Why predicting the future is so hard

science fiction books

What are your best predictions for what the world will be like, say, 50 years from now? How about 25?

Okay, how about just nine years from now?

Even if you enjoy science fiction, and have read lots of it, you’ll probably have a tough time getting the future right. When doing research for Player Choice, rather than making my own haphazard and uninformed guesses, I tried to take cues from the smartest and most skilled minds out there. But sometimes even that approach can go awry.

The “future” is here now

The biggest hurdle to predicting the future is that we think in linear, not exponential, terms.


That’s something pointed out by Ray Kurzweil, one of 60 contributors to a 2008 book called The Way We Will Be 50 Years from Today, a compilation of essays imagining the year 2058. Kurzweil aside, most of the essayists are far too conservative in their predictions for the future.

How do I know this? Well, it’s 2016. Only nine years after the contributors wrote their essays, in 2007. And many of the predictions for 2058 in the book have already come true.

In 2058, we’ll “speak to our appliances” . . . oh, we’re actually doing that now. Some of them are always listening.

In 2058, we’ll have a “personal organizer that gauges our mood and selects a music stream and gives us the news of the day” . . . so yeah, for the music and news, we already have those. We have wristbands that track our heart rate and our sleep, and sensing moods and emotions is just around the corner.

In 2058, we’ll have our “second woman president, three of the nine Supreme Court justices are women, and eleven state governors are women” . . . well, the U.S. seems likely to elect the first female president later this year. The second probably won’t take another forty-two years to arrive. We’ve had three female Supreme Court justices for six years now, and may even end up with four depending how the post-Scalia shitshow goes. As for governors, we have six women now (plus the mayor of D.C., which is denied statehood), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that number double within the next decade.

In short, the supposedly far-flung future is looking closer every day. Want some nanobots? Now we have our first ones. Want your own complete DNA profile? Just send these folks your spit. Want to send robots to Alpha Centauri? Stephen Hawking’s new project has got you covered (pony up).

Look back to look forward

Hindsight is 20/20, as the old saw goes. I wouldn’t have done any better of a job in 2008 predicting 2058, or even 2016. We should look back at past predictions not to mock what they got wrong — but to recalibrate our predictions for our own future. It’s a sound justification for daring to dream on a lot bigger scale.

If you want the best of our current guesses for what’s over the horizon, you really can’t go wrong with the father of exponential thinking, the aforementioned Kurzweil. His most recent book is from a few years ago, How to Create a MindMichio Kaku covers similar ground in The Future of the Mind.

Any other futurists you’d recommend who seem to have their heads on straight?

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Author: Jeff Deck

Author and administrator of this site.