Scientists, businesspeople, professional forecasters predict differing worlds of 2052

By Fred Phillips, Brendan Monks, Ulrich Betz | August 5, 2019

Credit: Pixabay via Wikimedia Commons. CC0. Credit: Pixabay via Wikimedia Commons. CC0.

How do we agree and disagree about what the future holds? Business people, technologists, and scientists see different industries advancing, different technologies developing, and different risks emerging as the future plays out. That matters because many of these professionals—say, scientists–are in a position to develop the technologies that will help shape that future. A comprehensive survey polled readers of three leading business and scientific journals as well as professional future forecasters about how the world will change between now and 2052.

The 2017 survey involved four panels, two comprising the readers of either Nature or Science, another of readers of the Harvard Business Review, and yet another of academics and others in the foresight field—a discipline in academia, business, and government related to predicting the future. They considered the following: What science and technology trends, across a broad variety of fields, will dominate in 2052? What are the gaps between desired products and anticipated science/tech capabilities? What are the gaps between the anticipations of educated businesspeople and those of scientists?

Readers of Science, Nature, and Harvard Business Review are active in their professional fields. They are the people who will help shape the future they describe in the study. A broad range of scientists read Nature and Science. Harvard Business Review readers are business executives worldwide, many with a graduate degree. These executives generally run the firms benefiting from technological innovations–whether these innovations originate in the public sector or in business firms–and turn them into products that benefit the rest of us.

In some cases, the predictions in the survey point to a troubling lack of preparedness among key professionals. Businesspeople, for instance, did not rate climate change as one of the top three changes in the future that will have the greatest business impact. In any case, the predictions by these various groups point to a path for policy experts in government and elsewhere to follow as they grapple with planning for the future.

The foresight industry: the professional future predictors. Foresight is essential for the strategic management of enterprises in a turbulent global business environment, and structured methods for technology foresight exist. The research literature shows a clear link between foresight and enhanced business innovation. Foresight is not just for corporate planning. Many writers have detailed foresight techniques and applications for policy and in public agencies and the military.

Forecasts of the future’s broad outlines often prove accurate. The devil is in the details. It’s not surprising, then, that our respondents agreed on the prospects of several general science, technology, and business areas. Yet there were marked differences in opinion among the subgroups of respondents.

Scientific and technological progress over the centuries has been strong in some fields, weaker in others, and virtually absent in a few–for example, orphan diseases–that beg for its benefits. Technological advances that do occur change business and society. Changes in business and society in turn generate new needs, calling for still further technological solutions. This means forecasting is difficult.

Diverse views of the future. A striking lesson from the survey was that between-group differences in views were substantial, and really more interesting than the areas of agreement.

Businesspeople may be more susceptible to “hype” than their counterparts in science and foresight, and more bedazzled by the many impressive gadgets that have become widely used in the past few years. This would explain why the scientists and foresight experts were more cautious than the Harvard Business Review readers in predicting bold advances in the sciences.

Businesspeople and foresight experts named the same top three breakthrough-prone science disciplines: biological sciences, medical sciences, and computer science. All technological areas earned higher expectations from businesspeople than from foresight experts, perhaps reflecting laypersons’ perception of the high momentum of recent decades’ tech advances.

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Space travel received above average rating from business respondents, but is near the bottom in the foresight experts’ list of expectations. Foresight experts see more need for development  in energy and less in transportation, compared to businesspeople.

The biggest gaps between business and science respondents had to do with expectations for advanced materials (rated much more highly by businesspeople) and for augmented reality (rated much more highly by science and technology people). The foresight experts largely sided with the businesspeople, noting that more scientists are involved in the communications technology sector than in materials sciences.

Business areas that will be most impacted by 2052.

Science readers Nature readers Harvard Business Review readers Foresight Experts
Biotechnology Biotechnology Renewable Energy Robotics
Energy IT/Software Agricultural/Food Biotechnology
Robotics Energy Cancer therapies Energy


Of course, there were also areas of agreement among the surveyed panels.

All groups expect biomedical and computer sciences to show the most potential for breakthrough advances in the next 35 years. Knowing that much of technology depends on new materials, all groups also saw much potential in materials science.

Agreeing with the foresight experts, business people expected the most dramatic technological advances in artificial intelligence. Close runner-ups were medicine/healthcare, advanced analytics for big data, robotics, energy technologies, and synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Business people differed from the other groups by having much higher expectations for space travel. Scientist respondents had most confidence in AI and biotech.

All groups expect new cross-talk across scientific fields, particularly biological and medical sciences with computer sciences, and computer sciences with humanities and social sciences. In the same way, they anticipate technological convergence of synthetic biology and genetic engineering with medicine and health, as well as big data and robotics with AI. This means boundaries between industries will continue to blur and re-form.

