A Brighter Tomorrow
The future could bring us reduced work weeks, sustainable farming and quantum computers calculating cures for cancer — but USC Dornsife experts also warn of a future divided more intensely into “haves” and “have-nots.” (Illustrations: Maria Picassó i Piquer.)

A Brighter Tomorrow

From environment to family, transportation to health care, from work and leisure to what we’ll eat and how we’ll age, USC Dornsife faculty share how they think our future world will look. [11 ½ min read]
Margaret Crable

As the 19th century drew to a close and a new era dawned, an American civil engineer named John Elfreth Watkins consulted experts at the nation’s “greatest institutions of science and learning” for their opinions on 29 wide-ranging topics. Watkins, who was also a contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, then wrote an extraordinary magazine article based on what these university professors told him.

Published on Page 8 of the December 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal — a sister publication of the Post — it was titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” Watkins opened the article with the words, “These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible.” In fact, many of his far-sighted predictions for the year 2000 — which included the invention of digital color photography, television and mobile phones — proved remarkably accurate.

For this issue of USC Dornsife Magazine, we have repeated the experiment by inviting 10 scholars drawn from USC Dornsife faculty and representing diverse disciplines to predict what the world will look like in the year 2050 and the year 2100.

A Bluer Planet

Astronauts circling the globe in 80 years may find our blue planet looking quite a bit bluer, says Naomi Levine, assistant professor of biological sciences and Earth sciences

“The middle of the Pacific or Atlantic oceans are what we call the ‘deserts’ of the ocean. They’re really low in nutrients, and things that live there are usually small. As a result, these areas look very blue because there isn’t much ther except water,” Levine explains. “As the climate warms, we predict that these desert areas are going to expand. So, ocean waters will look bluer from space.”

A Brighter Shade of Green

Our planet may also look a bit greener. Travis Williams, professor of chemistry, says that without an active plan for removing the carbon clogging our atmosphere, nature could step in. 

“If we don’t choose a biomass that’s going to utilize higher temperatures and that atmospheric carbon, nature is going to choose on our behalf, and I don’t think we’re going to like it,” he says. To avoid harmful organism explosions like algae blooms, Williams foresees a human-led reforestation of the planet, at a scale several times the size of the Amazon rainforest.

What’s On the Menu? 

A greening planet could also be due to changes in our agricultural systems. A move away from monoculture farming and a return to an ancient polyculture approach might be on the horizon, says Sarah Portnoy, associate professor (teaching) of Spanish. Portnoy researches indigenous food cultures of Mesoamerica and suggests that in the future we could adopt the milpa food system. “Animals would be grazing on the same land where there are cover crops and squash, corn, beans and all kinds of herbs growing together,” she says.

This isn’t just a utopian pipe dream. Governments will have to seriously rethink agriculture if they want to reduce rising rates of chronic disease such as obesity, especially among the poor. “The agriculture that is supported by the government now is skewed toward crops like soybeans and wheat. Our food system is geared to the cheapest calories,” Portnoy says.

The high-calorie, processed foods produced from these monoculture, subsidized crops are less expensive than fruits and vegetables, but do little for our health. Unless we reprioritize which crops get government cash, we can expect disparities in health between economic classes to continue. By 2050, only the privileged might be able to afford strawberries or carrots. 

Food supplies will alter in other ways as well, thanks to climate change. The bluer oceans will be less friendly to bigger marine organisms, which means fewer large fish to harvest.

“When you change ocean temperatures, it changes what types of organisms can grow, and that cascades up the food web,” says Levine. Sushi chefs in 2050 might dish up more avocados and scallops than tuna rolls. This could work for future diners, Portnoy thinks. “There’s a move toward being a lot more intrepid as an eater, and toward plant-based diets,” she says.

One Big, Happy Family

Starting off your day in 2050 could mean wheeling your toddler to the state-funded neighborhood day care center. Birth rates are currently plummeting across the industrialized world and governments may soon need to tackle the problem as a public health priority, says Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology and director of the USC Center for the Changing Family.

