How do you predict the future?
As the FT searches for the 50 ideas with the potential to change the world for the better, we've been speaking to futurists about how they identify the innovations worth watching. To find out how you can get involved go to www.ft.com/50-ideas .
Produced by Maija Palmer. Edited by Petros Gioumpasis.
We're talking about predicting the future today. And it's something that we've always tried to do as human beings, whether it's reading tea leaves or through more scientific approaches like trend analysis. Recently at the FT, we launched a project to search for the 50 new ideas that have the potential to change the world in the future. And we're getting some great suggestions in, but as ever, the problem is to determine which of these really has some sticking power.
We as a society, companies, are really concerned about this now. There's this interest in what futurists have to say. I mean, is that a fair assessment?
I think that's absolutely right. And I think, in part, it's spurred by the rapid pace of technological change. And you see this at various points through history, that there's great uncertainty about what the future holds. I'm sure that your workers in the Industrial Revolution felt the same way when the first machines came into their factories and replaced them. We are at that point again, where we see a lot of change happening. We can see the potential. We don't quite know what it means for us.
So we're seeing Sputnik moments, as it were, when America woke up when the Soviet Union put Sputnik into orbit. These are things like the game of Go. The best human player, who previously was confident that he would beat the computer, and most AI and Go experts said it was 10 years or 20 years in the future. Suddenly, this happened much more quickly than people had expected. We can see rapid progress with driverless cars-- again, faster than most sceptics predicted. It's not just one or two things. It's that things are happening in multiple different fields.
One of the things that I found most fascinating talking to the futurists is, yes, there is a professional way of looking at the possibilities and trying to work your way back to what that might mean. But there is a qualitative sense to it. You need the imagination. You need the creative side of it. So they often turn to science fiction writers for this imaginative way of looking at what the future might look like and some of the science fiction that's being written now about the gig economy. Even Uber was predicted by some science fiction writers. The way Uber structures its workforce was predicted by some writers 10 years ago.
And let's go into some of the specifics. I mean, what are the ideas that are being talked about?
So some of the ideas that people are telling me I think are fascinating is-- imagine what it's like living in a house that is entirely something that understands who you are, that understands what mood you're in, that understands what it is you need, that knows it before you almost know it. We can actually see some glimmers of that beginning to develop in technology, if you think about Facebook targeting me with various ads, if you think about Google putting up and directing me to different places. These things are nascent, but if you imagine, what will it be like in 30 years when that's commonplace and we're moving on? And my house might babysit my child.
People are typically, on average, living longer. I think that trend could accelerate. It may be that by, say, 25 years' time, we could live indefinitely long, indefinitely usefully, by means of tackling at a biological level, at a molecular level, the things that are going wrong in our bodies.
The thing that I'm hearing from a lot of futurists, which is fascinating, is that-- look, the point is not to be right. The point is to be creative and to think of the possibilities.
Futurists don't always want to be correct. Sometimes we raised scenarios in order to push people into different modes of thinking.
What's the difference, then, between the futurist and simply a snake oil salesman?
So I don't agree that everything that's impossible is on the table, because if somebody were to say, oh, it's perpetual motion, or it's going back in time, then I think, well, I'm very nervous about this. But there are other things, which are difficult today, which I can foresee happening, such as undoing the damage of ageing. I think that's just a technical problem. Or building AI that's not just cleverer than me intellectually but more advanced than me emotionally and socially as well. I can see the trends that will make that possible.