[Editor's note: Simon Barker has a bachelors degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, a PhD in Resilient Energy Harvesting Systems and is now the CTO of a U.K.-based startup called Radfan. Like any entrepreneurial-minded engineer he has an keen interest in how the future will develop and how engineers, with a good grasp of business, can be at the forefront of building this future. To that end we asked students and young people what they think technology could do for their world over the next 40 years and what they would like it to achieve. Their opinions follow this one by Barker--Peter Clarke]
NEWCASTLE, England – Thinking, and writing, about the future sometimes seems to be both a curse and a gift of the human condition. Our ability to think about the past and use it to inform and transform our futures sets us apart from most of the animal kingdom.
But with it comes the burden of worry. Will things turn out ok? Will Greece remain in the Euro? Will my house plunge in value? Will climate change leave Africa a completely inhospitable desert? Will my kid get a good enough college degree to get a job? Will she even need to go to college?
I could go on.
If that all sounds a bit depressing, don't worry. In this article I will propose a positive vision of 2052 that develops from what we are currently doing. There are some hiccups along the way but overall things will get a lot better.
It may seem utopian, even naive to some, but looking at where we have come from in the last 10 years I think a hopeful and benign future on this planet – and beyond – is within our grasp.
Click on image to enlarge.
After all, whether you like or loathe Apple products, Steve Job's vision has changed the face of several industries forever. If one man's vision can do that – albeit with the help of Apple's design and engineering team – then I don't think what I am about to propose is beyond the realms of possibility.
I am no futurologist however so this is as much a thought-experiment as it is a proposition of what the future holds.
So, come with me to 2052...Energy is free.
We solved the problem of sustainable and safe nuclear fusion in 2042. Well, I say we. It was four engineers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But it has been used for the benefit of human kind. Our energy cost is now dependent on the capital cost of fusion plants and the cost of maintaining the delivery network. Not quite too cheap to meter but close.
So, although not free, the energy we consume is no longer dependent ravaging the planet and the whims of an unstable oil supply.
Without doubt solving fusion saved the human race
. In 2035 the International Water Foundation for Developed Nations calculated that 10 percent of the world's population would die every year as a result of drought until the world's population had fallen to about 4 billion inhabitants, approximately the figure in 1972 – when EE Times
was first printed on paper made of real molecules.
Such carnage would have devastated the world's economy and the superpowers – China, India, Brazil and the U.S. – would have suffered the most, because of their super-cities' water requirements. Thankfully it did not happen because science saved us.
The extremely low cost of electricity from nuclear fusion means desalination can be undertaken on a scale not previously considered possible
due to the intense energy requirements and archipelago states such as Greece, Indonesia and the Caribbean are now the water hubs of the world.
So, what does nearly-free energy mean to the average person? Well, during the renewable energy boom of the 2010s and 2020s almost everything had been electrified, cars, trains and boats – but not airplanes, which is a work in progress. But it means that fusion energy was quickly deployed and living costs have hit an all time low.
Now we have moved away from burning stuff on a macro scale to fusing stuff on an atomic scale we have truly found a scalable energy supply. Exponential revenue increase for linear energy cost increase means that the International Monetary Fund can hand out Fusionization loans without any worries of debt default
. It has taken a few hundred years but now we understand that some debt is ok, but a lot cripples nations and individuals.
The missing electrification of planes means that the golden age of air travel is over
. It has returned to being a pursuit of the super rich. The average Joe has to use trains, boats or cars to travel. Boats have gotten quicker, but not by much. This means we are essentially land locked unless you have a few spare weeks to spend on a boat.
We still use oil to make stuff, but the digitization of almost everything means that that there is less demand and enough to go around now that we aren’t setting fire to it all the time. The renewables boom means that we did use up quite a lot of resources making solar cells in Africa but at least they now have a stable economy and their infant mortality rate in-line with the rest of the world and population growth has slowed.
We don't fight for resources as we once did. Water has replaced oil as the key market driver
but as energy security is a given it's not like it once was. For rare metals SpaceX is in full flight now and it's amazing what can be found on a passing comet!
What made all of this happen? Science, engineering, entrepreneurship – by big companies as well as individuals – and a move away from the idea of a zero sum game in political relationships.
We worked together for mutual improvement rather than working out how to stay ahead while keeping others down. As a result, life is pretty good for the 15 billion inhabitants of earth and it looks like we may just finally know what we are doing!