Is predicting the future futile or necessary?

Predictions about what to expect decades from now will tend to fail. But that is no reason to stop making them
Hold button: Mega-City One, setting for the 'Judge Dredd' comic strip in 2000 AD - with flying cars © Rebellion A/S

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The Industries of the Future, by Alec Ross, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20 / RRP$28, 320 pages

Super forecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Random House, RRP£14.95 / Crown, RRP$28, 352 pages

Visions 2100: Stories from Your Future, edited by John O’Brien, Vivid Publishing $32.95, 384 pages

Visions of the Future, edited by J Daniel Batt, The Lifeboat Foundation, 682 pages

Here Be Dragons: Science, Technology and the Future of Humanity, by Olle Häggström, Oxford University Press, RRP£25, 288 pages

As a boy, I enthusiastically read the British comic 2000 AD. It told sci-fi tales set in the far future — which at that point meant any date after 1999. Judging by its stories, it seemed obvious back then that at the dawn of the next millennium we would be riding our hover-boards to engage in laser battles with rogue robots — though only, of course, if we survived the coming nuclear apocalypse.

Now it is 2016, a date so far into the future that it gives me vertigo. But it is not the future of my teenage imaginings. We were spared the apocalypse; the cold war ended as suddenly as a computer game switched off by a bored child. Instead of rogue robots, we are battling religiously motivated terrorists. And in place of a laser gun, I have an internet-enabled smartphone — a far more wondrous device that is transforming many aspects of our lives but which was entirely unforeseen by anyone in the 1980s.

Given no one a few decades ago successfully predicted how the world would be today, we might wonder whether we have any hope of predicting how it will be 10, 20 or 50 years from now. Yet we are compelled to try. We are not passive observers of an unfolding drama, but actors shaping the story — and with a strong interest in how it turns out. Every time we take a new job or make a decision about our children’s education, we are speculating about how events will unfold. This makes us all both forecasters and visionaries, attempting to read the trends and at the same time to create the future that we want for ourselves.

Books that promise to help us achieve this have been around as long as publishing. But perhaps because today’s pace of change is so dizzying, there is currently a surfeit of new works attempting to make sense of what lies ahead. Taken together, they reveal much about the complex relationship between sober forecasts and fantastical visions, future hopes and present fears.

For states, corporations and investors, predicting the future is a high-stakes game that they must play every day. So they hire people like Alec Ross, the technology consultant who was Hillary Clinton’s senior adviser on innovation in the State Department. While working for Clinton, Ross visited more than 40 countries to gain insight into the developments that could shape the coming decades. In his new book The Industries of the Future, he presents his conclusions about which developments “will drive the next 20 years of change to our economies and societies”.

Ross focuses on industries that already gain considerable coverage and investment, such as robotics, genomics, digital currencies and big data. His predictions are therefore squarely in the mainstream, and some — such as that within our lifetimes robots will “walk the streets with us, work in the cubicle next to ours, or take our elderly parents for a walk and then help them with dinner” — could have come straight from my 1980s comic books. But he is a lucid and informed guide, even on the most technical issues. So, if you need to brush up on blockchain technology or cyber security, this is a good place to start.

His goal, however, is more ambitious than a survey of current trends. Ross describes how he would have loved to have read a book as he was leaving college 20 years ago that told him about the coming digital revolution. That there was no such book is what inspired him to write this work predicting the next 20 years. This is a nice story but Ross fails to grasp its cautionary moral: the book he wishes he had read was absent not because authors were blind to the gap in the market but because no one was able to foresee the rise of the internet. Rarely can the future be predicted by simply extending current trajectories.

Certainly the psychologist Philip Tetlock would be sceptical. He has spent his career putting people’s conjectures to the test and has found — unsurprisingly — that the accuracy of predictions declines as they reach further into the future, with anything beyond five years being basically a stab in the dark. Nonetheless, on shorter timescales, he has found that some people really are better at predicting than others. Who and why are questions he attempts to answer in his acclaimed book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, written with journalist Dan Gardner.

Superforecasting is based on Tetlock’s most recent study, the Good Judgment Project, in which he and colleagues recruited more than 20,000 people to make some 500 predictions on questions ranging from the likelihood of political protests in Russia to the course of the Nikkei index. Tetlock’s team was one of five competing in a competition sponsored by Iarpa, the research and innovation arm of the US intelligence community, which also set the questions. But Tetlock’s recruits were so much more successful that Iarpa dropped the other teams two years into the four-year contest.

Tetlock won by systematically identifying the best forecasters within his large group, then giving their predictions extra weight when coming up with an aggregate to give to Iarpa. The real research then came in finding out what these overachievers — the “superforecasters” of the book’s title — were doing differently from everyone else. Tetlock discovered that they were analytical and numerate but at the same time intellectually humble and self-critical. They were not ideological but quick to change their minds in the light of new data and were very open to different, even contrary perspectives. This is, he claims, a mindset that we can all aim to cultivate.

