Can we predict the Future?

Isaac Asimov

Psychohistory dealt not with man, but man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a rebound of a billiard ball. The reaction of one man could be forecast by no known mathematics; the reaction of a billion is something else again.”

Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Novels (Prelude to Foundation (Foundation, Book 1)

Before I continue my posts on science, technology and how these may change our lives beyond our wildest imagination, I need to set the stage with some remarks regarding futures studies, sometimes called futurology.Let’s face it: We all want to know what the future brings us. Therefore we watch the weather forecast. We try to find secret recommendations for the horse races or for investments that will sky-rocket. Science is all about making predictions, and so are the economic and social sciences. We try to predict what tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, will bring us.

Asimov’s Foundation novels, written in the 1950s, describe a Universe many tens of thousands of years in the future, when Earth is just a distant rumor. The hero of the books is the inventor of psychohistory, the mathematical science of predicting the future. Of course this is only fiction. But the good SciFi authors are typically very well trained in science and technology, just as many scientists are fans of SciFi. This genre of novels stimulates the creativity and the fantasy, and is often an inspiration for actual scientific and technological research. Think of the robots that play such a crucial role in Asimov’s novels. Since then we have been working, step by little step, towards the goal of making robots feasible!

DARPA robot

So, just as a starting note, I can highly recommend some SciFi works. I am not an expert in this genre, and certainly have only read a few well known authors, but those are great reads: Asimov’s Foundation Series and Robot series (I, Robot), and then the Culture Novels by Iain M. Banks, a grand master of the genre who recently died, way too young! (e.g. The Player of Games (Culture) and Use of Weapons (Culture). In this context I cannot leave out the granddaddy of them all: Jules Verne: I just re-read several of his books, and that man was a genious! Highly recommended (The Collected Works of Jules Verne: 36 Novels and Short Stories (Unexpurgated Edition) (Halcyon Classics).

But back to the topic of Futures Studies, and predicting what the future has in store for us. Most sciences try to understand the workings of a particular aspect of reality. The extent to which a particular explanation is successful is tested by making predictions based on that new understanding. The better the predictions are realized, the more confidence we have in the validity of the understanding we have of that phenomenon.

Through Newton’s 3 laws of motion and his inverse square law of gravitational attraction we are now able to predict with high accuracy the position of planets and space craft. Our increased understanding of the workings of bio-chemistry lets us predict the effects of certain medications. Our standard model of particle physics made us predict the existence of the Higgs boson.

Once we have explanatory models that we are confident of, because they are good at predicting the future of that particular phenomenon, we can start using such understanding to engineer things: space craft, medication, cars, cathedrals, ice cream.

Also in business we do a lot of forecasting. All the market research that is being paid for is aimed at predicting if people and companies will buy certain products and services. If we know where the world is going, we can anticipate that direction and make some good money with that! Market forecasting is becoming more and more a quantitative social science, using more or less the scientific method. The questions for which answers are sought tend to be highly precise, e.g: How large, in USD, will the total accessible market be for product XYZ?

Trend spotting is a less precise field of identifying large scale trends that effect and drive markets, technologies and social behavior. Trend Spotters are somewhat like oracles: If you have once predicted (or should I say: guessed?) a major trend, then you build a reputation, despite the fact that you usually are only one time right! But identifying major trends is a popular hobby, and some companies make a good living out of it. Good examples are again the market research companies. Often these trends are presented as the next big thing, with not much reservations or modesty shown. I have never considered it wisdom to make investment decisions based on the trends predicted by market researchers.Whether that is the reason I am not rich or the reason I am not broke is unclear.

Now we get to the topic of Futures Studies. Futures Studies, also called futurology, is an interdisciplinary field of study that aims to draw potential futures based on past and current developments in the world. There are difference of opinion as to whether this is an art of a science. It is currently taught at some 40 academic institutes worldwide.

The need for understanding of what is in store for us is beyond any doubt. For example some businesses and other human endeavors need to make decisions with long lead times. Think of law makers in the area of environmental protection. Think also of oil companies, with their very long exploration and development cycles. Shell has been known for developing and using scenario writing for the purpose of exploring possible futures, see e.g. here. Crucial feature in the scenario writing approach is that potential futures (plural) are being developed and investigated. The approach is aimed at analyzing the consequences of different possible futures. Then, based on the different outcomes, patterns in the different options are identified, and based on that we can make probabilistic statements about in this case the use of energy in the year 2015. Scenario writing is one of the much used techniques in futures studies. More about these methods and techniques for conducting futures studies below.

