100 more years to find our God

February 19, 1999

A female albeit straight archbishop, Cote d'Azur weather in Britain and a life expectancy of 30 - Alan Thomson asks leading experts what the future holds

The year 2000" has long sounded so futuristic that during our last year of the second millennium we may be forgiven for being a little disappointed that things seem so familiar, so ordinary, so different from the way we imagined they might be.

But perhaps "the future" will always be a bit of a let-down when we get there. Then again, we may wake up one day in 2020 and hear on the Today programme that scientists have discovered how to time travel, and astronauts are indeed cruising in a spaceship off Jupiter doing battle with a megalomaniac computer, as Arthur C. Clarke described in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In an attempt to understand what may lie ahead, The THES has asked a number of academics to cast their minds 100 years ahead. What developments will have reshaped the world by 2099, on the eve of the second century of the Christian world's third millennium?

London under water, Cote d'Azur weather and grapes growing in Kent Sea levels and temperatures will climb hugely during the next 100 years and parts of London could be submerged, according to Trevor Tanton.

Tanton, professor of environmental technology at Southampton University, says models already predict that sea levels will rise by up to half a metre by the middle of the next century. Low-lying areas of Britain, including London, could well be under water unless flood defences are shored up - an exorbitantly expensive procedure.

Man-made global warming is causing the oceans to expand. The same global warming, caused by a build-up of carbon dioxide and other gasses in the atmosphere creating a greenhouse effect, will also lead to a rise in average annual temperatures. This may be good news for Britain, which by the middle of the next century could be enjoying a climate more like central or southern France. For countries such as Australia it could spell disaster as average annual temperatures rise by up to 30C, rainfall declines and land is reclaimed by the desert.

The death of fundamentalism and the first female archbishop During the next century we are likely to see the gradual disestablishment of the Church of England, coupled with an increase in New Age spiritualism.

These are the "predictions" of James Dunn, Lightfoot professor of divinity at Durham University, who believes that science will never explain the mystery of the universe and people will still need to worship in a hundred years' time.

"I do not think that science will ever work out the answer to the universe. To worship in broad terms is rooted in human instinct. Our sense of awe is so deeply rooted that it will come out in different forms," he says.

The Church of England will lose its links with the monarchy and enjoy its first female archbishop, although Dunn thinks it unlikely that an openly gay person will head the C of E.

Dunn also believes that pressures within Islam will lead to a re-examination of fundamentalism. "The reformation gave Christianity the ability to see other people's points of view and not just treat them as heresy. Much of Islam seems to lack that point of view."

Universities for the richIand for the poor Lewis Elton, professor of higher education at University College London, says there will be two systems of higher education in a hundred years' time: one for the masses, which is delivered remotely and cheaply by the latest technology, and one for the rich, which may still offer face-to-face teaching.

"For most people education will consist of lecture notes and other information available through whatever is the technological medium. For the elite I think there will still have to be some form of interaction between student and teacher."

In Britain, the government will have pulled out of funding higher education and no pure research will be undertaken - only applied.

Kitchens that talk and robots inside people Peter Sharp, director of instrumentation at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, says that within the next ten to 15 years, silicon chip-based electronic computing will have reached its physical limit. There is only so much that can be crammed on to a chip in terms of switching electrical charges on and off. Instead, optical technology, which uses light switches and is already being developed, will be poised to take computing power a stage further.

Then will come biological switches, which promise to be faster still and will blur the line between machine and biological organism.

Computer systems will not be contained in boxes, like today's desktop and laptops, but will be embedded into the built environment and possibly even the human body. The electronics that define a television will not be packaged in a TV-shaped box but will be sub-components of a larger information system built into people's homes.

New materials could be engineered at the molecular level by tiny nano-robots which might even be employed inside people's bodies to destroy cancerous tissue.

The United States of Europe and Confederation of Britain Defence and foreign policy will no longer be functions of the British nation state but of a vastly more powerful United States of Europe, according to Robert Hazell, director of the constitution unit at University College London.

Nation states will be far less important, becoming subordinate units of the European state. Because of the effects of independence for Scotland and possibly Wales, the British state may become a confederation.

Westminster will probably still be the political centre of the British confederation and political parties will still be the mechanism for the transmission of democracy.

Independence for Scotland and Wales will probably entail written constitutions, which in turn may lead to England codifying and writing its own constitution.

Particle discoveries and a new age of travel in space Manchester University's Robin Marshall says it is almost certain that physicists will discover a new array of sub-atomic, in fact sub-electronic, protonic and neutronic particles within the next century. Discovering how these operate and how to control them will open up a whole new field of science.

Applications could include space travel. It is possible, Marshall says, that light may travel faster than its universally constant speed given the right conditions. Discovering this would open possibilities of faster-than-light-travel, which is the only way, unless people live an awful lot longer or stumble upon some space-time short cuts, that humanity will ever travel to other solar systems.

Smart materials and diamondsthat are a builder's best friend "Smart" materials - which recognise their environment and respond accordingly - are one possible development in the coming century, according to Malcolm McLean of London's Imperial College.

An obvious example is glass that tints when it is sunny and clears when dull. Similar interactive abilities could revolutionise everything from clothing to building construction.

McLean says that new materials could be constructed to order by molecular manipulation using nano-machines. There is no reason why diamond, the hardest known naturally occurring substance, could not be engineered so that it loses its brittle properties. The construction benefits of using manufactured diamond would be immense.

Artificial pins for broken bones to help the healing process or manufactured mediums for growing replacement organs might also be developed.

Much of the advancement in materials engineering in this century has been driven by military needs. The next century may find medicine and the environment emerging as the main drivers for change.

Life begins at 40 I unless catastrophe, crime or disease gets you first Human life expectancy may fall, says Robert Boyd, principal of St George's Hospital Medical School. "There is an assumption that everything is going to get better, but in terms of Darwinian theory it is extremely unlikely that average life expectancy will be 85 in 100 years' time, in fact it is more likely to be 30.

"We need to consider the unexpected, such as new toxins, perhaps in the food chain, or some environmental global catastrophe, pandemics or perhaps genetic interference or the collapse of social cohesion and growth in violence. All could drastically affect human life expectancy."

The medical professions are likely to see more people enter in later years, rather than straight from school to university to hospital. This flexibility, facilitated by lifelong learning and retraining, could mean that people work longer, possibly well into their seventies (assuming they live that long).

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