Future tense

What will 2040 be like?


As the University celebrates its 125th anniversary, the Magazine asked campus experts to speculate about what challenges, discoveries, and new research paths will define their fields after another quarter century of inquiry and impact.

The brain         Financial markets         Medicine
Cancer   Higher education   Music
Cities   Innovation   Philosophy
Computing   Languages   Public opinion
Cosmology   Law   Religion
Cultural identity   Learning   Work
Engineering   Liberal arts education    


Olofunmilayo I. Olopade

Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor, Departments of Medicine and Human Genetics, and Director, Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics

Twenty-five years from now I would be thrilled to see two major changes, if not in all of health care—let’s be reasonable here—at least in my own specialty of breast cancer. We have already seen, and participated in, genuine advances in what we now call precision health care. Although this is improving every day, it is not nearly sufficiently precise. What we currently understand is a drop in the bucket compared to all that we ought to know by 2040. By precision health care, I mean a deep, thorough, comprehensive understanding of the molecular—as well as social—mechanisms of disease and, working from that knowledge, a broad range of carefully tested, reliably confirmed options that enable us to prevent, detect, and correct whatever has gone wrong, without doing a lot of collateral damage.

I would also like to see us not just narrow but close the persistent racial mortality gap in breast cancer, in the United States and around the world. Two substantial factors got us in this fix. One is how little we know, and until recently how little we cared, about racial and ethnic differences in tumor biology and genomics. This is a long, hard battle, but we have acknowledged the issue and begun to make headway. The other problem would seem easier to fix, but has proved otherwise. This is the ongoing quality difference in patterns of care. Despite being diagnosed at younger ages and with more aggressive forms of breast cancer, minorities often face delays, misuse, and underuse of treatment. Interventions to close this gap will require commitment and enlightened leadership at the patient, provider, payer, and community levels to drive system change. We need to learn how to do this at home and then bring it to the regions that desperately need it.

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Liberal arts education

John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75

Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor, Department of History, and Dean of the College

The future of the liberal arts at elite colleges has been highly visible in public discussions in the last year, inspiring commentary in the press and on college campuses across the country. Some of this has come in response to pieces by William Deresiewicz (Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life and a recent Harper’s article), who argues that elite institutions, under the sway of educational “neoliberalism,” have reduced the value of the liberal arts to their economic utility. Where higher education once sought the formation of character and intellectual autonomy, it has conformed to the language and values of the marketplace. This, the argument goes, is perilous to the work of self-discovery, and even more so to the humanities themselves, which are being eclipsed by more lucrative majors in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and economics.

This is a potent and in some ways arresting argument. Yet as reviewers have noted, it is more prophecy than careful diagnosis, and recapitulates many of the charges of educational corruption that have surfaced regularly about American higher education since the early 20th century. It supposes an institution whose curriculum and mission are shapelessly adapted to new fads, lacking the legitimacy of a campus culture that is itself suffused with scholarly values. Fortunately, that institution is not the University of Chicago.

One of the themes of our 125-year history has been thoughtful curricular innovation, rooted in the values of interdisciplinary thought, rigorous meritocracy, and intellectual analysis. These values lie at the heart of the Core, which introduces every student, regardless of major, to the practices of humanistic reflection as a basis for further study. The Core has been able to accommodate many challenges since the 1930s.

A fascinating example of this innovation lies in the Redfield-Singer Project of the 1950s, which introduced the idea of comparative cultural studies to our general education. Conceived during the Cold War, the project created new sequences (beginning with Islamic, Chinese, and South Asian Civilizations) to be studied alongside Western Civilization, in part to enable students to scrutinize their own cultural heritage. The Redfield-Singer Project embraced the idea that all knowledge is comparative and that cognitive distance from one’s own culture and assumptions is beneficial for self-understanding. But it did so from a standpoint that emphasized the value of new research, based on rational argument and the protection of diverse patterns of thought and meaning.

As a result of this capacity to innovate in creative, but rigorous and disciplined ways, the liberal arts at Chicago are today stronger than ever. College alumni from all disciplines reflect upon the Core as the most formative part of their undergraduate experience. The years to come will see the emergence of more new Core sequences that reflect new traditions of scholarship but also rededicate the faculty’s commitment to general education.

