by Julian Scaff
I have greatly enjoyed the television series The Expanse for its plot lines and characters that seem scientifically, sociologically and psychologically plausible. Set in the year 2350, the political fracturing between multiple human colonies across the solar system, the evolution of different cultures in these various colonies, and the impressive scale of technology are credible and persuasive. However, as a futurist and designer I find many specific details in the series to be painfully anachronistic for a society 330 years in the future. This is not a criticism of the series, rather is a common characteristic of the science fiction genre. Too futuristic and we wouldn’t understand it, so familiar elements from the present time are given shiny makeovers to give audiences recognizable forms and signifiers. Despite our fascination with all things futuristic, humans also have a nostalgic side, and thus many works of sci-fi incorporate the morphologies of old technology (i.e. a smartphone) with future tech upgrades (i.e. holographic display). This is not as a critique of The Expanse. Instead, I’ll reflect on the plausibility of specific elements of the series to highlight the immense challenge of exponential thinking.
Exponential thinking is a discipline with two pillars: First, that technology is developing at a progressively increasingrate. What this means is that over time, not only does technology become more advanced, but the rate at which it advances also increases. That means the next decade will bring more change than the last decade. Second, exponential thinking proposes that we as individuals and as a society must think and plan in terms of decades and centuries, not months or years. This is the best way to ensure that technology has a positive impact on humanity and all life on Earth. This exponential rate of change is difficult to manage and will cause frictions because humans are generally change-averse. Our ability to do so is critical to humanity’s survival.
With these in mind, I examine The Expanse using a 330-year measuring stick. Consider the amount of technological change between 1690 and today. The 17th century witnessed tremendous technological advancements, including the invention of the telescope, the adding machine, the pendulum clock and the barometer. By the end of the century people were beginning to experiment with steam power. The most advanced weapons were flintlock pistols, muskets and canons, although advanced militaries also still used pikes and swords. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no mechanical locomotion. The fastest transportation were horses and sailing ships. The great scientists of the 17th century included Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and Seki Takakazu. Consider how much change there has been in the last few centuries. Then consider that there will be exponentially more change in the next 330 years.
The Future of Population
The Expanse portrays a future where the Earth has a population of 27 billion. While not impossible, this seems unlikely. Current UNPD projections have the world population reaching 10.9 billion in the year 2100 and stabilizing or slightly declining thereafter. Like any forecast, this is based on assumptions about vital birth and mortality rates. However, among the underlying reasons for the decline in global population growth is greater access to education. As more of the world’s poor receive at least a high school education, especially girls, and more women enter the workforce, they are likely to start a family later, and the birthrate falls. It’s more likely that by the year 2350 the Earth’s population would be slightly lower than 10 billion because it’s better for the planet and everything on it.
In The Expanse, The Moon has a population of around 1 billion, Mars has a population of 1.5 billion (living in domes), with another 45 million people living in the Asteroid Belt and outer planets. I find all of these predictions implausible, for the simple reason that the human body doesn’t do well with long exposure to microgravity and high levels of radiation. We may never colonize another planet in our present form (I address this further under the Augmented Humans header below) because of this. Inhabitants of these low-gravity environments would experience loss of muscle and bone mass, brain swelling and degraded vision. Long-term exposure to radiation can cause radiation poisoning and cancer. It alters our DNA, and not in awesome ways that give us superhero powers, but in ways that makes us sick, weak and shorten our lifespan. We are simply not built for space.
Further, populating the Moon and Mars with billions of humans is simply unnecessary. Already today, we are experiencing a revolution in automation. We are on the cusp of self-driving cars, autonomous drones and limitless 3D-printing. Machines will explore and colonize other worlds far more than humans will. This is especially true in dangerous and unpleasant industries such as mining. Depicting human miners hand-picking at asteroids in 2350 is as anachronistic as buying a handmade hammer from an Ironmongre (a 17th-century maker of iron tools) would be today.
Most menial work, and certainly the dangerous work of colonizing space, will be carried out by robots, not humans. And a stable human population on Earth is preferable for both environmental and social reasons.
Ethnicity + Culture
The number of people who identify as multi-racial or multi-ethnic (two or more races or ethnicities) has been growing steadily for decades. This is largely driven by globalization and the relative ease, speed and low cost of international travel. This trend is likely to accelerate as the aforementioned trends continue and as each successive generation regards diversity and difference as positives or irrelevant.
In 2350, it’s likely to be unusual to meet someone who is of a single racial or ethnic identity. Some ethnicities that exist today may become extinct. Most people you would meet would be beige to brown in appearance, and attitudes about ethnicity would be vastly different from today. I love the efforts at diversity in the casting of The Expanse, and their emphasis on tribal affiliations (i.e. “Earthers”, “Martians” and “Belters”) with no discussion of ethnicity seems very plausible. But the plethora of pale-skinned humans of European descent, as well as the scarcity of humans of Asian and South Asian descent, seems unlikely.
