Hannah Fry is teasing me! The mercurial mistress of mathematics hijacked the latest episode of Horizon to take a look at the issues that will change the way we live our lives in the future. And she goes all deep data to do it.
Her mission statement declares:
“Rather than relying on the minds of science fiction writers, mathematician Hannah Fry delves into the data we have today to provide an evidence-based vision of tomorrow.”
If you are not familiar with the Horizon series of science documentaries, it has a thirty year history of throwing a spotlight on high science, with a narrative value that opens esoteric subjects to a wider audience. Check out the recent episode Strange Signals From Outer Space! if you can. It will put the Lorimer Burst into perspective.
This is not an approach unfamiliar to Fry, as evidenced by her documentary Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing, a profile of Victorian computing pioneer Ada Lovelace.
So when Horizon presents 10 Thing You Need To Know About The Future it has all the exotic promise of Fry’s Turkish Delight. Fry has amassed a legion of science experts to investigate the questions we want answered about the future.
Could we ever live forever or find a cure for cancer? How will research into the human brain help with mental health? Is it possible to ditch fossil fuels? What is the future of transport - and when, if ever, we really will see flying cars? Will a robot take your job? Will we all one day become cyborgs? What kind of weather will we face and are we are on the verge of another mass extinction?
Fry acknowledges pit falls to gazing in the crystal ball, with a 1964 clip from Horizon where science fiction author and futurologist Arthur C Clarke makes a prediction that sounds roughly like the internet.
All well and good, but then she follows it with Clarke predicting a society which uses trained chimpanzees as servants. Until they demand a trade union that is. I think Clarke was deliberately monkeying around on that last bit, but Hannah has made her point.
Her own “confident” prediction is that viewers in 2050 will not be laughing at this latest exercise in divining the future because she and the team have crunched the numbers and checked the evidence rather than read the tea leaves.
So the show kicks off proper with a brief look at longevity, a positive, upbeat segment that drops in on naked mole rats who are some of the cutest critters around. They also have remarkably long life spans for rodents, are generally cancer free, and maintain health almost until the end. Equivalent to a 750 year lifespan for a human.
There is some overlap in the ten things under discussion, which is where the programme begins to drift a bit. It’s not firmly formed as a top ten things to know and all the areas covered could stand their own episode of Horizon.
That should be the plan, Hannah, push for a full series like James Burke’s Connections. We need those wider explanations.
From longevity, we touch on mental health then jump to brain scans and on to the weather for a pocket explanation of climate change and how it buggers up gardeners. The expectation is for the north to become warmer and wetter and the south hotter and drier, but all with more visible extremes. Say goodbye to Florida, Donald!
Then we are back on the prospect of a cure for cancer (which quotes Bill Clinton and Tony Blair on the Genome Project). Geneticist Giles Yeo outlines some positive developments in immunity research and the challenges of gene therapy. An unprecedented era looms.
So what about work? With people becoming less integral to the work place they send GP Dr Zoe (Trust me I’m A Doctor) Williams to try the bedside manner of an AI diagnostic tool. It seems to do the job and we discover a little bit about machine learning. Adapt or die seems to be the watchword for surviving in the workplace of the future.
Next, we get into fossil fuel consumption and the prospect of a world without oil. Physicist Helen Czerski gets to drive an electric hybrid to Norway to check out Kitemill - an airborne energy generating system. Altitude seems to be the key for wind power. It is an impressive system, mobile doesn’t require any great infrastructure and could easily bring electricity to remote areas.
James Young tells a little of his own experience using advanced prosthetics and then meets with Neil Harveson, who suffers from achromatopsia, a condtion which means he only sees things in greyscale. Neil has hacked his brain with an antenna that allows him to hear colours.
Taking a detour into the natural world, Hannah has some chilling stats about declining wildlife with trends predicting a 67 per cent drop by 2020 by comparison with 1970. Biologist Adam Rutherford drops in to discuss extinction events who points out that current timescale is grievously accelerated in comparison to previous occurrences. Catastrophic breakdowns of our eco-systems seem imminent and the next human generation or so may find life considerably different as a result.
So we get to flying cars. The need for speed, combined with the number of people driving, means the modern motorist doesn’t get around that quickly. Average speed 7mph in London. Vehicle Science Engineer Teena Gade of Sahara Force India Formula One Team looks at the prospect of flying cars that don’t crash into each other. That means meeting Dr Raffaello D’Andrea, creator of the Kiva System, in an automated warehouse. The Kivabots get to pick and pack without accident, and similar principles can be applied to flying drones. Cue pretty lights in the sky.
Hannah’s tenth prediction is more of a convergence. Anything could happen in the next 50 years. She reckons the combination of typewriter, camera, computer, and telephone in one device would impress even Clarke. And it is cleaner than the chimps, she quips.
In some ways, the episode is like a backdoor pilot for a revival of Tomorrow’s World. Fry teases wonky predictions on TW but forgets everything they got right. However, it all seems a little piecemeal for an edition of Horizon. Fry is right, the subjects are all serious considerations for the future but none of them get sufficient attention in this forum.
Still they are all food for thought in the future.
The Horizon website offers some handy links for further research.
Horizon: 10 Things You Need to Know About the Future used data about today to predict the trends of the future.
Here is where we got the data from:
Life Expectancy by time
Source: Office of National Statistics
Average Age by time
Source: Office of National Statistics
Mapping the Brain
Cost of mental health conditions
Source: A report by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health (using data from WHO) TABLE 15
Disease burden by category
Source: By 2030 mental health problems will cause the largest burden of disease worldwide;
Temperature change by time
Source: A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperature for the Past 11,300 Years.
Science 08 Mar 2013: Vol. 339, Issue 6124, pp. 1198-1201
Electricity generation in the UK by different technologies
Source: UK Government - Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy
Decline in wildlife
Source: Living Planet Report 2016
Produced by WWF in collaboration with ZSL, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Global Footprint Network, The Stockholm Environment Institute and Metabolic
Motor traffic by category by time
Source: Department of Transport