As culture evolves, as science progresses, as technology innovates, new questions are raised that force the past and present to decide how they will restrict or give way to the future.
In law, a precedent is a rule established in a past legal case that's used by current lawyers and courts when deciding how to interpret, try and judge similar, future legal cases, issues or facts. Put another way, a precedent happens when today's courts decide how future courts interpret the law.
At Quantumrun, we try to share with our readers a vision of how today's trends and innovations will reshape their lives in the near-to-distant future. But it's the law, the common order that binds us, that ensures said trends and innovations don't endanger our fundamental rights, liberties, and safety. This is why the coming decades will bring with them a stunning variety of legal precedents that previous generations would never have thought possible.
The following list is a preview of the precedents set to shape how we live our lives well into the end of this century. (Note that we plan to edit and grow this list semiannually, so be sure to bookmark this page to keep tabs on all the changes.)
From our series on the Future of Health, courts will decide upon the following health-related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have a right to free emergency medical care? As medical care advances thanks to innovations in antibacterial agents, nanotechnology, surgical robots and more, it will become possible to provide emergency care at a fraction of the healthcare rates seen today. Eventually, the cost will drop to a tipping point where the public will urge its lawmakers to make emergency care free for all.
Do people have a right to free medical care? Similar to the point above, as medical care advances thanks to innovations in genome editing, stem cell research, mental health and more, it will become possible to provide general medical treatment at a fraction of the healthcare rates seen today. Over time, the cost will drop to a tipping point where the public will urge its lawmakers to make general medical care free for all.
City or urban precedents
From our series on the Future of Cities, courts will decide upon the following urbanization-related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have a right to a home? Thanks to advances in construction technology, particularly in the form of construction robots, prefabricated building components, and construction-scale 3D printers, the cost of constructing new buildings will fall dramatically. This will result in a substantial increase in construction speed, as well as the total quantity of new units on the market. Ultimately, as more housing supply hits the market, housing demand will settle, reducing the world’s overheated urban housing market, eventually making the production of public housing much more affordable to local governments.
Over time, as governments produce enough public housing, the public will begin pressuring lawmakers to make homelessness or vagrancy illegal, in effect, enshrining a human right where we provide all citizens with a defined amount of square footage to rest their heads under at night.
Climate change precedents
From our series on the Future of Climate Change, courts will decide upon the following environment-related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have a right to clean water? About 60 percent of the human body is water. It's a substance that we can't live more than a few days without. And yet, as of 2016, billions currently live in water-scarce regions where some form of rationing is in effect. This situation will only grow more dire as climate change worsens over the coming decades. Droughts will get more severe and regions that are water vulnerable today will become uninhabitable.
With this vital resource dwindling, nations in much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia will begin to compete (and in some cases go to war) to control access to the remaining sources of fresh water. To avoid the threat of water wars, developed nations will be forced to treat water as a human right and invest heavily in advanced desalination plants to quench the world's thirst.
Do people have a right to breathable air? Similarly, the air we breath is equally vital to our survival—we can’t go a few minutes without a lung full. And yet, in China, an estimated 5.5 million people die per year from breathing in excess polluted air. These regions will see extreme pressure from its citizenry to pass rigorously enforced environmental laws to clean their air.
Computer science precedents
From our series on the Future of Computers, courts will decide upon the following computational device related legal precedents by 2050:
What rights does an artificial intelligence (AI) have? By the mid-2040s, science will have created an artificial intelligence—an independent being that the majority of the scientific community will agree exhibits a form of consciousness, even if not necessarily a human form of it. Once confirmed, we will give AI the same basic rights we give to most domestic animals. But given its advanced intelligence, the AI's human creators, as well as the AI itself, will begin to demand human-level rights.
Will this mean that AI can own property? Will they be allowed to vote? Run for office? Marry a human? Will AI rights become the civil rights movement of the future?
