Decoding the future

On earth and in space, there are almost no unexplored regions. But a new atlas of blank spaces is emerging, which will enable an age of astonishing discovery.

"We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people." The "new ocean" that US President John F. Kennedy promised in this speech was the moon. It represented a new, almost infinite field for man's discovery – a compulsion that had reached its geographical limits on earth. Blank, unknown territories could be conquered; they were pioneering endeavors that promised fame and glory beyond compare.

One of these fields of action lies inside us. The fight against disease and for a longer, healthier life has fascinated and motivated scientists since the 19th century. Brain and genetics research provide the possibility of resolution. And new instruments like the CRISPR/Cas gene scissors enable breakthroughs in therapy and diagnostics never thought possible.

Another new field of action is opening up – before us. The future has a good chance of becoming our next new ocean. The events to come are like a new map full of blank areas all waiting to be discovered, explored, conquered.

The graph shows how, in every age of discovery, the invention of new instruments has led (or will lead to) the opening of new worlds. Without a compass and sextant, the globe would have remained alien to us; without a telescope, the same would be true for the universe, and without the X-ray machine the human body would remain a mystery. New instruments also play a decisive role in prognostics. High-resolution satellite images enable us to forecast the weather over a period of several days, genetic tests allow insights into  genetic predisposition, and big data can be used to predict burglaries, turnover or voter moods. Technological progress leads to better tools, and these, in turn, to better predictions.

Our discovery mode is similar to that of the Greeks 2500 years ago or the Portuguese in the 15th century: We are working our way forward step by step along familiar shores into the unknown. Within a few decades, the Portuguese succeeded in circumnavigating Africa and finding the sea route to India. If we manage to cross the border to the unknown future in a similar way, we should be able to achieve knowledge of the future that earlier generations could only have imagined.

Learn more about ever cheaper and better predictions that will revolutionise entire industries: