Monday, November 5, 2012

Barack Obama for President

This blog enthusiastically endorses Barack Obama for a second term as President of the United States. Since the focus of Visions of Tomorrow is on futurism, I will explain my reasoning for why Barack Obama is a better choice than Mitt Romney with an emphasis on the long-term picture.

Let me start off by saying that despite the tough rhetoric of this campaign cycle, I am not so cynical as to think that a Mitt Romney presidency will bring about a dystopia, nor am I naive enough to think that a second Obama term will solve all of America's problems. Politicians always overpromise and underdeliver, and I do not expect the next four years to be an exception to this rule. The twin drivers of the future - globalization and technology - will continue along very similar (although not identical) paths regardless of who is elected. I believe the world will be better off in 2016 than it is in 2012 regardless of who sits in the Oval Office next January, simply because our technology will have improved and the economies of emerging economies will continue to develop.

Why, then, do I especially prefer Obama to Romney? The American health care system has been growing increasingly dysfunctional ever since World War II, when the practice of tying health insurance to employment began sheerly by accident, due to a tax loophole. Ever since, those lucky enough to have employment in stable jobs have generally had access to good health insurance, while those who do not are left to fend for themselves on the individual health insurance market (or denied the ability to get health insurance at all). Over half of all personal bankruptcies in the United States are due to health care costs. Aside from the moral problems with denying health insurance to millions of people, the system is economically unsustainable. Despite having middling results and the worst coverage of any developed nation, the United States spends by far the most per capita on health insurance. The runner-up, Norway, spends 33% less than the United States does, and gets far better results. We should learn from the example of every other developed country: more government coordination of health care tends to lower costs and improve access.

Simply put, Barack Obama is far better on health care reform than Mitt Romney. Obama's call for universal health care is not just a pie-in-the-sky campaign promise that politicians offer every four years. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is the most transformative piece of legislation since the 1960s and is already the law of the land, slated to take effect in 2014. However, Mitt Romney has pledged to repeal it if elected. Although he claims that he will see to it that people with preexisting conditions are able to buy health insurance, Romney has offered no indication of how he plans to do this. In fact, he seems to have no health care plan at all, aside from repealing PPACA and preserving to the status quo. The United States cannot afford this.

Our nation's energy policies in the upcoming years can have a profound impact on how quickly we make the transition to clean sources of energy and get serious about preventing climate change. Solar energy is expanding at an exponential rate, and could become cheaper than coal and natural gas in some parts of the country by the middle of the next decade. However, the coal and natural gas markets are absolutely booming in the United States and Canada, to a degree that no one thought possible just a few years ago. It now appears very likely that the cost of fossil fuel energy will fall even farther than it already has, as the center of the energy universe rapidly shifts from the Middle East to North America. Will the United States succumb to the temptation to abandon clean energy and rely on fossil fuels for years to come? This is essentially the energy platform that Mitt Romney has proposed, criticizing the president for failed investments in solar firms like Solyndra. President Obama has pledged to continue America's investment in solar energy. Although this is not absolutely necessary for solar energy to eventually come out on top (which I think is inevitable), it will speed the process along by several years. Getting our fossil fuel consumption under control is an absolutely essential first step toward halting climate change; only Barack Obama appears to be serious about doing so. Although he probably will no longer be in office by the time he sees the fruits of this investment, it is a long-term investment worth making.

The next president will also have a huge influence over the long-term trajectory of our nation's attitudes toward privacy. Cybercrime and identity theft are becoming more and more ubiquitous. DARPA now has spy drones the size of insects...and it won't be long until they become the province of amateurs rather than the military. Police and public officials are routinely testing the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment in areas where the law has not kept up with technology, such as placing GPS trackers on cars without a warrant, reading emails and searching the cloud without a warrant, or even installing web cameras on citizens' property without a warrant. It is very likely that the Supreme Court will soon tackle some of these issues. Although in many ways President Obama has been a disappointment on civil liberties, he is leaps and bounds better than Governor Romney simply because of the types of justices the two men are likely to appoint to the Supreme Court. The president has appointed two justices with very strong records on civil liberties; Mitt Romney has picked Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as his favorite justices, both of whom are predisposed to deferring to the police and expanding their power.