From our series on the Future of Education, courts will decide upon the following education-related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have a right to fully state-funded post-secondary education? When you take the long view of education, you'll see that at one point high schools used to charge 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 threshold of the population, 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 most hiring managers who increasingly see a degree as a baseline to recruit against. Likewise, the percentage of the labor market that now has 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 governments to rethink how they fund higher education.
From our series on the Future of Energy, courts will decide upon the following energy-related legal precedents by 2030:
Do people have the right to generate their own energy? As solar, wind, and geothermal renewable energy technologies become cheaper and more efficient, it will become economically prudent for homeowners in certain regions to produce their own electricity rather than purchasing it from the state. As seen in recent legal battles throughout the US and EU, this trend has led to legal battles between state-run utility companies and citizens over who owns the rights to generate electricity.
Generally speaking, as these renewable technologies continue to improve at their current rate, citizens will eventually win this legal battle.
From our series on the Future of Food, courts will decide upon the following food-related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have a right to a certain amount of calories per day? Three big trends are headed towards a head-on collision by 2040. First, the world's population will expand to nine billion people. The economies within the Asian and African continents will have grown wealthier thanks to a maturing middle class. And climate change will have reduced the amount of arable land the Earth has to grow our staple crops.
Taken together, these trends are leading towards a future where food shortages and food price inflation will become more commonplace. As a result, there will be increased pressure on the remaining food exporting countries to export enough grains to feed the world. This may also pressure world leaders to expand upon the existing, internationally recognized right to food by guaranteeing all citizens a certain amount of calories per day. (2,000 to 2,500 calories is the average amount of calories doctors recommend each day.)
Do people have a right to know exactly what is in their food and how it was made? As genetically modified food continues to grow more dominant, the public's growing fear of GM foods may eventually pressure lawmakers to enforce more detailed labeling of all foods sold.
Human evolution precedents
From our series on the Future of Human Evolution, courts will decide upon the following human evolution related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have the right to alter their DNA? As the science behind genome sequencing and editing matures, it will become possible to remove or edit elements of one’s DNA to cure a person of specific mental and physical disabilities. Once a world without genetic diseases becomes a possibility, the public will pressure lawmakers to legalize the processes of editing DNA with consent.
Do people have the right to alter their children’s DNA? Similar to the point above, if adults can edit their DNA to cure or prevent a range of diseases and infirmities, prospective parents will likely want to do the same to proactively protect their infants from being born with dangerously defective DNA. Once this science becomes a safe and reliable reality, parents advocacy groups will pressure lawmakers to legalize the processes of editing an infant’s DNA with parental consent.
Do people have the right to enhance their physical and mental abilities beyond the norm? Once science perfects the ability to cure and prevent genetic diseases through gene editing, it's only a matter of time before adults begin to inquire about improving their existing DNA. Improving aspects of one's intellect and select physical attributes will become possible through gene editing, even as an adult. Once the science is perfected, the demand for these biological upgrades will force the hand of lawmakers to regulate them. But will it also create a new class system between the genetically enhanced and the ‘normals.'
Do people have the right to enhance their children’s physical and mental abilities beyond the norm? Similar to the point above, if adults can edit their DNA to improve their physical abilities, prospective parents will likely want to do the same to ensure their children are born with the physical advantages they only enjoyed later in life. Some countries will become more open to this process than others, leading to a kind of genetic arms race where each nation works to enhance the genetic makeup of their next generation.
Human population precedents
From our series on the Future of Human Population, courts will decide upon the following demography related legal precedents by 2050:
Does the government have the right to control people’s reproductive choices? With the population set to swell to nine billion by 2040, and further to 11 billion by the end of this century, there will be renewed interest by some governments to control population growth. This interest will be intensified by the growth in automation that will eliminate nearly 50 percent of today's jobs, leaving a dangerously insecure labor market for future generations. Ultimately, the question will come down to whether the state can take control of its citizen's reproductive rights (like China did with its One-Child policy) or whether citizens continue to retain their right to reproduce unobstructed.
