“By 2050, the ways in which we watch our health, seek medical advice, get treatment, and what we’re treated for will change dramatically.
While it is safe to say that more people will be able to live longer, healthier lives in the future, it’s also likely that future generations will face health threats that are less common, or even unknown, today. To break it down, the field of medicine will be impacted by developments in the five following categories:
- Big data, biometrics, and the internet of things
- Machine learning, AI, and advanced analytics
- Climate change and environmental health hazards
- “Internals,” robotics, nanorobotics, and bionics
- Genetic engineering and bioprinting
Big data & personalized healthcare. If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health. These words were uttered by Hippocrates, one of the most influential figures in the field of medicine. Today, this reasoning is the very foundation of self-care and health monitoring, something that is getting easier with time.
This is due in no small part to the explosion in wearable technology, coupled with the growth of wireless internet connections. From apps on your smartphone to fitness tracking devices, people are able to measure their heart rate, blood pressure, eating habits, the number of calories they have burned, and the number of steps they have taken in a day.
Between 2016 and 2021, the number of devices connected to a wireless local area network (WLAN) rose from 8.36 to 22.2 billion (or by 265%). By mid-century, this number is projected to reach over 100 billion.
Combined with the hundreds of billions of cameras, sensors, homes, and entire cities that will be connected, the resulting explosion in data will create what is known as the Internet of Things. The resulting amount of data produced on a daily basis will be enormous, and a sizeable portion will be medical in nature.
In future smart homes, all of this data will be at a person’s fingertips. As soon as they wake up, health diagnostics and/or recommendations will be available. People will be told how they are doing in terms of achieving or maintaining certain health goals. And if there’s a problem, they will be alerted and told to notify their doctor immediately – or perhaps, their doctor will be automatically notified.
AI-assisted medicine. With the massive volumes of medical data health authorities and practitioners will have to contend with, advanced analytics and machine learning (aka. AI) will be relied on to monitor it all. On the more localized end of things, AIs will be used to analyze patient data for signs of possible health conditions and predict future ones. This will give health care practitioners the ability to detect problems in advance and diagnose cases with greater speed and efficiency (and with less risk of misdiagnosis). Patient histories will also be much more up-to-date and detailed, and real-time patient monitoring will be readily available for the elderly and people who are at-risk for stroke, heart attack, etc.
On the macro end of things, AIs will also be responsible for analyzing worldwide health patterns to track pandemics and the spread of disease. The ability to track disease vectors and anticipate mutations in existing viruses will be all the more important as climate change leads to an increase in the spread of deadly viruses worldwide.
More lives and living longer. By 2030, the average rate of infant mortality worldwide is projected to reach 2 percent. While this trend is expected to continue, improvements in medical care and increased access will have to contend with emerging health threats caused by climate change (more on that below). Meanwhile, life expectancy will increase in the developed world thanks to treatments that delay and reverse aging.
As of 2019, the average life expectancy worldwide was 72.6 years, representing a two-fold increase since 1900. By 2050, that could increase to 115 years or longer for people with access to premium medical care. Aside from personalized medicine and improved data analysis, a major driver will be the development of nanorobotics (more on that below).
Environmental threats. Between now and 2050, one of the greatest threats facing the global population is the way climate change will affect the social and environmental determinants of health. These include air quality, drinking water, food security, and shelter, all of which will be compromised to an extent by increases in global temperature, flooding, extreme weather, and drought. In fact, the WHO anticipates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year. Of these, an estimated 38,000 will be elderly people who die from heat exposure, 48,000 will be due to dysentery (predominantly caused by tainted drinking water), 60,000 will be due to malaria, and 95,000 will be due to childhood undernutrition.
Robotics and bionics. Advances in robotics and bionics will also be at the forefront of medical innovation as 2050 approaches.
Robotics and cybernetics will become a regular feature for soldiers by 2050 – both on and off the battlefield. But it will be the commercial market where these advancements will be the most impactful, particularly for patients recovering from severe accidents and injuries.
Another major innovation is neural implants, which are expected to become commonplace by mid-century. In addition to enabling brain-to-machine and brain-to-brain interfacing (BMI and BBI), soft and flexible implants could also be used to address brain injuries and cure neurological diseases.
There is also the burgeoning field of bionics, where electronics mimic biology in order to enhance human abilities. While elective and military enhancements are inevitable, medical applications – like artificial organs and replacement limbs – will arguably be the most common by 2050.
Gene editing & bioprinting. In the coming decades, improvements in genome editing are expected to lead to drag and drop genetic engineering and the elimination of many genetic diseases. Meanwhile, gene therapies are anticipated to become commercially available that will be able to restore sight and hearing loss, and cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, paralysis, and other conditions and degenerative diseases.
As bioprinting becomes more readily available, it will be possible for people to walk into a clinic or hospital, provide a DNA sample, and have a culture of stem cells based on their genome prepared in no time. These stem cells could then be used to fashion whatever the person needs, be it a new kidney, a skin graft, or new blood vessels.
There are many metrics for measuring human growth and development. For some, progress is a matter of creating bigger, shinier, and more elaborate structures. For others, it is the number of people (and other living beings) in our society we are willing to extend basic rights and privileges to. Some even think progress can be measured in how efficiently we kill one another.
But most people would probably agree that the state of medicine and how we care for our sick and injured is the worthiest metric for measuring how far we have come. By 2050, we will have made incredible advances, cured some of the deadliest diseases, and improve the quality of life for billions of people worldwide.
These advances will be tested thoroughly as new health threats, many of which will be the result of climate change, push our infrastructure and our means to the limit. As with all other aspects of life that we have explored with this series, the way we treat the sick and injured is yet another way that humanity will find itself being pulled in two directions at once by mid-century.
How will it all play out? It is difficult to say. But from our current vantage point, two possibilities are clear – either things will eventually get better, or they will continue to get worse. Luckily, everyone alive today either has or will have a hand in making sure it is the former. The only question is, are we up to the task?