Humans love to imagine the apocalypse. Biblical revelations, asteroid strikes, Ragnarök, robot rebellions, collapsed civilizations—we’ve envisioned it all. These stories are filled with moments of redemption and revolution, but their troubled worlds are also expressions of valid fears about the future.
Of course, nobody knows exactly what brand of dystopia—if any—will emerge in the decades to come, but Motherboard wanted to collect some educated guesses.
That’s why we asked 105 thinkers two questions: What worries you most about the future? What gives you the most hope about the future? Their fears are collected here. If you’d like to read only the hopes, click here. If you would like to browse the main article about this project, which includes responses to both questions arranged by professional field, click here.
The following responses are organized by these general themes: Digital technologies, automation, and artificial intelligence (19), climate and environmental change (17), abstract “big picture” responses (17), inequality, extremism, and prejudice (16), science illiteracy and misinformation (14), lack of connection to other people and nature (8), the consequences of short-term thinking (8), overpopulation (4), and respondents who did not have major worries (2).
Because participants often touched on many of these themes in their answers, these categories should be interpreted as reading guidelines rather than strict divisions.
The following list contains dire warnings about our planet, social strife, ethically dubious technologies, and all manner of other horrors. But our point is to raise awareness, not spread despair, so feel free to recharge with cat videos when necessary.
What worries you most about the future?
Digital Technologies, Automation, and Artificial Intelligence (19)
Will we be zombified by artificial intelligence that we have unwittingly programmed to evolve to manipulate us? When we scroll through our social feeds, we encounter lots of content (i.e., ads) meant to manipulate our behavior; this content and how it is placed is actually a consequence of algorithms that are evolving based on their ability to capture our attention and modify our behavior. These algorithms are evolving to be better psychologists than a human could ever be and we don’t really have a way of anticipating how this massive manipulation of human brains will affect our futures.
—Athena Aktipis, assistant professor of psychology and Lincoln Professor of Ethics at Arizona State University, director of the Cooperation and Conflict Lab, co-director of the Human Generosity Project, and chair of the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Alliance
AI—especially, in marketing and military applications.
—Jeffrey D. Berejikian, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia, and associate professor in the Department of International Affairs
“Automation is likely to upend wages, jobs, and entire industries on an unprecedented scale, but lawmakers seem unwilling to acknowledge the problem the way wizards were afraid to say ‘Voldemort‘”
As we develop algorithmic representations [in AI] that mimic the way we think, we end up passing off to future generations some of the most flawed parts of the ways we as human beings make judgements about facts put in front of us. Algorithmic bias is a real problem in AI right now that can be totally corrupted by the same sorts of bias the plague the human experience. Conscious and unconscious hatred, contempt, or even casual stereotyping held in the mind of a developer can easily make its way into a code base now. As we offload our thinking into machines, these flaws in thinking become endlessly perpetuated and increasingly unchallenged by future generations. That scares the daylights out of me.
—Emily Crose, cybersecurity expert and former NSA analyst, USA
[Failure] to preserve our values as we roll out artificial intelligence across all fields of human activity.
—Paul-Olivier Dehaye, mathematician and founder of PersonalData.IO, Switzerland
Bias and a widening divide. It’s not just bias in the workforce (which is bad enough) or in the products (which is annoying as hell), it’s bias in the algorithms: subjective and unrepresentative datasets used in machine-learning that mean we end up with results that are skewed—sexist, racist, ableist, and classist. It’s a problem that has become very evident in AI ethics in the past year but no one knows how to fix it yet.
—Kate Devlin, senior lecturer in social and cultural AI in the department of digital humanities at King‘s College London and author of Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots
The archaic law (CDA 230) that courts have interpreted to protect tech companies from liability for abuses that happen on their platform. If we can’t hold these behemoths accountable in court, they have no incentive to stop the bullshit happening on their watch—dating apps being used by rapists, elections getting corrupted by fake news. Things will get worse as the companies continue to monopolize and products become more dangerous—self-driving cars, AI robots.
—Carrie Goldberg, victims‘ rights attorney and founder of C.A. Goldberg, PLLC law firm, USA
Everything is becoming a computer and everything will be interconnected. There‘s nothing we can do to prevent this from happening. If it uses electricity, it will be on the internet. And that is scary as hell.