Do people have a right to access life-extending therapies? By 2040, the effects of aging will be reclassified as a medical condition to be managed and reversed instead of an inevitable part of life. In fact, the children born after 2030 will be the first generation to live well into their three digits. At first, this medical revolution will only be affordable to the rich but eventually will become affordable to people at lower income brackets.
Once this happens, will the public pressure lawmakers to make life extension therapies publicly funded, so as to avoid the likely possibility of a biological difference to emerge between the rich and poor? Moreover, will governments with an overpopulation problem permit the use of this science?
From our series on the Future of the Internet, courts will decide upon the following Internet-related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have a right to internet access? As of 2016, more than half the world's population continues to live without Internet access. Thankfully, by the late 2020s, that gap will narrow, reaching 80 percent Internet penetration globally. As Internet usage and penetration matures, and as the Internet becomes ever more central to people's lives, discussions will arise around strengthening and expanding upon the relatively new fundamental human right of Internet access.
Do you own your metadata? By the mid-2030s, stable, industrialized nations will begin passing a bill of rights protecting citizens’ online data. The emphasis of this bill (and its many different versions) will be to ensure that people always:
- Own the data generated about them through the digital services they use, regardless of who they share it with;
- Own the data (documents, pictures, etc.) they create using external digital services;
- Control who gains access to their personal data;
- Have the ability to control what personal data they share at a granular level;
- Have detailed and easily understandable access to the data collected about them;
- Have the ability to permanently delete data they have created and shared.
Do people’s digital identities have the same rights and privileges as their real-life identities? As virtual reality matures and goes mainstream, the Internet of Experiences will emerge allowing individuals to travel to digital versions of real destinations, experience past (recorded) events and explore expansive digitally constructed worlds. People will inhabit these virtual experiences through the use of a personal avatar, a digital representation of oneself. These avatars will gradually feel like an extension of your body, meaning the same values and protections we place on our physical bodies will slowly be applied online as well.
Does a person retain his or her rights if they exist without a body? By the mid-2040s, a technology called Whole-Brain Emulation (WBE) will be able to scan and store a full backup of your brain inside an electronic storage device. In fact, this is the device that will help enable a Matrix-like cyber reality in line with sci-fi predictions. But consider this:
Say you're 64, and your insurance company covers you to get a brain-backup. Then when you're 65, you get into an accident that causes brain damage and severe memory loss. Future medical innovations may heal your brain, but they won't recover your memories. That's when doctors access your brain-backup to load your brain with your missing long-term memories. This backup would not only be your property but could also be a legal version of yourself, with all the same rights and protections, in the event of an accident.
Likewise, say you're a victim of an accident that this time puts you into a coma or vegetative state. Luckily, you backed up your mind before the accident. While your body recovers, your mind can still engage with your family and even work remotely from within the Metaverse (Matrix-like virtual world). When the body recovers and the doctors are ready to wake you from your coma, the mind-backup can transfer the new memories it created into your newly healed body. And here too, your active consciousness, as it exists in the Metaverse, will become the legal version of yourself, with all the same rights and protections, in the event of an accident.
There is a host of other mind-twisting legal and ethical considerations when it comes to uploading your mind online, considerations that we'll cover in our upcoming Future in the Metaverse series. However, for the purpose of this chapter, this train of thought should lead us to ask: What would happen to this accident victim if his or her body never recovers? What if the body dies while the mind is very much active and interacting with the world through the Metaverse?
From our series on the Future of Retail, courts will decide upon the following retail related legal precedents by 2050:
Who owns virtual and augmented reality products? Consider this example: Through the introduction of augmented reality, smaller office spaces will become cheaply multifunctional. Imagine your coworkers all wearing augmented reality (AR) glasses or contacts, and starting the day in what would otherwise look like an empty office. But through these AR glasses, you and your coworkers will see a room filled with digital whiteboards on all four walls that you can scribble on with your fingers.