When we describe Chicago as an ideal university, we are referring to its commitment to the logic and purpose of what a true university should be—it is not a trade school, an NGO, a kindergarten, an ideological advocacy group, and it is certainly not a shopping mall. It seeks not to shelter its members from hard and discomforting facts but to enable them to attain disciplined self-enlightenment. Nowadays all great universities claim such norms, but our success in embracing, enhancing, and sustaining them is deeply rooted in our own history, a history of early failure that led our founders to be willing to take great risks in the name of creating something very different from what had gone before. The new University was particularly dedicated to the ideal of academic freedom at a time when such ideas where not well understood in American society. The right to stare new and uncomfortable realities in the face, and to respond with reason and argument and not with emotion, came not because such notions were pleasing and attractive, but because they were fundamental to the pursuit of basic scholarship.

Our students profit enormously from the intellectual excitement, the willing devotion to scholarly research, and learning and seriousness of purpose that have marked and shaped our community from its very conception. The Core curriculum that emerged in the 1930s would have been unthinkable without the prior creation of a campus academic culture that took undergraduate learning seriously. Many worry today about the fate of the liberal arts, but such fears are misplaced at a university like Chicago that is not only resolutely devoted to research and teaching in the humanities but has students who believe in that mission as well.

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Eugene B. Chang, MD’76

Martin Boyer Professor, Department of Medicine, and Associate Director, Academic Programs and Training in Gastroenterology

One challenge of this millennium will be dealing with the onslaught of “new age” disorders, that is, diseases less prevalent 50 to 100 years ago but now increasing in frequency despite the many advances in modern medicine. These include complex immune disorders like inflammatory bowel diseases, type 1 diabetes, Celiac disease, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as more common diseases such as colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

The rapid pace of these developments cannot be explained by genetic drift but is likely due to shifts in environmental factors and societal norms brought on by cultural Westernization. Accompanying these are dramatic changes in the collective human microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract, a community of trillions of microbial organisms that together function as an “acquired” organ of our bodies, essential to sustaining health.

The gut microbial organ plays a vital role in shaping our immune and metabolic systems. Like any other organ of the body, perturbations in its development and function caused by environmental, dietary, or lifestyle factors can have disastrous repercussions and result in the development of acute and chronic diseases.

This knowledge can now be exploited to gain a better understanding of how immunological and metabolic homeostasis can be restored. As a result, we are approaching a new era of discovery that will lead to microbiome-based interventions and diagnostics that will become the future tools of precision medicine—and ultimately lead to improved clinical outcomes and the prevention and cure of many diseases.

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Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer

Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Classics, and Inaugural Faculty Director, Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge

The mission of the Stevanovich Institute is to unite scholars from many different fields to study the process of knowledge formation and transmittal from antiquity to the present day and, in correlation, to explore how this history shapes our modern world.

The questions we ask include: What are the sites from which discourses of knowledge emerge and derive legitimacy? What is the impact of the conditions and restrictions upon the constitution of knowledge, its circulation, and its transmission to the future? How are (and were) political life, religious belief, and scientific exploration shaped by assumptions about what knowledge is? As just one very obvious example, one might consider the history of the “disciplines” in the West, each of them a form of knowledge that has been legitimized within the context of the university, but each of them still subject to formation and obsolescence.

We hope that 2040 would see widespread acceptance of the idea that our state of present knowledge, with its particular focuses, biases, fields, and even its faith in science, is the direct product of particular historical, cultural, and political developments. Awareness of this feature, which is rarely studied or acknowledged, can add nuance to our acceptance of our cultural and intellectual status quo, and to our ability to contextualize both ourselves and others within a longer view. One can conceive of the implications for modern diplomacy, for example, if diplomats were properly acquainted with some of these large-scale issues of context. The Stevanovich Institute would like to raise these questions in the hope that they can encourage a deeper and richer understanding of the modern world through both its connection to and dissociation from underlying and age-old modes of thought.

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Andrew A. Chien

William Eckhardt Professor, Department of Computer Science, and Director, CERES Center for Unstoppable Computing

A message from the future: In 2015 the wonders of computing filled us with amazement. Instant, continuous communication, worldwide information access, a “nervous system” to control and connect large societal endeavors (company, cause, community) across space and time. Email, www, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Uber, Instacart. It was hard to see the limits of computing, but from our perspective in 2040, they are clear.

Power. 2015: Batteries, daily charging, heat. Today: Breakthroughs in custom architecture and thrifty, approximate, and volatile computing mean a postjoule era where computing is effectively unlimited.

Networks. 2015: Jerky video, wait for download, dropped connections. Today: Breakthroughs in cognitive and converged networks achieve multispectrum harmony and deliver the anytime, anywhere broadband vision in an anytime, most places flavor.

