Use the future to build the present
Anticipatory impact on people, society and the planet
Stakeholder Type
1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1. ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy
1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1. ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy


Anticipatory impact on people, society and the planet

We asked the scientists who wrote the anticipatory breakthroughs to imagine some of the impacts of these technologies on the human being, on our society, and on our planet. This does not imply that these are desired developments, but they are possible impacts nonetheless, honestly brokered by scientists in each field to a wide audience, acting as informed citizens.

Discussion of these challenges and opportunities, and reaction to the anticipated impacts — and the potentially complex interactions of these impacts — needs an interdisciplinary dialogue between sciences; more, it requires the involvement of a much broader set of stakeholders, including diplomats, policymakers, and society at large.

1.1 Advanced Artificial Intelligence

Impact on people: Advanced Artificial Intelligence will become more deeply embedded into the devices we use daily. Personal assistants will increasingly suggest what we should do and will occupy a growing part of our attention. Human-machine collaborations enabled by AI will become widespread, blurring the differences between interacting with other humans and with machines.

Impact on society: Advanced Artificial Intelligence could improve medicine, healthcare, energy, transport and infrastructures, support lifelong education, accelerate scientific discoveries, and transform the field of defence. AI could profoundly disrupt the job market, making entire professions obsolete, but could create new business opportunities and create jobs. It might also bring disparate parts of humanity closer through automatic translation.

Impact on the planet: AI can play a key role in improving efficiencies of existing systems and developing new paradigms for decreasing the environmental impact of all human activities. The energy-intensive nature of machine learning makes it important to find alternative approaches to artificial intelligence.

1.2 Quantum technologies

Impact on people: Quantum sensors bring improvements in medical imaging that could vastly improve diagnostic precision and disease monitoring. Discoveries made in the field of quantum biology, may usher in new therapies for physical and mental health conditions, some of which will have had previously known no effective treatment options.

Impact on society: Quantum communication will eventually create a mainstream culture of privacy; banking and credit card fraud will be dramatically reduced. As with any encryption technology, there are potential negative impacts for those monitoring criminal and terrorist activity. Researchers will enjoy vibrant career opportunities but find their work subject to domestic and international restrictions because of the geopolitical implications of their work.

Impact on the planet: Quantum computers could uncover new methods of carbon fixation, CO2 sequestration and nitrogen fixation. Quantum-derived materials in batteries may lead to better storage of electricity. Networks of quantum sensors will allow us to monitor weather, climate change and geological processes. The much finer detection of seismic activity and thereby of nuclear explosions could help enforce international treaties of non-proliferation.

1.3 Brain Inspired Computing

Impact on people: Personal brain-inspired computing devices will be a new generation of wearable, perhaps implantable devices that could fundamentally change the way we use and interact with information processing technology. Efforts to build these “neuromorphic” computers could speed up understanding the principles by which the human brain operates.

Impact on society: The knowledge we gain through the effort to build neuromorphic computers could benefit education, and influence law enforcement and procedures for dealing with criminal behaviour.

Impact on the planet: The low-power nature of neuromorphic computers is in contrast to the energy-hungry nature of our current computing efforts. Most of this energy is wasted as heat. Any progress we can make in reducing our reliance on standard silicon-based processing will have a positive environmental effect.

1.4 Biological Computing

Impact on people: There is great scope for biocomputing research to make important discoveries about the pathways of disease, to find ways to diagnose illness based on molecular signals. Once the body is shown to be performing a form of computation, philosophical implications about the purpose of living organisms within their environment may become a subject of debate.

Impact on society: Applications of biocomputing will improve our society’s quality of life through protections of public health and safety through environmental monitoring and safeguarding (and improving) food production processes.

Impact on the planet: Sensors engineered through understanding of biological information processing are likely to be a vital tool in monitoring the natural world. The convergence of information processing and biosynthesis means that bio-computation should be able to engineer populations of organisms that can remediate environmental problems such as chemical spills.

2.1 Cognitive Enhancement

Impact on people: Memory is central to human identity, so the ability to manipulate memory function could alter an individual's personhood. Beyond their potential therapeutic applications, neuromodulation devices — non-invasive devices in particular — will become available to the healthy people, for cognition and memory enhancement purposes.

Impact on society: Neuromodulation devices have the potential to increase societal inequalities by creating a “cognitive elite” — a sub-section of the population that can afford, or has greater access to, these technologies. In the long term, peer pressure would make it difficult to opt out of cognitive enhancement implants lest one be a second-class citizen.

Impact on the planet: Successful memory enhancement technologies could alleviate the social and economic consequences of diseases like Alzheimer’s. Hybrid intelligence could help us better interface with AI. This could help to advance healthy people’s ability to move science forward and find solutions to the problems that appear intractable today.

2.2 Human Application of Genetic Engineering

Impact on people: The potential to mitigate diseases of ageing, in which germline edits eradicate vulnerability to pathogens, could create a population with reduced medical problems. To ensure equality in access and make these therapies universally acceptable — without which it does not impact society beyond a very small wealthy percentage — measures need to be taken.

