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Imagining The Future With Seattle Luminaries

Portrait of Maggie Wilson watching a 3-D movie
Flickr Photo/Mike Licht

When science fiction author and casual prophet Isaac Asimov wrote about his visit to the World’s Fair in New York in 1964, he imagined what the world would be like in 50 years. Almost 50 years later he seems to have gotten a few things right: “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The IBM exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English.”

Google translate anyone?

He also wrote about his predictions of movies: “General Electric at the 2014 World's Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its 'Robot of the Future,' neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly. (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)”

You can go see 3-D movies any day now in almost every theater.

He even predicted the Roomba vacuum cleaner: “The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes.” He mentioned nothing about how much cats would love to ride them.

A Vision Of Seattle Covered In A Skin Solar Panels

KUOW's Ross Reynolds spoke with a few local luminaries about their predictions of our future. First on the line was Denis Hayes of the Bullitt Foundation. Hayes thinks that solar power is going to be increasingly common. “I think the solar technology is going to continue to expand and grow in creative ways that it has already been doing.”  He adds, “Ultimately it will coat the built environment, all of the buildings that we have, much the way that photosynthetic organisms coat the natural environment today.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Durable and flexible solar shade panels are used by the US Army at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti. They act as shade and run fans, lights, and recharge batteries.", "fid": "2377", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201302/solarpanels.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Flickr Photo/US Army Africa"}]]How will it work? Hayes says that we will have smart grids. Other predictions include his thoughts on climate change: “Comparatively speaking, everybody is going to be harmed by climate disruption, but I think we are going to be doing better in it than much the rest of the country.” How about Seattle weather? “Seattle is still going to have slightly better weather; it's going to have a lot of rainfall whereas other parts of the country are not. And I think one thing that comes out of all of that is that we are likely to become increasingly a target for climate refugees from places like Arizona that no longer meet their needs.”  

Dense Downtowns And Wearable Technology

Hayes wasn’t the only one with predictions for our built environment. Reynolds spoke with Anne Vernez Moudon, professor of architecture, urban design and planning at the University of Washington. Vernez Moudon says that our city will no longer build freeways in 50 years; we will focus entirely on trains and buses to serve a denser downtown Seattle and Bellevue. “Most of our single-family areas will probably not be very different; there may be more mega-houses here or there, but they will remain pretty much as they are, with different people, of course, in them — different households.” She adds, “The built environment itself won’t look so different.”

Shwetak Patel, assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the UW, has a different take on predicting the future of computer science: “Computing technology is actually pretty exciting already right now. So it’s interesting to try and predict 50 years out — we can barely predict 50 days out.”

At TEDIndia, Pranav Mistry demos several tools that help the physical world interact with the world of data, including his SixthSense device (which he says he'll make open source) and a new, paradigm-shifting "paper laptop."

Patel believes technology's profile will continue to decrease and it will become more integrated into our daily lives. “I think gesture recognition is going to be very powerful and robust, speech technology is going to be solved, so communicating with these systems is going to be much easier.”

A Hungry Tribe Of 9.5 Billion People

So, Patel predicts wearable technology, but will there be enough to go around?

Adrian Raftery works in statistics and sociology at the UW and he weighed in with his predictions on the global population. Raftery estimates that we will see roughly a 40 percent increase in the world population taking us from about 7 billion to about 9.5 billion.

What about Seattle? “For King County, I think it may increase somewhat more than the world or the US, but not that much more,” says Raftery. So why will the population continue to grow? Despite world wars and epidemics, our life expectancy has continued to grow. Raftery noted and he predicts that in 50 years the average person will live six years longer than our current life expectancy.

Some people believe that life expectancy is going to be much greater than Raftery predicts. Reynolds spoke with futurist Ray Kurzweil in December who said he believes that the first person to live to be 150 years old has already been born. 

What about our food? UW professor of urban design and planning, Branden Born, predicts two major trends when it comes to the food system. First, a shift in the industrialized food system to meet bio-physical realities.  And second, a notable growth of alternative food systems globally and locally. So, perhaps the future isn’t Soylent Green. (Spoiler alert!)

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "\"It is impossible to say anything profound of this. At least in my field, computer science, we are abysmal at making predictions.\"", "style": "wide"}]]Not everyone that weighed in had a prediction for the  future. When UW computer science and engineering professor Ed Lazowska was asked what he thought the world was going to be like in 50 years, his first response was simply a big sigh. Then he said, “It is impossible to say anything profound of this. At least in my field, computer science, we are abysmal at making predictions.” Lazowska said in his experience, pessimists almost always win when it comes to betting on technology. “It is so devilishly hard to make these predictions, you know? That is what futurists  are in business for. I don’t claim to be able to predict 20 years much less 50 years.”

Lazowska wasn’t the first person to weigh in on expectations vs. reality on The Conversation. You can hear Ross Reynolds' interview with Matt Novak of the Paleofuture Blog here.

This program originally aired on February 20, 2013.