As I see it, health care, energy, and privacy are the three issues on which America's decision tomorrow will have a profound impact for years or decades. On these issues, there really is no contest. On all three, Barack Obama is superior to Mitt Romney, and therefore deserving of a second term as president. I urge all Americans to cast their ballots for Barack Obama tomorrow.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bird Flu, Bioterror, and Bioerror

This week the prestigious science journal, Nature, published the methods and results of a groundbreaking new experiment in biotechnology, reigniting a firestorm that has been raging on and off for nearly a year. The reason for the controversy is the ghastly topic of the research paper: How to genetically engineer the avian influenza virus (H5N1) to make it more communicable.

Although H5N1 (i.e. “bird flu”) has existed in bird populations for decades, it entered the public consciousness in 2004, when human cases began surfacing in China and Southeast Asia. The cases were quickly linked to contact with poultry – mostly slaughterhouse workers or chicken farmers, who directly worked with chickens in insanitary conditions. H5N1 was far more virulent than the seasonal strains of influenza which have been circulating since 1918; over 60% of people who have contracted H5N1 in the past eight years have died from it. Fortunately, there has been no pandemic. Only 600 people worldwide are known to have had avian influenza. Although it appears that humans can acquire the disease directly from birds, there have been no known cases of human-to-human transmission – a prerequisite for a global pandemic. Although influenza viruses mutate very quickly, the lack of human-to-human transmission caused some complacency. Some epidemiologists even went so far as to state that human-to-human transmission of H5N1 might be impossible.

The new research blows that theory out of the water. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Erasmus Medical College succeeded in taking the H5N1 virus and combining it with the H1N1 (“swine flu”) virus. Swine flu is known to be easily communicable between humans but relatively mild; bird flu is known to be extremely deadly but difficult to transmit. By combining the two into a hybrid and making other modifications to the genes of the virus, scientists developed a “super-strain” of flu. They tested the virus on ferrets, which have an immune system very similar to humans. Not only did many of the ferrets die, but the disease was easily transmitted to other ferrets who were not directly exposed to the virus themselves.

The research has horrified many scientists. Governments remain gravely concerned about its publication in Nature. In the United States, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity requested that Nature not publish the findings in the interest of national security. Although academia typically does not view censorship kindly, many scientists found themselves agreeing with the government. Biologist and Nobel-laureate Sir Richard Roberts said, “Someone is trying to make the most dangerous virus we can think of. I don't understand how one can justify that, unless there is no other way of getting the data that you're interested in.” The risks are huge: Nature published the methodology that the scientists used to create their super-strain of flu, potentially providing a blueprint for terrorists to replicate their efforts. Additionally, there is the concern that if research like this isn't shunned, it will continue apace and may one day escape the laboratory through simple error.

Other scientists believe that publishing the research is necessary, in order to prevent future outbreaks. They argue that if we can learn more about how influenza mutates and infects new people, we will be better prepared to deal with a future pandemic. They acknowledge the dangers of the research, but argue that there is no avoiding the fact that it will soon be possible to create bioengineered diseases, and it is better to be prepared for them when they do occur. Additionally, there is the possibility that H5N1 may eventually evolve into a more communicable form on its own, for which epidemiologists should prepare. Last month, the US government finally relented. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reversed itself, voting 12-6 to allow the publication of the research to proceed.

