, be assured that there is scope for positive outcomes too. The authors explain that their job is to err on the side of caution. “In the process of identifying threats, challenges and defence and security implications for policy- and decision-makers, there may be a tendency for the document to seem rather negative in its outlook,” they write. “This is an inevitable consequence of its purpose. There is of course scope for human ingenuity to have a significant impact on the future, and hence there are considerable grounds for optimism.”