—Mikko Hyppönen, computer security expert and chief research officer at F-Secure, Finland
Artificial intelligence; climate change; can we feed 9 billion people?
—Jules Jaffe, research oceanographer with the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego
The lack of transparency and accountability of AI algorithms that we will increasingly employ across all industries and government services. In order to increase trust among citizens and consumers, I strongly believe we should do more R&D that will help us algorithmically inspect AI for biases and communicate the way algorithms work.
Automation is likely to upend wages, jobs, and entire industries on an unprecedented scale, but lawmakers seem unwilling to acknowledge the problem the way wizards were afraid to say “Voldemort.” The fact that such a seismic issue is absent from public debate is a sign of how unprepared we are to take it on.
—Jake Laperruque, cybersecurity expert and senior counsel at the Constitution Project at POGO, USA
The lack of rational policy-making about artificial intelligence and unmanned systems. The over-hype about artificial intelligence has led to states in the US to ignore known risks to public safety in the hopes of getting corporate investments. Policies with long-term implications are being based on speculative press releases intended to raise capital parading as science facts.
—Dr. Robin Murphy, professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M University and author of Robotics Through Science Fiction: Artificial Intelligence Explained Through Six Classic Robot Stories
“The entirety of our computing infrastructure, including all of our finance and health systems, is an insecure, untrustworthy mess”
We are in a period in which technological changes are occurring more rapidly than our society can adapt. Machines will be able to perform many of the tasks now performed by people, leading to the question of what the people thereby displaced will do. Many of the ethical decisions that these machines will make (whether to offer someone insurance or not; whose life should be prioritized by a self-driving car in a traffic accident) will be hidden from view in the algorithms that run them.
—Chetan Nayak, director of Station Q, Microsoft Quantum and professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara
Digital technologies are amazing but an existential threat to the business of journalism as we knew it in the 20th century, and when combined with immense political pressure on independent media and much of the infrastructure of free expression could point to a dark place when it comes to quality information and information equality.
—Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, professor of political communication at the University of Oxford, and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics
The Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence are upon us and will transform entire societies. If not handled properly, humanity may be adversely affected.
—Tebello Nyokong, distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry and nanotechnology at Rhodes University, South Africa
The entirety of our computing infrastructure, including all of our finance and health systems, is an insecure, untrustworthy mess.
—Emin Gün Sirer, associate professor of computer science at Cornell University and co-director of the Initiative for CryptoCurrencies and Contract (IC3)
AI’s implications for society and the economy, and its potential to be misused in many ways. I don’t think anyone understands the threats AI will pose.
—Alan Stern, planetary scientist, principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, and chief scientist at Moon Express
Building the future relies in many ways on a deep understanding of the past. We have entered an era that is dictated by real-time successive and ephemeral information flows and we commit our civilization‘s memory to digital and private systems for which no long-term durability is guaranteed. Try comparing that to the Great Pyramid, testimony of an ancient nation, that has survived 4,500 years!
—Mehdi Tayoubi, co-director of the ScanPyramids mission and co-founder of the Heritage Innovation Preservation (HIP) Institute, France
In our lifetime, we will come to see that artificial intelligence reflects our human shortcomings. Researchers will have spent decades choosing what data machines learn from and how they learn without regard to what the future implications might be. Structural bias will be encoded into the structure of AI itself. Speed and efficiency will trump compassion. We will find ourselves trapped inside an uncanny valley—life will appear nearly normal, but nothing will feel quite right. We will ruefully curse the institutionalized classism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and racism we ourselves taught our decision-making, thinking machines.
The real future of AI isn’t what you’ve seen in movies. It isn’t Skynet from Terminator, or Samantha from Her. Yet AI’s development is moving faster than those working in the trenches will acknowledge. It may be full of commercial opportunity, but not without long-term consequences. We’re the generation living through the great transition in human history—a 70-year transition to a future powered by AI. We must get past our generalized anxiety and fear about that future, and acknowledge that our paranoia or uncurbed exuberance will distract us from making critically important observations—and fixes—in the present.
—Amy Webb, quantitative futurist, professor of strategic foresight at New York University Stern School of Business, and founder of the Future Today Institute
People will trust software to make big life-or-death decisions (disease diagnosis! war! car braking!) without the appropriate amount of human oversight.
—Jean Yang, founder of Akita software, on leave from being an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University
Climate and Environmental Change (17)
A dark age of backlash and conflict against the mixing of different peoples that will happen as climate change alters the Earth and accelerates migration.
—Bruce Bimber, professor in the department of political science and the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara
“Our entire entrenched way of life has to change, top to bottom. It won‘t be easy, and it will cost those in power billions”
At this point it‘s not so much a worry as a numb acknowledgement of the inevitable: Climate change will continue unchecked, eventually making life on the planet nasty, brutish, and short, if not totally unsustainable. I don't think humans as a species are cognitively fit to really grasp the threat we're currently faced with; our brains simply aren‘t built for it. Presented with something that overwhelmingly big, they go into crisis mode and shuffle the problem into a dusty back file, to be dealt with at a later date. And this is not something that‘s going to be solved individually by recycling a few plastic cans. Our entire entrenched way of life has to change, top to bottom. It won‘t be easy, and it will cost those in power billions. I‘m not exactly optimistic about the probability of that occurring before things reach the point of no return.
—Brooke Bolander, speculative fiction writer and author of The Only Harmless Great Thing, USA
Climate change. The Earth is over 4.5 billion years old, and has changed dramatically over time. Seas have risen and fallen, temperatures have spiked and crashed, glaciers have advanced and retreated. But temperatures are rising faster today than during many of the great extinctions and upheavals of Earth history, and the consequences are going to be severe. I have no doubt the Earth will survive, and all sorts of living things will endure, but will humans be able to cope as the world we‘re used to rapidly changes?
—Steve Brusatte, paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
Plastic. Its beauty when shaped into colorful objects, and our need for these objects for everything from storing food to medical devices, is now built into how our world works, preventing us from dealing responsibly with plastic’s devastation of waterways, birds, and our future.
Climate change. At this rate, I‘m sad to think what the world will look like a hundred years from now. I won‘t be alive but maybe my son will. I don‘t want him to have to move to Mars.
—Katherine Freese, George Eugene Uhlenbeck Collegiate Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and guest professor of physics at Stockholm University, Sweden
The unprecedented human-caused loss of biodiversity and ecosystems that, combined with the anthropogenic climate change, is threatening the delicate dynamical equilibrium of Gaia, our living planet. If we do not immediately modify our unsustainable lifestyle, we would be the first and, probably, the only case of a self-extinguished species.
—Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, PhD, associate professor at Tomsk State University‘s Biological Institute and research associate at Purdue University‘s department of forestry and natural resources
We will continue to ignore all the evidence about climate change and our great-grandchildren will look back at our era and wonder why we were so complacent.
—Haley Gomez, astrophysicist and head of public engagement in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, UK
Our growing comfort with fascism and our failure to cope with global warming will interact with each other disastrously.
—Mark Halpern, professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia, Canada
Climate change and what it will mean for the future of nature and human societies.
—Robert Max Holmes, deputy director and senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center
Species extinction, at the rate of one organism per every five minutes. Scientists don‘t know precisely how many species disappear in a given period but the estimate is 100,000 per year. Most of this is because of human activity and overdevelopment. As an architect and urban designer, I feel responsible for this travesty. We need to stop extinction by all means necessary.
—Mitchell Joachim, associate professor of practice at New York University and co-founder of Terreform ONE
The impact of climate change on our society, the world, and our children, and their children. We live in a time of tremendous abundance (for much of the world) and relative global stability. If we cannot unify around the climate crisis now, will we be able to during climate-caused displacement and mass migration? With the political polarization we see in many countries, including the US?
Climate change and the return of fascism, fueling each other.
—Izabella Łaba, professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia
Human-caused climate change. Our social and political systems and our news media are very bad at responding to problems that are slow and incremental, and very good at over-responding to problems that are minor on the average but newsworthy. It‘s hard to see a path to a response before a lot of lasting damage has been done.
—Bruce Macintosh, professor of physics at Stanford University‘s Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology
Climate change, the fact that someday soon we may have more plastic than fish in our oceans, and that business as usual puts us on track to trigger the sixth mass extinction of life on our planet. Quick reminder—the last mass extinction was a caused by a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid that struck our planet with the energy equivalent to over a million nuclear bombs. We are the new asteroid. Geez, humans.