Dependability. 2015: Weekly crashes, monthly security exploits, constant updates. Today: Breakthroughs in unstoppable computing create disciplined modular structure, enable self-repair, and enforce behavior limits. Computing devices, from internet-of-things to wearable to medical, achieve life-critical reliability and 100-fold trust and durability improvements.

Human Interaction. 2015: Tedious poking, dragging, and pinching on tiny flat screens. Today: Breakthroughs in 3-D sensing, computational geometry, and distributed computing enable human actions of any scale, gesture, or expression, providing broad natural cyberphysical interfaces and rich, natural user experience.

Applications. 2015: Pedantic control of specific actions, step-by-step detailed control, and simple automation. Today: Breakthroughs in deep, dark, and wide learning and big data enable applications to undertake subtle, complex tasks, negotiating nuance, personality, and circumstance to do what we really want.

More profoundly, computing has matured into an art and science based on our growing understanding that perspective, aesthetics, inspiration, and taste play a critical role in the design of large-scale software, global-scale systems, and user interface. The information architecture of big data sets has become the foundational infrastructure for modern society—more essential than water, electricity, and internet infrastructures. Students who study this integrated field examine great works and great masters, and the trajectory of new ideas and schools of thought and style. These trends are informed by profound creativity and insight as well as the constraints of computing science and technology.

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Martha Feldman

Mabel Greene Myers Professor, Department of Music

When the year 2040 comes around we will be living on a planet so different from the present one that it’s hard to imagine what music scholars will be doing. But two things seem certain. For one, they will stop fighting over how politically engaged they might be, for vast waves of migration and radical alterations in the anthropocene will render such battles moot. For another, they will be responding evermore to a posthuman landscape in which the human body interacts fluidly with technology. What will that mean? Recreating Beethoven or Michael Jackson in holographs exchanged via the internet, accessing library information systems from chips in their wrists, demonstrating musical perception via robotic interaction, and much else.

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John Flavin

Executive Director, Chicago Innovation Exchange

One hundred and twenty-five years ago innovators were developing commercial automobiles and attempting air travel, while scientists were discovering radioactivity and X-rays, and suggesting that manmade CO2 emissions might cause global warming.

Just 50 short years ago, people were developing fiber optics, creating the first microprocessor, inventing the first car phones and voicemail systems, and establishing the era of modern computing (including sending the first emails). Scientists were significantly advancing our understanding of molecular biology, bacteriology, virology, and genetics, paving the way for developments like the Human Genome Project.

We’ve achieved an incredible amount in a short timeframe. And yet I maintain that technology will evolve even faster over the next 25 years, perhaps doubling the speed of innovation we saw over the past 50 years. And I believe entrepreneurs will be the trailblazers driving us forward. Small teams can now tap into the speed of computation necessary to address these challenges, while continued urbanization and the development of innovation ecosystems will connect multidisciplinary teams in new ways, ensuring that discoveries and ideas developed in the lab will have a better chance of reaching the marketplace.

By 2040, I think we’ll have cured diseases that we thought impossible to cure and created new solutions for energy storage and water purification that far surpass anything we imagine today

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Timothy Knowles

Pritzker Director, University of Chicago Urban Labs, and Chairman, University of Chicago Urban Education Institute

The world is facing the highest rate of urbanization in human history. The number of people living in urban areas grows by approximately 60 million every year. By 2050, the urban population is expected to nearly double from 3.9 billion to 6.4 billion, with explosive growth occurring in Africa and Asia.

This massive urbanization creates significant opportunity. Cities generate jobs and income—nearly 80 percent of all goods and services worldwide are produced in urban areas. Cities can empower the disenfranchised and catalyze social mobility. With good governance cities can deliver schooling, health care, and other essential services more effectively and efficiently than rural areas. Of course urbanization also creates unparalleled challenges: concentrated poverty, crime, environmental degradation, inadequate housing, and poor-quality schooling.

In the 25 years ahead, Urban Labs will help cities make smarter bets, build knowledge about what matters most, and improve human lives at scale.

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Higher education

Mark R. Nemec

Dean of the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies

The beauty of higher education institutions in the United States is found in their ability to adapt and remain relevant while staying true to their long-standing values. We’re now in a period of redefinition—perhaps the largest since the emergence of the research university 125 years ago. The forces at play today are the same ones that drove these universities’ emergence in the 1890s: demographics, urbanization, globalization, and the advent of technology.

