How to Predict the Future

Why do futurists so often get it wrong? And where's my flying car?
Posted October 17, 2007

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

One of my favorite blogs is called Paleo-Future. It's about yesterday's visions of tomorrow.

The blog finds newspaper, magazine and book clippings, as well as movies, videos and other artifacts from the past that made predictions about the future. The site is entertaining, because now that the future is here, so many of those predictions turned out to be dead wrong.

As we already know (and which Paleo-Future details), 20th century futurists predicted that by the Year 2000, we'd all take meals in pill form and drive flying cars, among other things.

Technology futurists (as opposed to cultural ones) often make the mistake of basing their predictions solely on technological possibility, and fail to take into consideration two absolutely necessary criteria:

1. Human nature
2. How the world actually works

So, for example, seven years after the "year 2000," food pills are scarce because -- surprise! -- people enjoy eating real food (human nature). And flying cars aren't common because just building a car that flies doesn't solve the myriad problems of weather, visibility, air-traffic control and other factors that require so much skill from pilots (how the world actually works).

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So here's a prediction for you

Why would anyone want to be able to predict the future? Doing so can help you invest your money better, choose a better career path, and be a more enlightened voter. People make decisions all the time based on predictions, often badly.

Here’s an example. Everyone is concerned about global warming. Multiple technologies for alternative fuels and sources of energy are in the works. Most countries will undoubtedly use a variety of sources, but one will dominate in, say, 20 years in the same way that oil dominates today. The cheapest source of fuel always dominates. But which will it be? Nuclear? Clean coal? Solar? Bio-fuel? Wind? Squirrel power?

If you're an investor, where should you put your money? If you're a voter, which candidate has the right ideas, and which is advocating a massive waste of public money?

The current administration talks a lot about investing in nuclear, clean coal and bio-fuel. European countries seem to really like wind power. But if you're an investor or a voter, the safest bet is solar. Here's why.

Solar power, unlike other technologies, has a guaranteed bright future (pun intended) because 1) it's compatible with human nature; and 2) it's compatible with how world-transforming technologies come into existence -- specifically, it serves the interests of the Pentagon.

Computers, cell phones, the Internet and GPS -- these world-transforming technologies exist, and work they way they do, only because the military needed them. And they proliferate in the consumer marketplace because -- unlike meal pills -- they're compatible with human desire.

One of the biggest challenges for the U.S. military in its invasion and occupation of Iraq is getting enough gasoline and batteries to the vehicles and gadgets that enable such a massive endeavor. We're talking about trillions of gallons of gas, and hundreds of millions of batteries. It's really expensive and risky to drive massive tanker trucks hundreds of miles through a country every day when your enemies are looking for big, explosive targets and know where all the highways are. Batteries represent a logistical problem, too (given the variety) and also are very heavy. An infantryman can only carry so much weight, so batteries for GPS and communications gear actually displace things like bullets, food and water.

Make no mistake about it: The Pentagon needs a light, mobile and universal source of power. Nuclear, clean coal, bio-fuel and wind power are obviously of little value to a mobile army. The Pentagon needs solar power, and will keep spending until they get it. Once this investment produces cheap, functional solar technology, the military is going to enrich the companies that produce it, and train millions of people how to integrate, maintain and use it.

Consumers want this, too. Better, cheaper solar power means our cars and homes will constantly gather whatever energy they can at potentially very low cost. Solar gadgets will enable high-power, high-function devices that are convenient to use because they won't need to be plugged in for charging every two hours. Not plugging in is more compatible with human desire than plugging in.

My prediction about solar power is just one illustration of how you can do a better job of predicting the future. You can employ my two criteria for any prediction -- or to judge the quality of somebody else's predictions. Because one of the surest predictions is that futurists will continue to get things wrong by failing to take into account human nature or how the world really works.

At least, that's my prediction. If I'm wrong, well, you'll probably read this column again some day in Paleo-Future.

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