Last year, Bryan Appleyard wrote an article in the New Statesman titled Why futurologists are always wrong – and why we should be sceptical of techno-utopians. In it he points out the flawed history of predictions and takes to task the overly optimistic tendencies of today’s leading futurists. He is just as scathing of Alvin Toffler and Paul R Ehrlich who had much less positive predictions about the impact of technology on society and the consequences of overpopulation in the late sixties and seventies.
Although I love technology and wouldn’t want to be without it, I have sympathy with the view that current advances in technology are going to have at least as many negative as positive impacts. I certainly don’t believe, given current course, we are heading towards some kind of technological nirvana. Appleyard takes to pieces the world Google’s Eric Schmidt would like us to live in, sans privacy, with extremely good cause. But then I am generally given towards pessimism and historically the pessimists have faired just as badly as the optimists in their predictions. Indeed some of the silliest statements about the future come from the naysayers. To give one famous example, here’s William Orton, president of Western Union: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”
Appleyard quotes Dr Johnson: “It seems to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity. The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation.” We would indeed all be happier if we could learn to be more content in the present.
Rasselas was written by Samuel Johnson in 1759 to pay for his mother’s funeral. On his travels, the titular hero meets a man who is building a flying machine, but says that if he succeeds he will never share his knowledge. His reason is that, “If men were all virtuous… I should with great alacrity teach them all to fly. But what would be the security of the good, if the bad could at pleasure invade them from the sky? Against an army sailing through the clouds, neither walls, nor mountains, nor seas, could afford any security. A flight of northern savages might hover in the wind, and light at once with irresistible violence upon the capital of a fruitful region that was rolling under them.” This seems as good a prediction of the future, from Johnson’s point in time, as any.
But humans are just not inclined to live in the present. We have minds that like to think ahead. We developed the skill of forethought for excellent evolutionary reasons. As our lives and society have become exponentially more complex, so have the things we need to predict. Governments, NGOs, insurance companies, financial institutions and corporates of all kinds employ actuaries to help mitigate the risk of uncertainty in future events. Our entire world economy is an incredibly complex set of bets on the future. As technology becomes more and more a part of our every day life, it is becoming more important that we are able to predict its development and impact with greater degrees of accuracy.
The problem is that whilst we might be good at imagining the future, what we imagine doesn’t always pan out in reality. Pundits in the 1960s saw a future full of flying cars, rocket belts, hover cars, moving sidewalks, flying houses, nuclear powered vacuum cleaners, the end of commuting, the abolition of time zones and a permanent human occupied moon base. A lot of these predictions come from sci fi writers, like Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Clarke was well aware of the limitations of his own predictive ability. He said, “No one can see into the future. What I try to do is outline possible ‘futures'”. It is also important to remember that this was the decade when men walked upon the moon. The moon landing seems incredible now. 45 years ago it must have seemed that anything was suddenly possible.
In 1987, a psychologist called Philip Tetlock started a remarkable project to assess the ability of political and geopolitical experts to predict the future. He collected forecasts initially from 300 experts, but eventually gathered over 27,500 opinions. Then he waited 18 years to get the results. He discovered that most experts are terrible at making forecasts, with the most famous and esteemed experts being palpably worse than those who have less prestige. His view on the reason for this is that broad, intuitive, self critical thinking makes for better judgement and this is typically lacking in “experts”, who are typically rewarded for having a narrow view and defending it. Rather than stopping here and being happy with the fact that he had scientifically proved that experts were terrible augers of destiny, he founded the Good Judgement Project because he believes it is important that we learn how to do a better job at prediction. So far 20,000 people have taken part. He has found that simple guidance and a basic primer in probability has increased the forecasting ability of participants. The guidance comes with an acronym – CHAMP:
- Comparisons – start with relevant comparisons.
- Historical – look at history
- Average opinions – find the mid-point of the range of views
- Mathematical models – use where available
- Predictable biases – allow for your own
But we also have a less practical and more creative impulse towards imagining future events. Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we have been using art to explore the new frontiers that science might take us and interestingly we find it easier to imagine dystopian visions as opposed to utopias.
Asimov and Clarke were both, of course, writers of fiction, but many scientists read science fiction. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Clipper of the Clouds directly inspired the submarine and the helicopter. H.G.Well’s War of the Worlds and The World Set Free, inspired the creation of the liquid fueled rocket and the creation of the nuclear chain reaction. The Star Trek communicator directly inspired Motorola to create the mobile phone and Star Trek also inspired engineers at Apple to create Quicktime. Taser is an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.” Thomas A. Swift was a fictional character in a science fiction series for kids. William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer, coined the term “cyberspace” in 1984, five years before the World Wide Web. Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash inspired Second Life.
In spite of the flying cars and the nuclear powered home appliances, Clarke and Asimov got a lot of things uncannily right – and not just the mobile phone. They predicted the ubiquity of frozen meals, electricity from nuclear power, self driving vehicles, video calls and conferences via satellites, the existence of satellites in the first place, “the ability to communicate with the outside world using HD screens attached to keyboards”, the Internet, email, search engines, smart watches, plus Asimov predicted that in 2014 we would still be fantasising about robots materialising in our lives.
Last week the newspapers were full of stories about self driving cars, liquid resin 3D printing, flying cars, advances in the quest to beam solar power from space and a process for simplifying the chemical synthesis of small molecules. Every week the science pages read like something from a 1960s sci fi novel. It is not surprising that an increasing number of people are trying to work out where this is all going. It is in all our interests to do so. Just because it is difficult it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.