We Asked 105 Experts What Scares and Inspires Them Most About the Future
Climate change, extremism, and artificial intelligence were among the top fears, and young people, technology, and equality were among the top hopes.
Our poll of 105 experts highlighted climate change and misinformation as major threats, and young people as sources of optimism. Image: Cathryn Virginia
The future is wonderful, the future is terrifying. That’s our motto at Motherboard.
Envisioning the future defined by our wildest ambitions or our deepest fears is an instinct as old as human culture. But it has taken on new urgency in recent years, as people grapple with profound paradigm shifts worldwide. We are living in the most socially interconnected and technologically advanced society in history. We are discovering far-flung alien exoplanets, designing algorithms that mimic how we think, and becoming fluent in the genetic language of life. What could go wrong? What could go right?
To shed light on those questions, Motherboard asked 105 interdisciplinary thinkers about their fears and hopes about the future. We defined “thinkers” and “smart people” as experts in fields we regularly cover. Participants include (but are not limited to) 19 space scientists, 19 biologists and environmental scientists, 11 computer scientists, eight medical scientists, five lawyers, four historians, a musicologist, a paleontologist, an astronaut, and a digital artist who replied with emojis.
Most of the participants are based in the United States (69), but we also received responses from experts in Europe (20), Australia (5), Canada (4), Singapore (2), South Africa (2), Taiwan (1), India (1), and Bangladesh (1). We talked to 56 women and 49 men.
All 105 participants fielded these twin questions: What worries you most about the future? What gives you the most hope about the future? Their responses, listed below, are edited for brevity and arranged by field of expertise. If you’d like to read only the fears and worries, grouped by common themes, click here. If you’d like to read only the hopes by theme, click here.
Unifying ideas emerged in the responses. By far the most frequently mentioned worry was climate change (29), followed by a spike in political extremism (21), with a subset of answers directly linking these problems. Artificial intelligence, especially its bias and unpredictability, represented another common concern (10). The proliferation of misinformation (8) and insufficient investment in science and STEM education (8) were often mentioned.
References to WALL-E, Terminator, Mad Max: Fury Road, Elysium, and Black Mirror were brought up as examples of what could go wrong. Three respondents, two astronomers and an archeologist, said they did not worry much about the future.
The majority of participants referenced human ingenuity and collective action as sources of hope and inspiration. Of that group, 26 specifically mentioned younger generations made them optimistic (no pressure, Gen Z). Seven said that the advancement of women’s rights gave them hope, and three mentioned the #MeToo movement. Four participants rejected or reworked the premise of this question.
All 105 respondents contributed valuable perspectives about the future of humanity—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the phenomenally weird. Motherboard is incredibly grateful to them for the time and thought they put into this project. We hope you find the results illuminating.
Futurists and Historians (10)
Fear: We are being defeated by opinions and can no longer see a shared reality. Learning critical thinking hardly seems sufficient for the scale of the problem. While climate change will cause sea level rise and increasing weather stability, new research suggests worse vicious systems effects. We’re giving away our future and very few seem to care.
Hope: The increasing value being placed on importance of recognizing First Nations culture within broader society. A different way of being with each other and the land is possible.
—Kristin Alford, director of the futuristic museum MOD. at the University of South Australia
Fear: The growing misguided belief that more science and technology can solve our society’s largest problems, which are social and cultural at their core.
Hope: People, and the best ideas of what humanity can be, are tremendously resilient.
—Rayvon Fouché, professor and director of the American Studies Program at Purdue University
“Climate change, an apparently insane American president, and a set of British politicians that want to turn the UK into an island that emerges from the mist every 100 years”
Fear: Black Mirror delves into the unintended consequences of technology; what worries me is life imitating art and art imitating life. Even with our intellectual capacity to envision conflicts and moral and ethical dilemmas, we continue to make short-sighted decisions about power, resources, and energy that are inequitable and unsustainable. When we act with intellect without empathy, innovation without self awareness, power without discernment or wisdom, then we let ourselves be slaves to our egos.
Hope: Our ability to imagine a new future, to conceptualize and explore new truths. Artists are trained to visualize original ideas, create discourse that can lead us with creativity. It is our time to examine our economic, political, and religious systems; do these systems work for all people? If not, how do we use an intersectional praxis to create solutions that are harmonious, thoughtful, and filled with empathy and connection?
Fear: Scientists, artists, and writers will be burned at the (fossil-fueled) stake while the mob cheers.
Hope: The rise of citizen-science movements around the world.
—Gabrielle Hecht, Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security and professor of history at Stanford University
Fear: Humankind. Our anthropocentrism and the epistemic imbalances that allow us to think and act towards the idea that we can colonize the future.
Hope: The faces and voices and bodies that are leading with imagination and hope and a grounded consciousness, often from the periphery.
—Geci Karuri-Sebina, African urbanist and futurist, South Africa
Fear: Climate change, an apparently insane American president, and a set of British politicians that want to turn the UK into an island that emerges from the mist every 100 years. Over and above that a constant downgrading of the value of science.
Hope: The younger generation who are angry, really good at organizing, and remind me of my grandparents’ generation—all of whom were anti-fascist activists.
—Farah Mendlesohn, historian, associate fellow of the Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and managing editor of Manifold Press, UK
“We will come to see that artificial intelligence reflects our human shortcomings’
Fear: The trend, evident in the “Western world,” toward a senile society of sedated, reasonable, boring, politically correct zombies.
Hope: Humanity has done wonderful things on Earth and can move on to do even more wonderful things among the stars, provided we keep a healthy reserve of boundless, irreverent, and unreasonable optimism.
—Giulio Prisco, writer, technology expert, futurist, cosmist, and transhumanist, Italy
Fear: The beauty of sea glass, or that human capacity to transform a little moment of dystopia—like ocean trash—into wonder and awe. While adaptive, this tendency to normalize horrible things is worrisome.