Impact on society: Health improvements brought on by human applications of genetic engineering could reduce the cost of dealing with an ageing population. However, adverse ethical and even economic consequences are potentially numerous, and present enormous risks and ethical challenges.

Impact on the planet: Genome editing has the potential to become a major tool in managing a sustainable future. By extending longevity, anti-aging therapies and enhanced medicine may increase the world population and the subsequent pressure on our natural resources.

2.3 Radical Health Extension

Impact on people: Radical health extension research will allow individuals and societies to begin their exit from the era of medicalised ageing. It would not just lift the burden on the elderly and their carers; younger cohorts are likely to benefit from the advances too.

Impact on society: The ultimate goal, at a societal level, is a fundamental decoupling of ageing and disease. If successful, this will change national demographics, and possibly economies. The potential to mitigate diseases of ageing using germline edits could create a society free of many preventable medical costs. The ability to restore the youth of organs could mean that organ donation waiting lists become a thing of the past.

Impact on the planet: In the long term, improvements in medicine and education reduce the number of children that women bear during their lifetimes, and so it is likely that the innovations of radical health extension could mean fewer people sharing the planet.

2.4 Consciousness Augmentation

Impact on people: Applications of consciousness augmentation will initially range from the fun (like VR and recreational drugs) to the serious (those convicted of hate crimes being rehabilitated in VR environments to learn empathy). However, later-stage implementations, including direct brain-to-brain communication, will change human experience and potentially the understanding of what it means to have a self.

Impact on society: A scientifically validated understanding of the neural correlates of consciousness will lead to radical shifts in the legal system: attribution of responsibility and guilt, and attribution of character traits like altruism will need to be rethought and reframed at a societal and systemic level.

Impact on the planet: Discovery of increasing similarities with other animals would be transformative. We will have more empathy for provably conscious animals, and thus more motivation to preserve their habitats. Properly handled, the erosion of the boundaries between us and other living organisms will increase our desire to care for our common home.

3.1 Decarbonisation

Impact on people: If we cannot accelerate the decarbonisation of our activities, climate change (with increased flooding and more frequent wildfires) will affect housing, with many people losing assets. Governments will be forced to impose taxes to pay for decarbonisation costs. With significant reductions in air quality, personal health will also continue to be compromised.

Impact on society: Failing to meet decarbonisation targets will have serious consequences on human societies. Temperature rises and more frequent extreme weather events will create problems for those trying to produce enough food to supply the growing human population. The change in hydrological conditions is likely to make access to water problematic for many populations. Mass migrations might be the result.

Impact on the planet: Since the industrial revolution, human resource requirements are out of balance with the rest of the planet. It is not clear how long this situation can continue. The anticipatory impact of decarbonisation is likely to go a long way towards keeping Earth habitable — for humans and other species.

3.2 World simulation

Impact on people: Our ability to simulate the world will transform how humans and machines learn together to better manage social-ecological systems. However, measures will be required to create a human-centered future where elites are not able to dominate the new social-technological infrastructure.

Impact on society: It is impossible to be certain which policy preferences humans will have in the future. This is important for social-ecological foresight. First, future states of a social-ecological system are also impossible to predict. Second, it suggests that the ultimate purpose of digital twins is to support democratic deliberation by providing citizens the best-available evidence for evaluating the consequences of their decisions.

Impact on the planet: Radical improvement in our ability to model integrated human and planetary systems will help us to curb our destabilisation of Earth’s life support systems. Perhaps the most transformative consequence will be the erosion of the distinction between human, society and planet. Over the next 10 to 25 years, humanity can come to view life on Earth as an inherently interconnected, holistic system.

3.3 Future food systems

Impact on people: The future of food will impact everyone on the planet, but in different ways. For many, access to food is a foundation stone of survival. For those in nations where nutrition is assured and consumer choice rules, new monitoring technology — increasingly paired with genomics — will allow people to fine-tune their nutritional intake to optimize their health.

Impact on society: Globally, the challenges of equitable access to sustainably produced food will grow alongside the pressures of population growth and climate change, with low-income countries particularly at risk. Extensive international cooperation between governments, agribusiness, scientists and supranational bodies will continue.

Impact on the planet: The future of food and the wider future of our planet are tightly bound together. Only by adopting a combination of sustainable agricultural practices and high-technology solutions will we be able to avoid the impending catastrophes of irreversible climate change, widespread hunger, and massive soil degradation.

3.4 Space Resource Stewardship

Impact on people: Data streams from space are is likely to become a firehose feeding weather “nowcasts” and positioning details for almost every object on the planet via the Internet of Things. It will also allow crowdsourced monitoring of pollution and emissions that will engage individuals more fully in sustainability issues.

Impact on society: The 21st century space race to put people on the Moon, Mars and beyond will increase competition between world powers. However, commercial efforts to send humans to Mars will drive the development of detailed legislative frameworks that govern human rights, and access to resources in off-world locations.

Impact on the planet: The first community on Mars will amplify calls to begin terraforming the Red Planet as a possible fallback habitat. These communities will rely on self-contained biosphere research on Earth, which itself could help humans learn to live sustainably on their home planet. Off-world resources, should they become economic to exploit, could also have a significant impact.