Global culture today is dominated by American and European culture makers, but that is starting to change. By 2050, China and India will be the biggest economies in the world, and economic superiority empowers cultural influence. It’s reasonable to expect that in the next few centuries Chinese and Indian cultural influence will supplant the Euro-American influence. Consider that in 1690, the global language of diplomacy was French. Today it’s English. In 2350, it could be Mandarin and/or Hindi.
Augmented Humans + Medicine
Think about the advances in medicine since 1690. Back then there were no antibiotics, no vaccines, and no painkillers. Surgery was performed, but was highly dangerous with barbaric procedures. Today we live a magical existence where we pop a pill for a headache, we don’t worry that our children will die of plague or be maimed by polio, or that a minor injury could lead to infection and death.
In 2350, humans will be genetically engineered and highly augmented in ways that would make most people today very squeamish. Long before then genetic therapies would have permanently cured most diseases including cancer from the entire human population. Nanotechnology embedded in our bodies would connect our cerebral cortex to the cloud. Your AI personal assistant would be implanted in a chip that rests in your brain. This procedure might be commenced at conception and indeed might be considered vital to a baby’s development.
Nanotech sensors in our skin could detect everything about our body and the surrounding environment. Nanotech ocular implants would enhance our vision and give us heads-up displays when needed. We would never need a device like a phone or tablet, because our body would become the device.
Genetic engineering and nanotech augmentation could be used to help adapt humans to spaceflight, overcoming the problems of microgravity and radiation on human physiology discussed above. But many might prefer to experience Mars is a Matrix-like simulation that feels completely real, and let the robots do the dangerous and menial work. You could surf the virtual methane oceans of Titan from the comfort of your living pod.
By 2350 genetic therapies would eliminate disease and mental illness, and replace cosmetic surgery for aesthetic enhancements. Parents might pick and choose attributes of their child, and it’s not impossible that babies might be grown in artificial wombs. Humans could be engineered to be smarter, healthier and happier, as well as more compliant and less violent. There will be no accidental pregnancies because every child will be planned and designed, making abortions relics of the past. Adoptions would be rare because there would be very few orphans.
The people in The Expanse are too much like us. I believe we’re already on the path to transhumanism, to becoming a different species. People in 2350 would view us in 2020 as backwards, primitive and barbaric.
Robots + AI
The absence of robots in The Expanse is surprising. Considering the rapid rate of automation today, both physical and virtual, it seems reasonable that automation 330 years from now would look like magic to us today. There should be robots everywhere! Robots and AI should execute mining operations, construct spacecraft and buildings, and pilot vehicles and spacecraft.
In the next decade, having an AI personal assistant who lives in the cloud could become as standard as owning a smartphone is today. Long before 2350 most visible interfaces would be replaced with neural interfaces, but for the most part, humans may not even think about many tasks we do today, because they would be automated. Robots and AI would be so reliable in 2350 that the thought of having a human do a task such as mining would be absurd. A human piloting a spacecraft or driving a car would probably be prohibited.
The Expanse depicts drones that look like sleeker versions of today’s quad-rotor drones. It’s not likely that drones in several centuries would look so similar to ours. However, it also depicts a robot bird that flaps its wings, which is a fascinating and plausible idea. Nanotech drones in 2350 could be the size of particles of dust.
The Future of Police
One of the characters in The Expanse is a detective from the colony on the dwarf planet Ceres named Joe Miller. He’s a hard-boiled cop plucked right from a film noir classic, played to cyberpunk perfection by Thomas Jane. Miller even dons a black Trilby hat, finishing off his Humphrey-Bogart-in-Space persona.
Most people don’t know what the Trilby is called but recognize it as a popular icon of film noir characters such as Rick from Casablanca. It dates back to 1890 (popularized by a London play based on George du Maurier’s novel Trilby), and a police officer wearing such a hat in the year 2350 would be as odd and ridiculous as a cop today wearing a Renaissance flat cap with a large plume. In 2020, people think the Trilby looks cool, but in 2350 it looks silly.
Miller (and a number of other characters) are armed with slightly futuristic-looking revolvers that fire bullets. This is so anachronistic as to be steampunk! Consider that today revolvers are only still around for self-defense and recreational gun enthusiasts. Every modern police force and military uses semi-automatic pistols for two simple reasons: they hold more bullets and shoot faster.
The equivalent Officer Miller of 2020 would be a cop who wore a feathered Renaissance hat and was armed with a single-shot flintlock pistol. He’d look like he was going to a costume party, not investigating a crime. Pretty ridiculous.