—Douglas McCauley, associate professor of marine science at the University of California, Santa Barbara
Global nuclear conflict and the possibility of nuclear winter. We have gotten complacent about nuclear warfare and the potential for global catastrophic annihilation (though climate change is also a serious threat that worries me greatly).
—Sarah Rugheimer, astronomer, astrobiologist, and Glasstone research fellow at the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department at the University of Oxford
Slow progress in tackling the biggest threat—climate change.
—Diana Wall, director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability and professor of biology at Colorado State University
The melting of Greenland and parts of the Antarctic ice sheet, which may cause substantial sea-level rise.
—Bin Wang, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa
‘Big Picture’ and Abstract Worries (17)
The fact that the future doesn‘t need humans.
—Matteo Bittanti, assistant professor in Media Studies and head of MA Program in Game Design at IULM University, Italy
It will be more or less the same as the present. Don’t be boring, future! Switch it up!
—Lera Boroditsky, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego
“The growing misguided belief that more science and technology can solve our society’s largest problems, which are social and cultural at their core”
Pretty much everything in the “science fiction” movie WALL-E will become real.
—Tabetha Boyajian, astrophysicist at Louisiana State University
—Alexandra Cousteau, explorer, environmental activist, and filmmaker, Germany
The growing misguided belief that more science and technology can solve our society’s largest problems, which are social and cultural at their core.
—Rayvon Fouché, professor and director of the American Studies program at Purdue University
Our happiness and emotional stability will increasingly be tied to what others think of us.
—Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University
Legalized cannibalization of the human—the possibility that we will radically expand practices of the procurement and commercialization of life, including human cells and tissues. Initially, informed consent will be used to facilitate transfer of these raw materials to corporate entities that mine, capitalize, and rearrange them for profit. Later, informed consent and privacy will be set aside for the sake of efficient transfer.
—Lisa Ikemoto, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor at University of California, Davis School of Law
Humankind. Our anthropocentrism and the epistemic imbalances that allow us to think and act towards the idea that we can colonize the future.
—Geci Karuri-Sebina, African urbanist and futurist, South Africa
The use of our expanding intellectual prowess to accelerate our demise within the universe.
—Chung-Pei Ma, Judy Chandler Webb Professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of California, Berkeley
The progressive reductions of humanities to mechanical gears in a hyper-technological society whose goals are largely independent of the individuals.
—Riccardo Manzotti, associate professor in theoretical philosophy at IULM University and author of The Spread Mind
Positive feedback loops—both environmental (ice melting, soil degradation, desertification) and social (political radicalisation, economic inequality)—may mean accelerating hazards.
—Jay Owens, technology writer and research director at audience intelligence platform Pulsar, UK
The trend, evident in the “Western world,” toward a senile society of sedated, reasonable, boring, politically correct zombies.
—Giulio Prisco, writer, technology expert, futurist, cosmist, and transhumanist, Italy
The beauty of sea glass, or that human capacity to transform a little moment of dystopia—like ocean trash—into wonder and awe. While adaptive, this tendency to normalize horrible things is worrisome.
—Cynthia Selin, associate professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Sustainability, Arizona State University
—Huey-Jen Jenny Su, air pollution expert and president of National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan
“Legalized cannibalization of the human”
Our increasing risk aversion will prevent or delay us from achieving our potential. It was only 66 years between Kitty Hawk and Apollo 11. It has now been 46 years since Apollo 17. We need to get back to thinking and dreaming big with a spirit of optimism, amazement, and wonder.
—Daniel Szafir, assistant professor of computer science, creative technologies, and information science, and aerospace engineering and director of the Interactive Robotics and Novel Technologies Laboratory (IRON Lab) at the University of Colorado at Boulder
Neoliberal capitalism‘s seemingly inexorable seep into every aspect of human existence.
—Lucianne Walkowicz, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress and astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago
Hubris—technological, intellectual, political. We have no idea how little we know.
—Audra Wolfe, science historian and author of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science
Inequality, Extremism, and Prejudice (16)
Inviolable inequality, centered on access to and distribution of environmental resources, citizenship, and civil rights. Authoritarian forms of democracy promise to hollow out political rights too. Hence, where and how to incarnate the civic struggle necessary toward more egalitarian societies?
