21st Century Bureau - cont'd

If we focus further on the period from 4,000 (0.0001 percent of Earth’s history) to 400 years ago, we begin to see the evolution of “modern” technology. Inventions include coins (China), maps (Greece), water wheels (India), the compass (China), a rudimentary seismometer (China), water purification (Arabian chemists), the water turbine (Arab Empire), oil wells (Azerbaijan), kerosene (Iraq), bridges, milling and diversion dams (Iran), the magnifying glass (Ibn al-Haytham), the magnetic compass (Shen Kuo in China), the hydropowered forge (Al-Andalus), the programmable analog computer (Al-Jazar), the astronomical compass (Yemeni sultan al-Ashraf), the terrestrial globe (Martin Behaim), and the compound microscope (Zacharias Janssen).

Finally we come to the past 400 years (less than 0.00001 percent of Earth’s history). To put that proportion in perspective, 400 years in the life of the 4.5-billion-year-old Earth is equivalent to just under 2.4 minutes in the life of a 50-year-old person. Selected energy, water, and science highlights from the past 400 years of human advancement appear in table 1 (right).

What can be learned from this brief glimpse of scale, time, population, and human advancement that might help develop a better sense of where we are headed? Looking into the future 100 years to 2109, we might ask: Will there be cars? What fuel will they run on? Will the primary electricity “fuel” be renewable? Will climate have warmed and polar ice melted or will natural cooling have begun? Will global population be controlled by policy (can economic growth happen without population growth)? Will there have been a world war and, if yes, over what will it have been fought: idealism, religion, resources, human error, or some combination of these? Will resources be rationed and according to what international laws? Will we mine resources from other planets? Will humans colonize the sea, Moon, Mars, or space? Will we prescribe our health future? Will major league athletes be completely genetically enhanced? Will the U.S. still be a major economy? What other countries will rise as “superpowers,” if superpowers exist at all?

Baseball great Yogi Berra is credited with saying “Forecasting is hard, especially about the future!” Certainly any attempt to predict key inventions at the turn of the 22nd century is folly, at best. However, in the spirit of good fun, at the turn of the 21st century might we see technology such as language chip implants? Hydrogen hover cars? Solar-charged super capacitors? Optically implanted PDAs? A three-pilla-day nutrition plan? Marine colonization? Thought-controlled homes? Or perhaps might we see the first power line installed in rural Liberia?!