How to predict the future
- 31 October 2011
- From the section Technology
Imagining the future, we naturally think of it as a different place to the one we live in now. It is populated with new technologies, advanced science and perhaps even a more evolved version of humanity.
But who are the architects of this future, whose ideas will shape the coming reality?
It is tempting to characterize them as explorers who, through inspiration or serendipity, uncover that which is currently hidden. This notion is encoded in our language. We talk about a "discovery" or its Latin cousin, "invention".
However, there is an entire profession that takes a different view. For futurologists, or futurists as they often like to abbreviate themselves, there are patterns, rhythms, signs and pointers to the future that can be discerned and measured in the here and now.
"I think there is a false dichotomy between the idea that we can predict the future and the idea that we can't," says Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute.
"If you lift a cup of coffee to your mouth and drink from it, you are implicitly predicting that it is not poisoned or you won't burn yourself. From there it is only a matter of degree to predict what the world may be like a thousand years from now or a million years from now.
"There is no sharp point at which things suddenly become unpredictable. It is just a probability distribution."
Futurologists employ a range of sophisticated, and sometimes mind-bogglingly complex techniques to construct their predictions. Cross-impact analysis, real-time Delphis, decision modelling and morphological analysis are the tools of their trade.
And it is a trade. Corporations, governments and those organisations that occupy the space in-between pay big money for their visions of things to come.
Like any profession, futurism has its own fashions and innovations.
One of the hottest new methodologies is "prediction markets", where participants indicate their confidence or lack thereof in a particular future by buying shares in it - as they might do with stocks or commodities.
The market is supposed to crowd source the collective wisdom of savvy smart folk who have an interest in, and knowledge of, a particular field. The financial imperative will - the theory goes - make them less likely to base predictions on political affiliation, dogma or attention seeking.
Not everyone is convinced. "Prediction markets refer to what they are talking about as collective intelligence, but I say no," says Jerome C Glenn, director of the Millennium Project and author of its annual State of the Future report.
Collective Intelligence, he explains, is a system where ideas are shared and repeatedly fed back through groups of specially chosen individuals. They filter, refine and evolve those ideas.
"[In prediction markets] there is no feedback loop. You have to have that and people reacting to the feedback loop to get you to the next step of intelligence," says Mr Glenn.
As prediction markets evolve, their shortcomings are become better understood. One problem is that they do not always attract the great minds needed to make them work.
Markets seeking to predict how American foreign policy will pan out, for example, are not necessarily being traded by White House insiders or Middle East diplomats.
There are also questions about the strength of the financial imperative. In the US, where gambling is largely illegal, many prediction markets effectively play for pretend money - thereby opening them up to random speculation.
Futurists are also surprisingly reticent to be pinned-down on specifics. They will never say "in ten years time we will all be wearing silver hover boots or using mobile phones with built-in egg whisks".
Instead they talk in generalities - "the growth of screens", "ubiquity of information" and the "nano revolution".
This is a business of broad trends forecasting. Details will always be left to inventors, politicians or the man on the street to devise.
The electric light bulb, iPhone and flying cars tend to be the sort of thing that we first hear about when someone calls a press conference and whips them out from under a velvet cover.
But however surprised we might be to see their shape, colour or exact functioning, according to the futurists, each has a measurable lineage that can be identified and monitored.
Dr Kalev Leetaru from the University of Illinois has been working to automate that process, mining vast swathes of literature - from books to academic papers to news media.
"In transportation, for example, you are not looking for 'I wish that cars could x'. What you are looking for is more broad," he says.
"When people talk about the world, what are things that they say that are related to transportation. Like an offhand comment: 'I wish grandma could visit more often at Thanksgiving.'
"As you start aggregating those you start seeing that there are perhaps more and more people talking about this notion of having better transportation. Then using that detail we start walking that back and thinking what are the common threads and what might solve what all these people are asking."
Dr Leetaru has already applied his particular brand of analytics - known as Culturomics - to predicting political unrest, showing that many of the events which characterized the Arab Spring, were foreshadowed by months and years of changing "sentiment" in available literature.
For now his work is largely focused on retrospective analysis - or hindsight. But it might one day be applied in real-time to create a foresight system.
As well as the proliferation and tone of writing about particular future concepts, Dr Leetaru believes that it is possible to chart the ascent or descent of future outcomes by looking at how they move from one type of writing to another.
"Are there patterns that you see in science fiction and do you start see those patterns start to flow into the academic literature? In the academic literature, are we seeing some take off or are we seeing people kill that idea? Then do we see it start showing up elsewhere in more popular literature?"
He cites the example of the Star Trek communicator as an early precursor to modern wireless devices. In this case the trajectory moved from science fiction directly to the general public. Over subsequent years, excitement around the idea created a feedback loop of positive sentiment to scientists and corporations, who ultimately produced mobile phones.
The final frontier
Speaking to futurists, it is remarkable how important a role science fiction plays in their work. It is here that the first gem of an idea often appears, decades, sometimes centuries ahead of its time.
Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was essentially an intergalactic iPad, conceived in 1978.
Arthur C. Clarke came up with the idea of a satellite occupying a geostationary orbit in 1945. At the time, such an idea may have seemed fanciful to many.
The author himself once said: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
So great are the potential rewards for spotting ideas early on, that science fiction writers are actively courted by futurists.
Intel's Tomorrow Project draws on the work of writers such as Corey Doctorow, Sonia Orin Lyris and Charles Walbridge to create visions for the future that can inspire the public, and act as goals for engineers.
"Science fiction and science fact have a really lovely relationship where science fiction has fired generations of scientists and generations of scientists have inspired generations of science fiction authors," says Brian David Johnson, a futurist at Intel.
"We are creating these stories, based on science fact with the specific intent of building a better future. It's not just wild speculation. It is wild speculation based upon science with the intention of something we could build."
However, there is a flip side to the notion that the future is not so much discovered, as shaped by the futurists, according to Jerome C. Glenn.
"There is a phrase about colonising the future, if you fill up all the mental space of a people that this is the way things are going to go, you create self fulfilling prophesies that people go in that way," said Mr Glenn.
"There's tremendous discussions about ethics among futurists all the time. We worry about that."
Perhaps Albert Einstein - whose ideas truly did change the world - had the best, and most open minded approach to predicting what lay ahead.
On the subject, he said: "I never think of the future - it comes soon enough."