As it stands, I find myself on the side of those urging extreme caution with this type of research. Bioterrorism will be the greatest security threat of the early 21st century; unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons will soon be available to many people. Futurist Michio Kaku warns that in the not-too-distant future, creating new viruses may be as simple as typing base letters into a piece of software and having a computer assemble the DNA strand. When that happens, we may have no choice but to fund research to prevent diseases that do not yet exist in nature. But until then, it seems that the risks greatly outweigh the rewards.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Coming Collapse of the University System

In 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established New College – the first institute of higher education in the Western Hemisphere. A Boston minister named John Harvard donated 320 books and £800 to the new institution, which was promptly renamed Harvard College in his honor, thus beginning the modern university system in the United States. For most of the time since then, universities were the province of the elite. Since most Americans were farmers prior to the 20th century, they had little use for even a high school diploma, much less a bachelor's degree. Following World War II, the paradigm shifted dramatically. As the need for college-educated labor dramatically increased, universities became much more commonplace. The university system has grown to immense scales that John Harvard could scarcely have imagined – there are now over 2,600 universities in the United States, and more than half of all Americans have completed at least some college education.

For the past 60 or so years, the university system has served a dual role: Professors both conduct academic research and instruct students. High tuition price tags are, in large part, used to subsidize academic research rather than pay for student education. Although this arrangement worked reasonably well for several decades, it began to show cracks in the early 2000s and is now near the breaking point. This paradigm for higher education is no longer sustainable.

The most obvious reason is the soaring cost of tuition. The average college graduate has accumulated $26,000 in student debt when he or she graduates. In 2010, student loans became the largest source of unsecured debt in the United States, surpassing credit card debt for the first time. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if accumulating so much debt was a worthwhile long-term investment, but recently many people have started to question this longstanding assumption. They are right to be worried. Student debt is an albatross around the necks of many recent graduates which hinders social mobility. One definition of an economic bubble is the trade in a product or service at a price that far exceeds its intrinsic value; another definition is a widespread public consensus of the high value of the product or service, that is at odds with a realistic examination of the facts. By these definitions, university tuition prices are most definitely in a bubble, and it's only a matter of time until the bubble pops.

But the tuition bubble masks another looming problem that most universities barely acknowledge today, but poses an even greater threat to them: The prominence and quality of free online education is poised to improve dramatically in the next few years. Today, most online universities are for-profit institutions with horrible brand images, but that will soon change. MIT and Stanford now offer many of their courses online for free, to anyone who wants them. Additionally, a slew of free websites have popped up in the last couple years to teach specific skills such as computer programming, mathematics, history, biology, foreign languages, and business.

As the course offerings proliferate and quality improves, more and more students will begin to question why they are paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend a university, when they can learn the same material online for free (or at least very cheaply). This will, in turn, encourage employers to accept “alternative” certifications to a traditional bachelor's degree, such as educational websites vouching for the student's knowledge. This will badly damage the credibility of universities and undermine their role as the gatekeepers to white-collar careers. With the exception of certain professions for which formal credentials are absolutely required for employment (e.g. law and medicine), the necessity of acquiring a formal degree will fall by the wayside as more alternatives present themselves, causing a mass exodus from universities.

As this happens, universities will need to sharply reduce their tuitions in order to stay competitive with their free counterparts...and eventually, even the sharpest reductions will be insufficient. As the cost of a good education drops to nearly zero, universities will need to completely rethink their business model.

This will cause major funding problems for scholarly research, if nothing is done. The dual responsibilities of universities, instruction and research, will separate from one another. As universities earn less money from tuition – and have fewer alumni to provide large donations – academia could suffer unless steps are taken to find another stream of revenue. The research that professors conduct benefits society as a whole, but is usually not profitable. As tuition money dries up, I suspect that universities – both public and private – will rely more on government largesse to support their research.

Ultimately there is another role that universities might serve. Although the tuition model is doomed in the long term, many students crave the “college experience” that only being on a campus can provide. Universities might still serve as places for young people to come together and live, join clubs, and play sports and music together...despite getting their actual education online from many different sources. In this way, perhaps universities can earn a bit of money from their “students” and retain some loyalty from their “alumni,” although they will never again be centers of education.

The coming crash in tuition prices will be bad for universities and potentially bad for academic research if nothing changes...but it will be great for students. In a certain sense, the ability to acquire a college education for free or nearly free will be a throwback to the “old days” in which young people started out their careers without any debt. Many of the most dynamic companies are started by young people, but student debt provides a significant drag on this economic engine. Eliminating this problem for future generations could potentially create a large economic boom, as more dynamic companies are born to solve the world's challenges.