Hope: Our persistent imagination and tireless pursuit of better futures.
—Cynthia Selin, associate professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Sustainability, Arizona State University
Fear: In our lifetime, we will come to see that artificial intelligence reflects our human shortcomings. We will find ourselves trapped inside an uncanny valley—life will appear nearly normal, but nothing will feel quite right. We will ruefully curse the institutionalized classism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and racism we ourselves taught our decision-making, thinking machines.
Hope: The future hasn’t happened yet. We are creating it together, right now, in the present, which means that every person alive today has an opportunity to play a beneficial role in the future of artificial intelligence.
—Amy Webb, quantitative futurist, professor of strategic foresight at New York University Stern School of Business, and founder of the Future Today Institute
Fear: Hubris—technological, intellectual, political. We have no idea how little we know.
Hope: Righteous anger about our political moment is driving a powerful wave of activism and organizing. So many people, including scientists and technologists, are advocating for justice instead of access to power. I want to believe that good will win.
—Audra Wolfe, science historian and author of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science, USA
Computer Scientists (11)
Fear: There is a story about a pair of anthropologists in the Amazon living with a diminishing tribe, learning their dying language and creating a phonetic notation, lexicon, and grammar to record its existence beyond its spoken survival. The anthropologists led the people through the signs and sounds. Upon hearing themselves say aloud the spelled name of the tribe and terrified that their spirit had been captured by this alchemy, they jumped up and went running. I worry that we are just as uncomprehending of what we are looking at in the world; I don’t know what the consequences are of our computationally augmented conceptual primitivity.
Hope: We are proof that mental processes and intelligence spontaneously arise in appropriate “mashups” of proto-cognitive bits and pieces of memory, correlated states, and state transitions, and, therefore, that mental kinds are fundamental properties of nature. It’s not at all clear that life, per se, is a prerequisite for such mashups to occur. The idea that eventually we might well be viewed as surrounded by and embedded in as well as individually reflecting these properties seems wonderful.
—Chris Barrett, director of the Biocomplexity Institute at the University of Virginia
Fear: Large-scale system failures have led to a widespread distrust of experts, inappropriate placement of blame, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories that provide simple, yet incorrect, explanations for otherwise mysterious events. If policy is made based on these gross oversimplifications, we will see a lot more disasters, system failures, and catastrophic unintended consequences.
Hope: We have the ability to alleviate the problems if we design our systems with flexibility, rather than optimality. We should select for, and train, interdisciplinary thinkers who excel at communicating complex concepts to overburdened decision-makers.
—David Broniatowski, assistant professor at George Washington University‘s department of engineering management and systems engineering and director of the Decision Making and Systems Architecture Lab and the GW SEAS Data Analytics Master’s program
“Technology can bring us closer together, enhance our relationships, and connect us to friends old and new. Tech won’t replace our relationships; it will enhance them”
Fear: As we develop algorithmic representations [in AI] that mimic the way we think, we end up passing off [to future generations] some of the most flawed parts of the ways we as human beings make judgements. Algorithmic bias is a real problem in AI right now that can be corrupted by the same sorts of bias the plague the human experience. Conscious and unconscious hatred, contempt, or even casual stereotyping held in the mind of a developer can easily make its way into a code base now. As we offload our thinking into machines, these flaws in thinking become endlessly perpetuated and increasingly unchallenged by future generations.
Hope: Seeing problems like the issue of bias in artificial intelligence being worked by such incredible and diverse minds like Renee Teate, Vincente Ordóñez Román, and Ines Montani (just to name a few) is a serious relief.
—Emily Crose, cybersecurity expert and former NSA analyst, USA
Fear: Bias and a widening divide. It’s not just bias in the workforce or in the products, it’s bias in the algorithms: subjective and unrepresentative datasets used in machine-learning that mean we end up with results that are skewed—sexist, racist, ableist, and classist.
Hope: Technology can bring us closer together, enhance our relationships, and connect us to friends old and new. Tech won’t replace our relationships; it will enhance them.
—Kate Devlin, senior lecturer in social and cultural AI in the department of digital humanities at King's College London and author of Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots
Fear: Excessive usage of internet and online platforms can have a negative impact on family lives. Family members spend less time gossiping, watching television, and having dinner and holidays together.
Hope: The advancement of technology and its ability to solve real-life problems and thereby improve the quality of human lives.
—Tanzima Hashem, professor in the department of computer science and engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology
Fear: Everything is becoming a computer and everything will be interconnected. There‘s nothing we can do to prevent this from happening. If it uses electricity, it will be on the internet.
Hope: Developments in machine-learning and AI. I‘m confident machine-learning will be much more useful for defense than offense.
—Mikko Hyppönen, computer security expert and chief research officer at F-Secure, Finland
Fear: The lack of transparency and accountability of AI algorithms that we will increasingly employ across all industries and government services.
Hope: The democratization of access to basic services like education, healthcare, mobility, and security for the emerging middle class across cities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Fear: The lack of rational policy-making about artificial intelligence and unmanned systems. The over-hype about artificial intelligence has led to states in the US to ignore known risks to public safety in the hopes of getting corporate investments.
Hope: The possibility of computing and robotics will lead to a day where there are no more disasters—because disasters can be predicted and prepared for and the response and recovery are immediate and seamless.
—Dr. Robin Murphy, professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M University and author of Robotics Through Science Fiction: Artificial Intelligence Explained Through Six Classic Robot Stories
"We have the recipe for success as a species"
Fear: The entirety of our computing infrastructure, including all of our finance and health systems, is an insecure, untrustworthy mess.
Hope: The energy and hope I see among college students.