Alumni are increasingly going to expect an experience based not just on nostalgia but also on continued learning. Technology will be critical in facilitating this, and in supporting effective delivery of genuinely lifelong learning. The median age of people engaging with education will continue to rise, both because we’ll continue to live longer and because we’ll continue to demand higher education throughout our lives. At the Graham School we have PhDs and MBAs coming back to do professional master’s degrees in newly emerging interdisciplinary fields. As in years past, institutions of higher learning will need to adapt to these new realities.

Higher education always reflects its society while also trying to advance that society. The University of Chicago is uniquely positioned to help shape what the next 25 years will look like. You could argue that UChicago defined the last 125 years, in part by establishing the first extension unit in this country (and arguably the first in the world). Today we are very much focused on defining the future.

The next 25 years are going to bring a very rapid acceleration of these trends. But it’s going to enhance what we do, not disrupt it—because of our ability to lead. The strength of our greatest universities will be seen in their capacity to adapt and advance society in the face of those forces of change that are at once new and very familiar.

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Gabriel Richardson Lear

Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy

Twenty-five years from now philosophers will be asking “What is justice?” “What is knowledge?” “What is happiness?”… just as they have for the past 2,400 years (2015 is the 125th anniversary of the University of Chicago; 2016 is the 2,400th anniversary of Aristotle’s birth).

But seriously, we are in a moment of transition in the way philosophers raise traditional questions and in the sorts of answers they take to be adequate. In recent years, some philosophers have begun incorporating the methods and findings of empirical social science more closely into their work. I expect this trend to continue so that 25 years from now it may be difficult to distinguish a difference.

Meanwhile, other philosophers will continue becoming more self-consciously humanistic, treating the concepts of ethics, philosophy of mind, and even logic as ones through which we understand ourselves and our world as meaningful. They will continue a trend of reinvigorating philosophy through conversation with the past and with other cultures. This splitting of philosophy into scientific and humanistic strands has happened before—for example, the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the 16th century—and it will happen again. All in all, this is a cause for celebration.

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Sian L. Beilock

Professor, Department of Psychology, and Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives

I see us having a much clearer understanding of the brain—how it underlies our ability to learn, remember, and perform. In turn, the way we educate our children in the classroom will have changed based on this enhanced understanding of learning. Each child will be in a better position to reach his or her potential—regardless of race or income level—because we will have greater knowledge of how children take information in and apply it to new situations they encounter. This new knowledge will also help teachers and parents bring out the best in their children.

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Salikoko Mufwene, PhD’79

Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Linguistics

As well expressed by the late Stephen Jay Gould, the study of evolution looks into the past, not into the future! The reason is that evolution is subject to various ecological factors that may no longer apply in the future. It is reluctantly that I express the following speculations.

If the distribution of economic powers around the world remains what it is now, it’s quite likely that, 25 years from today, Mandarin will not take the place of English as the world’s foremost lingua franca, though more and more people will be learning it in school. One of the reasons is that more and more Chinese will be learning English too, as will more and more Indians, as long as the USA and the British Commonwealth remain the greatest buying markets for raw materials and other commodities produced around the world, and the United States and the United Kingdom remain the leaders in science and technology.

French will probably be a less important imperial language, unless France increases its investments in the economic development of Francophone Africa and creates more incentives for citizens of the relevant countries to find its language advantageous to them. Afrikaans will be reduced to the role of ethnic language in South Africa, as it is stigmatized by its shameful association with the apartheid regime and the “colored” people will find it more advantageous to be fluent speakers of English, its primary competitor; in order to fit better in the emergent socioeconomic structure of South Africa, young urban Afrikaaners will find it more advantageous to speak English than their ethnic language, and many of them may not transmit it to their children. (This is how Dutch, German, Swedish, Norwegian, and other European languages lost ground to English in Anglophone North America.)

English will continue to spread in South Africa and around the world but will not become the mother tongue of most people in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, though a number of languages there will succumb to the competition of Spanish, Portuguese (in the case of Brazil), or some major indigenous languages, such as Hindi, Malay, Swahili, Lingala, and Wolof.

In Haiti and the Anglophone Caribbean, the local creoles will still be the dominant vernaculars of the majority, who are economically disadvantaged owing to their stagnating economies. English will not become the dominant vernacular in the European Union, in which every member nation maintains economic and cultural autonomy, despite fears expressed by some language advocates. Overall, more languages will still be spoken around the world outside the Americas, Australia, and perhaps China than predicted by several linguistic futurologists.