In 2350, cops would use ocular implants and an enhanced personal AI that would almost instantly identify subjects through biometrics, find relevant clues, and provide instant memory recall. Many crimes would be solved in seconds.
With all our genetic and nanotech enhancements, perhaps certain criminal tendencies would be reclassified as diseases and then cured. When we find the genetic basis for sociopathy, for example, it could be eliminated from the gene pool. Murder might become almost unheard of, and a combination of universal basic income and ubiquitous surveillance tech could make crimes like theft extremely rare. Whether this sounds utopian or dystopian depends on your point of view.
London is today one of the surveillance capitals of the world, with one report estimating that a Londoner is captured on camera on average over 300 times every day. Powering the surveillance state is ever more sophisticated (and increasingly less expensive) surveillance technology. China is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most advanced surveillance states, using millions of cameras, mesh networks and face recognition technology to locate and track wanted individuals and notify local officials.
Given our current trajectory, it’s doubtful that in 2350 you would still be able to hide in a city or on a space station just by ducking behind some boxes. Both the tech embedded in your body and the sensors embedded everywhere else would locate and identify you instantly.
In 1690, photography and electricity had yet to be discovered. In 2020, we have cameras and microphones and other sensors smaller than your pinkie fingernail that can collect data. A simple gesture on your smartphone can bring up the live feed from your home doorbell cam from anywhere on Earth with a wireless internet connection. By 2350, nanosensors including cameras will be the size of specks of dust, and they’ll be so cheap that embedding them into buildings and objects by the millions would be trivial.
Highly augmented humans, whose cerebral cortexes are connected directly to the cloud and surrounded everywhere by nanosensors, would be unable to hide anywhere. The privacy, autonomy and anonymity (or at least the concepts of these things) that many people value today will be traded for the safety and security of that constant surveillance state. Going “off the grid” may be virtually impossible, but crimes such as kidnappings, assault and murder could become relics of our violent past.
Smartphones + Tablets
The Expanse depicts smartphones as slabs of transparent glass touchscreens that can project small volumetric displays (holograms) off the edges. They look cool, but we’re not likely to still use smartphones in 2030 much less 2350. Someone using a smartphone in 2350 would be similar to someone using a Pascaline (a 17th-century adding machine) today. Instead of being made of oak and brass, the 2020 Pascaline would be made of Gorilla Glass and aircraft-grade aluminum. But just as Blaise Pascal couldn’t have designed the Pascaline to run apps and surf the web, the smartphone can’t be designed to do the amazing 24th-century things we can’t yet imagine. It’s unlikely that any personal electronic devices will still be in use. Your body would be your computer, and your AI plus your brain would be your CPU.
Quantum computing and nanotech will cause a revolution in computational power, miniaturization and communication. Devices will shrink until they’re invisible. Perhaps we’ll figure out how to harness quantum entanglement for instantaneous communication anywhere in the universe. Quantum physics is just beginning to open up glimpses of these possibilities.
The Expanse references the desire to terraform Mars in order to make it more Earth-like. This has long been a dream of many people, including Elon Musk, who is actively developing the technology to transport people to Mars.
Terraforming Mars is impractical at best, but likely impossible. The first problem is that Mars quite a bit smaller than Earth, and its gravity is 62 percent less than Earth’s. This is one of the reasons that Mars has such a thin atmosphere; it simply doesn’t have enough gravity to hold onto a thicker atmosphere.
Another problem is radiation. Earth is protected from solar radiation by a strong magnetic field that is powered by a molten core. Without it, solar radiation would kill all life on the surface. Mars lacks a magnetic field, thus any plants and animals you put on the surface would be fried. Further, the lack of a magnetic field allows the solar wind to essentially blow away the Martian atmosphere. NASA scientists have proposed building an artificial magnetic field for Mars to protect the planet from radiation and shield the atmosphere from the solar wind. But this would only solve part of the problem of Martian terraforming.
Even if Mars could be terraformed, its lower gravity would require constant atmospheric replenishment. Cost-wise it isn’t worth it, and the resources required to maintain it likely be unsustainable long-term.
Establishing cities inside of giant domes is a more feasible approach to colonizing Mars. The effects of isolation on the psychology of the inhabitants, as well as culture and politics, would be challenging. The Expanse’s depiction of Martian culture as tough, individualistic and authoritarian is plausible.
Projectile weapons may still have a place in the future, but the pistols (especially the policeman’s revolver I discussed above), rifles and machine guns depicted in The Expanse seem very anachronistic. In fact, the idea of guns might be as primitive as the muskets and sabres of 1690 seem to us.