“There’s a move toward being a lot more intrepid as an eater, and toward plant-based diets.”

“We’ll realize that, when the birth rate goes down, that affects our future workforce,” she says. “When we’re not able to replace our population, it ultimately becomes a national security issue.” Child care benefits, family leave and subsidized, part-time work schedules for parents could be the government’s strategy to encourage a new baby boom.

We may be well into the digital age, but you might not find too many iPads in the nurseries of the future. Increased awareness of the pitfalls of screen time could change our approach to parenting via device. The original scions of social media themselves now admit to limiting their own children’s time online, observes Saxbe. “In fact, in some of the more expensive private schools in Los Angeles, you have to sign a no screen time pledge.”

The keywords there might be “expensive” and “private.” A movement away from childhood spent online could leave behind children from poorer families as technology becomes cheaper and the cost of human labor rises. It will likely soon be less expensive to instruct classrooms of kids via lessons on tablets than by engaging a human teacher.

“You might end up with a two-class system,” Saxbe warns. “You have more kids having a digital childhood that’s a little less regulated, especially in neighborhoods where it’s not safe to play outside. Wealthier families are going to be able to afford more hands-on child care and more hands-on educational activities, instead of leaving kids alone with their technology.” 

However, technology can still benefit the family in the coming decades. In fact, Saxbe believes this is a largely untapped opportunity with great potential. Silicon Valley technologists — primarily childless young men — still haven’t tackled devices like the breast pump or baby monitor, which could both use a redesign.

“Has there been a real focus on innovation and investment when it comes to things that serve parents and families yet?” asks Saxbe. “I think there’s a big market there.” 

Working 10-4

After dropping your child off at day care, you head to work. You likely won’t be putting the keys in the ignition of your own car, though. Kyla Thomas, sociologist at the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research and director of LABarometer, a quarterly internet-based survey of approximately 1,800 L.A. county residents, says that by 2030 commuters will probably rely more on public transit and shared, autonomous vehicles to get around.

“Public transportation will be faster and more convenient, and increased density in neighborhoods will mitigate sprawl. Parking will be more expensive and harder to find. By 2100,” Thomas says, “private car ownership will be a thing of the past.”

Hopping out of your driverless commuter van, you clock in at the office for your six-hour work day. Patricia Grabarek, lecturer with USC Dornsife’s Online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program, believes that the traditional 40-hour work week could get phased out by 2050.

“We are in the midst of a job revolution that’s on the scale of the Industrial Revolution,” Grabarek says. “The entire nature of work will change.” 

Automation promises to replace many jobs, and streamline others. Combine this with the growing emphasis on work-life balance, embodied by current millennials pushing for workplace flexibility, and we could see our work week lighten in load.

“Our leaders are recognizing the problem that employees are burning out. People are working too much and they are not as productive as they could be. Bosses will start modeling better behaviors for their employees,” Grabarek says. After-hours emails could soon be banned, as is already the case in France and Germany.

This doesn’t mean we’ll all be aimlessly underemployed, however. “There is a fear that automation will eliminate jobs but, in the past, we’ve always replaced the jobs that we’ve lost. Innovators will come out and replace them with new jobs we can’t even come up with now,” she says.

No matter how advanced computers become, human curiosity remains superior. “Automation will be good at analyzing data,” Grabarek says, “but the questions will still originate with human researchers.”

It’s Quitting Time

Finished with work for the week, you’re off to start the weekend. One item not likely to be on the agenda? Attending a traditional religious service. 

“In the United States, there’s a trend away from institutionalized religion and toward highly individualized spirituality,” says Richard Flory, associate professor (research) of sociology and senior director of research and evaluation at the USC Dornsife Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “People just aren’t interested in institutions anymore, and nothing seems to be stepping forward to replace that interface between the individual and society.”

Churches and temples could find new life as condos, bars or community centers, with religion relegated to a decorative background.   