Despite the increasing long-distance population movements facilitated by the worldwide globalization of economic systems, by relatively more affordable long-distance transportation, and by more integrative communication networks, English will continue to speciate into regional varieties, which may become less mutually intelligible. The factors that shape their norms are very local, despite the globalization of communication technology, which, by the way, is still inaccessible to large segments of Third World populations. That technology is supported by electricity, which they do not have. Nor do they have the economic power to afford the technology itself, despite its decreasing costs.

Refugeeism may weaken the demographic strengths of some languages, while it is also doubtful that new, lasting linguistic diasporas will emerge that are comparable to those of imperial European languages today. The real impact of refugeeism will depend on whether or not the refugees, most of whom relocate to neighboring territories, will assimilate to population structures of their host countries, if they remain there permanently. This factor will determine whether the linguascape of Africa, for example, will change.

Linguists will then hopefully have a better understanding of the local interactional dynamics that drive the vitality of languages. Language advocates may then understand that languages cannot be saved without the engagement of a socioeconomic system that can sustain them ecologically. It’s easy; one just has to compare the success of Quebec with the revitalization of French with the failure of Ireland, which has been happy with only teaching it in school. Love of one’s cultural heritage and all the books one can produce will not alone save the endangered languages. It is also necessary to set up socioeconomic ecologies in which people regularly choose to socialize and earn their living competitively in those particular languages. Oops! I’m about to open a can of worms, socially.

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The brain

John Maunsell

Professor, Department of Neurobiology, and Director, Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology, and Human Behavior

We can anticipate dramatic progress in neuroscience over the next two and half decades, but those advances might not be the ones most people expect. A common theme in movies and books is that we’ll soon be able to connect hardware to our brains to upload memories, enhance performance, or enter into lifelike virtual worlds.

The first steps toward interfacing directly with machines exist today in the form of prosthetics that can let deaf patients perceive sound or allow paralyzed patients to move a robotic arm. But these devices can tap only a tiny fraction of the signals flowing into and out of the brain, and the fantastically intricate, inaccessible, and fragile nature of most of the brain’s wiring will make increasing such artificial data transfer exponentially difficult.

Instead, neuroscience is likely to have its greatest influence on society by improving medicine and contributing to fields as diverse as education, law, and public policy. Impressive developments are being made in revealing the molecular and cellular mechanisms associated with brain function in normal and diseased states, and in the coming decades this understanding will open the door to molecular medicine that could address a range of brain diseases.

On a different front, a better grasp of the computations the brain performs to let us feel, think, and move could enrich our lives in many ways. Treatment of disturbed mental function could be greatly improved once we understand the nuts and bolts of normal cognition. A detailed understanding of how brains learn could lead to substantial improvements in education. Finally, there is the prospect of a scientific understanding of human biases and fears that lets us better anticipate and counter the foibles of our personal and political interactions.

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Richard A. Rosengarten, AM’88, PhD’94

Associate Professor and Interim Dean, Divinity School

The next 25 years of religion at first blush will concern its organization in space. The equator will be a useful divining (not dividing) line: Christianity’s center of gravity will be southerly, and its diminishing numbers to the north will have as a complement the migrations of peoples who bring Islam, especially, but also a variety of other traditions and practices, into societies where words like “toleration” will be challenged, in theory and in practice, afresh

So far so good, and not terribly surprising. But this shifting of the religious tectonic plates will place ever more explicit pressure on the relation between the category “religion” and the traditions that are Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and—most keenly, given their sizes and international span—Islam and Christianity. Generalizations about “religion” will more directly than ever encounter, for example, the self-understanding of a Muslim car dealer in Morehead, Kentucky. Governments north and south of the equator will have to address the place of religion in public life to both general naysayers to any such role, and to the particular, variegated understandings of such a role held by the religions in their midst. Religious leaders will need to articulate their faiths’ histories and traditions without devolving either into simplistic “our way or the highway” rhetoric, or into claims for exceptionalism that will only—and often not wrongly—play to the skepticism of the naysayers.

Such a scenario will call for decidedly new leadership for governments and religions. Prime ministers and presidents, popes and rabbis and ayatollahs will alike need to limn anew modernity’s vexed negotiation of its true equator: the state and religion. For this the splendid human qualities of the Lincolns and Gandhis and Kings—principled patience, steadfast practicality, compelling articulation—will need to be in the service of new articulations of religious fealty, loyal citizenship, and their relation. I anticipate political leadership that will show its religion, and religious leadership that engages politics.

