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By Brian Lufkin | 13 July 2017 | BBC – Future Now

Over the last few months, BBC Future Now has been examining some of the biggest problems humankind faces right now: land use to accommodate exploding populations, the future of nuclear energy, the chasm between rich and poor – and much more.

But what about the big challenges that are brewing for the future? In 30 years, what might be on the world’s agenda to solve? It’s impossible to predict, but we can get clues from how current trends in science and technology may play out. Here are just some of the potential big issues of tomorrow:

GENETIC MODIFICATION OF HUMANS

Debates among scientists started roaring last year over a new technology that lets us edit human DNA. It’s called Crispr (pronounced ‘crisper’) and it’s a means of altering people’s DNA to carve diseases like cancer out of the equation.

Sounds great, right? But what if takes a dark ethical turn, and it turns into a eugenics-esque vanity project to churn out ‘designer babies’, selecting embryos that produce babies that will have a certain amount of intelligence or that have certain physical characteristics?

While it’s still not widely used enough to be considered a current “grand challenge”, this is an up-and-coming advancement whose wide-ranging repercussions we need to be prepared for – and it’s all the more reason to ensure ethicists have a seat at the table at every laboratory, university and corporation that might be itching to alter our DNA.

“Proper reflection on what about us we might want to preserve takes time – it should draw on a wide range of perspectives about what it means to be human,” Nicholas Agar, professor of ethics at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, told BBC Future Now earlier this year. “It’s difficult to set aside this time for ethical reflection when new technological possibilities seem to be coming thick and fast.”

A MORE AGED POPULATION THAN EVER BEFORE

We won’t just be wrestling with the fact that the world’s population is exploding – but people are living longer than ever, too. Which is great – but all those senior citizens are going to require care. In fact, the number of centenarians will increase more than 50 times – from 500,000 today to over 26 million by 2100. From the UK to Japan to China, societies with large numbers of people over 65 will become more common. In the next couple of decades, as that increase starts to happen, we’ll need better care for the elderly (Japan is even eyeing robots) and perhaps policies to allow more immigrants to try and make up for ageing workforces and in some cases, declining birth rates.

LOST CITIES

You don’t need to look very hard in a place like Miami to see how cities are changing in the 21st Century – rising sea levels are gradually making some of them disappear. Fuelled by climate change, not only are floods becoming more common in the streets, but the changing weather patterns have also influenced building design. Aside from more seawalls, the city is requiring all new buildings be built with their first floor built higher. But that’s all a sticking plaster – if current trends continue, we may have to come to terms with losing whole swathes of cities, islands and low-lying regions such as Bangladesh. The economic impact to regions will be profound, and climate refugees could become the norm.

Pressure is already growing on cities, as urban populations grow. If climate change forces mass migration, then existing infrastructure, services and economies may be stretched to breaking point.

THE EVOLUTION OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Social media has complicated the way we communicate for the better part of a decade. And it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, given that most people get their news from it now. That’s before we even get into the mess of online harassment, as well. What might social media look like in 30 years, and by that time, what are some threats it might pose?

A world with no privacy, for one. That’s one problem we’re already seeing. And besides weathering away our sense of and desire for anonymity and privacy, social media brings with it the many problems of cyberbullying too. Many charities and non-profit organisations across the world have mobilised in the fight against internet trolls, but it’s an open question about whether law enforcement agencies and the social media companies can fix it or whether it will get worse.

Then there’s also the problem of our information diet to consider: if the status quo of ubiquitous fake news remains, how will that shape how people see the world? If individuals spend months, years, even decades of their life exposed only to unreliable news sources, it does not augur well for civilised society and debate.

That said, given how fast social media has arrived in the world, an optimist may suggest that those problems could soon be resolved. In 30 years’ time we may be dealing with social media issues that we’ve not even considered yet. After all, Facebook is only 13 years old.

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