Rather than kneeling in prayer, people might find themselves downing a psychedelic drug to reach personal spiritual enlightenment. Movements that center around hallucinogens such as ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea from the Amazon, have gained traction in recent years, Flory notes.

 Of course, there might just be an app for it all. “Consciousness hacking” aims to use science to bypass years of devotion to a spiritual practice and give everyone the hard-won benefits of such a practice instantly. “In the future, I could see having some sort of implanted device to get to this level of consciousness,” Flory says. 

Reading the Tea Leaves

You may also use your leisure time to crack open a good book — one with a slightly different texture. As climate change threatens our traditional resources, more sustainable alternatives such as seaweed could step in as a paper substitute, predicts Mark Marino, professor (teaching) of writing and a scholar of digital literature.

By 2100, literature could be written across the heavens instead. 

“Roboticist poets will create autonomous micro-texts that will be able to swarm into collectives, self-organize, aggregate and adapt,” says Marino. “Bevies of these ‘nano-rhy-bots’ will create superstructures that can write epics on the Great Wall of China, on the surface of Mars or in the bloodstream of their readers.”

Better Living Through Quantum Computing

Aging in the New Age may mean more nontraditional family units. “Older adults prefer to age and die at home, but what happens when you don’t have a big family network to support that? It may mean people might be more invested in friend networks, or the idea of chosen family,” says Saxbe. Cue The Golden Girls theme song. 

Sean Curran, associate professor of gerontology and biological sciences, believes that a focus on increasing our “health span,” the period of life during which one is free from serious disease, rather than simply elongating our life spans, will improve the quality of our longer lives as we age.

“The goal is to have a personalized approach to aging that takes into account an individual’s genetics, environment and life history,” explains Curran. “The assisted living facility of the future will be patient-centered, with each resident having a personalized prescription to maintain optimal health.”

Eli Levenson-Falk, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, predicts that quantum computing could unlock the development of those drugs.

Quantum computers solve problems much more swiftly and with higher information density than today’s computers. Although the technology is still in its infancy, Levenson-Falk predicts that by 2050, practical quantum technologies will be used commercially by major drug companies for research and development. 

Enormously complicated computational tasks like simulating a chemical’s molecular structure are much more achievable through this technology.

“The goal is to have a personalized approach to aging that takes into account an individual’s genetics, environment and life history.”

“The idea is that with a quantum computer you can sort of emulate nature,” he explains. “We might have the canonical example for this by 2050: the physical shape of a protein molecule.”

Predicting this shape is nearly impossible with a classical computer, Levenson-Falk says. 

“Measuring it is difficult and requires you to predict the shape first. With a good quantum simulator, we can emulate the protein and just let quantum mechanics do the processing for us, then measure the result at the end.”

The Quantum Age

Indeed, quantum computing might solve questions that relate to the very fabric of the universe. Or at least get us closer to the answers.

“Dark energy, dark matter, quantum gravity and thequantum classical transition are the principle problems existing in physics today. Quantum technologies are the best bet to solve the last one,” says Levenson-Falk. “Quantum sensors will probably also be used to help detect dark matter, or at least falsify some theories. And there are some proposals for using quantum technologies to poke at quantum gravity.” 

We cannot, of course, predict our shared future with 100 percent accuracy, but one thing we can be sure of is that it will be filled with new challenges and opportunities to create a better tomorrow. Although advances in technology will certainly help determine our future, how equitably those advances are shared in our interconnected world will also play a dominant role in shaping it. 

“This is a tale of two societies: You could either see things get better and more supportive for families, or you might see two-class stratification,” Saxbe warns. 

As the future unspools, we are given both the invaluable gift and the tremendous responsibility of deciding how we want it to look. Whether our world in 2100 takes on the dystopian qualities of Blade Runner or embodies the utopian, egalitarian ideals of Star Trek remains in the terrestrial hands of those already building that future.

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2020 issue >>