Tetlock’s work is fascinating and important, and he and Gardner have written it up here with verve. Admirably, he also wrestles openly with his study’s limitations — though it is not entirely clear he wins.

Tetlock focuses on those who study the unfolding events as if they were fully removed from them, like viewers watching a TV drama. At this game, his select group of retirees and housewives could beat the professionals of the intelligence community. But usually forecasts are part of a more complex game in which we are players, not spectators. For states and corporations, predictions are hypotheticals — if we do this, they will do that — which can be self-fulfilling or self-preventing. If the retiree predicts there will be war between two countries and there is not, then she has failed as a forecaster; but if the State Department predicts there will be such a war and there is not, it might instead be because of a triumph of diplomacy.

Hence what we value in leaders is not the ability to predict the future but rather to envision it. Amid the chaotic tangle of possibilities, passively predicting is a game of chance; but good leaders know that you can load the dice by actively rallying people around a vision. For the author, entrepreneur and activist John O’Brien, this is what is holding back the environmental movement: although predictions abound about how our actions will affect the future of our planet, there are not enough compelling visions of the happy, sustainable society to which we should be moving. So he asked a range of leading figures in the field to come up with some, and collected them in his new book Visions 2100: Stories from Your Future.

The visions it contains, interspersed with O’Brien’s meandering prose, demonstrate the complex interactions of our predictions with our hopes and fears. Many follow a similar (and ancient) formula: our current folly leads to catastrophe, which eventually leads to renewal and wisdom. The energy adviser Tony Wood, for example, writes about the “dislocation and decimation of many populations” finally galvanising global leaders into action; while environmentalist Bill McKibben writes of how in 2100 “we live in a low-carbon world and it works just fine — except that there’s no way to refreeze the poles, or lower the sea level”.

These are predictions, meant to be plausible, given our current trajectory; yet, at the same time, they are dystopian visions that are meant to be self-preventing. The authors hope we will heed the warning and take action now, so bypassing the disasters they describe and going straight to the waiting utopia. Though for that to happen, the promised paradise might need to be made more vivid still: the picture in these pages of solar power and worldwide solidarity, though worthy, is just a little too colourless to inspire the masses as O’Brien wants.

Another recent collection extends the idea of predictions further still — into the realm of science-fiction. The anthology Visions of the Future, edited by writer J Daniel Batt, brings together classic and new stories about what might lie ahead for us. But its visions come from a different milieu: whereas the hopes and fears found in O’Brien’s collection revolve around our relation to the environment, Batt’s collection focuses on the hopes and fears generated by technology.

This is the realm of Star Trek, The Terminator and the still-running 2000 AD, a realm where predictions, visions and fictions seamlessly blur into each other. And that, for Batt, is the point — which is why the collection includes both tall tales of starships alongside more sober analyses of promising new inventions. It is an exhilarating and thought-provoking intergalactic trip, which captures our contemporary sense that, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we are tapping into powers that we cannot fully control.

It is significant that the anthology is published by the Lifeboat Foundation, an advocacy group that aims to ensure we pursue scientific advancement without accidentally blowing ourselves up (or similar) in the process. The collection is intended to inspire us with equal measures of awe and dread at what is possible. Which is just the sentiment that motivates Swedish statistician Olle Häggström in his book Here Be Dragons: Science, Technology and the Future of Humanity.

“There is no denying,” Häggström writes, “that advances in science and technology have brought us prosperity and improved our lives tremendously . . . but there is a flip side: some of the advances that may lie ahead of us can actually make us worse off, a lot worse.” Chapter by chapter, he then details some of the ways in which things could go badly wrong, from out-of-control Artificial Super Intelligence to the risks of trying to re-engineer the planet. Like the predictions in Ross’s book, these will not be entirely new to readers of these pages but, also like Ross’s book, this is a thoughtful and lucid overview, should you feel a need to elevate your background anxiety levels.

Pace Tetlock, who likes his predictions specific and testable, Häggström is not trying to tell us that things will definitely work out one way or another. Rather, he is reminding us that the future is an uncharted land in which there might be monsters. We need these gloomy forecasts, just as we need glimpses of a solar-powered utopia. There are some predictions that we make in the hope that they will prove wrong, and others that we very much hope will come true. The better we envision them — whether through sober statistics or the all-action sci-fi of my comic-reading boyhood — the better chance we have of steering the ship of fate along the happier course.

Stephen Cave is author of ‘Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisation’ (Biteback/Crown)

Illustration: Rebellion A/S

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