—Maurizio Albahari, anthropologist and associate professor at University of Notre Dame
The middle has shifted so far to the right, and it will be extraordinarily hard to re-center ourselves from the national and global damage wrought by the Trump regime and its allies.
—Caroline Bettinger-López, law professor and director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law
The world continuing to exclude diversity and inclusion from science and technology. One percent of the scientific literature comes from the African continent—why? Africa is the most innovative place I have ever been. We have to get constant power, internet, and shipping to the scientific labs in low-resourced countries. I worry we aren’t doing this fast enough. I think about this every day. Power, internet, shipping—on repeat.
—Laura Boykin, computational biologist and head of Boykin Lab at the University of Western Australia
The cruelty and destruction generated by white-male fragility.
—Jason De León, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and director of undergraduate studies in anthropology at the University of Michigan
Despite the progress we have made, science continues to create and perpetuate social disparities and inequities.
—Mónica Feliú-Mójer, neurobiologist and director of communications and science outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico
“I worry that because the problems are so big, we will throw up our metaphorical hands and stop trying”
The general rightward turn in world politics and the striking and relatively sudden return of fascism as a global political threat. Climate change. The accelerating promotion of anti-knowledge. To a lesser extent, the promotion of digital technology as if it helps to ameliorate these problems and as if its manifest ability to add to them is just a bothersome side effect.
—David Golumbia, associate professor in department of English and MATX PhD program at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of The Politics of Bitcoin
The erosion of adequate health access care for many people in the US, including reproductive health care—specifically prenatal care, contraception, and abortion.
—Carole Joffe, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) and professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Davis
The democrazy. The most important actions—those affecting the national and global future—cannot be left to those able to get elected. A bad doctor can kill few patients, but a bad politician or a bad financer can wipe out entire populations. The will to continuously grow is just emulating cancer.
—Daniele Mortari, professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University
Rising nationalism and political and economic seclusion and isolation around the world.
— Jens Notroff, archaeologist at German Archaeological Institute
The increasing division along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and races globally.
—Dr. Eucharia Oluchi Nwaichi, environmental biochemist, soil scientist, and toxicologist at the University of Nottingham, UK
It increasingly feels like we’re on a collision course with big forces that we truly do not understand. This is not like the dawn of the Industrial Age or the rapid onset of modern technology where the discoveries and realignments in society seemed to engender hopefulness and excitement about what was in store for us. Think instead about the rise of nationalism in every corner of the world, artificial intelligence, social media as every extremist’s megaphone, and the failure to deal with climate change, among other issues. My glass is half empty to say the least—and I worry a lot about what my grandchildren could be facing.
—Irwin Redlener, president emeritus and co-founder of Children‘s Health Fund, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at The Earth Institute—Columbia University, and professor at Columbia University Medical Center
So many things seem to be beyond our control: guns in schools, inequality, proliferation of fake news, addiction, divisive rhetoric, hatred. I worry that because the problems are so big, we will throw up our metaphorical hands and stop trying.
—Jenny Saffran, language acquisition expert and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison
The president of the United States can lead a large group of people in public ridicule of a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted, and there is very little outrage. A lot of people like public meanness and bullying.
—Paul Shepson, atmospheric scientist, USA
We live in an extraordinarily fraught era—we are confronted by climate change, growing social inequality, conflict, and the rise of fascist regimes. All of these are inextricably linked with the current structures of power and dominion. By structures I mean not just the super-rich, the corporations and nations who hold the puppet strings in human societies, but the frameworks or paradigms with which we make sense of the world.
What worries me the most is the surrendering of our imaginations—our creativity, our wonderful human capacity to work together, to negotiate and argue and brainstorm— on the altar of Fear. Fear has its uses—it can help us know ourselves better, solve problems, work things out—but Fear as master is dangerous. Fear sees enemies everywhere. It undermines trust; it shrivels the imagination. We are in danger of succumbing to the lure of simplistic and dangerous “solutions” touted by powerful people with atrophied empathy. As a physicist currently working on a transdisciplinary understanding of climate change, and as a science fiction writer, I have stared into some of the possible future permutations of our global moment, and I have seen hell.
