'We must use technology to influence the course of history'

The next 20 years may be decisive for the fate of humanity. An interview with Bram Vermeer, one of the authors of the book: '2030: Technology that will change the world.

What prompted you to write this book?

For the first time in human history, crises have become global in scope. Examples include the food shortages in 2007 and the recession that took hold in 2008. Similar crises now occur simultaneously worldwide , so we felt a need to explore whether technology is capable of addressing them. The globalization of disaster is rooted in technology: generations of engineers have steadily woven an international web of industries, communications, and markets that has resulted in planetary interdependence. Therefore, technology should be part of the solution.  2030 sets out to show that technology does indeed have the power to make a genuine difference.

How did you choose the experts you interviewed?

We began by drawing up a list of humanity’s most urgent problems. That may sound like a daunting task, but there is a remarkable consensus among experts as to our most pressing needs. It’s somewhat discomforting, incidentally, to realize that the list hasn’t changed much over the past century or so. The challenges range from hunger to flu pandemics, and from climate change to conflict prevention.

For each field, we then selected experts we felt were both independent and realistic. We asked them to present the scientific data underlying their ideas and visions, and we then set out to contrast their views in our book with others in the field. The results show how we can achieve the technological breakthroughs that will help secure our future. Our book isn’t about hopes and fears so much as identifying a realistic way forward.

Why the year 2030?

For many scientists, 2030 doesn’t feel like the distant future. We don’t have to fantasize about the kind of solutions that might be available, as many of the technologies we will be using by then are a logical extension of what we’re already seeing in our labs today. Two decades is a doable period for scientists to envision.

On the other hand, it’s far enough ahead to take us beyond our immediate needs. The book isn’t interested in incremental improvements to existing technologies. We describe the breakthroughs that are necessary – and possible – within the next 20 years.

In one of the sections, you discuss what seem to be clear and simple solutions to challenges that address some of our most basic needs, such as access to clean water and nutritious food. Why are we still struggling with these fundamental issues and what are the difficulties of implementing the necessary plans of action?

While it’s dispiriting that we still have to address the most basic of human needs , the playing field has drastically changed. The scale of meeting some of the needs is different that anything we have so far experienced. 

So the solutions need to be different too, even in the case of problems we thought we had already beaten. We might know how to achieve basic sanitation, for instance, but doing it for two billion people at once is a very different challenge and one that will require new technology. To achieve it, you’d have to hook people up to the sewer system at the rate of half a million a day for the next 20 years. A project on that kind of scale is way beyond our capabilities. The challenges for providing all humanity with access to adequate water and nutrition are similarly gigantic. 

One of your main themes is the interconnectedness of our global networks. Why is this important to understand? To what extent will these complex systems affect our daily lives?

Global networks are now so tightly knit that everyone on the planet shares a common fate. Our daily lives are increasingly shaped by events that happen far beyond our horizon. The price of food in the US is affected by fires in Ukraine; the cause of a power outage could be 5,000 miles away; a lethal virus could travel from Africa to your neighborhood in a matter of hours. We try to show in our book that we needn’t be powerless against threats like this. The networks in question were created by human beings and we can change them in such a way that shocks remain local, rather than dragging others into a larger-scale disaster.

What drives us to continually innovate and develop new technologies? Are these experts acting out of pure altruism or are they pushing too far in order to change the course of our future?

Altruism and a long-range view are frequently lacking in research. Instead, scientists tend to follow their own curiosity. They also place a great deal of their creativity at the service of industry. That’s very important, as it keeps our society turning. Government agencies also play an important role in setting the research agenda. All this encourages scientists to come up with quick results: the emphasis is on the short term.

Which is why we asked our colleagues to look twenty years ahead: that took them beyond the kind of immediate successes I just mentioned and gave them the opportunity to take a more comprehensive view. For many of the experts we interviewed, it was the first time they had expressed their vision in public, despite years of deliberation and discussion in smaller circles. In so doing, they help bring out the dilemmas facing us as a species.

Are there any controversial and radical ideas or methods that the experts put forth?

In order to truly change the future, we need to  abandon the beaten track. That’s why many experts in the book express ideas that are controversial in their particular field. Standard economic theory, for instance, is challenged. The book shows that irrational behavior may account for some previously unexplained economic phenomena. Our microelectronics expert, meanwhile, argues that we shouldn’t go any further in terms of shrinking electronic components. Chips are already sufficiently small and powerful. We ought instead to steer microelectronic development in a direction that is more beneficial for humanity. That’s the conclusion he’s come to after a lifetime working on ever-smaller electronics. The book also promotes a new type of nuclear power plant that is free of any connection with WMD proliferation. That could help defuse the situation in countries like Iran. And we explore the limits of democracy in terms of the implementation of technology: how can we persuade people to adopt new solutions while still respecting their freedom of choice? Some of the ideas may be controversial, but they are also totally realistic. If we start exploring them now, we might be able to avoid certain global crises in the decades ahead.

What do you hope people will take away after reading this book? There is obviously a lot of work to be done and some of these new technological ideas are not easy nor are they guaranteed to be the correct answer. Should the reader be optimistic about the future?

We hope that readers will share our sense of urgency. One reviewer has written that “The book is at once an impressive forecast and a worrying rallying cry.” The conclusion that we can influence the course of history should be taken as grounds for optimism. The problems facing our planet may be huge, but we can make a genuine difference. We show that it isn’t simply a question of developing new technology: the way that technology is established and propagated within society is just as important. We believe it will enable people to take their fate into their own hands. You don’t have to be a scientific researcher or work in an industrial lab to make choices capable of shaping our shared fate. It’s about simple things like throwing away food: 40% of all food is wasted in the US, for instance. It’s about asking your local government for change. It’s about career choices and the way you live. 

We also hope to inspire our fellow engineers and scientists to change their research agendas in a way that will help protect and improve our planet.

(Questions: Christina Lee)