Last but not least, a caveat. For one to lead, others must follow; and nothing has been more dynamically expressed in religion today than the mobility of ostensible followers.

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Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71

Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor, Law School

The most important Supreme Court decision in the next 25 years will be the decision that overrules Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This will certainly happen. History will judge that Citizens United was the worst decision in the history of the Supreme Court—worse even than Korematsu v. United States (which upheld the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II), worse even than Plessy v. Ferguson (which held that racial segregation was constitutional), worse even than Dred Scott v. Sandford (which held that African Americans could not be American citizens).

Although Citizens United was a bad First Amendment decision at the time it was decided in 2010, the error of the court’s ways has become increasingly clear with the passage of time. Even now, only five years later, some 80 percent of the American people disapprove of the decision. By holding that government cannot constitutionally regulate the impact of money in politics, the five-justice majority in Citizens United opened the floodgates to a handful of billionaires to control the outcomes of the American electoral process.

Moreover, because those billionaires now have that freedom, it is impossible to imagine a scenario in which the American people could amend the Constitution to overrule the decision. The amendment process is affected by the same corrupting influence of money.

If American democracy is to be saved, it will therefore have to be saved by five future justices of the Supreme Court who will see the damage their predecessors have wreaked on American democracy and who will right the wrong by overruling Citizens United. And this, I am confident, will happen.

But the question is: what then? Even if our elected representatives are finally freed to exercise sound judgment and enact laws designed to restore American democracy, will they actually do so? After all, by then—and, indeed, perhaps even already—our elected officials are the beneficiaries of the existing system of corruption. Will they really change the rules that benefit them as individuals? By 2040, we surely will know.

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Public opinion

Tom W. Smith, PhD’80

Senior Fellow and Director, NORC at the University of Chicago

In 2040, I’ll be 91 (which just might happen since my father made it to 93). Certain science-social predictions can be made with a high degree of confidence given well-established demographic patterns. For example, America will be more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse. The US Census Bureau projects that America will no longer be a majority “white” nation by 2043. Moreover, greater diversity is being socially recognized as multiracial and multiethnic identities are increasingly being reflected both in official statistics and in how people see themselves.

A little more speculative are other well-established trends such as a decline in people identifying with and practicing a specific organized religion. But this indicator of secularization will be partly (maybe mostly) offset by an expansion of people who classify themselves as spiritual but not religious, and those following personal religions and blended religions.

Attitudes and public opinion are even harder to reliably predict, but cohort turnover is a powerful and continuing engine of societal change. It has led to greater acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity, modern gender roles, and equality across differing sexual identities. It is likely that those trends will continue. Of course these are all largely normal-state predictions, discounting cataclysmic upheavals from pandemics, nuclear war, or other global catastrophes. Hopefully, such won’t be in our next 25 years.

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Matthew Tirrell

Dean and Founding Pritzker Director, Institute for Molecular Engineering, and Deputy Laboratory Director for Science, Argonne National Laboratory

Molecular engineering means designing and building useful devices and processes from the molecular level up. Since 2011 the University of Chicago has been driving a new approach to engineering education and research via the Institute for Molecular Engineering. The essence of this approach is capitalizing on convergence among traditionally different disciplines. Our idea is that engineering is the application of science to develop useful approaches to problems of society. Where traditional engineering focuses on developing distinctive tool sets, the IME’s approach brings together different tool sets to solve problems.

What can we expect it to deliver in the next 25 years? Some of the answers will stem from the applied science themes of the IME. In the realm of information technologies, we will see an increasing implementation of quantum technologies replacing digital technologies, leading to more powerful computing and more secure communications, as well as unprecedented new sensors for biomedical applications. Engineering applied to the immune system, with approaches ranging from synthetic vaccines to control of fluid movement in tissues, is a rich and underexploited route to dealing with intractable medical conditions, from cancer to diabetes. The IME is leading the way in developing new therapies via immuno-engineering. Computational science is moving from the study of small “toy” models of systems to a priori design of new materials on the computer, with applications in new polymers, semiconductors, and devices. The next 25 years will see a dramatic change in how we develop and preserve our precious water resources, with a strong focus on the nexus among the food, energy, and water sectors. Agriculture demands water but also threatens water with fertilizer and pesticide runoffs. It takes water to generate useful energy and it takes energy to purify water. Ongoing research in IME will contribute to new solutions to these issues.

