Could there be a day in our collective future when violence becomes a thing of the past? Will it one day become possible to overcome our primal urge towards aggression? Can we find solutions to the poverty, lack of education, and mental illness that lead to most cases of violent crime?
In this chapter of our Future of Crime series, we tackle these questions head on. We’ll outline how the far future will be free of most forms of violence. Yet, we’ll also discuss how the intervening years will be far from peaceful and how we’ll all have our fair share of blood on our hands.
To keep this chapter structured, we’ll explore the competing trends working to increase and decrease violent crime. Let’s start with the latter.
Trends that will decrease violent crime in the developed world
Taking the long view of history, a range of trends worked together to decrease the level of violence in our society compared to the times of our ancestors. There's no reason to believe these trends won't continue their march forward. Consider this:
The police surveillance state. As discussed in chapter two of our Future of Policing series, the next fifteen years will see an explosion in the use of advanced CCTV cameras in the public space. These cameras will watch all streets and back alleys, as well as inside business and residential buildings. They will even be mounted on police and security drones, patrolling crime sensitive areas and give police departments a real-time view of the city.
But the real gamechanger in CCTV tech is their coming integration with big data and AI. These complementary technologies will soon allow real-time identification of individuals captured on any camera—a feature that will simplify the resolution of missing persons, fugitive, and suspect tracking initiatives.
Altogether, while this future CCTV tech may not prevent all forms of physical violence, the public awareness that they are under constant surveillance will deter a large number of incidents from happening in the first place.
Precrime policing. Similarly, in chapter four of our Future of Policing series, we explored how police departments around the world are already using what computer scientists call "predictive analytics software" to crunch years' worth of crime reports and statistics, combined it with real-time variables, to generate forecasts of when, where, and what types of criminal activity will occur inside a given city.
Using these insights, police are deployed to those city areas where the software forecasts criminal activity. By having more police patrolling statistically proven problem areas, police are better positioned to intercept crimes as they happen or scare off would-be criminals altogether, violent crime included.
Detecting and curing violent mental disorders. In chapter five of our Future of Health series, we explored how all mental disorders stem from one or a combination of gene defects, physical injuries, and emotional trauma. Future health tech will allow us to not only detect these disorders earlier, but also cure these disorders through a combination of CRISPR gene editing, stem cell therapy, and memory editing or erasure treatments. On the whole, this will eventually reduce the total number of violent incidents caused by mentally unstable individuals.
Drug decriminalization. In many parts of the world, violence stemming from the drug trade is rampant, particularly in Mexico and parts of South America. This violence also bleeds into the streets of the developed world with drug pushers fighting each other over territory, in addition to abusing individual drug addicts. But as public attitudes shift towards decriminalization and treatment over incarceration and abstinence, much of this violence will begin to moderate.
Another factor to consider is the current trend that’s seeing ever more drug sales happening online in anonymous, black market websites; these marketplaces have already reduced the violence and risk involved with buying illicit and pharmaceutical drugs. In the next chapter of this series, we’ll explore how future tech will make current plant and chemical-based drugs entirely obsolete.
Generational shift against guns. The acceptance and demand for personal firearms, especially in countries like the US, stem from ongoing fears of becoming a victim of violent crime in its many forms. Long term, as the trends outlined above work together to make violent crime an increasingly rare occurrence, these fears will gradually decline. This shift, combined with increasingly liberal attitudes towards guns and hunting among younger generations will eventually see the application of stricter gun sale and ownership laws. On the whole, having less personal firearms in the hands of criminals and unstable individuals will enable a decrease in gun violence.
Education becomes free. First discussed in our Future of Education series, when you take the long view of education, you'll see that at one point high schools used to charge a tuition. But eventually, once having a high school diploma became a necessity to succeed in the labor market, and once the percentage of people who had a high school diploma reached a certain level, the government made the decision to view the high school diploma as a service and made it free.
These same conditions are emerging for the university bachelor's degree. As of 2016, the bachelor's degree has become the new high school diploma in the eyes of hiring managers, who increasingly see a degree as a baseline to recruit against. Likewise, the percentage of the labor market that now have a degree of some kind is reaching a critical mass to the point where it's barely being viewed as a differentiator amongst applicants.