Social vs. business impacts. We asked Harvard Business Review respondents about the anticipated social impact and the expected business impact advances in technology. They felt that advances would have the greatest social impact by providing food for the world, curing cancer, and reversing climate change. Providing food for the world, renewable energy, and secure internet will have the greatest impacts on businesses.

Respondents thought the business impact of AI-based robots, virtual reality, and space stations was greater than those technologies’ potential social impact. The top three gap areas in which social impact is greater than business impact were curing cancer, pandemic preparedness, and genetic modification of humans. Food for the world, and reversing climate change, were 4th and 5th on the latter list.

The results are telling as they suggest that business will not be prepared to deal with existential threats like climate change. Business-oriented respondents, those that read the Harvard Business Review, didn’t view it as having as big a social impact as, say, curing cancer.

As for technologies that businesspeople expect to have a greater impact on business than on society, the survey results show businesspeople expect space exploitation to be largely privatized, and they do not believe an AI singularity will transform society.

Perceived future needs vs. research and development spending now. The survey asked respondents about the needs they anticipate in the future. What they reported conflicts with the trends in research and development funding playing out right now. For instance, survey respondents said progress in the life sciences was the highest priority future need, but according to R&D Magazine, life science funding was up only 1.5 percent between 2014 and 2016. Compare that to funding for communications technology, up 5.5 percent, or automotive technology, up 7.7 percent.  (Interestingly, respondents perceived high demand for computers, robots, and nano products. There was, in other words, a contrast between what they reported as priorities and what they perceived as actually happening in the here and now.)

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Though the foresight experts think there will be a high need for development in the energy sector in the future, energy research and development  receives the lowest budget ($23 billion) of all areas, and showed only a middling funding increase (5 percent) through the years 2012-2016.

What experts don’t expect to see. Harvard Business Review readers also talked about what advances they do not expect to see in 35 years. The answers: commercial space stations, a secure internet, and reversing the effects of climate change. To the same question, the foresight experts replied: a unified field theory; translation of models from quantum to macroscopic to human-behavior levels; a complete catalog of cancer etiologies; anti-gravity technology; complete mapping of genomics to disease prediction; proof of sentient life on other planets; and an understanding of the uni-directionality of time. The foresight experts thought reverse-engineering the human brain, commercial stations in space or on other planets, and reversal of the effects of climate change are possible in principle, but will not be realized in 35 years

What it means for policy and strategy. Despite some skepticism, most respondents saw the need for government intervention. Only a very few believed free markets can deal effectively with long-term and systemic problems, or controversial issues of social equity. Said one of the majority: “Government funding may need to supplement the private sector, because environmental innovation is socially desirable but difficult to monetize.”

Among the needs respondents highlighted, many pointed out that governments must attend to the legal and regulatory problems of shifting industry boundaries and new technological capabilities. Anyone who has watched Mark Zuckerberg testify before seemingly confused members of Congress will understand what a challenge this will be. Governments will need to support education in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, so future graduates will have the technical and creative skills to forge a sustainable future.

Studying the future. A 35-year foresight horizon may seem audacious. Though the span between now and 2052 will be replete with wild cards, a 35-year effort is in line with the World Economic Forum’s 2017 look at the year 2050, the Millennium Project’s 2017-2050 look-ahead, and the XPRIZE Foundation’s 20-year foresight project. (In 1931, Winston Churchill bit off 120 years in his musing on the world’s condition in 2050.) At Merck KGaA’s Curious2018 conference, the pharmaceutical giant announced that it will incentivize breakthroughs in the areas of greatest importance to humanity.

The journals’ publishers cooperated in surveying Science, Nature, and Harvard Business Review readers. The respondents for the fourth group, the foresight professionals, came from the editorial board of Elsevier’s international journal Technological Forecasting & Social Change, the faculty of the Department of Technology & Society at State University of New York–Stony Brook’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and members of a US government scientific advisory listserv. The first three surveyed groups were practicing laboratory scientists, engineers, and business people. The fourth group was chosen for expertise in science and technology policy and in technology foresight. Depending on the group, anywhere between 117 and 1,000 people responded to the survey.

What does it all mean? Do the survey results say anything definite about the future? Foresight experts answered the question: “Do you believe that widespread, shared perceptions about the future, like those revealed in the surveys, are instrumental in creating the future?” Three to one, they answered, “yes.” “Yes” in broad outline, they added; details are much less predictable or achievable. They emphasized that wild cards are to be expected.

The “yes” answer implies that even without an operational plan in hand today, constructive steps will emerge naturally as a result of the group vision. It implies further that, due to inter-group differences of vision, differing and perhaps conflicting initiatives will arise, competing to create the future.

A responsible futurology would explore, through dialog or other means, why the various groups’ enthusiasms differ as they do. Such a conversation would inform whether various views can or should be reconciled, and what to do in either case.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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