In the Year 2020, Part II: Biotechnology and Genetics

Surrogates PosterCheck out Part I and Part III in our series about life in the year 2020.

Nobody delivers profanity better than Bruce Willis. Nobody. Perhaps that’s why he’s seen so much of it in practically every script he’s tackled during the last 20-odd years. We don’t have a final count on the number of F-bombs our man Bruce dropped in his latest flick, Surrogates, but we can say with some authority that a world filled with robotic avatars gone amok would drive anyone to repeated vulgarity.

But 2017? Surrogates would have us believe that just eight short years from now, we’ll have retreated to our homes and left the “real” world to synthetically pimped-up alter-egos? Is it conceivable that we, as naturally exploratory human beings, would want to do that? Is it conceivable that such technology would even exist just 3,000 days from now?

Welcome to Part II in our three-part series on life in the year 2020. In Part I, we took a gander at cloud computing and the immediate future of the amazing, shrinking computer. In Part III, we’ll get the down and dirty on transportation, urban planning, and our changing cities. But today, we’ll go all Surrogates on you.

Well, not really, but we will explore forecasts for the branch of science and technology that might one day, in perhaps 2075 or so, take us to the level of quasi-surrogates – biotech. That umbrella covers genetics, genetic engineering, nanotech, and essentially anything that helps us live appreciably longer and better. And that includes what we eat. Many futurists speculate that food, the production of food, and the very design of food will most assuredly see some pretty drastic changes over the next decade – all through the aid of sci-tech.

And although we can tell you right now that a Surrogate-filled world is highly unlikely just 10 years hence – never mind eight – we are pretty sure that folks lucky enough to be born into developed countries will, through technology, reap some rather interesting, rather exciting rewards in the coming century.

Live Forever!

S. Jay Olshansky
S. Jay Olshansky

In 2001, biodemographer S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and Steven Austad, a gerontologist at the University of Idaho, made a little wager. Austad contended that, through biomedical advancements and cloning technology, one or more people already on the planet would live to see the year 2150 – a lifespan of at least 149 years. Whether he himself would live to collect or pay out on that bet is another question all together.

In 2004, celebrated University of Cambridge biogerentologist Aubrey de Grey, a devout anti-aging proponent and believer that aging is merely a disease – and a curable one at that – claimed the first person to live to 1,000 (that’s one thousand) had already been born.

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil

In 2007, Ray Kurzweil, a futurist noted for nailing his prognostications, declared that we’d all better start caring for ourselves a bit better. Why? Because, Kurzweil asserted, those who managed to survive even a few more years would witness a massive elongation of lifespans – to the tune of one extra year for every year that passes. Moreover, said Kurzweil, our species would likely achieve immortality before 2030.

With these mind-boggling conjectures in mind, we took the question of human longevity and life betterment in the year 2020 to a panel of three learned men – all of whom are well-versed not only in the concepts of modern science as it applies to the human condition, but also in foretelling what the future might bring because of it.

Aubrey de Grey
Aubrey de Grey

The changes they predicted were somewhat more conservative than Kurzweil, de Gray and even Austad predicted. Though each of our experts concedes we’re well on the way to something much better, they aren’t quite so optimistic on the subject of immediate, large-scale lifespan gains. It would appear that just because nanotechnology is currently so big and busy, just because President Barack Obama is a strong believer in stem cell research, and just because bio- and nanotechnology researchers are now fiddling around with DNA faster than an Itzhak Perlman solo, we’re not going to be truly Godlike for a few years yet.

Ian Pearson is quite succinct. A Chartered Fellow with the Institute of Nanotechnology, founder of Futurizon (, and for seventeen years a futurologist with British Telecommunications, Pearson is a believer in infinite life – but certainly not before 2020. “We’re already able to alter genetic codes. We can make tiny, nano-sized machines. And within fifty years, we may be living with a body that’s part machine, a synthetic body. But there are enormous problems with durability at the molecular scale that we’ve yet to conquer,” Pearson says. “My feeling is that we should see two or three years added on in the next decade, and two to three more every decade after that. And most of that will be caused through breakthroughs in cancer research, heart disease, and other common stuff.”

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