For these reasons, it won’t be long before enough of the public and private sector begin to view the university or college degree as a necessity, prompting their governments to make higher education free for all. The side benefit of this move is that a more educated population also tends to be a less violent population.
Automation will deflate the cost of everything. In chapter five of our Future of Work series, we explored how advancements in robotics and machine intelligence will enable a range of digital services and manufactured goods to be produced at dramatically lowered costs than they are today. By the mid-2030s, this will lead to a reduction in the price of all kinds of consumer goods from clothing to advanced electronics. But in the context of violent crime, it will also lead a general decrease in economically driven theft (muggings and burglaries), as things and services will become so cheap that people won't need to steal for them.
Entering the age of abundance. By the mid-2040s, humanity will begin to enter an age of abundance. For the first time in human history, everyone will have access to everything they need to live a modern and comfortable life. ‘How can this be possible?’ you ask. Consider this:
- Similar to the point above, by 2040, the price of most consumer goods will fall due to increasingly productive automation, the growth of the sharing (Craigslist) economy, and the paper-thin profit margins retailers will need to operate on to sell to the largely un- or underemployed mass market.
- Most services will feel a similar downward pressure on their prices, except for those services that require an active human element: think personal trainers, massage therapists, caregivers, etc.
- The broad use of construction-scale 3D printers, the growth in complex prefabricated building materials, along with government investment into affordable mass housing, will result in falling housing (rent) prices. Read more in our Future of Cities series.
- Healthcare costs will plummet thanks to technologically-driven revolutions in continuous health tracking, personalized (precision) medicine, and long-term preventative health care. Read more in our Future of Health series.
- By 2040, renewable energy will feed over half the world’s electrical needs, substantially lowering utility bills for the average consumer. Read more in our Future of Energy series.
- The era of individually-owned cars will end in favor of fully electric, self-driving cars run by carsharing and taxi companies—this will save former car owners an average of $9,000 annually. Read more in our Future of Transportation series.
- The rise of GMO and food substitutes will lower the cost of basic nutrition for the masses. Read more in our Future of Food series.
- Finally, most entertainment will be delivered cheaply or for free via web-enabled display devices, especially through VR and AR. Read more in our Future of the Internet series.
Whether it's the things we buy, the food we eat, or the roof over our heads, the essentials the average person will need to live will all fall in price in our future, tech-enabled, automated world. In fact, the cost of living will drop so low that an annual income of $24,000 will roughly have the same buying power as a $50-60,000 salary in 2015. And at that level, governments in the developed world can easily cover that cost with a Universal Basic Income for all citizens.
Taken together, this heavily policed, mental health-minded, economically carefree future we’re heading towards will result in dramatically reduced incidents of violent crime.
Unfortunately, there is a catch: this world will likely only come about after the 2050s.
The transition period between our current era of scarcity and our future era of abundance will be far from peaceful.
Trends that will increase violent crime in the developing world
While the long-term outlook for humanity may appear relatively rosy, it's also important to be mindful of the reality that this world of abundance won't spread across the world equally or at the same time. Moreover, there are a number of emerging trends that may give rise to a great deal of instability and violence over the next two to three decades. And while the developed world may remain somewhat insulated, the vast majority of the world's population that live in the developing world will feel the full brunt of these downward trends. Consider the following factors, starting from the debatable to the inevitable:
The domino effect of climate change. As discussed in our Future of Climate Change series, most of the international organizations responsible for organizing the global effort on climate change agree that we cannot allow the concentration of greenhouse gasses (GHG) in our atmosphere to build beyond 450 parts per million (ppm).
Why? Because if we pass it, the natural feedback loops in our environment will accelerate beyond our control, meaning climate change will get worse, faster, possibly leading to a world where we all live in a Mad Max movie. Welcome to the Thunderdome!
So what is the current GHG concentration (specifically for carbon dioxide)? According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre, as of April 2016, concentration in parts per million was … 399.5. Eesh. (Oh, and just for context, before the industrial revolution, the number was 280ppm.)
While developed nations can more or less muddle through the effects of extreme climate change, poorer nations simply won’t have that luxury. In particular, climate change will severely impair the access developing countries have to freshwater and food.
Decline in water accessibility. First, know that with every one degree Celsius of climate warming, the total amount of evaporation rises by about 15 percent. That extra water in the atmosphere leads to an increased risk of major “water events,” like Katrina-level hurricanes in the summer months or mega snow storms in the deep winter.
Increased warming also leads to accelerated melting of Arctic glaciers. This means an increase in the sea level, both due to a higher oceanic water volume and because water expands in warmer waters. This could lead to greater and more frequent incidents of flooding and tsunamis hitting coastal cities around the world. Meanwhile, low-lying port cities and island nations run the risk of disappearing entirely under the sea.
Also, freshwater scarcity is going to become a thing soon. You see, as the world warms, mountain glaciers will slowly recede or disappear. This matters because most of the rivers (our main sources of freshwater) our world depends on comes from mountain water runoff. And if most of the world’s rivers shrink or completely dry up, you can say goodbye to most of the world’s farming capacity.
Access to depleting river water is already flaring up tensions between competing nations like India and Pakistan and Ethiopia and Egypt. Should river levels reach dangerous levels, it would not be out of the question to imagine future, full-scale water wars.
Decline in food production. Building off the abovementioned points, when it comes to the plants and animals we eat, our media tends to focus on how it’s made, how much it costs, or how to prepare it to get in your belly. Rarely, however, does our media talk about the actual availability of food. For most people, that’s more a third world problem.
The thing is though, as the world gets warmer, our ability to produce food will become seriously threatened. A temperature rise of one or two degrees won’t hurt too much, we’ll just shift food production to countries in the higher latitudes, like Canada and Russia. But according to William Cline, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, an increase of two to four degrees Celsius can lead to losses of food harvests on the order to 20-25 percent in Africa and Latin America, and 30 percent or more in India.
Another issue is that, unlike in our past, modern farming tends to rely on relatively few plant varieties to grow at an industrial scale. We’ve domesticated crops, either through thousands of years of manual breeding or dozens of years of genetic manipulation, that can only thrive when the temperature is just Goldilocks right.
For example, studies run by the University of Reading on two of the most widely grown varieties of rice, lowland indica and upland japonica, found that both were highly vulnerable to higher temperatures. Specifically, if temperatures exceeded 35 degrees during their flowering stage, the plants would become sterile, offering few, if any, grains. Many tropical and Asian countries where rice is the main staple food already lie on the very edge of this Goldilocks temperature zone, so any further warming could mean disaster. (Read more in our Future of Food series.)
All-in-all, this crunch in food production is bad news for the nine billion people projected to exist by 2040. And as you’ve seen on CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera, hungry people tend to be rather desperate and unreasonable when it comes to their survival. Nine billion hungry people will not be a good situation.
Climate change induced migration. Already, there are some analysts and historians who believe that climate change contributed to the 2011 start of the devastating Syrian civil war (link one, two, and three). This belief stems from a prolonged drought that started 2006 that forced thousands of Syrian farmers out of their dried up farms and into urban centers. This influx of angry young men with idle hands, some feel, helped spark the uprising against the Syrian regime.
Regardless of whether you believe in this explanation, the result is the same: nearly half a million Syrians dead and many millions more displaced. These refugees scattered across the region, most settling in Jordan and Turkey, whereas many risked their lives trekking to the stability of the European Union.
Should climate change worsen, water and food shortages will force thirsty and starving populations to flee their homes in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, South America. The question then becomes where will they go? Who will take them in? Will the developed nations in the north be able to absorb them all? How well has Europe fared with just one million refugees? What would happen if that number became two million within a span of a few months? Four million? Ten?
The rise of far-right parties. Shortly after the Syrian refugee crisis, waves of terror attacks struck targets across Europe. These attacks, in addition to the unease generated by the sudden influx of immigrants in urban areas, have contributed to the dramatic growth of far-right parties across Europe between 2015-16. These are parties that emphasize nationalism, isolationism, and a general distrust of the "other." When have these sentiments ever gone wrong in Europe?
Crash in oil markets. Climate change and war aren’t the only factors that can cause entire populations to flee their countries, economic collapse can have equally severe consequences.
As outlined in our Future of Energy series, solar technology is falling in price dramatically and so too is the price of batteries. These two technologies, and the downward trends they are following, is what will allow electric vehicles to reach price parity with combustion vehicles by 2022. Bloomberg chart:
The moment this price parity is achieved, electric vehicles will truly take off. Over the next decade, these electric vehicles, combined with the dramatic growth in carsharing services and the impending release of autonomous vehicles, will dramatically cut down the number of cars on the road fueled by traditional gas.
Given basic supply and demand economics, as the demand for gas shrinks, so too will its price per barrel. While this scenario may be great for the environment and future holdout owners of gas guzzlers, those Middle Eastern nations that depend on petroleum for the lion’s share of their revenue will find it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets. Worse, given their ballooning populations, any significant drop in these nations’ ability to fund social programs and basic services will make it mighty hard to maintain social stability.
The rise of solar and electric vehicles presents similar economic threats to other petrol-dominated nations, such as Russia, Venezuela, and various African nations.
Automation kills outsourcing. We mentioned earlier about how this trend towards automation will make the majority of the goods and services we purchase dirt cheap. However, the obvious side effect we glazed over is that this automation will erase millions of jobs. More specifically, a highly cited Oxford report determined that 47 percent of today’s jobs will disappear by 2040, largely due to machine automation.
In the context of this discussion, let's focus just on one industry: manufacturing. Since the 1980s, corporations outsourced their factories to take advantage of the cheap labor they could find in places like Mexico and China. But over the coming decade, advances in robotics and machine intelligence will result in robots that can easily outcompete these human laborers. Once that tipping point occurs, American companies (for example) will decide to bring their manufacturing back to the US where they can design, control, and produce their goods domestically, thereby saving billions in labor and international shipping costs.
Again, this is great news for consumers from the developed world who will benefit from cheaper goods. However, what happens to the millions of lower-class laborers across Asia, South America, and Africa who depended on these blue-collar manufacturing jobs to climb out of poverty? Likewise, what happens to those smaller nations whose budgets rely on the tax revenue from these multinationals? How will they maintain social stability without the money needed to fund basic services?
Between 2017 and 2040, the world will see almost two billion extra people enter the world. Most of these people will be born into the developing world. Should automation kill the majority of the mass labor, blue collar jobs that would otherwise keep this population above the poverty line, then we are heading into a very dangerous world indeed.
While these near-term trends appear depressing, it's worth noting that they aren't inevitable. When it comes to water scarcity, we are already making unbelievable headway in large-scale, cheap saltwater desalination. For example, Israel—once a country with chronic and severe water shortages—now produces so much water from its advanced desalination plants that it's dumping that water into the Dead Sea to refill it.
When it comes to food scarcity, emerging advances in GMOs and vertical farms could result in another Green Revolution in the coming decade.
Substantially increased foreign aid and generous trade agreements between the developed and developing world could head off the economic crisis’ that may result in future instability, mass migrations, and extremist governments.
And while half of today’s jobs may disappear by 2040, who’s to say that a whole new crop of jobs won’t appear to take their place (hopefully, jobs that robots can’t also do … ).
It's hard to believe when watching our 24/7, "if it bleeds it leads" news channels, that the world of today is safer and more peaceful than at any time in history. But it's true. The advancements we've made collectively in progressing our technology and our culture have erased many of the traditional motivations toward violence. On the whole, this gradual macro trend will progress indefinitely.
And yet, violence remains.
As mentioned earlier, it will take decades before we transition into the world of abundance. Until then, nations will continue to compete with each other over the dwindling resources they need to maintain stability domestically. But at a more human level, whether it's a barroom brawl, catching a cheating lover in the act, or seeking vengeance to restore a sibling's honor, so long as we continue to feel, we will continue to find reasons to set upon our fellow man.