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Cultural identity

Vu Tran

Assistant Professor of Practice in the Arts, Department of English

I came to the United States from Vietnam in 1980, when I was five, and in the last three decades, I’ve seen America’s cultural views of Asians change in ways I would have never expected. I remember casually calling myself “oriental” in grade school, something that would escape no Asian American’s lips these days, unless ironically. I’ve seen Vietnam become a desired tourist destination and Vietnamese cuisine attain high culinary status. I’ve seen sriracha sauce—a secret staple in my family—become the hot sauce of choice for many Americans. And most interestingly, I see Caucasian/Asian relationships so regularly that it’s actually rare to meet a couple who are both Asian. We’ve even arrived at the point, problematically or not, where some people argue that Asian/White Americans should simply be considered white.

Asian cultural identity in America remains stagnant in many ways—just try to count the number of Asians in our popular movies, TV shows, and music; or just consider how varied or complex those few representations are. But that’s the stubborn veneer of popular culture. In 2010, the Pew Research Center reported that 28 percent of Asian-Americans “marry out,” the highest percentage among all races. And while this study finds that Asians are also increasingly marrying other Asians, I can’t help seeing a significant increase in intermarriage—especially for my fellow Vietnamese—in the next 25 years and, as a result, an inevitable shift in the way Asian faces and narratives are presented in our culture.

The result, I think, is that ambiguity will thrive, similar to how it has for African American artists in the past century—writers like Nella Larsen, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison. As I’ve experienced myself, assimilation brings both understanding and misunderstanding, both prosperity and pitfalls. And the more children born of Asian and non-Asian parents, the richer and more complex the material will be for our next generation of Asian American artists. Nothing creates more compelling art than the ambiguity of liminal existence, of uncertain and indecisive identity. The postcolonial narrative of first-generation Vietnamese writers like myself, haunted by the memories of their parents’ history as well as their own, of their homeland riven by internal and external forces, will transition into the narratives of writers removed from these histories by one or two generations. The distance does not necessarily weaken the power of that history; it will more likely encourage a renegotiation of that history’s impact on the individual. Which is to say that I fully expect much more complicated and unexpected fiction that contends with what it means to be Asian, American, and—for that matter—Vietnamese in America and how our “melting pot” not only unites but also divides us all.

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Public policy

Marci Ybarra

Assistant Professor, School of Social Service Administration

In 25 years we will have moved from immigration policy that’s individually based to one that’s family based, with visas and laws for nuclear families. One immigration-related policy that’s received a lot of attention recently is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, launched in 2012. It’s essentially a visa for those who entered the country with their parents prior to their 16th birthday and are undocumented. The visa has to be renewed every two years, but as long as they are in school or working, the visa is supposed to be renewed. Ideally, this is a pathway to citizenship. But it doesn’t take care of the citizenship statuses of other family members. From a research perspective we know that if someone in a family, especially a parent, is undocumented and at risk of deportation and the child is a citizen or has a visa, the psychological impact and the choices that have to be made around resources are critical to the family, but especially to the kids. So from a family perspective, it would make sense to view immigration as a “family policy.”

I also think paid family leave will be the law of the land. But we shouldn’t assume that will be a panacea for work-life balance. Coupled with paid family leave, we will see—and will need to see—movement on other social insurance programs like temporary disability insurance. The nature of work is changing and for too many workers the safety net is becoming more frayed. Families, particularly lone parents, are increasingly vulnerable when there’s a new baby, or a disability that keeps them temporarily out of work, or difficulty finding a job. For the safety net to become more of a safety “mesh,” so to speak, is going to have to happen on the social insurance side: paid family leave, temporary disability insurance, and the expansion of our unemployment insurance system, which addresses the needs of low wage workers who are left increasingly unprotected by the laws in the United States.

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Global conflict

Ethan Bueno de Mesquita

Professor and Deputy Dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives, Chicago Harris 

Over the past generation, scholars have been trying to understand the so-called root causes of conflict. That is a deep question—why do people resort to violence to resolve political, economic, religious, or other disagreements, when there are less costly ways forward?

In the past, empirical scholars tried to answer these big questions with cross-country data sets that captured both which countries experienced conflict and the possible correlates of conflict—for example, facts about a country’s economy, ethnic fractionalization, colonial legacy, and political institutions. We’ve come to understand that it is hard to make much progress in this way. Such comparisons don’t credibly uncover the causal relationships posited by theories of conflict.

