The Future of Science 2021: A Multiverse of Exploration

Iftf Sr-1454A Futureofscience Mapside Only 600

For the last year, my colleagues and I at Institute for the Future have been researching the future of science to identify big areas of science we think will have a transformative impact over the next decade. We read a lot of papers, conducted interviews, hosted an Open Science unconference, held an expert workshop with researchers from UC Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, UC Davis, SETI, and private industry, and spent many weeks synthesizing what we learned. The result is this map, titled "A Multiverse of Exploration: The Future of Science 2021." You can click the image to see it larger or download the PDF (front and back) here. Marina Gorbis, Ariel Waldman, and I wrote it. Ariel, Jean Hagan, and Karin Lubeck made it beautiful.

The map focuses on six big stories of science that will play out over the next decade: Decrypting the Brain, Hacking Space, Massively Multiplayer Data, Sea the Future, Strange Matter, and Engineered Evolution. Those stories are emerging from a new ecology of science shifting toward openness, collaboration, reuse, and increased citizen engagement in scientific research. We are delighted to share the map with you, under a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution. From "A Multiverse of Exploration: The Future of Science 2021":


Invisibility cloaks. Space hacking. Quantum consciousness. Open source biology. Empowered with new tools, processes, and skills, scientists will gain new insight into the mysteries surrounding our brains, biology, and the strange matter that makes up our reality. We will develop powerful new instruments for gazing at the farthest reaches of space and descending into the deepest oceans, further illuminating our place in the universe.

Not only will our knowledge increase but the way science is done will change in profound ways. A new ecology of science will crystallize, one that shifts from the insular and closed structures of academic, industrial, and military research toward open models based on social connection, data commons, and democratized tools and technology. We will create unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and resource sharing between large organizations, communities, and individuals. This radical reimagining of science will supplant current approaches to R&D and inevitably translate into new technologies as well as new organizational structures.

The most transformational science is driven by curiosity, passion, and the promise of creating a better world. This map is a guide to finding your own path through the dynamic, turbulent, and startling multiverse of exploration.

A Multiverse of Exploration: The Future of Science 2021


  1. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, why don’t we focus on those flying cars we were promised.  FLYING CARS!!

    1. Oh, and my less snarky response:

      It is seeing things like this that make me proud to be a scientist, and especially proud to be working on a problem related to one of those mentioned.

      Every time the wonder at scientific progress makes someone smile, we feel twice the gratification (especially with the increasingly science-phobic society).  If you see a scientist today, hug them; this stuff ain’t easy!

      (And posts like this and Maggie’s are the reason I love BB).

      1. We literally talked to dozens of scientists for this and I have to say, it was one of the most inspiring projects I’ve ever been involved in. I learned so much.

  2. Spectacular… I’m anxious to dig into the details.  What a hell of an interesting job to have, by the way.

    It makes me recall, however, something I’ve tried to locate, on and off, for 20 years now.  At the WorldCon in Boston in 1991 there was a large black and white poster on a tripod off to one corner of an entrance hall, displaying in a sort of flow-chart/timeline of engineering dependencies the future of space colonization as envisioned by Rockwell corporation futurists.  It spanned hundreds of years.

    I should have taken a picture of it, but it was the film era.

    (edit – it must have been 1988, not 1991, I think)

    1. Considering I recall it from a moment’s glance decades ago, it really made an impression.  I wish I could remember details of it… it wasn’t even at anyone’s table, just seemingly set there randomly in the shadows.  Probably as someone was moving it after a presentation.

      I had just read this, too, and so was primed for Type 1+ civilization engineering concepts seeming part of our future:

  3. Unfortunately, the Institute for Right Now predicts endless and grinding poverty, along with numerous food riots, until some form of democracy is reinstituted, both in America, and over in Greece and Italy where the IMF and banksters recently selected their latest prime ministers.

    This is most definitely, NOT what democracy should look like.

    And about that jet pack……..