—Vandana Singh, science fiction author and professor in the department of Physics and Earth Science at Framingham State University
Bias creeping in to all of society: whether it is influencing how young people see themselves, how we design or analyze experiments, or how we interpret news, we have lost our ability to question and fight for the truth. I’m worried about the number of people we’re losing in scientific research because they’re bored of archaic policies designed to protect white men professors and frustrated by academia’s inefficiency and glacial pace of change.
—Jess Wade, physicist at the Blackett Laboratory at Imperial College London
Our ongoing struggle with difference. Our anger, fear, anxiety, and contempt for people who look different from ourselves have undermined, and continue to undermine, our democracy, our progress, and our ability to tap the best minds and deliver opportunity that could move us forward.
—Celeste Watkins-Hayes, professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University, faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, and author of Remaking a Life: How Women Living with HIV/AIDS Confront Inequality
Science Illiteracy and Misinformation (14)
We are being defeated by opinions and can no longer see a shared reality. Learning critical thinking hardly seems sufficient for the scale of the problem. While climate change will cause sea level rise and increasing weather instability, new research suggests worse vicious systems effects. Plant foods will have both lower yields and lower levels of nutrients. Loss of biodiversity will impact our wellbeing. We’re giving away our future and very few seem to care.
I despair at how hard it seems to disrupt existing power structures that exist for the benefit of a few. We end up silencing new voices with new solutions and repeat cycles of violence and inequity.
—Kristin Alford, director of the futuristic museum MOD. at the University of South Australia
Our lives are increasingly dependent on complex interactions between technology and society, leading to unpredictable, but highly consequential, outcomes across a range of domains. Large-scale system failures have led to a widespread distrust of experts, inappropriate placement of blame, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories that provide simple, yet incorrect, explanations for otherwise mysterious events. If policy is made based on these gross oversimplifications, we will see a lot more disasters, system failures, and catastrophic unintended consequences. This will lead to more conspiracy theories in a vicious circle that will ultimately threaten the very foundations of modern society.
—David Broniatowski, assistant professor at George Washington University‘s department of engineering management and systems engineering and director of the Decision Making and Systems Architecture Lab and the GW SEAS Data Analytics Master’s program
“Scientists, artists, and writers will be burned at the (fossil-fueled) stake while the mob cheers”
The growing disparity between scientific research frontiers and general science education. What will be the impact on society when nobody knows how anything works anymore, yet the stakes are at their highest?
—Justin Crepp, associate professor of physics and director of the Engineering and Design Core Facility at the University of Notre Dame
Policy-makers will use ideological beliefs rather than evidence-based reasoning in decision-making.
—Davina Durgana, international human rights statistician, USA
Not only the lack of science literacy in our society, but the glorification of it. The effects of it on human health and quality of life are real, from individual choices up to decisions being made at the government level.
—Tanya Harrison, planetary scientist, director of research at Arizona State University‘s Space Technology and Science Initiative, and science team collaborator for the Mars Opportunity rover and the Mars 2020 missions
Scientists, artists, and writers will be burned at the (fossil-fueled) stake while the mob cheers.
—Gabrielle Hecht, Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security and professor of history at Stanford University
The lack of scientific temperament and funding cuts may not allow us to sustain new large-scale physics experiments or space telescopes to solve the mysteries of dark energy, dark matter, and quantum gravity in this lifetime.
—Karan Jani, PhD, gravitational wave astrophysicist at the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics at Georgia Institute of Technology and a scientist with the LIGO experiment
Our society will fail to heed the many warnings already at hand and fail to remember the important lessons we learned (are still learning) regarding various environmental crises. For example, we have been documenting and debating the impact of climate change for three decades, yet are no closer to a consensus (at least in many key countries) or turning the ship around.
Some still believe more data and facts will save us, but if climate change (and psychology research) has taught us anything, it’s that more facts do not change people’s minds/behaviour. Technology also will not save us; it’s what got us into trouble in the first place. I am therefore deeply worried our society will 1) wait or hope for more facts before making meaningful changes, and 2) will put too much faith in technology fixing our problems, thereby allowing us all to continue our daily lives without need to change or sacrifice. This is a pipe dream, and a very dangerous one at that.
—Jennifer Lavers, research scientist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, Australia
Climate change, an apparently insane American president, and a set of British politicians that want to turn the UK into an island that emerges from the mist every 100 years. Over and above that a constant downgrading of the value of science.
