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Week of 7 January 2000

Vol. III, No. 18

Feature Article

Faculty, staff forecast the future -- from medical advances to space travel

By Hope Green

"Human history," wrote H. G. Wells, "becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

Let's assume, having crossed the great Y2K divide with bank accounts and cities intact, that education continues to have the edge. Where do we go from here?

What follows are the comments of BU faculty and staff willing to hazard a guess as to how we will live, work, and conduct science in the 21st century and beyond.

Artificial intelligence
Erik Brisson, a member of the Office of Information Technology's (OIT) Scientific Computing and Visualization group, foresees brainlike devices taking on an increasingly creative role in the next thousand years.

"We are already at the point where we can make things that make other things," says Brisson, who is also OIT's manager of graphics programming. "For example, we can build robots that build cars. In the new millennium we will extend the number of levels at which we can do this; in other words, we will be able to make other things that make other things."

Going a step further, machines will have the capacity to design as well as to assemble, says Brisson. "This will happen in many domains, including mechanical devices, software, biological systems, and nanotechnology. Each level of indirection gives an exponential increase in our power to create, in terms of numbers and complexity."

Advances in artificial intelligence also will give new meaning to being "on the network," predicts Charles Cantor, professor of biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering and director of BU's Center for Advanced Biotechnology. In the January 2000 edition of Trends in Biotechnology, he writes: "Soon we will use sound rather than fingertips for most computer communication. Thus we will be able to maintain contact with the network whatever else we may be doing. . . . I would be astounded if, by the end of the 21st century, the distinction between organisms and computers was not blurred."

Charles Cantor

Charles Cantor
BU Photo Services

Differences between animal and vegetable also will start to fade in some instances, Cantor writes, as humans gain the power to control the evolution of all species and create new life-forms such as "plants that walk and animals that carry out photosynthesis.

"I can only hope we use this power wisely," he adds.

On the positive side, Cantor writes, biotechnology holds out the promise of personalized medicine, with drugs tailored to fit a patient's unique genetic makeup. He also foresees greater acceptance of "nutraceuticals," or foods genetically engineered to maximize health benefits, while the study of aging and how to retard it with medication "will take on major prominence."

Health care
As people live longer and healthier lives, they will also extend their working years, resulting in "a new definition of old age," says Karen Jacobs, associate professor of occupational therapy at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Advances in medicine will increase the life expectancy for people with physical disabilities, Jacobs adds, whereas in the past they might have succumbed to infections and other complications in middle age. Meanwhile, consumers will organize against the constraints of managed care, and patients will demand nonpharmaceutical approaches to their depression and anxiety. "Consumers," she says, "will rely increasingly on technology -- health-related Web sites, distance medicine, and virtual-reality rehabilitation -- to research new treatment options and state-of-the-art care."

Conversely, notes Jacobs, technology will take a greater toll on health as a growing number of children and working adults suffer musculoskeletal injuries from prolonged computer use.

Lena Lundgren

Lena Lundgren
Photo by Vernon Doucette

Work and family
Whether mothers should work outside the home will be a moot question in another half-century, predicts Lena Lundgren, a School of Social Work assistant professor and director of graduate instruction. After all, she says, the problems of juggling work and family already affect both genders.

"Fifty years from now you'll see large national policies supporting working families," Lundgren predicts. "Anyone who runs a large organization will realize that the time fathers spend on caring for children has been dramatically increasing. As we come to this recognition, the United States will become similar to other postindustrial societies by implementing policies such as paid parental leaves after the birth of a child."

Visual arts
For those with leisure time away from the office, going to an art museum will become a radically different experience, predicts Caroline Jones, College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of art history.

"If the last millennium is any guide," she says, "there will be the perfect conceptual terror and despair manufactured by our own numbering system, manifested in apocalyptic works that imagine humanity getting what's coming to us. But I predict, also based on past millennial and centennial moments, that there will be a surge in optimism and hope in our arts.

"As to what this stuff will look like: Installation art will increasingly feature computer-based mechanisms, but these will be less 'drag and click' and far more subtle, using remote sensing devices and the like that produce artworks to surround and respond to the presence and actions of the visitor. There will be much art that seeks transcendence, rapture, and ecstasy. I'm looking forward to it."

Space exploration
A manned mission to Mars is probably inevitable, predicts Tereasa Brainerd, CAS assistant professor of astronomy, even though robots could do the job themselves. "It's the fundamental desire of humans to explore new horizons firsthand that is the driving force behind this," Brainerd says. "It will, however, take a very special type of person to take the first big step and travel to Mars, since the round-trip travel time will be about three years."

NASA intends to build a number of satellites within the next two decades which, if successful, "are guaranteed to change our understanding of the universe and our place within it," Brainerd adds. These satellites include the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) and the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM).

Daniel Monti

Daniel Monti
Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Among NGST's goals will be to determine the length of time it took for stars and galaxies to assemble after the Big Bang. For SIM, a major purpose will be to provide images of other solar systems. "SIM is unlikely to provide images of small, earth-like planets in these systems," Brainerd says, "but it should be able to detect large planets that are comparable in size to the Jovian planets in our own solar system."

Urban renewal
Back on the home planet, ethnic groups will lead efforts to turn areas of urban blight into thriving neighborhoods, predicts Daniel Monti, CAS professor of sociology and author of The American City: A Social and Cultural History.

"Newer immigrant populations and better-established minority groups, like Latinos and blacks, will become far better organized and reclaim many areas that became run-down in the middle part of the century," he says. "They will find many businessmen and women receptive to their initiatives and learn to collaborate with corporate leaders in many profitable and socially beneficial ventures.

"Political leaders and government agencies will help in these initiatives," Monti adds, "but they will not be as instrumental in setting them up as they once were."

Richard Landes

Richard Landes
Photo by Vernon Doucette

Prognosis for peace
As for the global political climate, Richard Landes, CAS associate professor of history and director of the Center for Millennial Studies, offers this analysis:

"The cultures in which the relationship between elite and commoners is built on trust and cooperation will do well in the future. Those cultures rooted in suspicion, where the prevailing ideology is that life is a zero-sum game, will have difficulty launching economic initiatives and will lose out in the upcoming years."

Attempts at institutional democracy will backfire in societies where the cultural climate is authoritarian, Landes adds. "The only places where democracy is going to work is where the culture has a fundamental prior commitment to equality before the law."

Moreover, elites who behave as bullies within their own society probably will do the same on the world stage. "If elites are at war with commoners," says Landes, "they are also going to be at war with their neighbors. There's nothing like scapegoating to distract a patriotic population from its misery."

Sarah Godbout, Shauna LaFauci, Joan Schwartz, and Janice Zazinski in the Office of University Relations assisted in compiling the comments for this article.