I have always been excited by Arthur C Clarke’s vision of the future. In his prescient 1962 book Profiles of the Future Clarke predicted that by 2040 we will have made contact with extra-terrestrials. According to the 2001: A Space Odyssey author, about 30 years later we will have mastered near light speed travel (bets on Bezos or Musk?) and by 2080 we will be ready for interstellar flight.
Preposterous, I hear you mutter, these are no more than the fever dreams of a science fiction writer. On the other hand Clarke predicted the digital age: communication satellites, the personal computer, internet search, touchscreen devices, and even smart watches.
What makes one person ideally suited to these apparent powers of prediction while the rest of us are left in the dark? Is it possible to learn to think like a futurist? Clarke himself said: “Before one attempts to set up in business as a prophet, it is instructive to see what success others have made of this dangerous occupation – and it is even more instructive to see where they have failed.” Which reminds me, Clarke also had a few stinkers including flying houses that he envisioned we would all have by 2001. These houses would even fly south for the winter.
This is not trying to make light of his obvious intellect but rather making the point that predicting the future is less about being Nostradamus than it is about coming up with multiple future scenarios based on what you know about the past and present.
It's not an exact science, it's more like probabilistic forecasting. If you want to get into this headspace there are several online courses you can take including Practicing Exponential Foresight at Singularity University (SU), which was co-founded by Ray Kurzweil, inventor, director of engineering at Google, and renowned futurist.
Kurzweil himself has made quite a few accurate predictions including: facial recognition software, digital downloads, machine translation and smart home assistants. Others are coming to pass now including exoskeletal robotic walkers for people with spinal injuries while yet more are potentially on the horizon. In 2005 he predicted a new world in the 2040s where the technological singularity will occur, bringing the dawn of a new super-advanced machine age where artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence.
Joel Hobbs runs the forecasting course at SU and says all kinds of people come looking to learn these skills ranging from engineers working at big tech companies to entrepreneurs looking for the next big opportunity, academics, and those looking to change the world in a philanthropic sense: predicting what kinds of technologies could help tackle global hunger and clean drinking water or how a shifting socio-political landscape can impact upon climate change.
These forecasting skills include knowing the difference between what they call hard and soft trends. Hard trends are “knowns” and include scientific facts or laws and regulations, whereas soft trends are “unknowns”, assumptions like how a company might react to laws and regulations or how a country might chose to deal (or not deal) with scientific facts such as climate change.
Peter Diamandis, a co-founder of SU, says: "It's essential to separate out what is really true, from what is opinion, and what is merely guessing. If you can better understand what is certain and uncertain, how would that change your perspective of the future?"
“Futurists aren’t really predicting the future per se. They’re looking at hard trends and saying: if this continues, this is what we’re going to see, and here are some other curve balls that could come at us. Forecasting is less about looking into a crystal ball and more about just looking at the evidence that you have in front of you in a clear way,” explains Hobbs.
But surely if you’re an expert in your field you are already best placed to predict future scenarios? How would these exponential foresight skills improve upon established expertise? Well, things can change unexpectedly when a new technology disrupts the status quo.
Hobbs gives the example of how Netflix and its ilk changed the movie rental industry: "Let's say I knew everything there was to know about running a Blockbuster video store, I would have be blindsided because I didn't know anything about the internet, right? One of the interesting things we're seeing is this convergence of industries and technologies – no one person can really hold all the domain knowledge anymore."
And so you can see how forecasting becomes of interest to those who have seen how disruption not only killed the video star but has utterly changed the music and newspaper industries, bricks and mortar shops, banking and finance, even the restaurant as delivery services have taken hold. If we didn’t see internet shopping, streaming services or digital subscriptions coming, what else are we failing to predict?
“The more you want to understand about the future, the more you have to make some judgment calls about what you think is going to happen and we talk about that in terms of variables,” explains Hobbs.
“There are variables in terms of what society will do, what the technology will do and what the environment is doing. You try and put those altogether and come up with a scenario. Scenario planning is about looking at not just one scenario but at multiple scenarios that could occur.”
According to Hobbs this is less about saying “I know the future” and more about saying “I know the things that are very likely possible and I’m going to be ready for that”. He says this isn’t just about Silicon Valley hopefuls looking to crack the next huge trend. Forecasting the impact of emerging technologies may help prevent scenarios like the Cambridge Analytica scandal because governments and citizens can spot potentially harmful scenarios on the horizon.
“One of the things we try to convey in the course is that we believe that these technologies, because they’re getting cheaper and more ubiquitous, can be democratised. But there’s a danger that certain companies or governments that don’t have our best interests at heart can get monopolies on a technology or have control of the most powerful AI and really bad things could happen.”
“We’re trying to educate people and get them interested in these things because there are some really challenging ethical issues that are facing us in the not too distant future. And because right now, governments are slow to understand and react or when they do it’s not necessarily in a positive manner.”
Hobbs warns that if citizens don’t start demanding proper accounting for different technologies, from AI to medical technologies including gene editing, a future we don’t want will unfold without our consent or knowledge.
Jamie Susskind is also concerned with the future, specifically the future of power, liberty, democracy and justice in a shifting digital landscape where we place our data in the hands of big tech companies and our lives are increasingly being shaped by algorithms. The barrister and author set out to develop a framework for understanding the consequences of digital innovation by drawing on political theory. Incidentally his father Richard and brother Daniel co-wrote The Future of Professions so futurology runs in the family.
In his book Future Politics he says: “I believe it is possible to make sensible, informed guesses about what the future might look like, based on what we know of the current trends in science, technology, and politics. The biggest risk would be not to try to anticipate the future at all.”
Susskind was compelled to explore how the future will play out in the face of three key areas of technological change – machines becoming more capable; technology becoming more distributed in the home and built environment, and increasing amounts of data being gathered about us.
“I think on all three fronts, change continues apace. What is interesting is that when I started writing the book – it sounds naive now – but I was genuinely concerned that people wouldn’t immediately see the importance of the idea that digital is political. That was back in 2015/2016 and since then it’s not out of the news every single day,” says Susskind.
One important theme in his book is that of freedom and how technology can both positively and negatively impact upon our freedom of action and thought. Susskind marries this to the notion of law enforcement in a future state with the technological power to detect and prevent most legal transgressions.
Most of us have strayed into what Susskind refers to as the “precious hinterland of naughtiness” at one time or another: sampled grapes at the supermarket, dodged a bus fares or perhaps streamed an episode of a TV show that we haven’t paid for. He asks how our day-to-day freedoms will change when there isn’t even an option to transgress: an alarm sounds if a grape is lifted from the bunch, fares are automatically deducted from a digital wallet as we step onto the bus, and digital rights management locks down all digital content.
“I certainly think that the future of freedom as things stand will be significantly determined by entities in the private sector and not through public discourse and debate. And I don’t think it’s ineluctable. I don’t think it’s unpreventable but that is the current trajectory that we are on,” he adds.
Whatever happened to the utopian future dreamed up by early users of the web who thought technology would democratise everything and put everyone on equal footing? “I think the truth about techno-utopianism is that you can’t rely on technology to change us. At least not in a simple unidirectional way,” explains Susskind.
“We have to make a concerted effort to channel technologies in a particular way and so long as we allow – as we currently do – digital technologies to develop by reference to the principles of the free market and capitalism, you are not going to get results that are good for public policy or good for democracy or rather, there’s no inherent reason why we would get those results. You might sometimes, but the system is shaping these technologies is capitalist rather than democratic in nature.”
This is quite a lot to process for several generations brought up to get excited about and consume new technologies. Technological innovations like the PC, internet, iPhone, social media or the smart home weren’t shaping the future – they were the future. We bought into the dream of literally being able to buy the future as if it were nothing more than a hot commodity.
Susskind says if you have one takeaway from his book it is this: “Treat technology as a citizen and not just as a consumer. If we all do that we can change the course of the future.”