Thirteen Crazy Predictions for the Next Ten Years
In late 2007, I posted "ten crazy predictions for the next ten years."
Since then, I've been collecting further crazy predictions, and my post today that referenced perennial corn reminded me that I've amassed enough ideas to justify another post. So, here goes.
1.) Vancomycin fails, catastrophically. Vancomycin is currently the last line of defense available to science in the battle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. With staph infections in hospitals now overwhelmingly resistant to methicillin, and linezolid/Zyvox resistance growing, we are acutely dependent on the continued potency of vancomycin. However, given the evolutionary pressures imposed on MRSA by continued usage of vancomycin, it's reasonable to believe that eventually resistance will develop. When that happens, many types of hospital-acquired infections will be fatal.
The race to find a replacement will touch off a surge of antibiotic research, most likely leading to several new classes of drugs. More importantly, the US may end up looking to 50s era Soviet medicine, which was dominated by an entirely different approach to treating bacterial infections. The Soviets used viruses call bacteriophages, which are natural enemies of bacteria, to treat infections in humans. These phages, which are entirely harmless to human beings, could in the future be the basis for an entirely new method of infectious disease control, a method that has the benefit of being based on biology rather than chemistry. As such, drug resistance may be harder to develop, since any adaptations made by the target bacteria could be matched step by step by the predatory virus.
What's more, there is an essentially inexhaustible supply of new viruses that can be found simply by analyzing a bucket of seawater. In all likelihood, there is no species of infectious bacteria in the world that doesn't have at least a few natural phage enemies, plus dozens more that could be genetically altered to target that bacterial species in just a few steps.
There are a handful of companies and research institutes pursuing phage research -- the list below is a starting point:
2.) Mortality from heart disease in general, and heart attacks/cardiac arrest in particular, will fall by 75% (age-adjusted) by the end of 2019. We have recently learned that a simple, cheap drug combination (a generic statin, of which there are many; a generic blood pressure medication; and potentially aspirin) can reduce heart attacks by 50% to 70%. The effectiveness may go up as more advanced statins go off patent and become available for large scale study. Notably, this result has been duplicated in successive studies in both the United States and India, suggesting that the finding is robust.
If, in such a world, a patient is unlucky enough to have a heart attack, they will have treatment options available to them in the first hour or two post attack that may dramatically improve survival rates. There are studies ongoing using induced hypothermia, nitrous oxide, green mamba snake venom (for real!), and hydrogen sulfide to improve the treatment of heart attacks in ambulances and hospitals, during the critical first hour after the attack when it's still possible to make a big difference. Combine these advances with the now-widespread knowledge that to improve survival you want to take aspirin in the moments after a heart attack make low- and no-training defibrillators available in public places, and there is a very real possibility that a 75% reduction in mortality can be achieved in a decade.
3.) Synthetic resveratrol, as developed by Sirtris Pharmaceuticals and a host of other companies, will extend not only the lifespan, but the healthy, productive lifespan of the entire population by at least five years. This effect alone could add half a point of productivity gains to the economy forever, as older workers stay on the job longer. It might also give us the political cover necessary to ratchet up retirement ages to save Medicare and Social Security.
4.) At least one baby born in the year 2010 will still be alive in the year 2160. If someone were to teach her value investing, watch out.
5.) By 2019, the petroleum portion of the US current account deficit will go into terminal decline, such that within 10 years after 2019, the United States will no longer import petroleum from the world market. Instead, the US automotive fleet will be fueled domestically using electricity and biofuels. All cars sold by 2018 will be plug-in hybrids or pure electric cars.
It should be noted that I believe that the number of imported barrels will peak well before 2019, possibly as early as three years from now. That said, rising prices (rising in a volatile, staccato fashion) will increase the current account deficit attributable to oil even as the number of imported barrels declines from 2013 to 2019. We may go from peak oil barrel imports in 2013, to peak oil imports by dollar value in 2019, to no net imports at all by as early as 2024.
6.) There will be millions of PHEV and electric cars on the road by 2019. That said, electricity usage in the United States will be down from current levels. How can this be possible? Simple -- it takes less electricity to move an electric car 100 miles than is used in a refinery to produce enough gas to move a gasoline-powered car 100 miles. Any engineers reading this post? If so, you'll intuitively know why this is so. A refinery uses electricity (among other inputs) to fractionate petroleum into refined products, creating heat losses along the way. The car's engine then turns the gasoline into mechanical energy, creating heat losses along the way. You save a step by using an electric car powered by the grid, and even lithium-ion batteries apparently lose less energy to heat than an internal combustion engine does, what with all that, you know, combustion.