—Emin Gün Sirer, associate professor of computer science at Cornell University and co-director of the Initiative for CryptoCurrencies and Contract (IC3)
Fear: Our increasing risk aversion will prevent or delay us from achieving our potential. It was only 66 years between Kitty Hawk and Apollo 11. It has now been 46 years since Apollo 17. We need to get back to thinking and dreaming big with a spirit of optimism, amazement, and wonder.
Hope: We have the recipe for success as a species: We are incredibly resilient and creative in the face of adversity, can build on the knowledge and developments of prior generations, and have a unique capacity for individual self-improvement over the course of a single lifetime.
—Daniel Szafir, assistant professor of computer science, creative technologies, and information science, and aerospace engineering and director of the Interactive Robotics and Novel Technologies Laboratory (IRON Lab) at the University of Colorado at Boulder
Fear: People will trust software to make big life-or-death decisions (disease diagnosis! war! car braking!) without the appropriate amount of human oversight.
Hope: We‘ve made incredible progress in solving hard computer science problems in research. If we could translate even a small fraction of these ideas into real-world solutions, we‘ll be in great shape.
—Jean Yang, founder of Akita software, on leave from being an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University
Fine Artists and Writers (7)
Fear: Climate change will continue unchecked, eventually making life on the planet nasty, brutish, and short, if not totally unsustainable. I don‘t think humans as a species are cognitively fit to really grasp the threat we‘re currently faced with.
Hope: [Quoting Ursula Le Guin] “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings." From your lips to the ears of the Kindly Ones, O wise dame.
—Brooke Bolander, speculative fiction writer and author of The Only Harmless Great Thing, USA
“What if, instead of seeking hope, we seek meaning?”
Fear: Human apathy.
Hope: Human ingenuity.
—Alexandra Cousteau, explorer, environmental activist, and filmmaker, Germany
Fear: Plastic. Its beauty when shaped into colorful objects, and our need for these objects for everything from storing food to medical devices, is now built into how our world works, preventing us from dealing responsibly with plastic’s devastation of waterways, birds, and our future.
Hope: Music. One sound and one silence can encompass and catalyze change in the world.
👥👥👥👥 🔁 🅾️🦎 ◀️ ❌❌, ⌛️⏳⌛️⏳, 🚫 🆕 ➕ 🤔🍺 💡💡 🏌️ ©️ 🅾️-👣️-♑ ☮️ 🔛 🌍🌎🌏.
Translation: Humanities’ repetition of past mistakes, time after time, prohibit new and thoughtful ideas for co-existing in peace on Earth.
👩🏿💻👩🚀👨🏽💻, 👨🏽🔬🤔👩🏾🔬👨🏫 ➕ 👨🏽🎤👩🎨👩🏽🎤, 🤜🤛🏽 🏗️ 👄👅👀👆👃🏿👂 📱🤳📡🔭🛰️🚀 🅾️🦎📶🕸️🔗🌐☁️➕🌕👽🌱✝️🎩📈🕘🕙🔬 🅾️🦎💥☄️🐒🤰🏿💃🏽🕺🏿💀🤖🌞🌌.
Translation: Technologists, scientists, and artists are together building multi-sensory explorations of virtual and extraterrestrial life that increase our scope of existence.
—Carla Gannis, artist and professor of digital arts at Pratt Institute
Fear: Species extinction, at the rate of one organism per every five minutes. Most of this is because of human activity and overdevelopment. As an architect and urban designer, I feel responsible for this travesty. We need to stop extinction by all means necessary.
Hope: Humankind created most of this problem and therefore humankind has the power to stop it.
—Mitchell Joachim, associate professor of practice at New York University and co-founder of Terreform ONE
Fear: Positive feedback loops—both environmental (ice melting, soil degradation, desertification) and social (political radicalization, economic inequality)—may mean accelerating hazards.
Hope: As a society, I think we‘re finally learning to talk about our feelings.
—Jay Owens, technology writer and research director at audience intelligence platform Pulsar, UK
Fear: We live in an extraordinarily fraught era: We are confronted by climate change, growing social inequality, conflict, and the rise of fascist regimes. All of these are inextricably linked with the current structures of power and dominion. What worries me the most is the surrendering of our imaginations, our creativity, our wonderful human capacity to work together, to negotiate and argue and brainstorm—on the altar of fear. Fear sees enemies everywhere. It undermines trust; it shrivels the imagination. I have stared into some of the possible future permutations of our global moment, and I have seen hell.
Hope: What if, instead of seeking hope, we seek meaning? So no matter whether things are hopeful or not, we can choose to live in a way that is based on an ethical consideration of what it means to be a human on Planet Earth, which includes working together.
—Vandana Singh, science fiction author and professor in the department of Physics and Earth Science at Framingham State University
Lawyers and Political Scientists (8)
Fear: AI—especially, in marketing and military applications.
Hope: AI—especially, in medical diagnosis.
— Jeffrey D. Berejikian, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor and associate professor in the department of international affairs at the University of Georgia
“A dark age of backlash and conflict against the mixing of different peoples that will happen as climate change alters the Earth and accelerates migration”
Fear: The middle has shifted so far to the right, and it will be extraordinarily hard to re-center ourselves from the national and global damage wrought by the Trump regime and its allies.
Hope: Youth movements. Young people are reinventing activism and democracy, finding radical new ways to understand and tackle long-standing injustices.
—Caroline Bettinger-López, law professor and director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law
Fear: A dark age of backlash and conflict against the mixing of different peoples that will happen as climate change alters the Earth and accelerates migration.
Hope: The possibility that collective learning will happen from all of the experimentation happening around the world with how to solve enormous problems, from trials of basic income payments to ways of making renewable energy work well in the market.
—Bruce Bimber, professor in the department of political science and the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara
Fear: The archaic law (CDA 230) that courts have interpreted to protect tech companies from liability for abuses that happen on their platform. If we can’t hold these behemoths accountable in court, they have no incentive to stop the bullshit happening on their watch.