A new generation of conflicts scholars is focusing on fine-grained, within-conflict data. In partnership with governments or NGOs, scholars have managed to engage in actual experimental manipulation in conflict settings from Afghanistan to the Philippines. And even when experimentation is impossible, a research team with deep knowledge of a particular conflict and a bit of luck can often find a natural experiment—some change in the world (e.g., in the value of a country’s commodities, the availability of weapons, the flow of information) that shocks the system and allows the author to learn about causal mechanisms. Such approaches, when melded with careful theorizing, are a powerful tool for understanding what drives the behavior of armed groups and governments in conflict settings.

This is a better way to approach the questions about root causes that motivated the previous generation. And the fine-grained data that today’s researchers collect allows us to ask a host of new questions—about how, rather than why, conflicts are fought—that are of great interest in the post-9/11 world. Understanding intrastate, asymmetric, and irregular conflicts requires new theories and data. Providing more credible answers to the questions of the past, and turning our attention to rigorously addressing these new questions, are the great challenges for the next generation of conflict researchers.

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Financial markets

Lars Peter Hansen

David Rockefeller Distinguished Service Professor, Departments of Economics and Statistics, and Research Director, Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics

We know that financial crises have been recurring events in the past. Many academics and policy makers thought that in developed economies the macroeconomy was more insulated from financial market disruptions. The recent crisis, however, exposed some gaps in our understanding of the interplay between financing impediments on investors, the role of financial markets, and the performance of the macroeconomy. Many of the quantitative macroeconomic models that were featured six or eight years ago had a rather passive role for financial markets.

Since the recent financial crisis, there’s been a rush to build macroeconomic models with more interesting roles for financial considerations, but it’s been done in a very hurried way. I would like to see a much better understanding of the connections between finance and the macroeconomy unfold in the coming years. We may never design a system that’s fully insulated from shocks to whatever form financial markets take in the future, but it will be good if we expand our understanding and build a better set of models to guide policy. I really hope progress can be made, and I’m cautiously optimistic that this will be the case.

Not all big disruptions in financial markets translate into big events in the overall economy, although some of these disruptions have an important macroeconomic component. So understanding better which disruptions end up being isolated with minor macroeconomic consequences, and which ones have broad impacts, remains an important challenge to be addressed.  

Right now terms such as “speculative bubbles” and “fire sales” are almost buzzwords. If prices go up and come shooting down, you say a bubble has burst. If prices look to be too low we refer to them as fire sales. There are researchers building models that hopefully down the road will have more quantitative meaning and will help our understanding of how struggles or challenges reflected in financial markets play out more widely.

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Abigail Vieregg

Assistant Professor, Department of Physics

We are at a fortunate time in cosmology, when there are important outstanding questions about the evolution and composition of the universe, and many of these questions seem tractable.

One of the major pursuits in cosmology today is to figure out what happened in the first tiny fraction of a second after the big bang. Evidence from a variety of observations, including from measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, seems to point toward an unimaginably violent moment of expansion of the universe in the first moments of time. We will continue the search for a unique signature of this inflationary period and, if the signal is strong enough, determine the physics that drove the expansion.

Another major pursuit in cosmology is to find out what makes up the universe—it sounds so simple, but some of the biggest mysteries today revolve around this question. Based on many different pieces of evidence, we know that the universe is mostly made not of the ordinary matter that we are familiar with but of what we call dark energy and dark matter. We have some ideas about what these components are, but we have not yet discovered the exact nature of either. Going forward, we will characterize the nature of these mysterious components, and perhaps even discover dark matter directly with laboratory experiments.

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Susan Lambert

Associate Professor, School of Social Service Administration

Growing income inequality within the United States and around the world is already fueling social unrest and action to distribute wealth and opportunity more equitably. Over the next 25 years, employers will face increased pressure from labor and the public to share both the risks and rewards of the market more equitably with employees; currently, the risks incurred as a function of fluctuating demand are transferred mostly onto workers while the rewards of surges in demand are captured mostly by employers. The past few years have seen an explosion of legislative initiatives at municipal, state, and federal levels that are designed to establish new employment standards for a range of basic workplace conditions: higher wage rates, more predictable and stable work schedules, greater access to full-time employment, and the right to paid time off for illness and caregiving. My prediction is that within 25 years, these efforts will coalesce into major federal legislation that establishes employment standards for a 21st century economy. This legislation, and other efforts resulting from the broader social movement undergirding it, will go some distance toward improving job quality at the lower levels of the labor market and reviving our middle class. However, only if new employment protections are accompanied by reduced racial, ethnic, and gender segregation in education, housing, and occupations will all US residents benefit from this revival.

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