About 15 years ago, when I was working on Halting State, I came up with a rule of thumb for predicting the near-future setting in SF. Looking 10 years ahead, about 70% of the people, buildings, cars, and culture is already here today. Another 20-25% is not present yet but is predictable — buildings under construction, software and hardware and drugs in development, children today who will be adults in a decade. And finally, there’s about a 5-10% element that comes from the “who ordered that” dimension: nobody in 2010 expected Elon Musk’s SpaceX to be flying astronauts to the space station in a reusable, privately developed spaceship by 2020, nobody in 2005 expected Donald Trump to be elected POTUS in 2015, and so on.
More recently, 2016 prompted me to rethink this rule of thumb. Global climate change, accelerating technological developments in various fields (notably AI/deep learning and batteries), and political instability (in large part a side-effect of social media) made everything much more unpredictable. We’re now up to about 20% of 10-year-hence developments being utterly unpredictable, leaving us with 55-60% in the “here today” and 20-25% in the “not here yet, but clearly on the horizon” baskets.
COVID19 is clearly part of the 20% “who ordered that” collection. Nobody in March 2019 imagined that by March 2020 the UK would be in lockdown and they’d be storing corpses in refrigerator lorries in New York and Milan. It’s not entirely a black swan; anyone who knew about the history of pandemics knew to expect something like it in due course, and indeed Laurie Garrett won a Pulitzer prize for her book, The Coming Plague in 1994, which predicted more or less exactly what we’re living through today. What she didn’t predict in 1994 (writing in 1991-93) is almost more interesting than what she did— nobody in the 20th century imagined that within just two decades we’d be able to sequence the genome of a new pathogen within days, much less hours, or design a new vaccine within two weeks and have it in human clinical trials a month later. If the SARS family of coronaviruses had emerged just a decade earlier it’s quite likely we’d be on the brink of civilizational, if not species-level, extinction by now—SARS1 has 20% mortality among patients, MERS (aka SARS2) is up around 35-40% fatal, SARS-NCoV19, aka SARS3, is down around the 1-4% fatality level. If SARS1 had gone pandemic we might plausibly have lost a billion people within two years.
Luckily both SARS and MERS are far less contagious than COVID19, but don’t count on this continuing. Those viruses still exist in animal reservoirs, and we know COVID19 circulates between humans and other species and can hybridize with other viruses. The worst easily-imaginable COVID19 variant would be a MERS/COVID19-Omicron hybrid—call it the Omega strain—with the lethality of MERS and the contagiousness of Omicron, which is worse than the common cold, somewhere around the same level as chickenpox. (We don’t remember how awful chickenpox was because (a) we’re generally vaccinated in infancy and (b) it’s not a killer on the same level as its big sibling, Variola, aka smallpox. But the so-called “childhood diseases” like mumps, rubella, and chickenpox used to kill infants by windrows. There’s a reason public health bodies remain vigilant and run constant vaccination campaigns against them, despite these campaigns being so successful that deaths from these diseases are so rare, leading perversely to an upswing in vaccine denialism.
Remember, this isn’t a simple pneumonia bug. It’s a virus that attacks the RAAS/ACE2 system, in particular all the epithelial tissues, and any other cells that express ACE2 receptors on their surfaces. It can mess with your kidneys. It can mess with fat cells, changing their response to insulin. It apparently shows up in brain tissue. Viral RNA can be found in all of these cells many months after recovery from the acute infection: it may have long-term sequelae, like Shingles, which only show up years to decades later. We do know long COVID effects up to 15% of people who are diagnosed with an infection, and can last months to years. We know that immunity is short-lived, and people can get repeat infections (currently mostly by new strains, but reinfection with an old strain is not impossible).
A different “worst case” isn’t that we all die of a horrendous Omega strain with the lethality of the Black Death and the infectiousness of the common cold. Instead, we get hit by a new wave every 6 months, and all of us get it sooner or later, and each time you roll 1d6 and if you come up with a 1 you get organ damage, cognitive impairment, and chronic fatigue lasting for years: after a decade, half of humanity are walking wounded.
However. I didn’t come here to bore you with COVID19—you can get all the news you want in the media, mass or social. My only COVID-related prediction is that it’s here to stay until we develop a temperature-stable, cheap, broad-spectrum coronavirus vaccine that is patent-free, and get round to vaccinating the entire human population, before yet another strain comes along that exhibits immune escape. This may or may not happen before Omega emerges—remember, viruses do not inevitably evolve to be less lethal, they merely obey selection pressure to not kill their hosts before they have infected new hosts. But if we’re lucky? We’ll dodge the Omega bullet, and by 2030 we might be getting past COVID19 and its long-term consequences.
In fact, let’s ignore COVID19. What is the world of 2031 going to look like, bloated graveyards and chronic fatigue clinics and high-profile public health campaigns aside?
The mRNA vaccine technologies that gave us the high profile COVID vaccines are spin-offs of a breakthrough that was creeping hopefully towards deployment years before COVID19 fired up the afterburners and hurled it at a cost-no-object wartime deployment. One of the target diseases for the new vaccine technology is now in advanced human clinical trials: it’s HIV, and by 2031 there’s a very high probability that HIV (the causative agent of AIDS) will be going into the cocktail of childhood vaccinations that Christianist preachers like to rail against, along with HPV. If we’re really lucky the campaign to develop a genuinely broad-spectrum anti-coronavirus vaccine will give us a cure for most strains of the common cold, with influenza on top. Influenza is a real killer, although we tend to forget about it these days, taking it for granted as endemic. We’re going to see a lot of research into antiviral drugs and stuff to do with RAAS/ACE2, which incidentally implies possible curative treatments for Type II diabetes and essential hypertension.
