Feature

The Next Big Thing: A Bigger Big Bang?

We may soon be smart enough to understand how insignificant we might be in the cosmos.

It seems inevitable that the next decade will be filled with surprises -- unexpected armed conflicts, the redrawing of political maps, the clash of religions, struggles over the environment, and economic upheavals that may be deeper and more complex than today's. But by far the most profound and powerful changes lie further ahead at, say, the middle of the century.

By then, three potent, seemingly unrelated developments are likely to converge.

First is a major jump forward in the capabilities of the human brain and nervous system resulting from oncoming advances developed in the world's neurology labs. One of many examples is recent work at Brown University, where scientists have shown that it is possible for paralyzed people to manipulate a computer cursor merely by projecting their brain waves. Along with new manipulations of the brain, whether for good or ill, we should also expect new ways to categorize, combine, collect, delete, link, update, distribute, and assess knowledge.

By 2050, the result should be humans who are able to address issues and solve problems previously beyond our reach, redefining how we as a species imagine, work, and think. The generations to come will be surprised at the relative stupidity and naiveté of today's best and brightest -- present company included.

Second, in reaction to such issues as economic upheaval and this profound scientific advancement, we may also face a worldwide rise of religions hostile to science -- and, as a result, a worldwide scientific deceleration or blackout, and a slowdown of change in general. If, however, this war against science can be contained, the amount of information in humanity's already massive brain bank, stored in intercommunicating computers and networks all over the world, will multiply at a faster and faster rate. So we can expect an ever deeper understanding of humanity and, more generally, of the other species cohabiting Earth with us.

But a third aspect related to humanity's growing knowledge base will take us still further. As impressive as this storehouse of knowledge is, it primarily focuses on a tiny pinpoint of reality. Tomorrow will also see a great expansion of understanding about the cosmos we inhabit.

Some of today's leading scientists have been putting forth striking new theories about the cosmos, many of them so far out as to make science-fiction novels appear plausible. For example, once discarded as nonsense, the idea that ours is just one among many parallel universes is now receiving serious scientific consideration. One version holds that this universe, like a single sheet of paper in a stack, is only one of multiple universes that coexist in a heap beyond any current ability to leap from one to another.

Other scientists, without a wise-guy smile, suggest that what we regard as the universe is merely a bubble among an infinity of other universes that arose from some galactic collision -- raising the possibility that another such collision lies ahead.

Thinkers in history have handed down to us boxes of crude, mainly religious, prescientific tools with which they desperately tried to make sense of the heavens. Tomorrow, fascinated by the remaining mysteries, and armed with the most advanced technologies, teams of our children will take the place of yesterday's astronomers -- only with brains more brilliant than the best of the past.

May the heavens yield to them what they never revealed to others.

Feature

The Next Big Thing: More of the Same

What will the world look like tomorrow? A lot like it does today.

Never underestimate the predictive power of inertia. To wit: It's a safe bet that Israeli-Palestinian relations will continue to fester; Pakistan will still be the tinderbox of tomorrow; and the United States will be highly indebted yet remain among the world's most prosperous countries.

The world is of course full of tumult, upheaval, and sudden change, but these shifts are extremely hard to predict. If pinpointing when and where the next revolution will appear is a task for sages, separating the wise men from the fools is a fool's game in itself: In a sea of predictions, it's hard to really know who really knows what's just around the corner.

Of course, some prognosticators occasionally turn out to be correct. Does that mean you should trust their next prediction? In this sense, picking one's prophet bears some similarity to trying to find a high-performing mutual fund manager. Every year, one in a hundred fund managers are, by definition, in the top 1 percent. They're celebrated as investment gurus; their funds swell in size. Yet there's little evidence of any persistence in fund returns -- next year, these top managers are back in the middle of the pack. High-performing fund managers are, for the most part, lucky, not smart.

It's similarly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in the fortunetelling market. After the fact, the lucky ones look like geniuses, and their predictions seem obvious -- we're all scratching our heads wondering why we didn't see the housing bubble or the global financial meltdown coming. On the other hand, the misfires look like Chicken Littles (think Malthus) or Pollyannas (Dow 36,000, anyone?).

One way to ensure you're right at least some of the time is to make the same prediction year after year -- after all, a stopped clock is right twice a day. "Dr. Doom" himself -- New York University economist Nouriel Roubini -- has been expecting a U.S. financial catastrophe for years. As Anirvan Banerji of the Economic Cycle Research Institute told the New York Times Magazine last year, Roubini's explanations -- increasing trade deficits, soaring current account deficits, Hurricane Katrina, skyrocketing oil prices -- have tended to evolve over time. But as we now know, he hit the jackpot by calling the housing bubble in 2006. Smart or lucky? Wait to see where his next predictions land.

Where does that leave us in predicting and planning for the future? Many changes are the result of slow-moving shifts in areas such as demographics, technology, or even global weather patterns that are somewhat -- albeit imperfectly -- predictable. So we need not get blindsided by sea levels rising 3 feet next century or America turning gray.

What's my prediction for what the world will look like tomorrow? Just take a look around you.