The Expanse depicts military spacecraft armed with machine guns and rail guns. The former is anachronistic, but the latter is somewhat plausible. Railguns use electromagnetism to accelerate a projectile at very high speeds, and we have the basic technology today. In a few hundred years, this might be outdated but we also might have more advanced versions of it. Since railguns rely on velocity and inertia of the projectile, it could be plausible to have small portable versions. Imagine a pistol-sized railgun that fired a tiny pellet at 10,000 meters per second. The magazine could hold hundreds of pellets, each embedded with nanotech. But even this idea is probably more year 2100 than 2350.
Nanotech, AI and robotics will play large roles in the future of weapons. And as in other sectors, automation will replace humans. Military vehicles including spacecraft will be heavily or entirely automated. Humans will no longer serve as soldiers or pilots.
Swarms of nanotech drones called “foglets” could replace personal weapons. These nano foglets could morph into restrains, projectiles, shields, or any other morphology that was needed. Nanotech foglets could attack spacecraft from within, could enter the brain of a human target and alter their brainwaves to make them unconscious, and protect targets from threats.
Warfare in 2350 would likely be fought more with cyber and nanotech hacking, carried out by AI and drones. Large, hot wars would continue to decline as societies recognize that they are losing propositions for all sides.
This is another anachronism. Nuclear weapons are the most powerful armaments known today. The most powerful nuclear weapon ever made, the Tsar Bomba, was powerful enough to destroy a large city. In 1690, the most powerful armament was a canon with an exploding cannonball, powerful enough to destroy a small house. It would be reasonable to project that weaponry in 2350 will be at least as powerful as the Tsar Bomba is compared to the cannonball.
The Expanse portrays nuclear missiles as sleek space rockets with very long-range propulsion and guidance systems that rely strangely on the ancient technology of radar. Using radar would be equivalent to using a 17th-century brass sextant to navigate the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. And the nuclear missiles themselves would be equivalent to us today having bigger, more futuristic cannonballs. This doesn’t seem likely.
From a physics standpoint, we can inquire: what releases more energy than nuclear fission or fusion? One answer is matter-antimatter annihilation. When matter comes into contact with anti-matter, it releases 400 times more energy than hydrogen fusion. Perhaps in the future humans will weaponize that frightening power.
In the last few hundred years, popular attitudes towards war have changed tremendously. Far fewer people today believe in the “glory” of dying in war, a myth destroyed by the mass media exposing the gory truth. Since 1945, deaths due to war have been steadily decreasing globally. Most citizens and governments recognize that armed conflict is disadvantageous for all sides. I would like to think that attitudes will change just as much in the next few centuries, and that our descendants will recognize that peace is profitable, and choose not to build weapons of mass destruction.
Farming + Food
In The Expanse, the Jovian moon Ganymede is host to enormous farms that supply food for the colonies in the outer solar system. Ganymede is a sound choice as it is the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetosphere, protecting the surface from radiation. Plus the view of Jupiter is absolutely gorgeous! However, growing plants in vast greenhouses, and then transporting that food hundreds of millions of kilometers seems impractical and anachronistic for the year 2350.
One of my recent clients is a hydroponic and fogponic technology company. They and many other companies are developing the technologies that will feed the world in the coming decades via solar powered vertical farms. These farms may be built as urban skyscrapers, meaning food does not have to be transported long distances from where it’s produced to where it’s sold and consumed. Genetically engineered crops will be naturally pest resistant, produce vastly more harvestable food, and contain better nutrition. We’re already on that path. Critically, urban vertical farming would enable us to reclaim rural farmland for reforestation. In the next decade, we need to plant over a billion trees to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Farming animals for protein is rife with ethical and sustainability problems. Plant-based and lab-grown proteins are very likely to eventually replace all animal farming.
By 2350, vertical farms could be replaced with nanotech 3D printed food, or foods that are “grown” from genetically engineered microorganisms. New foods could be designed for unique gastronomical experiences. Spacecraft would be equipped with food production machines. There would be no need to haul broccoli from Ganymede to Ceres because you could just plug in a FoodPod and ask it to print some mint-broccoli and to grow a curry-flavored chicken cutlet. No actual broccoli plants or chickens would be harmed.
The Futurist Measuring Stick
To be a futurist, one must cultivate systems thinking. This means looking constantly at the interconnections and interrelationships between things, thinking not in terms of organisms but of whole ecologies. It also means embracing exponential thinking. Our measuring stick of the past is always shorter than our measuring stick of the future as an assessment of change. The future will be more different than we think because technology is not the only thing that changes. Our behaviors change, our attitudes change, culture changes. The futurist thinker constantly swaps between her wide angle and telephoto lenses. Cultivate this way of thinking and many possible futures will come into view.