Broader understanding of this point will create a "leave it in the ground" movement with regard to oil.
7.) The United Kingdom, Iran, and Mexico will all cease to be oil exporters before 2012. As their fields age and as years of under-investment take their toll on Mexico and Iran, the countries will find that they simply cannot supply the world with petroleum -- their production will forever after go toward domestic needs exclusively. In Mexico, this will cause a huge widening in credit spreads on the nation's sovereign debt. In Iran, the mullahs will fall from power within 18 months of the end of oil exports.
8.) Excluding petroleum, the United States will swing to a current account surplus within 5 years. As the dollar continues to fall and oil prices rise, import growth will become simply untenable, to say nothing of the effect an 8% savings rate would have on the consumption of cheap consumer goods. Cargo ships that now return to Asia loaded with empty containers will suddenly find the westbound trip from America more profitable than the eastbound trip from Asia. If you can figure out what they'll be carrying to the emerging consumer cultures of Asia, let me know!
9.) Over 500 states, towns, school boards and other governmental agencies will declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy over the next decade. It will all be caused by their pension funds. And yes, I've been saying this since 2006.
10.) Global trade will take vastly different routes than it does today. As the Arctic sea ice retreats further every summer, enterprising ships will export goods from Asia to Europe by going north of Russia, and they will send trade destined for the East Coast of North America through Canada's Northwest Passage, fulfilling a dream centuries in the making. Most of these ships can sail straight up the St. Lawrence Seaway as far as Chicago, dramatically lowering the transportation cost of imports to the bulk of the American population. In addition, the Panama Canal will complete its widening within three years, allowing much larger ships from Asia to sail directly to the East Coast, on one hand, or to offload onto barges in New Orleans, for further ship-based traffic as far north as Chicago. The winners will be logistics companies and real estate owners in New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit (yes, Detroit!) and St. Louis, while the big losers will be Egypt (the Suez) and the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach. That isn't great news for my suffering home town.
11.) Relative to other OECD nations, America's primary and secondary students will score above the median in reading, math, and science by 2019. We're used to hearing how our students are routinely trounced by academic all stars in Japan, Korea, Denmark Sweden, and other countries. What is missing, however, is the realization that academic achievement in America has been improving for four years. What's more, the infrastructure to scale high performance education has been built in the form of emerging, chain store charter schools. KIPP, Green Dot, YES and other networks will continue to expand, taking market share and forcing the remaining public schools to improve results or risk losing their students entirely. This process will only accelerate as the moral bankruptcy of the teachers' unions is further exposed.
As a corollary to this prediction, I believe that the Teach for America alumni network will become one of the most powerful political groups in America. Just as today we respect politicians who served in the military in their youth, in the future, our most accomplished, morally authoritative politicians will be TFA alums. Wendy Kopp will win a Nobel Peace Prize.
12.) Moore's Law will come to a screeching halt. The clock speed of a typical computer has been unchanged since 2004, when consumer desktops first hit 2.8 to 3.2 Ghz. Today, computers still process data at 2.8 to 3.2 Ghz, though chipmakers have responded by moving to dual and quad core chips. While this is somewhat useful, the software industry has yet to roll out development tools that allow coders to take advantage of parallelism to any material degree. Trade publications continue to suggest that developing these tools will be an enormous technical challenge. Your 2019 computer may have two dozen cores running at 4.0 Ghz, but it won't feel any faster than the computer you're using today.
13.) The development of perennial cereals -- grains that need no annual tilling, replanting, or fertilization, and that generate three to four crops per year -- will revolutionize agriculture. The DNA sequences necessary to turn the most important cereals of all, wheat and corn, into perennial crops, will be among the most valuable intellectual property in the world, potentially much more valuable than the IP necessary to generate synthetic bio-gasoline, which I described in my 2007 post. I believe the IP underlying perennial corn will be more valuable than the IP underlying synthetic biogasoline/biodiesel because advanced biofuels have at least six different production pathways that I can identify (pyrolosis, syngas, algae, fermentation by bugs, the McGyan catalyst process, and purely thermal approaches), and dozens of viable feedstocks. By contrast, we don't know if there will be multiple pathways to perennial corn, and even if there are, the world's farmers are likely to standardize on a small handful of approaches.
Most importantly, perennial corn represents the best line of defense we have against peak phosphorus.
Thirteen Crazy Predictions for the Next Ten Years