By 2021 – The average cost of tuition at the 100 top-ranked brick-and-mortar universities is lower than it was in 2011, after adjusting for inflation.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Book review - "Abundance" by Peter Diamandis

Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize Foundation and the co-founder of Singularity University, is one of the foremost futurists today. He is well known for both popularizing emerging technologies and driving their development. His new book, Abundance, chronicles the ways in which technology is rapidly transforming life for people all around the world, and will soon usher in a “post-scarcity economy.”

Diamandis starts out by identifying the sources of humanity's biggest needs today – water, food, energy, education, information, communication, transportation, health care, and freedom/democracy – before going on to explain how technology can solve or is already solving these problems. Many of these same topics have already been covered in this blog.

Technologies like Dean Kamen's Slingshot will soon transform the way water is distributed and solve humanity's single greatest problem. Bioengineered crops, in vitro meat production, and vertical farming will soon enable us to grow food in places where it was not previously possible, under conditions that are much safer, more environmentally friendly, and less volatile. New online education technologies will soon enable far more people to have access to high-quality K-12 education, at a greatly reduced price, and Moore's Law is reducing the price of computing to the point where nearly anyone in the world can afford it (case in point: the proliferation of cell phones throughout even the poorest parts of Africa and India.) Solar energy will become cost-competitive with fossil fuels by the 2020s, thus offering a virtually unlimited source of environmentally-friendly energy.

But the part of the book that I found the most intriguing wasn't simply the range of technological solutions to humanity's greatest challenges; although Diamandis writes about these emerging technologies with an insider's knowledge, they have all been discussed elsewhere for years. The most intriguing part was Diamandis' idea of billions of new minds “coming online.” Sadly, people grinding out an existence in poverty are usually not able to contribute their ideas and talents to the world, and we are all worse off for it. But as we solve the problems of poverty and move toward a post-scarcity economy, billions of people will be freed from the task of eking out a subsistence lifestyle and will be able to contribute more to humanity's wellbeing themselves.

In my opinion, this reserve of squandered brainpower is the biggest overlooked resource of exponential growth that humanity has. Even the futurist most known for the concept of exponential growth, Ray Kurzweil, rarely talks about this untapped human potential. I find Diamandis' idea of exponential growth due to human intelligence far more plausible than Kurzweil's idea of exponential growth due to artificial least for the next few decades.

For most of human history, progress crawled along at an incredibly slow pace, because nearly everyone was dirt poor, focused on staying alive rather than making the world a better place. Progress accelerated dramatically in the 19th and 20th century, as more and more people gained access to the basic necessities of life and were able to build careers in areas in which they were talented and interested. But even today, at most a small fraction of humanity is currently driving the vast majority of the technological, social, political, and economic change around the world. This small fraction is disproportionately comprised of those who have already benefited from abundance. Far too many people still do not have access to the basics of life, which are a prerequisite to leaving a lasting mark on humanity.

As more and more people gain access to these things and we enter a post-scarcity economy, the world will begin to “wake up.” What happens when 8 billion people, rather than 1-2 billion, have everything they need to pursue their dreams? What will they do? How much more rapidly will our world progress when we have so many more people working for the betterment of the world? What kind of ideas, dreams, and talents already exist in the world today, lying dormant and waiting to be unlocked by the technological drivers of abundance?

Book rating: 5/5 stars

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Future of Water: The Slingshot

Dean Kamen is possibly the world's greatest living inventor. Although he has been well-known among futurists for years, he rose to wider fame when he invented the Segway in 2001. His inventions also include the world's first wheelchair capable of climbing and descending stairs, and the world's first drug infusion pump which is used to provide diabetics with insulin on an as-needed basis. Kamen is remarkable because unlike most inventors, he does not work under the umbrella of a large corporation, university, or government agency. He is truly a DIY innovator.