  4. Yikes. I looked at the poster and OD’ed on techno-optimism. No mention of the really hard scientific challenges like feeding seven billion people, avoiding climate catastrophe, ending biodiversity loss, tacking ocean acidification, and ending modern agriculture’s reliance on artificial nitrogen fixation.

    I recovered from the overdose with an injection of cold reality here:
    Of course, it’s not sexy. But this is what important and useful science looks like.

    1. Wow! So you are the one in charge of identifying what important and useful science is? And vetting what of that constitutes “really hard” problems? That must be a stressful job! Thanks for doing that!

      1. Actually, Greebo identified some really important points that should not be shrugged off so lightly – we are facing some ENORMOUS problems stemming from the interactions between humans and the environment around them.  I was pretty shocked at the short shrift they were given in the report.  The PDF only gave these a cursory mention, saying that the oceans would be an indicator of climate change, and we’d just use the sea as an engine behind geo-engineering solutions (which, if you look at our track record on that so far has proven far less promising and way more complicated than anyone would care to admit – e.g., see here).  This kind of whiz-bang don’t-worry thinking really hides some deep problems we’re about to run into face-first.  

        The report from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, an incredibly well regarded and cutting-edge institution that has been thinking quite hard about these problems at the human-environment interface.  These are problems that would dwarf many of the issues in the report.  What good would it be to plumb the secrets of the human mind, ‘hack’ space, or simulate the universe if hundreds of millions of people are starving?

        These are not concerns to be dismissed so lightly.  And these are concerns that fall squarely within the purview of things that Science can help solve.  It’s not as fun, instantly gratifying, grounds for optimistic speculation, or just plain neat.  But it is important, real, and damned near the most difficult challenge we’ve had to face both as a species and as a community of Scientists.

    2. “No mention of the really hard scientific challenges like feeding seven billion people, avoiding climate catastrophe, ending biodiversity loss, tacking ocean acidification, and ending modern agriculture’s reliance on artificial nitrogen fixation.”

      Ironically, a reliance on the power of science to solve issues of sustainability, though due recognition may be given through it to the urgency of action, is a rejection of the Malthusian model of ecological collapse that gives it that very urgency.  Salvation through science is akin to a faith in the infinite potential of resource substitution.  These aren’t scientific problems, they are political ones.  Scientific solutions without parallel innovation in resource economics and governance of the commons only delays catastrophe, it doesn’t prevent it.

  5. Craig Ventor has already created a new lifeform from scratch.

    There are personal satellites available for $9k ( ) so we’re only an order of magnitude off.  (Though, these personal satellites also have orbits that decay within a couple months.)

    Science has already been gamified to some extent, but can definitely be done more!

    I think that an important step to include in “Engineering Evolution” would be “Discovering a quick* algorithm for how proteins fold.”  David Baker’s lab is working on something like that.  (Where ‘quick’ is something like: “can give a solution on a typical computer within 24 hours”.)

    1. Craig Venter would disagree with you:

      “we do not consider this to be “creating life from scratch” but rather we are creating new life out of already existing life using synthetic DNA to reprogram the cells to form new cells that are specified by the synthetic DNA”

      And yes, protein folding is a huge and important challenge. There is a ton of material that didn’t make it on the map. It’s certainly not meant to be comprehensive.

    2. How some studies on  “why do rich countries choose to neglect/repress their citizens?” Then we can all play with our personal satellites.

  6. I’m curious as to why you chose to downplay advances in medicine.  What about potential advances in drug discovery, formulation, and delivery?  I can see you have factored epigenetics in, which is great, but much of the current model is deeply flawed.  Attempts to resolve it over the last 30 years (rational drug discovery, high-throughput screening, fragment-based drug discovery) have either only been partially successful or a complete waste of money (depending on who you ask, of course).  Part of the reason is that drug discovery still revolves around the adopted notion of Paul Ehrlich’s “magic bullet”, when it turns out that most complex diseases in man are polygenic and/or polyfactorial.  We have few tools to deal with this, although diagnostic advances (gene chip arrays) make identifying those polygenic components easier (I work for a company that does this for diagnosing thyroid cancer).  On the discovery side, it’s true that there have been some steps towards multi-target high throughput screening, but it’s very much in its infancy, and what’s missing is an understanding not just of the static network of gene-gene interactions in the genome, but the much more complex dynamic network of protein-protein/protein-ligand interactions (and those networks’ responses to other compounds which are not ligands, but which nonetheless affect efficacy and expression level) at the gene expression level.  I seriously think that much of the next decade in medicinal research will be dedicated to elucidating those networks.