Hope: The #MeToo movement. Shame is shifting from victim to predator. Now is the moment to fill our courts with criminal and civil actions holding these malicious people accountable. Combined with education, it will deter.
—Carrie Goldberg, victims‘ rights attorney and founder of C.A. Goldberg, PLLC law firm, USA
Fear: Our happiness and emotional stability will increasingly be tied to what others think of us.
Hope: Social media and communications technology will help distribute opportunities and knowledge.
—Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University
Fear: Legalized cannibalization of the human—the possibility that we will radically expand practices of the procurement and commercialization of life, including human cells and tissues. Initially, informed consent will be used to facilitate transfer of these raw materials to corporate entities that mine, capitalize, and rearrange them for profit. Later, informed consent and privacy will be set aside for the sake of efficient transfer.
Hope: Radical creativity—the next generation of thinkers is moving beyond disciplinary and other boundaries that cabin how we imagine our futures and the paths we might take toward those futures.
—Lisa Ikemoto, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor at University of California, Davis School of Law
Fear: Automation is likely to upend wages, jobs, and entire industries on an unprecedented scale, but lawmakers seem unwilling to acknowledge the problem the way wizards were afraid to say “Voldemort.” The fact that such a seismic issue is absent from public debate is a sign of how unprepared we are to take it on.
Hope: The ability to communicate online: Despite bots, trolls, and filter bubbles, the internet continues to be an unprecedented democratizing force that gives individuals who previously lacked a platform the ability to share new perspectives, highlight hitherto ignored problems, and organize to solve them, as movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have demonstrated.
—Jake Laperruque, cybersecurity expert and senior counsel at the Constitution Project at POGO, USA
“Will we be zombified by artificial intelligence that we have unwittingly programmed to evolve to manipulate us?”
Fear: Digital technologies are an existential threat to the business of journalism as we knew it in the 20th century, and when combined with immense political pressure on independent media and much of the infrastructure of free expression could point to a dark place when it comes to quality information and information equality.
Hope: The next generation is neither afraid of nor in awe of digital technologies, and better equipped than past generations to make good use of them, be skeptical of and interested in, rather than complacent or frantic about, the companies behind them.
—Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, professor of political communication at the University of Oxford, and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics
Humanities and Social Scientists (15)
Fear: Will we be zombified by artificial intelligence that we have unwittingly programmed to evolve to manipulate us? These algorithms are evolving to be better psychologists than a human could ever be and we don’t really have a way of anticipating how this massive manipulation of human brains will affect our futures.
Hope: Part of the human imperative is to innovate, but sometimes innovation also requires regulation to keep it from having harmful effects. Many industries have now taken the challenges and responsibility of regulating into their own hands, [which] has the potential to limit negative consequences of new technology.
—Athena Aktipis, assistant professor of psychology and Lincoln Professor of Ethics at Arizona State University, director of the Cooperation and Conflict Lab, co-director of the Human Generosity Project, and chair of the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Alliance
“The future doesn’t need humans”
Fear: Inviolable inequality, centered on access to and distribution of environmental resources, citizenship, and civil rights. Authoritarian forms of democracy promise to hollow out political rights too. Hence, where and how to incarnate the civic struggle necessary toward more egalitarian societies?
Hope: Equality and rights are rarely handed out, so hope alone will not do. Surely, Humans are capable of devising alternate forms of democratic participation toward a more equitable distribution of the common and public good.
—Maurizio Albahari, anthropologist and associate professor at University of Notre Dame
Fear: Just as we are confronting the greatest existential threats in our species’ 200,000-year run, we are becoming increasingly incapable of solving our problems collectively. Atomized and easily manipulated by greed, fear, and hate, we are losing faith in the very idea of a greater good. In other words, just when we need our better angels the most, they seem to be in the process of abandoning us.
Hope: Survival is, despite it all, our most deeply-seated instinct, followed by love. Greed and hate are deviations and, ultimately, require too much effort to be sustainable.
—Greg Asbed, human rights strategist at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Fair Food Program, USA
Fear: The fact that the future doesn‘t need humans.
Hope: The fact that the future doesn‘t need humans.
—Matteo Bittanti, assistant professor in Media Studies and head of MA Program in Game Design at IULM University, Italy
Fear: It will be more or less the same as the present. Don’t be boring, future! Switch it up!
Hope: Everything I can currently imagine about it is likely silly and wrong.
—Lera Boroditsky, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego
Fear: The cruelty and destruction generated by white-male fragility.
Hope: Pissed-off women fighting for change.
—Jason De León, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and director of undergraduate studies in anthropology at the University of Michigan
Fear: The general rightward turn in world politics and the striking and relatively sudden return of fascism as a global political threat. Climate change. The accelerating promotion of anti-knowledge.
Hope: So many of the students I teach do not seem, for the most part, to buy into the worldviews that inform the things I am most worried about.
—David Golumbia, associate professor in department of English and MATX PhD program at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of The Politics of Bitcoin
“Civilization‘s end has been announced so often, but happened rather rarely. So, I‘m honestly not too alarmed about the future”
Fear: The impact of climate change on our society, the world, and our children, and their children. If we cannot unify around the climate crisis now, will we be able to during climate-caused displacement and mass migration, and with the political polarization we see in many countries?
Hope: If you look at how much our world has changed since we began to industrialize in the mid-19th century, two things strike me. First it‘s an incredibly short timeline that we have made these planetary changes. Also, we are capable of amazing innovation and the ability to change if we want to. I am hopeful that the younger generations will be much more pragmatic, and fiscally responsible, with our future.
Fear: The progressive reductions of humanities to mechanical gears in a hyper-technological society whose goals are largely independent of the individuals.
Hope: The utter unpredictability of the creative imagination of man.