Kamen's latest invention sets the stage to change the lives of billions of people over the next decade. His new water purification system, dubbed the Slingshot, is far cheaper and more accessible than anything that has come before it. The refrigerator-sized Slingshot is capable of taking “anything wet,” in Kamen's words, and transforming it into water that is so pure that it can be both consumed and used in sterile injections. It can convert ocean water, polluted water, or raw sewage from an outhouse into pure drinking water.

It works by heating the “raw” water to a boiling point, compressing it under just the right amount of pressure, then allowing it to condense and cool in a separate chamber of the machine. The technique is known as vapor compression distillation. The amount of energy that is required to power the machine is equivalent to the amount it takes to run a small coffee-maker, and enough energy is left over to allow the users to charge cell phones and other electronic devices. It can run on any source of energy, including cow dung. Since the parts of the world where clean water is in short supply tend to also be the places where electricity is in short supply, the ability to power the machine on cow dung is very important for its success. It means that it can work in societies which do not have any energy infrastructure in place.

Kamen plans to sell the machines for $1,000 to $2,000 – a bargain, considering that the machine can produce a thousand liters of clean water every day, and is designed to last for several years without any maintenance. Kamen envisions them being placed in communities all over the world and shared as communal property. He has partnered with Coca-Cola to use Coke's distribution channels to bring the Slingshot to the most remote parts of the world. At this price, even the poorest communities should be able to afford a Slingshot.

Nearly 50% of the world's disease burden is due to people not having access to clean water. More than 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water, and the UN projects this number will rise to 2.7 billion people by 2025 if nothing changes. But the Slingshot will make sure that things do indeed change. It removes salt, chemicals, urine, feces, poison, parasites, bacteria, eggs, viruses, and all other substances that make water undrinkable.

At the Slingshot's price and energy requirements, water shortages – arguably the biggest cause of extreme poverty in the world today – could be virtually eliminated, as the machine is rolled out to the poorest parts of the world via Coca-Cola's world-class distribution channels. In the longer term, Slingshot (or its successors) could even be able to “greenify” regions of the world like the Arabian Peninsula, which have plenty of salt water nearby but very little freshwater. We could solve many of the environmental problems that our agricultural systems have created by recycling polluted water.

97.5% of the world's water is salt water, and another 1.8% is locked up in the glaciers and ice caps. All of our water shortages are due to lack of access to the remaining 0.7% of the world's water. If we can tap into just a tiny fraction of the previously unusable water by removing salt, we could provide plenty of water for everyone on earth.


By 2030 – Less than 3% of the world's people do not have access to clean drinking water.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ten Random Ideas

It's been a while since I posted a new blog entry. Since I don't have any specific subject on my mind today, I thought I would just share ten random facts, theories, or ideas that I find fascinating:

1. Dark matter and dark energy – We have no idea what 96% of the universe is made of. Physicists confirm that only about 4% of the universe is composed of the familiar matter that we're accustomed to. Another 24% is made up of dark matter (which only interacts with regular matter via gravity), and 72% is made up of dark energy (which is a repulsive force that causes space itself to expand). But we have no clue what dark energy or dark matter are.

2. Toba Catastrophe Theory - Approximately 70,000 years ago, a supervolcano erupted on Lake Toba, on the island of Sumatra in present-day Indonesia. This eruption was so unimaginably enormous that it blanketed all of South Asia in 15 centimeters of ash, and put enough ash into the atmosphere to cause a volcanic winter, which abruptly changed the entire planet's climate for several decades. At this time, humanity nearly went extinct - the entire human population may have been reduced to just 1,000 breeding pairs, creating a bottleneck in human evolution. We are all descended from the few survivors of this apocalypse.

3. String theory - Why don't the rules of physics that apply to macroscopic objects (i.e. the theory of relativity) seem to apply to particles (i.e. quantum mechanics) and vice versa? Since macroscopic objects are composed of particles, it would stand to reason that they should. String theory attempts to reconcile these two sets of laws by postulating that at an extremely tiny scale (much smaller than subatomic particles), the universe is made up of tiny vibrating strings. Different vibrations produce different kinds of particles. It also calls for the existence of 6 or 7 extra dimensions, which we don't notice in our every day lives because they are so tiny. So far there is zero evidence that string theory is correct, but it has widespread support among physicists due to its mathematical elegance. This is one of the first serious scientific hypotheses to be considered not because the evidence necessarily suggests it is correct (at least not yet), but because physicists believe that the universe “should” be simple. If it proves to be right, it may call for us to reevaluate how scientific theories should be developed.

4. Happiness Economics - For the last 200 years, economists have mostly measured wellbeing in terms of money, such as measurements like GDP. While this is often a good approximation of human wellbeing, it's a crude tool. Consider that Russia and Mexico have approximately the same GDP per capita, yet Mexicans consistently report being much happier than Russians do. Maybe the next big shift in economics is to determine the policies most likely to improve a population's happiness, rather than assuming that more GDP growth will do the trick.

5. Self-driving cars - The transportation industry is about to see its biggest game-changing revolution since the invention of the automobile itself. Self-driving cars are being tested by Google, Stanford University, Carnegie-Mellon, and every major automobile manufacture. They're already on the road being tested, but aren't commercially available yet. They should be by 2017-2020. This will radically change the way we live our lives. It will eliminate most of the 40,000 annual traffic fatalities in the United States, which are mostly caused by human error. It will free us from the stresses of daily commutes, and allow us to do things other than watch the road. And for many people it will eliminate the need for car ownership entirely, as it will be easy to simply summon a car to pick you up whenever you need one.

6. Biology causing mass extinctions - It turns out that we humans are not the first species in the history of the earth to single-handedly wreck the planet's climate. We share that distinction with at least two others: Cyanobacteria and Azolla Ferns. 2.4 billion years ago when life was very primitive and microbial, there wasn't much oxygen in the atmosphere. Therefore, nearly all species were anaerobic - they had evolved in conditions of very little oxygen. Over time, a species of cyanobacteria began to proliferate which excreted oxygen as a waste product. This changed the composition of the earth's atmosphere and poisoned nearly all of the anaerobic species, resulting in the extinction of most types of life on earth. More recently, a mere 49 million years ago the earth had an extremely warm climate, in which ferns were able to grow as far north as the arctic. They began proliferating around the Arctic Ocean, sucking up lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and then sinking to the bottom of the ocean when they died. This sudden reduction in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere caused global cooling, which eventually turned the entire planet from a greenhouse into an icehouse.

7. Simulation Hypothesis - Is our reality a simulation, like The Matrix? Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom thinks so. Consider the following argument: If we assume that it is possible to create simulated worlds, and that at least one species somewhere in the universe would like to do so, then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Why? Because such a civilization would be likely to create multiple simulations (some of which might be running simulations of their own), and so probability would dictate that it's far more likely we are living in one such simulation than in the "original" universe. You can be the judge as to how compelling you find this argument...but I can't find any obvious flaws in the logic.

8. Post-scarcity - Assuming that we don't blow ourselves up and that we don't encounter civilization-wrecking climate change in the next few decades, we will soon enter into an age of abundance where virtually everyone has access to the basic necessities of life. This is due to a convergence of several trends. As genomics improves, we will soon be able to grow meat in laboratories and grow crops hydroponically, eliminating the need for most farms/ranches, ensuring a stable food supply, giving the environment a much-needed breather from the damage we've done, and freeing up freshwater to be used for humans. As solar energy improves (the capacity is growing exponentially), it will soon be able to compete dollar-for-dollar with fossil fuels...and soon thereafter leave fossil fuels in the dust. Education will become much cheaper due to effective online tools that are finally becoming available, and the subsequent end of the 19th/20th century model of education. Health care will become much better due to effective personalized medicine, which will proliferate as it finally becomes affordable to have your genome sequenced.

9. VY Canis Majoris - The scale of some of the objects in our universe is so unimaginably vast that it's difficult for us to comprehend. The largest known star is called VY Canis Majoris, and it's located about 4,000 light-years away from us. It's so big that if it were placed in the middle of our solar system, its surface would extend beyond the orbit of Saturn and it could hold over a billion suns (or 11 quadrillion earths). Wow. That's big.

10. The hidden potential of the human brain - Some people (usually with autism) have a rare mental condition called synesthesia, where the senses get mixed up due to neural connections in the brain getting routed to the wrong place. This may take the form of associating numbers with specific shapes or colors, or associating certain sounds with textures or smells. Synesthetes are often capable of amazing feats, such as memorizing pi to tens of thousands of digits or creating beautiful works of art with little training. It is thought that we all have these astounding abilities somewhere within our brain, but we can't access it because we don't yet understand how our brains work enough to unlock those neural pathways.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Predictions for 2012

Due to a dearth of predictions for 2012 (since my blog only began in 2010), I have decided to do what I did last year and make a list of predictions that I think we'll be reading about in the news for the coming year.

The Arab Spring sputters out. With the exceptions of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, almost no Arab states are poised to make a real transition to democracy. Many of them are too poor to make a democratic transition likely, and several of them are cursed by their own oil wealth, which encourages corruption and enables autocrats to buy off opposition. There may be a few other Arab dictators that fall this year, but in the end they will most likely be replaced by other dictators and/or chaos. Some Arab states may successfully hold democratic elections, but find their newfound democracy short-lived and ultimately revert to authoritarianism.

Medical data processing costs continue to fall, as the work is increasingly offshored and automated. As computing power grows, it becomes easier and cheaper to process medical data from nearly anywhere in the world. The cost of sequencing a human genome continues to fall faster than Moore's Law, and currently stands at roughly $4,000. Computers can now identify breast cancer more accurately than human doctors can. IBM's Watson is currently being repurposed into a medical diagnosis tool, which will have access to more information than a human doctor could hope to acquire: the latest medical literature, clinical trials, patient histories, and (soon) the patient's genome.

Smartphone apps that monitor the user's health proliferate and become very popular. This has already begun to happen to some extent, but in 2012 health apps will proliferate as they become better and less invasive. The less the user needs to interact with the app, the more likely it is that the app will be used effectively. Look for more gadgets like Nike+, which combine the functionality of a smartphone app with a device that is worn near the body to measure some aspect of health.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson is confirmed. In December 2011, scientists at CERN confirmed with a high level of probability that they had discovered a new particle at the energy level believed to be associated with the elusive Higgs Boson, the last undiscovered piece of the Standard Model of particle physics which is believed to carry mass to all other particles. However, the level of probability was not high enough to be labeled a new discovery with any certainty. Since two independent teams found an anomaly at roughly the same energy level, it is highly unlikely to be a mistake. It will probably be confirmed by the end of 2012, thus completing the 40-year-old Standard Model.

The air starts to leak from the higher education bubble. Speaking as one of the suckers who just completed his education at the peak of the higher education bubble, I think that we've just about seen the highwater mark for tuition charges. Over the last decade, tuition for higher education increased at nearly twice the overall inflation rate. This cannot go on forever. The economics of university tuition will be difficult to sustain, because several factors are working together: The poor economy makes expensive university tuition look like a worse deal than before for those looking to maximize their payout. Government budget cuts will mean that the states are less generous about financial aid to students, and universities will need to adjust their charges accordingly. Finally, higher education itself is on the verge of a major overhaul, as presaged by MIT's announcement that they would start offering accreditation for a small fee for their free online courses. Tuition charges may continue to increase for another year or two...but I think they will increase by a smaller amount than they have in the past decade. And it's only a matter of time before they come crashing down.


As of 2012 – No Arab state has held free and fair elections resulting in a representative government as a result of the Arab Spring, with the possible exceptions of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.

By 2012 – Medical data processing costs continue to fall, as the work is increasingly offshored and automated.

By 2012 – Smartphone apps that monitor the user's health proliferate and become very popular.

By 2012 – The discovery of the Higgs Boson is confirmed.

By 2012 – Tuition at US four-year universities increases at a slower rate for the 2012-13 school year, than it has in the past decade.