A word of caution on futurists

Beware of futurists whose body language and discourse convey a sense of absolute certainty. Only two things are sure about the future: nobody knows exactly WHAT is going to happen, and nobody knows exactly WHEN things are going to happen.

I see a lot of my friends react positively to well-oiled presentations made with high intensity and passion, featuring presenters not leaving room for any doubt, hammering slogans like “machines are coming, there will be no work in the future”. Their performances are very comforting, they push our buttons, they allow us to put doubts aside, give us a “clear” framework within which we can immediately act. Those talks somehow capture the public’s imagination, get shared and commented, and at the end of the line people like me find themselves fielding questions from those who are worried about becoming obsolete in the next three years “because of super computers”.

Well here is the thing: nobody knows how things will work out. NOBODY! If someone somewhere knows the future, that person will not lose their time speaking at conferences. They will start a hedge fund, beat the markets, make trillions of dollars, and (hopefully) start a foundation to give that money back. Hasn’t happened yet, right? Guess why…

Really good futurists are kept in check by one thing: looking at their track record. A job where success is at best making one good prediction per year easily keeps your ego at bay. Good futurists will be heard saying “might be” more than “will be”. They will ask you to turn your brain on, you will have to do some of the thinking! They will bring you more questions than answers. They will provide little certainties, less comfort, more parameters to consider. But that’s the price to pay to be anchored in reality.

Talking of the future as a certainty makes for a good “TED talk” (that’s a thing now). But the future can change direction any second. One self driving car in Palo Alto does not mean self driving cars “have arrived”. Despite our best efforts, history seems to stubbornly repeat itself, see for example the 1862, telegraph era version of the NSA scandal. Coming back to the case of work, history tells us technology creates more jobs than it destroys. Machines destroy occupations, not jobs. Kills the Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning buzz a bit, but that’s the likely outcome.

You will often see “certain futures” come from people who have an interest in you believing them, perhaps because they have a technology to sell, and it would be helpful if you could kindly believe that, although in its current state it fulfills 5% of the promise, it will eventually get there, so don’t ask any questions and get that checkbook out.

My advise: listen to futurists and try to find the weak signals, but remove a few credibility points to anyone who speaks as if the future is going to play out in the one single direction they are currently describing. And the further out the predictions, the more unlikely they become, so increase skepticism according to the length of the timeframe currently discussed.

And remember: standing on a conference podium has certainly helped people look more credible, but it has never made anyone better at predicting the future.