Memory drugs and oxygen bars: the brave new world that awaits us

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The Independent Online
In five years' time, might your Christmas shopping be more easily done via your television, hooked up to the Internet? Will you take drugs to help you remember important information? Charles Arthur, Science Editor, asks the futurologists what lies ahead.

Marian Salzman is paid to look into the future, but unlike somewhat cheaper forecasters who gaze into crystal balls, she is interested in really big numbers: the ways in which billions of pounds will be spent in Western society.

Ms Salzman, director of the Brand Futures group at the New York advertising agency Young & Rubicam, studies trends like they were going out of fashion, to find the ones which are coming into fashion.

She was one of the first to predict that oxygen bars - a fad idea which started in Canada and is now being franchised around the world - could catch on. Why? Because it plays to fears about urban pollution, despite doctors' insistence that breathing pure oxygen is no real help. It's the psychological boost that customers like.

Next she expects pharmaceuticals companies will start realising that people are living longer and want more from chemicals during the rest of their lives: "A drug company usually makes money out of people mostly in their first two years of life and their last two. Now they're realising that there's another 78 years they could be profiting from." Prozac, the antidepressant now being prescribed in the US even for some under-10s, is just the first in a long wave. Memory-enhancing drugs, behaviour-modifying drugs and similar substances are all being cooked up and tested right now.

Other futurologists are also polishing the predictions for the next decade and beyond. Many focus on the rapid changes that technologies are bringing. "Wide, flat wall screens will be very commonplace in about 10 years," predicts Ian Pearson, British Telecom's in-house futurologist. "Digital TV is driving that; I think in a while you'll hardly see any normal TVs being sold."

The real change will come in communications. "In 10 years you will be able to talk to the computer, TV and so on, and they will understand you. You'll say `I want to watch a documentary' and it'll say `There's one about a polar bear'."

At the London-based Henley Centre, Sian Davies, a director, agrees: "TV will offer more choice in terms of channels, but organisations like the BBC won't be pushed out by it.

Yet some changes aren't inevitable. Despite the repeated wishes for the paperless office, that is never likely to happen, says Pearson. "If paper was invented today it would be hailed as the biggest breakthrough of the 20th century," he said. "There are so many things it's really useful for, that you can't imagine using screens to do."

But Ms Salzman also sees other, deeper forces at work. She recently moved back to the US from Europe. "When I was in the UK I was amazed by the traditional structures of work and home. Now, back in the States, we now have what we call 24-7 working and living - it's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We manage our time so that we optimise our productivity."

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS

5 years from now

Oxygen bars - offering drinks and gas for the high-speed set

Nutraceuticals - staple foods with added vitamins and minerals

Digital TV with many more channels

Male birth control pills

Remote-control surgery

"E-cash" - electronic cash you can spend on the Internet

10 years from now

Flat-screen wall-size TVs which are also videophones

Animals as organ donors for humans

Artificial wombs

Computers and TVs you can instruct by speech

Transnational "families" based on shared interests rather than blood

Pharmaceutical cures for failing memories and energy

Never

The death of television

The paperless office

Virtual war

Legalised human cloning

No more adversarial politics

The end of the road for the petroleum-fuelled car

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