    [Edit: Wikipedia has a page for “Interactomics” (ack) …

    1. Yes, we absolutely didn’t include medicine on the map. That was due to a couple things… One, limits of time, space, and resources. And also because IFTF has an entire “Health Horizons” program that looks at many of the things you mention. But you’re right. There is a lot the map doesn’t cover. 

      1. The “Health Horizons” program seems to be more healthcare than medical research oriented, and not terribly current to boot, but thanks anyway.  The New Era in Diagnostics paper looked promising, but it’s almost nine years old.  Time for an update, perhaps?

  7. I wish I could recall who it was who first said “we have found that not only is it possible to create despair, it is politically viable.”

    Of course, I do recall Gibson’s statement that “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

    Those congratulating themselves for so pithily dismissing the aspirations of our best selves may find echo across the constituency of despair, but I, for one, happily find inspiration and hope in works such as this.

    I assume that’s the message in the quote “find the others.” Vast forces press on us the claim that we live in the age of spiraling diminishment, but all it takes to begin the process of breaking free is to know it’s possible, to remember that we still do live in the age of miracle and wonder.

  8. The idea of science papers as executable code is interesting.

    Though, I think it would be much more specific than executable code is. What’s needed is an automated way to find facts (equations or statements), find relationships between facts and experimental data, and find relationships between facts and other facts. On top of that, every fact and relationship discovered would have a confidence value derived from how closely the fact fits the data. Then, after digesting a paper, this magic system would dump out a list of facts and relationships that it has derived, ordered by confidence.

    The first issue here is the symbol grounding problem that most AI systems have. This means you have to teach such a system what everything means – from simple algebra all the way up to a complete unambiguous definition of every English (or whatever your local poison) word used in the document, and do so in the language that this system speaks: facts and relationships.

    On top of that little gem, you have an algorithm search. Like Genetic Algorithms or Genetic Programming – a system that can derive a mathematical formula from black box data.

    Also, like a game of chess, such a system would have to explore many paths of possibility to make discoveries. This means CPU horsepower which is thankfully getting nice and cheap.

    This is actually considerably more complex than code which just executes instructions without understanding.

    Maybe I’ve got this wrong. Maybe scientists need to *become* programmers and input everything into this massive learning system. There’s probably projects like that out there already right?

    1. Wolfram’s been putting out some very interesting ideas on the subject of treating simple algorithms as a finite set, subject to massive mining techniques similar to the way pharma processes huge numbers of compounds sifting for useful combinations.

      In fact, several of the nexus points in the chart connect to work in his “New Kind of Science” grimoire.

  9. I must say that I’m cynical about the cynicism. You see, I do remember the whole “Limits To Growth” thing, and how it convinced me that I, and everyone else was doomed to starve in the dark by now. And I point out that silly optimists, often dismissed for being entirely unserious and unprofessional, have prevented almost all of that from happening, while in the places where that sort of nihilistic and credentialed thinking has prevailed – people ARE starving.

    We can feed the world – and in the process free up most of the people now laboring too hard to feed too few – in large part due to changing our ways of doing things. Which is clearly part of what this all is. Letting go of the need to maintain artificial scarcities and distributive bottlenecks for everything from grain to scientific information to libraries of technique. 

    Part of all of this is that our current socio-economic systems are failing to scale. We need to address that, and if we do, the rest of the good stuff follows. Or we can all starve in the dark, and the 1%s will die fighting over the last few candles rendered from human fat. 

    We could make that scenario come true as well… but it seems undesirable.

    Expect the best and prepare for the worst. Not the other way around.  