—Farah Mendlesohn, historian, associate fellow of the Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and managing editor of Manifold Press, UK
An increasing lack of respect for truth, logic, rationalism, and empathy, as suggested by the rise in xenophobia and religious fundamentalism worldwide.
—Shobhana Narasimhan, theoretical physicist at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, India
The return of obscurantism or lack of progress, and on many topics (climate/pollution denial, status of women, etc.).
—Yaël Nazé, author and astrophysicist at the University of Liège, Belgium
The proliferation of opinions and perspectives over evidence, especially when it comes to biology and genetics.
—Melissa Wilson, computational biologist and assistant professor at Arizona State University
The proliferation of misinformation online, since it can lead to immediate real-world consequences.
—Arun Sharma, research fellow in genetics at Harvard Medical School
Governments and other traditionally reliable sources of information will continue to intentionally mislead people about scientific findings, and therefore prevent policy-makers from doing what is ultimately better for humanity.
—Pamela Templer, professor in the department of biology and director of the PhD Program in Biogeoscience at Boston University
Lack of Connection to Each Other and Nature (8)
A lack of respect, mindfulness, and connection to each other and the environment. A lack of presence in our interactions with each other and our surroundings will exacerbate the loss of community, biodiversity, and the ecosystem services that we rely on, thereby threatening the well-being of the Earth and its inhabitants.
—Selena Ahmed, assistant professor of Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems and director of the Translational Biomarkers Core at Montana State University
Just as we are confronting the greatest existential threats in our species’ 200,000-year run on this earth—climate change, artificial intelligence and, nuclear war, to name a few—we are becoming increasingly incapable of solving our problems collectively. Atomized and easily manipulated by greed, fear, and hate, we are losing faith in the very idea of a greater good. In other words, just when we need our better angels the most, they seem to be in the process of abandoning us.
—Greg Asbed, human rights strategist at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Fair Food Program, USA
Humanity‘s disconnection from nature.
—Selen Atasoy, neuroscientist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford
A trend projection: the one of communication between human beings. Consider communication 30 years ago (lots of human-to-human, some phone), 20 years ago (still quite a lot of human to human, some cell phones), and now (vast majority through some type of screen). Where does that projection takes us?
—Walter E. Baethgen, director of the Regional and Sectoral Research Program and leader for Latin America and the Caribbean in the IRI at the Earth Institute, Columbia University
Excessive usage of internet and online platforms can have a negative impact on family lives. Though the usage of online social networking sites plays a key role in connecting people virtually from distant places, it causes co-located family members to spend less time gossiping, watching television, and having dinner or outings during holidays, which may lead to loose family bonding.
—Tanzima Hashem, professor in the department of computer science and engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology
“My biggest worry is that we will not be working together, based on scientific principles and facts, to solve some of the most important problems that face our world and our planet”
The inability of people to connect with one another. We are becoming so polar and divided that finding solutions to common problems like climate change are beginning to feel impossible. People are not willing to listen, trust experts, or change their opinion. It is scary that things we all have a vested interest in solving have become so politically polar that solutions are not on the table at all. Instead we are having to argue if facts are facts.
—Danielle L. Dixson, assistant professor of marine bioscience at the University of Delaware
Increasing polarization, especially economic and ideological, which enhances separation among us. This makes it more difficult to talk to and understand each other at a time when we desperately need to come together to tackle urgent problems like climate change.
—Elaine Power, expert on food insecurity and associate professor at the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen‘s University, Canada
As a scientist working in a lab, I strongly believe in the spirit of teamwork. With our ingenuity, I feel that together we can always rise up to unforeseen challenges and come up with good solutions. So my biggest worry is that we will not be working together, based on scientific principles and facts, to solve some of the most important problems that face our world and our planet.
—Jun Ye, fellow of JILA, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and University of Colorado
Short-Term Thinking (8)
There is a story about a pair of anthropologists in the Amazon living with a diminishing tribe, learning their dying language and creating a phonetic notation, lexicon, and grammar to record its existence beyond its spoken survival. The anthropologists led the people through the signs and sounds. Upon hearing themselves say aloud the spelled name of the tribe and terrified that their spirit had been captured by this alchemy, they jumped up and went running. I worry that we are just as uncomprehending of what we are looking at in the world; I don’t know what the consequences are of our computationally augmented conceptual primitivity.
—Chris Barrett, director of the Biocomplexity Institute at the University of Virginia
“The complacency of the human instinct to focus on the immediate, rather than recognizing and taking accountability for the longer-term ramifications of our decisions”
Short-term thinking. Humans are creating existential problems for our species and planet that manifest on timescales of hundreds or thousands of years. But individuals, companies, and governments think and plan for next quarter, next year, or at most, our own lifetimes.
—Matthew Colless, director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University
👥👥👥👥 🔁 🅾️🦎 ◀️ ❌❌, ⌛️⏳⌛️⏳, 🚫 🆕 ➕ 🤔🍺 💡💡 🏌️ ©️ 🅾️-👣️-♑ ☮️ 🔛 🌍🌎🌏.
Translation: Humanities’ repetition of past mistakes, time after time, prohibit new and thoughtful ideas for co-existing in peace on Earth.
—Carla Gannis, artist and professor of digital arts at Pratt Institute
Black Mirror delves into the unintended consequences of technology; what worries me is life imitating art and art imitating life. Even with our intellectual capacity to envision conflicts and moral and ethical dilemmas, we continue to make short-sighted decisions about power, resources, and energy that are inequitable and unsustainable. When we act with intellect without empathy, innovation without self awareness, power without discernment or wisdom, then we let ourselves be slaves to our egos.
The complacency of the human instinct to focus on the immediate, rather than recognizing and taking accountability for the longer-term ramifications of our decisions.
—Michele Mosca, co-founder of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, professor in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization of the Faculty of Mathematics, and founding member of Waterloo‘s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Canada
Due to our inability to do any long-term thinking, we‘re headed towards a dystopic future like any recent sci-fi media you‘ve seen (including Mad Max: Fury Road and Elysium). I’m particularly worried about this since I have younger siblings.
—Asia Murphy, wildlife photographer, writer, and PhD student in ecology at Pennsylvania State University
We have so many people on the planet that it is becoming ungovernable and unmanageable. We repeatedly witness the challenges to formulating a stable system of governance that works towards the long-term improvement of everyone and that won‘t be derailed by short-term interests of the currently powerful or wealthy or people‘s ground state of not wanting to be bothered.
—Lisa Randall, Frank B. Baird, Jr. professor of physics at Harvard University
The lack of an engaged and constructive political leadership and policy discourse. Unlimited and undisclosed political donations lead to the perversion of the political process resulting in a lack of leadership and forward planning for the country as well as the risk of corruption.
—Hugh R. Taylor, immediate past president of the International Council of Ophthalmology, Melbourne Laureate Professor, and Harold Mitchell Chair of Indigenous Eye Health at the University of Melbourne, Australia
It will be like the past. Consumption of raw materials will keep on rising and waste outputs will rise in parallel. Malthusian principles could catch up with us.
—Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the United Kingdom and professor of biology at the University of St. Andrews
Overpopulation of the Earth. I remember in the late 1960s, the world population was around 4 billion. Now, it is around 7 billion, and we are increasing every year. China is the only country that tried to control their population with a one-child policy, but their overall population still increased every year. They have finally abandoned that experiment. Resources will become more scarce. Our effects on the Earth will increase. I believe that we are one of many planets that support life. Maybe this is the natural cycle of advanced life.
—Leroy Chiao, PhD, former NASA astronaut and ISS Commander, and CEO and co-founder of OneOrbit LLC, USA
—Jingmei Li, senior research scientist at the Genome Institute of Singapore
“When it comes to the big picture, I am an optimist about the future of humanity and life on our planet and beyond”
The number and consumption level of people on the planet. As we near 10 billion people, with the wealthy massively over-consuming and the poor rightly wanting and pursuing more consumption, we face climate change, food insecurity, water stress, biodiversity loss, and more.
—Travis Rieder, assistant director of education initiatives, director of the Master of Bioethics degree program, and research scholar at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics
Hakuna Matata (2)
I spend most of my day thinking about the universe—its birth, life, death. Do I worry about the future? No.
—Robert Caldwell, theoretical physicist and professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College
Not much. When it comes to the big picture, I am an optimist about the future of humanity and life on our planet and beyond.
—Dimitar D. Sasselov, Phillips Professor of Astronomy and director of the Origins of Life Initiative at Harvard University