—Riccardo Manzotti, associate professor in theoretical philosophy at IULM University, Italy, and author of The Spread Mind
Fear: Rising nationalism and political and economic seclusion and isolation around the world.
Hope: Being an archaeologist often helps me to lean back, take a deep breath, and relax. Civilization‘s end has been announced so often, but happened rather rarely. So, I‘m honestly not too alarmed about the future.
—Jens Notroff, archaeologist at German Archaeological Institute
Fear: Increasing polarization, especially economic and ideological, which enhances separation among us. This makes it more difficult to talk to and understand each other at a time when we desperately need to come together to tackle urgent problems like climate change.
Hope: The rise and growing power of the feminine, particularly the associated values and priorities, such as caring for each other, the planet and other creatures; (some) men’s growing acceptance of their own feminine aspects; and the visible evidence of the disintegration of patriarchy (despite the backlash).
—Elaine Power, expert on food insecurity and associate professor at the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen‘s University, Canada
Fear: As we near 10 billion people, with the wealthy massively over-consuming and the poor rightly wanting and pursuing more consumption, we face climate change, food insecurity, water stress, biodiversity loss, and more.
Hope: My students, and young people around the world, are standing up for their right to inherit a livable plant, and it inspires me every day.
—Travis Rieder, PhD, assistant director of education initiatives, director of the Master of Bioethics degree program, and research scholar at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics
“Building the future relies in many ways on a deep understanding of the past”
Fear: So many things seem to be beyond our control: guns in schools, inequality, proliferation of fake news, addiction, divisive rhetoric, hatred. I worry that because the problems are so big, we will throw up our metaphorical hands and stop trying.
Hope: Young people. They are committed, engaged, inclusive, and sensible (for the most part).
—Jenny Saffran, language acquisition expert and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison
Fear: Building the future relies in many ways on a deep understanding of the past. We have entered an era that is dictated by real-time successive and ephemeral information flows and we commit our civilization‘s memory to digital and private systems for which no long-term durability is guaranteed. Try comparing that to the Great Pyramid, testimony of an ancient nation, that has survived 4,500 years!
Hope: The amazing capacity of human beings to contradict the established “truths” and predictions of often pessimistic experts and gurus, and to bring our civilization forward with new ideas, discoveries, and innovations.
—Mehdi Tayoubi, co-director of the ScanPyramids mission and co-founder of the Heritage Innovation Preservation (HIP) Institute, France
Fear: Our ongoing struggle with difference. Our anger, fear, anxiety, and contempt for people who look different from ourselves have undermined, and continue to undermine, our democracy, our progress, and our ability to tap the best minds and deliver opportunity that could move us forward.
Hope: The students and alumnae of wonderful institutions of higher learning like Spelman College.
—Celeste Watkins-Hayes, professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University, faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, and author of Remaking a Life: How Women Living with HIV/AIDS Confront Inequality
Biologists and Environmental Scientists (18)
Fear: A lack of respect, mindfulness, and connection to each other and the environment.
Hope: Healthy interactions and the human motivation for innovation during collapse, darkness, and pain. The desire to create and implement Indigenous and new technologies, social and behavioral innovations, contemplative practice, and policy tools for addressing society’s most pressing issues. The intense creativity of the youth and science fiction future they dream to create.
—Selena Ahmed, assistant professor of Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems and director of the Translational Biomarkers Core at Montana State University
“One percent of the scientific literature comes from the African continent—why? Africa is the most innovative place I have ever been”
Fear: Consider communication 30 years ago (lots of human-to-human, some phone), 20 years ago (still quite a lot of human to human, some cell phones), and now (vast majority through some type of screen). Where does that projection takes us?
Hope: Pendular cycles (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis) are becoming shorter and shorter and my hope is that the newer generations will learn a lot faster than we did from history.
—Walter E. Baethgen, director of the Regional and Sectoral Research Program and leader for Latin America and the Caribbean in the IRI at the Earth Institute, Columbia University
Fear: It will be like the past. Consumption of raw materials will keep on rising and waste outputs will rise in parallel.
Hope: It won’t be like the past. We will constrain consumption through a shift of at least two orders of magnitude in the efficiency of consumption of raw materials.
—Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the United Kingdom and professor of biology at the University of St. Andrews
“We are still in time to realize that we could be the salvation, instead of the destroyer, of our planet‘s life”
Fear: The world continuing to exclude diversity and inclusion from science and technology. One percent of the scientific literature comes from the African continent—why? Africa is the most innovative place I have ever been. We have to get constant power, internet, and shipping to the scientific labs in low-resourced countries. I worry we aren’t doing this fast enough.
Hope: African scientists transforming the world one massive problem at a time by using the highest tech science and innovation to solve problems. Hunger will end when science becomes a diverse, inclusive place—and then all the other massive challenges will fall too.
—Laura Boykin, computational biologist and head of Boykin Lab at the University of Western Australia
Fear: Climate change. Temperatures are rising faster today than during many of the great extinctions and upheavals of Earth history, and the consequences are going to be severe. I have no doubt the Earth will survive, and all sorts of living things will endure, but will humans be able to cope as the world we‘re used to rapidly changes?
Hope: Human ingenuity. We do a lot of stupid things, but can think deeply with our big brains and are able to learn from experience. Dinosaurs weren‘t able to do this, so they couldn‘t save themselves from the asteroid. Somewhere out there is the genius that can figure out how to deal with climate change, by inventing new ways of harvesting non-traditional energy sources and making our societies more resilient.
—Steve Brusatte, paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
“Hope is a dangerous word. It’s what we do when we feel we’ve lost control or are powerless to do anything more”
Fear: The inability of people to connect with one another. We are becoming so polarized and divided that finding solutions to common problems like climate change is beginning to feel impossible. People are not willing to listen, trust experts, or change their opinion. Instead we are having to argue if facts are facts.