Looking further afield: it seems likely that the end of internal combustion engines will be in sight. Some countries are already scheduling a ban on IC engines to come in after 2030—electric cars are now a maturing technology with clear advantages in every respect except recharge time. Once those IC cars are no longer manufactured, we can expect a very rapid ramp-down of extraction and distribution industries for petrol and diesel fuels, leading to a complete phase-out possibly as early as 2040. As about half of global shipping is engaged in the transport of petrochemicals or coal at this point, this is goin to have impacts far beyond the obvious. Toyota in the UK are proposing to remanufacture EVs up to three times in a decade—probably by replacing/recycling the battery systems—which implies a major disruption both to after-sales service for cars, and to the second hand market. Expect a boom in leasing, including cheap “refurbished” cars with 1-3 previous leasing cycles in their logbook, and a sharp decline in the regular second-hand market and car dealerships.
In space … well, SpaceX seem likely to fly a prototype Starship stack to orbit in early 2022. Whether or not they go bust the next day, by so doing they will have proven that a designed-for-full-reuse two-stage-to-orbit design with a payload greater than a Saturn V is possible. I don’t expect them to go bust: I expect them to make bank. The next decade is going to be absolutely wild in terms of human spaceflight. I’m not predicting a first human landing on Mars in that decade, but I’d be astonished if we don’t see a crewed moonbase by 2031—if not an American one, then China is targeting crewed Lunar missions in the 2030s, and could easily bring that forward.
Climate: we’re boned. Quite possibly the Antarctic ice shelves will be destablized decades ahead of schedule, leading to gradual but inexorable sea levels rising around the world. This may paradoxically trigger an economic boom in construction—both of coastal defenses and of new inland waterways and ports. But the dismal prospect is that we may begin experiencing so many heat emergencies that we destabilize agriculture. The C3 photosynthesis pathway doesn’t work at temperatures over 40 degrees celsius. The C4 pathway is a bit more robust, but not as many crops make use of it. Genetic engineering of hardy, thermotolerant cultivars may buy us some time, but it’s not going to help if events like the recent Colorado wildfires become common.
Politics: we’re boned there, too. Frightened people are cautious people, and they don’t like taking in refugees. We currently see a wave of extreme right-wing demagogues in power in various nations, and increasingly harsh immigration laws all round. I can’t help thinking that this is the ruling kleptocracy battening down the hatches and preparing to fend off the inevitable mass migrations they expect when changing sea levels inundate low-lying coastal nations like Bangladesh. The klept built their wealth on iron and coal, then oil: they invested in real estate, inflated asset bubble after asset bubble, drove real estate prices and job security out of reach of anyone aged under 50, and now they’d like to lock in their status by freezing social mobility. The result is a grim dystopia for the young—and by “young” I mean anyone who isn’t aged, or born with a trust fund—and denial of the changing climate is a touchstone. The propaganda of the Koch network and the Mercer soft money has corrupted political discourse in the US, and increasingly the west in general. Australia and the UK have their own turbulent billionaires manipulating the political process.
COVID brought this problem to the fore by generating a demand shock and also a labour shortage. It gets little news coverage but we’re seeing the biggest wave of labour unrest in the USA since the 1930s. In the UK it’s muted because the economy also took a battering from Brexit—an estimated 6% contraction since 2020—which COVID provides a convenient scapegoat for. But eventually the bills will come due. We may be entering a pre-revolutionary situation, or the ramp-up to a dictatorial clampdown (the latter is clearly in an advanced stage in both China and Russia). By 2031 it’s likely to be resolved in one direction or another; I can only hope, with a minimum of bloodshed.
But this is all predictable. (Except for COVID19 which was wide-screen WTFery, like the second world war—September 1st 1939 was not in fact predictable from September 1st 1929, for example: all that was predictable was that another European war would sooner or later see France and Germany at loggerheads.)
What are the unpredictables of the past couple of years? Not the big stuff like a global pandemic, but the utter WTFery that would give texture to an SF story set ten years out? Here are some recent headlines, just by way of a baseline:
Counterfeit Kamov Helicopter Ring Busted: Moldovan police last week shut down a factory in Cruileni allegedly making unauthorized copies of Russian Kamov-26 coaxial rotor utility helicopters. More than 10 helicopters were under assembly in the covert factory when it was raided on June 30. (Charlie notes: yup, the Transnistrian mafia were involved.)
Man Upset That Hackers Stole His Bored Ape NFTs: Hackers tricked a man who was selling three NFT images of apes into giving them up for free on Saturday, according to the man, who claimed that the stolen NFTs were worth “over a million dollars.” Alternative headline: Everybody loves unregulated derivatives markets until their imaginary wallet full of monkey jpegs gets stolen. (None of this would have made any sense to anyone in 2011)
Quantum bible changes: fundamentalists remember reading something in the King James Version, when they try to look it up it isn’t there, so obviously something something quantum indeterminacy something woo woo Satan edited the Bible under us!!! because oh I give up. If you thought fundamentalist Christianity was feco-chiropteroid crazy, wait until you see what fundamentalists do when they misunderstand the Many Worlds hypothesis. See also the Mandela effect. As RationalWiki comments, with masterful understatement, “Mainstream, peer-reviewed publications have not explored the Mandela effect, and the claim that some false memories are caused by parallel dimensions going berserk is, shall we say, difficult to falsify.”
Anyway, I hope you now understand why I do not believe in 2022: it’s only January and it’s already too silly for my willing suspension of disbelief.