  10. I am amazed at the number of negative and judgmental comments here. This map is clearly intended to stimulate discussion. It does not claim to be a definitive, all-encompassing statement. If the doom-and-gloom people would bother to look at the IFTF website, they would see that there is plenty of time being spent considering the negative trends. I think it’s terribly ironic that these people seem to have missed the quote at the bottom. Apparently they consider (their) knowledge to be more important than the creators’ imaginations. 

    I think this map would be a wonderful inspiration for my daughter’s 8th grade engineering concepts class. Is there any way we can order it poster-size? It does not seem to be available yet at the IFTF store, and I imagine there would be a copyright issue if I were to take it to a large-format printer.

    Thanks to David and his colleagues for all the hard work in putting this together.

    1. Huckle_Cat, thanks for that!  We released the map under a CC license so you could absolutely print as many as you want! As big as you want! Free! 

      That said, please email your mailing address to david -at- and I’d be happy to send you a few of the professionally-printed maps. They’re small poster size and the colors look terrific.

  11. “Quantum physics helps explain consciousness”

    On what basis is this being envisioned?  It sounds like an indulgence in the fantasy of consciousness as a phenomena (needlessly) more exotic than how we understand it today.  I don’t think we will ever truly understand consciousness, nor the “why” of quantum uncertainty for that matter, but it seems like pure “gut” thinking to seek enlightenment of the one through the other by simple virtue of the common strangeness of the two.

    1. Penrose first really pushed the concept as an argument against near future strong AI in “The Emporer’s New Mind” in the early 90’s.  It was adopted more widely as a way to get around determinism, then later became the hook by which quasi-religious movements like “What the Bleep” and “The Secret” seat their beliefs in semi-scientific language.

      It seems unnecessary to me, but that’s because I don’t think consciousness is a big leap, but rather a muddy continuum of modelling and predictive adaptation.

      1. Penrose first really pushed the concept as an argument against near future strong AI in “The Emporer’s New Mind” in the early 90’s.  

        Well, up to a point, Lord Copper … in fact, Penrose and Hameroff propose something called Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) as a model of consciousness, based on quantum physics.

  12. I have to admit I’m one of the “our civilization will collapse in 50 years and in 100 there is not much left” people and this picture makes me happy and sad at the same time.

    Go engineered evolution! I want superpowers already! Now to plan if I’ll get mind reading, flight or super strenght (invisibility comes luckily from Strange Matter)..

  13. David, this is gorgeous and mind expanding! While it’s no secret that I too have drifted into the Redbeard camp (with Bucky Fuller, Jonas Salk, et al) advocating application of scientific awesome to meet universal basic human rights to food, water, shelter, basic income; this poster is some of the best work of it’s kind that I’ve seen in quite some time.  People don’t realize just how difficult it is to make the astronomically complex so universally accessible. Ross Dawson, among many others, also does a magnificent job making the ineffably complex, readily reachable.

    I’m not ashamed to gush when it’s justified: this work is nothing short of breathtaking, from that perspective. Congrats to all on a real achievement, worthy of a decade’s contemplation. As for the good suggestion that medicine should be more prominently depicted, I think one could suggest that Engineering Evolution includes all of medicine. This isn’t a 100,000 ft. perspective, it’s a 100,000 mile outlook; a global meta perspective on present and emerging human activities already defining the present century. Adaptive Futuretechture at it’s best. Thank you IFTF team for this CC gift to the spirit and practice of human discovery.

  14. Decrypting brain or creating life form whatever which is related to brain is only related to mental health, mental health research and hospital. By that nobody can judge.  So it’s bad to highlight this subject as intresting or surprising.  Intresting things are poisionous sometimes. Sometimes i think these subject are so risky when the doctor or real researcher or real scientists could go mad knowing each and everything. Because brains are very hyptonizing. People can’t stop knowing more. if the scientist are disable to stop from going crazy sometime they could even sink in the ocean of  curiousities. So this type of subjects or technology whatever may invented in future must not be highlighted more as a invention of science. Don’t forget to say these things are very very dangerous things as well. This is not a surprising subject.

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