Hope: The activity of young people and the understanding of needing to change behavior and shift towards an action-based climate where people are held accountable.
—Danielle L. Dixson, assistant professor of marine bioscience at the University of Delaware
Fear: The unprecedented human-caused loss of biodiversity and ecosystems that, combined with the anthropogenic climate change, is threatening the delicate dynamical equilibrium of Gaia, our living planet. If we do not immediately modify our unsustainable lifestyle, we would be the first and, probably, the only case of a self-extinguished species.
Hope: We are still in time to realize that we could be the salvation, instead of the destroyer, of our planet‘s life. And in this way, eventually, find a meaning for our own lives in the cosmic evolution of life.
—Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, PhD, associate professor at Tomsk State University‘s Biological Institute and research associate at Purdue University‘s department of forestry and natural resources
Fear: Climate change and what it will mean for the future of nature and human societies.
Hope: I‘m not optimistic that the current generation of “leaders” will solve the climate challenge, but young people give me hope.
—Robert Max Holmes, deputy director and senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center
Fear: Artificial intelligence; climate change; can we feed 9 billion people?
Hope: Artificial intelligence, CRISPR: changing inherited diseases via DNA editing. Note that I put AI twice. I always use the analogy with nuclear power; it can make war, or aid the energy needs of mankind.
—Jules Jaffe, research oceanographer with the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego
“Humans are adaptable. That‘s how we got to where we are now”
Fear: Our society will fail to heed the many warnings already at hand and fail to remember the important lessons we learned regarding various environmental crises. Some still believe more data and facts will save us, but if climate change (and psychology research) has taught us anything, it’s that more facts do not change people’s minds/behaviour. Technology also will not save us; it’s what got us into trouble in the first place.
Hope: Hope is a dangerous word. It’s what we do when we feel we’ve lost control or are powerless to do anything more. We “hope” someone else will fix the problem, or a scientist will “science” us out of the mess we’re in. I encourage people not to hope, but to do. Do something.
—Jennifer Lavers, research scientist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, Australia
Fear: Climate change, the fact that someday soon we may have more plastic than fish in our oceans, and that business as usual puts us on track to trigger the sixth mass extinction of life on our planet. Quick reminder—the last mass extinction was a caused by a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid that struck our planet with the energy equivalent to over a million nuclear bombs. We are the new asteroid. Geez, humans.
Hope: My undergrad students. They believe in science, hate hate, and are doing some damn clever things to help the world with those devices that we all keep saying are melting their brains.
—Douglas McCauley, associate professor of marine science at the University of California, Santa Barbara
Fear: Due to our inability to do any long-term thinking, we‘re headed towards a dystopic future like any recent sci-fi media you‘ve seen (including Mad Max: Fury Road and Elysium).
Hope: Humans are adaptable. That‘s how we got to where we are now.
—Asia Murphy, wildlife photographer, writer, and PhD student in ecology at Pennsylvania State University
Fear: The increasing division along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and races globally.
Hope: A lot of young women have come out of their shells to lend their voices to menaces in society.
—Dr. Eucharia Oluchi Nwaichi, environmental biochemist, soil scientist, and toxicologist at the University of Nottingham, UK
Fear: The proliferation of opinions and perspectives over evidence, especially when it comes to biology and genetics.
Hope: The sustained engagement I see among people, in science, life, and with one another.
—Melissa Wilson, computational biologist and assistant professor at Arizona State University
Fear: The president of the United States can lead a large group of people in public ridicule of a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted, and there is very little outrage. A lot of people like public meanness and bullying.
Hope: There are a lot of people who are kind and smart.
—Paul Shepson, atmospheric scientist, USA
—Huey-Jen Jenny Su, air pollution expert and president of National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan
Fear: Governments and other traditionally reliable sources of information will continue to intentionally mislead people about scientific findings, and therefore prevent policy-makers from doing what is better for humanity.
Hope: Local governments and NGOs are doing great work to embrace facts and to make necessary changes to improve the environment and human health.
—Pamela Templer, professor in the department of biology and director of the PhD Program in Biogeoscience at Boston University
Fear: Slow progress in tackling the biggest threat—climate change.
Hope: The fusion of many businesses, industries, churches, students, all to make faster progress.
—Diana Wall, director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability and professor of biology at Colorado State University
Fear: The melting of Greenland and parts of the Antarctic ice sheet, which may cause substantial sea-level rise.
Hope: Automatic electric automobiles may change our future life.
—Bin Wang, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa
Mathematicians and Physicists (8)
Fear: [Failure] to preserve our values as we roll out artificial intelligence across all fields of human activity.
Hope: Children‘s questions.
—Paul-Olivier Dehaye, mathematician and founder of PersonalData.IO, Switzerland
“Climate change and the return of fascism, fueling each other”
Fear: Policy-makers will use ideological beliefs rather than evidence-based reasoning in decision-making.
Hope: Social mobilization and open dissemination and sharing of information that social media facilitates.
—Davina Durgana, international human rights statistician, USA
Fear: Climate change and the return of fascism, fueling each other.
Hope: Women, as they rise and claim their share of power and responsibility.
—Izabella Łaba, professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia, Canada
Fear: The complacency of the human instinct to focus on the immediate, rather than recognizing and taking accountability for the longer-term ramifications of our decisions.
Hope: An increasingly connected world may enable social innovations that will help us improve the human condition, rather than remain myopically focused on short-term gain.
—Michele Mosca, co-founder of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, professor in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization of the Faculty of Mathematics, and founding member of Waterloo‘s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Canada
Fear: An increasing lack of respect for truth, logic, rationalism, and empathy, as suggested by the rise in xenophobia and religious fundamentalism worldwide.
Hope: When I explain a new scientific concept to a 10-year-old schoolgirl, and her eyes light up, and she exclaims, ”That is so cool!”
