Commentary / World

Dreams for the 21st century

by Shinji Fukukawa

Expectations are high for innovations in the 21st century. That is because the aspirations for innovations will be a source of new growth. Electronic information and communications technology will before long enter into its fifth generation and innovations of a kind unforeseeable today will sooner or later surely be developed. The United States is running at the forefront and Germany, having adopted its “Industrie 4.0” strategy, is paving the way for a new era. The bigger the dream, the better.

On Jan. 3, 1901, at the start of the 20th century, the Hochi Shimbun carried an article with the headline “Predictions for the 20th Century,” listing its 23 predictions for the new century. The latter half of the 19th century was an era in which advanced countries were competing with one another for technological achievements by staking their national prestige on events like the world expositions. The Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower, the telephone and the automobile were some results of these aspirations. The Hochi Shimbun’s predictions, at a time when aircraft, computers and nuclear power did not yet exist, were marvelous. Some of these were:

First, with wireless communications linking the world, a caller in Tokyo will talk freely with a friend in London or New York, and long-distance photography will allow a newspaper editor in Tokyo to speedily get information about Europe and take snapshots of the European situation electronically.

Traveling around the world will take seven days in the 20th century, compared with the 50 days required in the 19th century, and a round trip from Tokyo to Kobe will take 2½ hours, far less than the 14 hours needed at that time. Horse-drawn carriages will be abolished and automobiles will become obtainable for a reasonable price. In military affairs, the newspaper predicted development of missile warfare by saying midair war vessels and batteries will appear and likely cause scenes of carnage in space.

Furthermore, new equipment designed to circulate air at an appropriate temperature for the purpose of adjusting heat and cold will be invented and vegetables will be grown by means of electric power. A photo-telephone will appear, showing the image of the caller at the other end of the line. Consumers will use this device to examine goods from afar and immediately obtain them through underground conduit piping.

On the other hand, some of the predictions didn’t pan out. These include humans being able to talk freely with dogs and monkeys, dogs doing the shopping for humans, the Sahara Desert being made fertile, and a technique being developed that would fire cannonballs into the air to weaken storms. But at any rate, our forerunners’ imagination was astonishing.

Now, what will happen in the 21st century, an era of innovation? The following are my “midsummer night’s dreams”:

Medical science will progress to the point where humans can typically live for 130 years. Supported by electronic information and communications technology, people will control their health information so well that if even a minor change occurs in their condition, they can be treated and cured immediately. Cancer will be eliminated and dementia would be prevented prior to its onset. Infectious diseases such as AIDS will disappear.

Regenerative medicine will be widespread and replacement of organs will become possible. Remotely controlled operations will be routine and surgical failures will disappear.

A “ubiquitous age” will emerge. Electronically controlled homes and electronic shopping will be the norm, while electronic banking and securities trading will take over, driving bank and securities firm offices out of town. Newspapers will be solely online and schools will exist mainly on the Internet.

Space and deep-sea travels will be possible, available for special occasions like golden and diamond wedding anniversaries.

New public transport systems will be widespread, linking Tokyo and Kobe in 30 minutes. Missile technology will be utilized in aircraft, cutting the time needed for a trip between Tokyo and New York to three hours.

Artificial intelligence will be developed. Progress in fuzzy engineering and neurocomputer technology will lead to the advent of thinking robots that can look after the home and provide medical treatment and nursing care.

Automobiles and railways will operate unmanned, with accidents eliminated by intelligent control systems.

Industrial plants would be completely automated, controlled by electronic information and communications technology. Agricultural production will be carried out in factories, achieving safe and stable food supplies.

Folding airplanes for personal use will be developed, enabling people to fly around like birds.

With the establishment of translation machines for all languages, people from all parts of the world will be able to converse with each other.

Humans will be able to talk with such creatures as birds, dogs and cats.

Canned electricity would be developed with the use of superconductive materials, making it possible to carry it freely on excursions such as mountain-climbing.

Cities will be “smart,” with highly efficient use of natural energy controlled by electronic information and communications technology.

With widespread use of natural energy and hydrogen, global warming will be nothing more than a topic of conversation about the past. Nuclear power will vanish and deserts will turn green.

Solar power will be harnessed in space through the use of artificial satellites and the electricity will be transmitted to Earth by laser.

Materials having various physical properties will be created in factories in outer space.

Forecasting technology for natural phenomena will be developed to the point where people will no longer have to fear earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons and tsunamis. Typhoon guidance technology will be developed making it possible to utilize the energy of such storms.

People will have a stronger interest in culture, making artistic expression more sophisticated and achieving synergic development of culture and industry.

Globalizm will become firmly rooted, with international organizations playing key roles and contributing to the establishment of partnerships among nations, while wars, civil strife and terrorist attacks will disappear.

I wonder how many of these dreams will come true?

Shinji Fukukawa, a former vice minister in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and president of Dentsu Research Institute, is currently senior adviser to the Global Industrial and Social Progress Research Institute.

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