3.5 Ocean Stewardship

Impact on people: Shifting from a paradigm of the ocean as a final frontier for resource extraction and growth to a shared responsibility that connects the world is crucial. This will naturally feed a tendency towards exploration before exploitation and centering the blue economy around pillars of equity and inclusivity.

Impact on society: The challenges here will be around how nations coordinate their efforts in sustainable ocean management and share the benefits of the ocean equitably. These benefits will come not only in terms of the sustenance the ocean provides, but also the scientific advances associated with understanding the ocean at a genetic level.

Impact on the planet: Learning more about the ocean through observation will enable us to unpick the interconnectedness of its ecosystems and help us to make the best decisions for long-term sustainability. Expanding marine protected areas is one instrument for safeguarding marine biodiversity.

4.1 Complex Systems for Social Enhancement

Impact on people: The complexity of society makes it uniquely vulnerable to influences that are hard to tease apart. Digital tools have the potential to empower citizens in a way that strengthens democracy, improves quality of life and allows for a more sustainable and resilient operation of society. Their deployment raises issues of equality of access and the possibility that certain citizens may be disenfranchised.

Impact on society: Powerful computer models will allow us to better understand society and to test potential outcomes from different courses of action. Many societies will blossom thanks to actions designed to boost efficiency, sustainability and resilience. Some societies could suffer from decisions designed to reduce freedom and to undermine democracy.

Impact on the planet: An important goal for society is to live within its means as far as the Earth’s natural resources are concerned. The tools for modelling and understanding collective techno-socio-economic-environmental behaviour will allow for greater advances towards large-scale sustainability and resilience.

4.2 Science-based diplomacy

Impact on people: The computational models might allow individuals to simulate potential outcomes for themselves. Consequently, it may become the norm to use computational techniques to reach agreement in a wide variety of circumstances. However, the veracity of data used in these situations will become an increasingly important focus of attention and indeed a battleground itself.

Impact on society: A clear trend in recent history is an increase in regional conflict. Advances in computational diplomacy will help identify, model and prevent such conflicts. The exploitation of social media platforms will remain a challenge for those looking to defuse potential conflicts, but they can also be harnessed for peacekeeping purposes.

Impact on the planet: Climate change will dramatically increase the pressures that trigger conflict in the coming decades, and techniques for modelling these conflicts will play an important role in managing conflict. Computational diplomacy has the potential to become a valuable instrument in the task of helping humans live within their means.

4.3 Innovations in education

Impact on people: As digital technologies allow more people to access education, the impact of online courses combined with an increase in remote working practices and better infrastructure for online engagement means that people who are well-educated and motivated can enter the global labour market wherever they are in the world.

Impact on society: A better educated society is a healthier society. It is also worth noting that an educated population is one that takes more interest in the processes of government. Finally, education brings spending power, and thus stronger, more resilient economies that foster a more stable society. However, it will be important to ensure that the new developments in education are equally distributed across all regions.

Impact on the planet: More educated populations lower their birth rates, reducing our environmental footprint. Technologically driven improvements in education play out, particularly in the developing world where online access and remote certification will have a dramatic impact.

4.4 Sustainable Economics

Impact on people: The challenge is to allocate accessible resources in ways that reconcile the basic needs of populations with the life-support functions of their ecosystems. With the right economic policies, people will be better able to find an equilibrium between material prosperity, environmental sustainability and personal contentment. Emerging trends in automation will have profound long-term impacts on individuals, but could result in a better work-life balance.

Impact on society: There are pathways where societies can respond appropriately to the anticipated challenges of the 21st century. If we can narrow the gap between rich and poor, and if businesses can internalize their externalities and ensure they create value for society with their output, we can increase the sense of inclusiveness in civil society.

Impact on the planet: Failure to limit global warming will lead to droughts, famines and conflicts on an unprecedented scale. However, it should be possible to sustainably manage Earth’s resources in a way that allows humanity to flourish. Well-designed and well-implemented economic policies can meet the challenges of creating and maintaining a safe global habitat suitable for generations to come.

4.5 Advances in science diplomacy

Impact on people: A growing focus on science diplomacy will move scientific research and technological development centre stage of diplomacy. Increased attention will be paid to the equitable distribution of science and technology products such as vaccines and drugs, heat-resistant crops, big science experiments and machine intelligence. However, much work will be needed to avoid concentration of wealth in the hands of the few as a result of these initiatives.

Impact on society: With non-state actors becoming increasingly powerful on the global stage, finding ways to integrate them will have a great impact. This process will give a greater voice to grass roots organizations, allow cooperation to emerge on regional and city scales rather than just national scales. The increased complexity of this landscape will require careful navigation with new skills in science diplomacy.

Impact on the planet: The global commons are planetary resources that require the utmost care and diligence to preserve. The new discipline of science diplomacy places a new focus on these resources while bringing to bear a greater understanding of their significance for ecosystems, economies and entire cultures. This approach has the potential to safeguard them for ourselves and for future generations.