—Shobhana Narasimhan, theoretical physicist at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, India
“We repeatedly witness the challenges to formulating a stable system of governance that works towards the long-term improvement of everyone and that won‘t be derailed by short-term interests of the powerful or wealthy”
Fear: We are in a period in which technological changes are occurring more rapidly than our society can adapt. Machines will be able to perform many of the tasks now performed by people, leading to the question of what the people thereby displaced will do. Many of the ethical decisions that these machines will make will be hidden from view in the algorithms that run them.
Hope: The barriers to sharing information have decreased substantially, making it unlikely that people who might contribute to the solutions will be unaware of the problems facing us. It’s more likely that we will be able to find solutions by bringing together people from across multiple disciplines.
—Chetan Nayak, director of Station Q, Microsoft Quantum and professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara
Fear: We have so many people on the planet that it is becoming ungovernable and unmanageable. We repeatedly witness the challenges to formulating a stable system of governance that works towards the long-term improvement of everyone and that won‘t be derailed by short-term interests of the powerful or wealthy or people‘s ground state of not wanting to be bothered.
Hope: The number of good people who want and can do better, and people‘s desire to be inspired. I am also personally inspired by how much we have learned in the last century and the ingenuity and perseverance that has led to great achievements.
—Lisa Randall, Frank B. Baird, Jr. professor of physics at Harvard University
Fear: As a scientist working in a lab, I strongly believe in the spirit of teamwork. So my biggest worry is that we will not be working together, based on scientific principles and facts, to solve some of the most important problems that face our world and our planet.
Hope: We will continue to advance fundamental science along with revolutionary development of technologies that will lift the living standards for an increasingly large fraction of people.
—Jun Ye, fellow of JILA, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and University of Colorado
Medical Scientists (8)
Fear: Humanity‘s disconnection from nature.
Hope: The resilience of nature and the awareness of new generations.
—Selen Atasoy, neuroscientist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford
Fear: Despite the progress we have made, science continues to create and perpetuate social disparities and inequities.
Hope: Many more scientists are aware of how science has contributed to creating and perpetuating disparities and inequities and are working hard to bend the arc of science towards social justice.
—Mónica Feliú-Mójer, neurobiologist and director of communications and science outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico
Fear: The erosion of adequate health access care for many people in the US, including reproductive health care—specifically prenatal care, contraception, and abortion.
Hope: The political engagement of young people that we have seen since the election of Trump, and specifically the leadership of young women in the reproductive justice movement.
—Carole Joffe, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) and professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Davis
“It increasingly feels like we’re on a collision course with big forces that we truly do not understand”
Hope: Science and technology.
—Jingmei Li, senior research scientist at the Genome Institute of Singapore
Fear: The Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence are upon us and will transform entire societies. If not handled properly humanity may be adversely affected.
Hope: More and more governments in the developing world are seeing science, technology, and innovation as pillars of society.
—Tebello Nyokong, distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry and nanotechnology at Rhodes University, South Africa
Fear: It increasingly feels like we’re on a collision course with big forces that we truly do not understand. This is not like the dawn of the Industrial Age or the rapid onset of modern technology where the discoveries and realignments in society seemed to engender hopefulness and excitement about what was in store for us. Think instead about the rise of nationalism in every corner of the world, artificial intelligence, social media as every extremist’s megaphone, and the failure to deal with climate change. I worry a lot about what my grandchildren could be facing.
Hope: The extraordinary potential of younger generations to take on huge challenges with fresh ideas, unintimidated by past failures and comfortable with complexity. That and the pure joy in the faces of children, my grandchildren, and kids everywhere.
—Irwin Redlener, president emeritus and co-founder of Children‘s Health Fund, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at The Earth Institute—Columbia University, and professor at Columbia University Medical Center
Fear: The proliferation of misinformation online, since it can lead to immediate real-world consequences.
Hope: A new generation of powerful biotechnologies (genome editing, cancer immunotherapy, etc.) will enable profound breakthroughs in drug discovery, clinical therapy, and human health.
—Arun Sharma, research fellow in genetics at Harvard Medical School
Fear: The lack of an engaged and constructive political leadership and policy discourse. Unlimited and undisclosed political donations lead to the perversion of the political process resulting in a lack of leadership and forward planning for the country as well as the risk of corruption.
Hope: We have lots of bright young people who are so much better educated and have so many more resources and opportunities than previous generations. They will clearly carve out a better, more equitable and environmentally friendly society.
—Hugh R. Taylor, immediate past president of the International Council of Ophthalmology, Melbourne Laureate Professor, and Harold Mitchell Chair of Indigenous Eye Health at the University of Melbourne, Australia
Space Scientists and Aerospace Engineers (19)
Fear: Pretty much everything in the “science fiction” movie WALL-E will become real.
Hope: Kids these days know that brushing their teeth prevents cavities, and also that human activity is contributing to climate change in a major way.
—Tabetha Boyajian, astrophysicist at Louisiana State University
Fear: I spend most of my day thinking about the universe—its birth, life, death. Do I worry about the future? No.
Hope: [Quoting Galileo] “The book of nature is open before our eyes.” There is so much beautiful phenomena in the universe to discover and share.
—Robert Caldwell, theoretical physicist and professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College
Fear: Overpopulation of the Earth. Resources will become more scarce. Our effects on the Earth will increase. We are one of many planets that support life. Maybe this is the natural cycle of advanced life.
Hope: Finding examples of kindness in humanity. Even after disasters and wars, there are examples of this. That gives me hope that we will find a way to continue.
—Leroy Chiao, PhD, former NASA astronaut and ISS Commander, and CEO and co-founder of OneOrbit LLC, USA
“Not only the lack of science literacy in our society, but the glorification of it”
Fear: Short-term thinking. Humans are creating existential problems for our species and planet that manifest on timescales of hundreds or thousands of years. But individuals, companies, and governments think and plan for next quarter, next year, or at most, our own lifetimes.