But let’s now first look at some of the issues with making predictions. We know that many, if not all, natural and social processes are fundamentally stochastic and contingent (chaotic). This is nicely stated in the quote from Asimov at the top of this post. In the past many scientists had the positivist illusion that our inability to make hard predictions e.g. regarding the weather or regarding the development of society were caused by our lack of understanding. Wasn’t it the same with astronomy: Before Newton we were not able to predict with precision the location in the sky of planets and comets. But then Newton cracked the secret of celestial dynamics, and now we can predict these motions with great precision. Would it be the same in chemistry, biology and history?

However, since the beginning of the 1900s we know that our Universe on the smallest scales is fundamentally stochastic, killing off the concept of determinism for once and for all. To answer Einstein: God is playing at dice!  But although the behavior of individual particles like photons and electrons can not be predicted, the behavior of large numbers of them can be described with great precision. Therefore the laws of thermo-dynamics are laws, providing very precise descriptions of the behavior of e.g. gasses. And in the world of Asimov’s Hari Seldon the same principle is valid for billions of people. In a weaker form this is also the premise of fields of study like economics and sociology!

And this is also one of the foundations behind futures studies: We cannot predict individual developments with any precision, but we can say within certain limits of uncertainty what waves and trends will result from all the individual developments.

Futures studies are said to contain four dimensions, described as 3Ps and a WPossibilityPrediction and Preference, completed with Wildcards.

Many futurologists are driven by the preference P: the field clearly has a strong value component, sometimes also political: The thought directions are very diverse: From a culture pessimism a la Spengler, ecological disaster predictions, to technology optimism from people like Ray Kurzweil (see my previous blog on progress). They then make their point by showing the feasibility of the future they more or less predict. E.g. Kurzweil goes a long way in describing the current status of fields like genetics, brain research, artificial intelligence and robotics, and how from the current status in these fields we can expect a “Brave New World”! (The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology).

In my eyes the P of Predicted is often the weakest component. Not often enough is the future model presented as a potential future, one among many. In that sense I would want to stimulate this scientific approach to the field.

The final W of Wild Card refers to highly unlikely events with major impact. Often included in this field are disaster scenarios like a collision of the Earth with a comet or an asteroid.

We have now a growing toolbox of techniques to develop and evaluate possible futures. I mentioned above scenario writing. Well-known is the computer simulation of mathematical models, as used by Meadows and Forrester in their study Limits to Growth which they performed in 1972 for the Club of Rome (Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update). Until today most studies in this field have been weak in empirical testing, a limitation that deserves ample attention.

If history teaches us one think, then it is that the future is always more exciting, more different, more mind blowing, than we could imagine at the time. Just take the period of my own life: Think of the Internet, wireless communications, ubiquitous computing, robots driving around on Mars, space telescopes looking all the way to the dawn of the Universe, to name just a few things. Of course some predictions did not come out, yet: We are not yet traveling to the stars, and humanoid robots are not yet all around us. But the developments I mentioned above were not anticipated, and have had a dramatic impact on the world and our lives.

What this shows us is that we should be prepared to think far out-of-the-box in the creation of our futures scenarios. Many of the developments we think up will go slower than we now think, others will go faster, and other matters we will not even have thought about. But thinking-out-of-the-box gives us models of tomorrow on the basis of which we can make decisions regarding what research to stimulate, and what risks to anticipate. So thinking-out-of-the-box I will do (or at least I will share in my posts preposterous ideas from others): terra-forming, post-biological life, hyper-intelligence, and even travel FTL (Faster Than Light), which sounds like impossible, but was considered even by Einstein!

And with these future posts I will not pretend to be predicting the future, as Asimov’s Hari Seldon does, but to evaluate possible futures, so we can prepare, prevent or promote.

In some of my coming posts you will be presented with radical and often outrageous ideas and concepts. When that happens, bear with me, these thoughts are brought to yo in order to stimulate the thought process, and to evaluate the consequences. The future will be different from the models anyway! And probably the future will be very exciting!

Enjoy the ride!