Then you can voice command the room to save your brainstorming session and transform the AR wall decor and ornamental furniture into a formal boardroom layout. Then you can voice command the room to transform yet again into a multimedia presentation showroom to present your latest advertising plans to your visiting clients. The only real objects in the room will be weight-bearing objects like chairs and a table.
Now apply this same vision to your home. Imagine remodeling your decor with a tap on an app or a voice command. This future will arrive by the 2030s, and these virtual goods will need similar regulations to how we manage digital file sharing, like music.
Should people have the right to pay with cash? Must businesses accept cash? By the early 2020s, companies like Google and Apple will make paying for goods with your phone nearly effortless. It won't be long before you can leave your house without nothing more than your phone. Some lawmakers will see this innovation as a reason to end the use of physical currency (and saving billions of public tax dollars on the maintenance of said physical currency). However, privacy rights groups will see this as Big Brother's attempt to track everything you buy and put an end to conspicuous purchases and the larger underground economy.
From our series on the Future of Transportation, courts will decide upon the following transportation-related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have the right to drive themselves in a car? Around the world, about 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, with another 20-50 million injured or disabled. Once autonomous vehicles hit the roads in the early 2020s, these figures will begin to curve downward. One to two decades later, once autonomous vehicles prove irrefutably that they are better drivers than humans, lawmakers will be forced to consider whether human drivers should be allowed to drive at all. Will driving a car tomorrow be like riding a horse today?
Who’s liable when an autonomous car makes an error that threatens lives? What happens with an autonomous vehicle kills a person? Gets into a crash? Drives you to the wrong destination or somewhere dangerous? Who is at fault? Who can the blame be placed upon?
From our series on the Future of Work, courts will decide upon the following employment-related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have a right to a job? By 2040, nearly half of today's jobs will vanish. While new jobs will surely be created, it's still an open question as to whether enough new jobs will be created to replace the jobs lost, especially once the world population reaches nine billion. Will the public pressure lawmakers to make having a job a human right? Will they pressure lawmakers to restrict the development of technology or invest in expensive make-work schemes? How will future lawmakers support our growing population?
Intellectual property precedents
Courts will decide upon the following intellectual rights related legal precedents by 2050:
How long can copyrights be awarded? Generally speaking, creators of original works of art are supposed to enjoy a copyright to their works for the entirety of their lives, plus 70 years. For corporations, the number is about 100 years. After these copyrights expire, these artistic works become public domain, allowing future artists and corporations to appropriate these pieces of art to create something entirely new.
Unfortunately, large corporations are using their deep pockets to pressure lawmakers to extend these copyright claims to maintain control of their copyrighted assets and restrict future generations from appropriating them for artistic purposes. While this holds back the progression of culture, lengthening copyright claims indefinitely may become unavoidable should tomorrow's media corporations become richer and more influential.
What patents should continue to be awarded? Patents work similar to the copyrights described above, only they last for shorter periods of time, roughly 14 to 20 years. However, while negative repercussions of art staying out of the public domain are minimal, patents are another story. There are scientists and engineers all over the world who today know how to cure most of the world's diseases and solve most of the world's technical problems, but can't because elements of their solutions are owned by a competing company.
In today's hyper-competitive pharmaceutical and tech industries, patents are used as weapons against competitors more so than tools to protect inventor rights. Today's explosion of new patents being filed, and the poorly crafted ones being approved, is now contributing to a patent glut that's slowing down innovation rather than enabling it. If patents begin to drag down innovation too much (early 2030s), especially in comparison with other nations, then lawmakers will begin to consider reforming what can be patented and how new patents are approved.
Courts will decide upon the following economics related legal precedents by 2050:
Do people have a right to a basic income? With half of today’s jobs disappearing by 2040 and the world population growing to nine billion by that same year, it may become impossible to employ all those who are ready and able to work. To support their basic needs, a Basic Income (BI) will likely be introduced in some fashion to provide every citizen with a free monthly stipend to spend as they wish, similar to the old age pension but for everyone.
Courts will decide upon the following public governance related legal precedents by 2050:
Will voting become mandatory? As important as voting is, a shrinking percentage of the population in most democracies even bother to participate in this privilege. However, for democracies to work, they need a legitimate mandate from the people to run the country. FThis is why some governments may make voting mandatory, similar to Australia today.
General legal precedents
From our current series on the Future of Law, courts will decide upon the following legal precedents by 2050:
Should the death penalty be abolished? As science learns more and more about the brain, there will come a time in the late 2040s to mid-2050s where people's criminality can be understood based on their biology. Maybe the convict was born with a predisposition to aggression or to antisocial behavior, maybe they have a neurologically stunted ability to feel empathy or remorse. These are psychological qualities that today's scientists are working to isolate inside the brain so that, in the future, people can be ‘cured' of these extreme personality traits.
Likewise, as outlined in chapter five of our Future of Health series, science will have the ability to edit and/or erase memories at will, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style. Doing this could ‘cure' people of damaging memories and negative experiences that contribute to their criminal tendencies.
Given this future ability, is it right for society to sentence someone to death when science will be able to cure them of the biological and psychological reasons behind criminal dispositions? This question will cloud the debate enough that the death penalty will itself fall to the guillotine.
Should the government have the authority to medically or surgically remove the violent or antisocial tendencies of convicted criminals? This legal precedent is the logical outcome of the scientific abilities described in the precedent above. If somebody is convicted of a serious crime, should the government have the authority to edit or remove said criminal’s violent, aggressive, or antisocial qualities? Should the criminal have some choice in this matter? What rights does a violent criminal have in relation to the safety of the wider public?
Should the government have the authority to issue a warrant to access the thoughts and memories inside a person’s mind? As explored in chapter two of this series, by the mid-2040s, mind-reading machines will enter the public space where they will proceed to rewrite culture and revolutionize a wide variety of fields. In the context of the law, we must ask whether we as a society want to permit government prosecutors the right to read the mind of arrested individuals to see if they committed a crime.
Is the violation of one's mind a worthwhile tradeoff in order to prove guilt? What about to prove a person's innocence? Could a judge authorize a warrant for police to search your thoughts and memories in the same way a judge can currently authorize the police to search your home if they suspect illegal activity? Chances are the answer will be yes to all of these questions; yet, the public will demand lawmakers place well-defined restrictions to how and for how long the police can mess around in someone's head.
Should the government have the authority to issue excessively long sentences or life sentences? Extended sentences in prison, especially life imprisonment, may become a thing of the past in a few decades time.
For one, jailing a person for life is unsustainably expensive.
Second, while it’s true that one can never erase a crime, it’s also true that a person can change entirely given time. Someone in their 80s isn’t the same person they were in their 40s, just as a person in their 40s isn’t the same person they were in their 20s or teens and so on. And given the fact that people change and grow over time, is it right to lock a person up for life for a crime they committed in their 20s, especially given that they will likely become entirely different people by their 40s or 60s? This argument is only strengthened if the criminal agrees to have their brains medically treated to remove their violent or antisocial tendencies.
Moreover, as outlined in chapter six of our Future of Human Population series, what happens when science makes it possible to live into the triple digits—a lifespan of centuries. Will it be even ethical to lock someone up for life? For centuries? At a certain point, overly long sentences become an unjustifiably cruel form of punishment.
For all these reasons, future decades will see life sentences gradually be phased out as our criminal justice system matures.
These are just a sampling of the wide range of legal precedents lawyers and judges will have to work through over the decades to come. Like it or not, we are living in some extraordinary times.
Future of law series
Trends that will reshape the modern law firm: Future of law P1
Mind-reading devices to end wrongful convictions: Future of law P2
Automated judging of criminals: Future of law P3
Reengineering sentencing, incarceration, and rehabilitation: Future of law P4