Hope: The universe is large enough that somewhere in it there may be truly intelligent life.
—Matthew Colless, director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University
Fear: The growing disparity between scientific research frontiers and general science education. What will be the impact on society when nobody knows how anything works anymore, yet the stakes are at their highest?
Hope: Mother Earth will forgive us when we decide collectively to correct course.
—Justin Crepp, associate professor of physics and director of the Engineering and Design Core Facility at the University of Notre Dame
Fear: Climate change. At this rate, I‘m sad to think what the world will look like a hundred years from now. I won‘t be alive but maybe my son will. I don‘t want him to have to move to Mars.
Hope: Humans are very smart. We can think not only of solutions to problems but also are capable of remarkable insights and inventions. The same drive that pushes us to explore our Earth, to head into space, and to think about the Cosmos, has given us the brainpower to survive and I hope it always will.
—Katherine Freese, George Eugene Uhlenbeck Collegiate Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and guest professor of physics at Stockholm University, Sweden
Fear: We will continue to ignore all the evidence about climate change and our great- grandchildren will look back at our era and wonder why we were so complacent.
Hope: Sometimes we glimpse the very best of humanity when tragedy strikes. This gives me hope that no matter how bad it gets, we can help each other make it better.
—Haley Gomez, astrophysicist and head of public engagement in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, UK
Fear: Our growing comfort with fascism and our failure to cope with global warming will interact with each other disastrously.
Hope: (Sadly) that the #MeToo movement can even happen now shows we have made progress in 30 years.
—Mark Halpern, professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia, Canada
Fear: Not only the lack of science literacy in our society, but the glorification of it.
Hope: Seeing the hope, the inspiration, the motivation of the younger generation—the students who come to me asking about and wanting to be involved with humanity‘s future in space.
—Tanya Harrison, planetary scientist, director of research at Arizona State University‘s Space Technology and Science Initiative, and science team collaborator for the Mars Opportunity rover and the Mars 2020 missions
Fear: The lack of scientific temperament and funding cuts may not allow us to sustain new large-scale physics experiments or space telescopes to solve the mysteries of dark energy, dark matter, and quantum gravity in this lifetime.
Hope: International cooperations in fundamental science and their impact on cutting-edge technologies and education could smoothen geopolitical relations. This may give incentive to developing nations and tech industries to devote resources towards sciences.
—Karan Jani, PhD, gravitational wave astrophysicist at the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics at Georgia Institute of Technology and a scientist with the LIGO experiment
Fear: The use of our expanding intellectual prowess to accelerate our demise within the universe.
Hope: The use of our expanding intellectual prowess to accelerate our appreciation of the universe.
—Chung-Pei Ma, Judy Chandler Webb Professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of California, Berkeley
Fear: Human-caused climate change. Our social and political systems and our news media are very bad at responding to problems that are slow and incremental, and very good at over-responding to problems that are minor but newsworthy.
Hope: The spread of opportunity and access to information and education to groups and places that historically didn‘t have those opportunities—increasing fairness and remedying injustice and also vastly increasing the pool of people who work to solve problems.
—Bruce Macintosh, professor of physics at Stanford University‘s Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology
Fear: The democrazy. The most important actions—those affecting the national and global future—cannot be left to those able to get elected. A bad doctor can kill few patients, but a bad politician or a bad financer can wipe out entire populations.
Hope: I do not see where the hope should come from.
—Daniele Mortari, professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University
Fear: The return of obscurantism or lack of progress, and on many topics (climate/pollution denial, status of women, etc.).
Hope: Seeing stars in kids‘ eyes when talking about science (in general, or astronomy in particular) —yes, the cosmos is marvelous and yours to discover!
—Yaël Nazé, author and astrophysicist at the University of Liège, Belgium
“We will be better off, and better integrated, in the 22nd century, even if we do not all live on the same planet”
Fear: Global nuclear conflict and the possibility of nuclear winter. We have gotten complacent about nuclear warfare and the potential for global catastrophic annihilation.
Hope: Carbon sequestration technology. It‘s not where it needs to be yet, but is making dramatic improvements in terms of cost and viability. Reversing the impact of climate change and the mass migrations it will cause requires us to not just curb our emissions but to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and bury it back into rocks.
—Sarah Rugheimer, astronomer, astrobiologist, and Glasstone research fellow at the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department at the University of Oxford
Fear: Not much. I am an optimist about the future of humanity and life on our planet and beyond.
Hope: The developments in technology in the past 50 years show how creative humanity can be. I am optimistic that we will be better off, and better integrated, in the 22nd century, even if we do not all live on the same planet.
—Dimitar D. Sasselov, Phillips Professor of Astronomy and director of the Origins of Life Initiative at Harvard University
Fear: AI’s implications for society and the economy, and its potential to be misused in many ways. I don’t think anyone understands the threats AI will pose.
Hope: The basic goodness, inquisitiveness, and inventiveness of humanity. We don’t always do things the best way, but in the large our species has at its core a genuine goodness and through that we’ve made a lot of progress in how we manage both ourselves and our planet.
—Alan Stern, planetary scientist, principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, and chief scientist at Moon Express
Fear: Bias creeping in to all of society: We have lost our ability to question and fight for the truth. I’m worried about the number of people we’re losing in scientific research because they’re bored of archaic policies designed to protect white men professors and frustrated by academia’s inefficiency and glacial pace of change.
Hope: Young people and the power of networks. They’re questioning dated policy, challenging stereotypes, and teaching all of us a lesson in speaking out for what is right.
—Jess Wade, physicist at the Blackett Laboratory at Imperial College London
Fear: Neoliberal capitalism‘s seemingly inexorable seep into every aspect of human existence.
—Lucianne Walkowicz, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress and astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago