December 20, 2006 2:00 am

A world without armies where robots have rights and obligations

Solar energy: wild card source with potential

Solar is the wild card of all energy sources, offering the potential to meet most of our energy needs once technological breakthroughs make it cost competitive.

Revitalisation of manned spaceflight

Within Earth's orbit, manned spaceflight may be driven by space tourism and Chinese nationalism. Nasa's manned spaceflight endeavours will probably focus on its plans for a manned mission to the moon but China may beat the US team to it.

Human brain: the next frontier

The next 20 years are likely to witness a revolution in our understanding of the human brain, with implications for virtually every domain of human activity, from mental health to software design, academic performance and real-life decision-making.

Broadband networks anywhere, any time

By 2010, devices such as mobile handsets may support many different short- and medium-range wireless technologies, including RFID, near field, PAN, WAN, WLAN and metro broadband. This will allow device users to move seamlessly between physical networks with a single logical session, unaware of which technology they are using. By 2015, wireless broadband network coverage in developed countries may be nearly complete in urban areas and along big transport links such as roads and railways, and possibly as extensive as mobile phone coverage is now. By 2020, several different network architectures will co-exist, offering device users nearly ubiquitous proximity to high-bandwidth digital voice, text, graphic data and media communications services.

Robo-rights: utopian dream or nightmare?

Humans are increasingly reliant on computers, robots and machines. If artificial intelligence is achieved and widely deployed (or if such entities can reproduce and improve themselves) calls may be made for "human" rights to be extended to robots. If so, this may be balanced with citizen responsibilities (eg voting, paying tax). A push for robots' rights may clash with owners' property rights.

Intentional biology: beyond evolution

Inexpensive tools to read and rewrite the genetic code could allow us to manipulate biology at the level of DNA. We may be able to re-engineer existing life and even create new life forms with a specific purpose in mind. Within a decade some researchers believe that bacteria, for example, could be designed that would mass-produce drugs that currently have to be painstakingly harvested from rare plants. The fusion of nanotechnology and biology may also allow us to grow products such as solar collectors and liquid crystal displays from living material.

Collapse and rebirth of currency mechanisms

Continued growth in international imbalances - high US deficits and large Asian surpluses - raises the question of whether current international exchange rate arrangements increase rather than reduce financial instability. In the future, large exchange rate movements might result in a large revaluation of surplus countries against deficit countries - such a shock might be so costly that policymakers move to set up a new international exchange rate architecture. One outcome might be a set of currency blocs.

Will we have armies in the future?

Armed forces in western countries, including Britain, face recruitment difficulties. Senior officers cite social changes, including a more mobile workforce, availability of further education and young people's changing professional expectations as the reasons for this situation. The Iraq war and other interventions may also have contributed. Comparable countries face similar problems. This trend may in the longer term challenge the scope for national governments to project their influence globally and prompt new methods of recruitment and deployment.

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