Why is the Future so hard to predict?

Popular magazines in the 1950s seriously promised that by now we’d have flying cars, but videophone wristwatches was impossible Dick Tracy stuff… Now people predict that North Korean troops can potentially occupy Wichita, that the world will become overpopulated, a can of pineapple will become toxic on August 22, 2019, and something called The Singularity will occur before your baby can drink legally.

Are predictions patently ridiculous, or are the ridiculous ones the only ones the media passes along?

Just how sophisticated is our capacity to make reasonable predictions about the future trajectory of human culture?

Many predictions are simplistic extrapolations of present trends without taking into account the common S shape of growth curves. In addition, it’s difficult to predict which of a number of potential revolutionary technologies is going to prevail decades into the future because if we knew enough about how they’re going to work to reliably make those predictions, they wouldn’t be decades away.

Other predictions are based on little more than fanciful wishful thinking (like flying cars) or what would look good or be interesting in a story (laser rifles, armored exosuits).

Heinlein apparently predicted hippies with his 1961 Stranger in a strange land. I don’t know why he got that right. He also predicted that cars would be little used because their danger would be judged too great.

Actually we’re very good at predicting the future, it’s just that most predictions are trivial and uninteresting.

The kind of predictions we find interesting are the ones where we make a tentative guess about one direction technology could go and just how big a change it might make to our lives – if there’s sufficient investment and no significant stumbling blocks. Or some way society might change.
But either way big changes are the most interesting prediction, and the most likely to be incorrect or inaccurate.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, except that such tentative guesses are sometimes presented in a way that implies they are a near certainty.

You have to look carefully at the folk who are making predictions.

Compare the writer Arthur C. Clarke describing geostationary communications satellites in 1945 with the massive numbers of ‘end of the World!’ predictions.

If a future prediction is based on scientific evidence and logical reasoning, fine.
If it’s based on religion, there’s no reason to consider it.

“Everybody’s got a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” - Mike Tyson

“It’s the ‘Unknown Unknowns’ that you can’t plan for.” - Donald “Rummie” Rumsfeld

The more specific a prediction, and the further it is from the point predicted, the less it is likely to be accurate.

I mean, I could predict that important features in smartphones in 2018 will be screen size, unlocking methods and battery life - based on trends in 2017, those are likely to continue to be hot topics this year. I’m barely speculating at all with that.

But if I try to predict what, if anything, will replace smartphones in 25 years time, or what entirely new features (that don’t exist now) will be mainstream in 5 years time, I’m not going to do so well, because of the increased level of wild speculation required - and if I really knew the next big thing, I’d have invented it.

You will get better responses next week.

Because it hasn’t happened yet. The past is much easier, the present a bit more difficult.

What’s your ability to predict what you will have for dinner tomorrow night. How about next week? How about next month? There are way too many variables in human activity.

A big factor is whether the predictions are based on present facts or on wishful thinking. The latter is usually more grandiose and thus more exciting, which makes for better reading and more “hits”. That’s why something like the “Star Trek” universe (wishful thinking) is much more popular than a group of scientists saying that the present facts and trends indicate that we are going to destroy our own civilization.

Could you have predicted all the answers to this question? If you could have, would you still have asked it?

Or their ear bitten off.

I predicted someone would post that before I even opened the thread. :slight_smile:

Really? It always seemed to me like dystopia-oriented futures were just as popular and utopia-oriented ones. Though, in fiction, they do seem to cycle a bit, with one or the other dominating at any given time. But that could just be my perception.

I do want to say that for those people that somehow think ‘Predictions based on scientific fact are valid, others are not.’ I’m not sure that’s the case. All predictions are simply extrapolating present and past trends into the future. Sometimes those trends just dead end for one reason or another and sometimes completely new things emerge that simply couldn’t be accounted for. For example, the ‘flying car’ predictions of the 50s. It was based on a pretty clear trend that both aviation and automotive technology had taken tremendous leaps forward over the previous decades. This was not some wild pie-in-the-sky prediction. Aviation had gone from being unable to fly to having mass produced commercial personal planes in 50 years. And automobiles went from being an unreliable toy for the wealthy to being ubiquitous in every garage. A flying car was not an unreasonable or unscientific prediction. The clear scientific trends for both technologies were that they would get cheaper, more advanced and more reliable. Thinking that they would inevitably be combined was not a particularly ‘unscientific’ prediction. At the same time, ‘Dick Tracy watches’ were unreasonable to predict ‘scientifically.’ Computers were in their infancy and screen technology was based on CRTs which could not be downsized below a certain point. LEDs didn’t even really exist until the 60s, let alone the idea that they could be used to mimic an image. Computers were so much in their infancy, that the idea that they would eventually shrink to the size of a quarter was pretty far fetched. Eniac and the Manchester Mark 1 were using freaking vacuum tubes! Trying to predict the transistor revolution would have been difficult and certainly imagining the day when transistors would shrink down to nearly atomic levels was just not something that anyone could have or did guess based on ‘scientific reasoning.’

My short answer is that most of the technological advances in the first half of the 20th century were aimed at convenience. But once all those automobiles and household appliances gave us more free time, the emphasis shifted to communications. So now we have the internet and smart phones but we don’t have flying cars and conveyor belts to take us from the bedroom to the kitchen.

Two of my favorite prediction pieces are HG Wells Anticipations and Jules Verne’s In the Year 2889. * Anticipations* is so detailed that it was sort of a slog to read. It does predict the rise of strong middle class, though he was off base in predicting how it would look.

The Verne piece is short and interesting and very wrong. It was obviously written around the time the telephone was invented, so in his world everything was done via telephone. News and entertainment were delivered via phone. I think the big thing he missed conceptually was the idea that new inventions would replace the old, rather than existing side by side. Photography would replace drawings and paintings. The telephone would replace print media. He also conflated bigger with better - strawberries the size of apples! Apples as big as your head! Immensely large rooms with thousands and thousands of journalists delivering the news by telephone!
He also predicted that we would deliberately heat the earth from space in order to create more livable acreage.

Both pieces are available for free download on-line.

The problem is that science and technology builds off of itself, and we don’t really understand the science of a few generations from now. If people don’t understand nuclear physics they can’t create nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants. If they don’t understand quantum mechanics they can’t build computers.

In 100 years there will be science and technology that is based off science and technology we don’t have yet. So we can’t predict it.

Flying cars were really pie-in-the-sky. Were they going to have to take off and land? Or be helicopters which are very hard to fly? As it happens, I read in yesterday’s NYTimes that some companies are now experimenting with air taxis based essentially on drone technology. They hope to be able to provide air taxi service that will be not much more expensive than regular taxis but much faster. They would likely be driverless and presumably under automated control. One of the problems that the flying car people never answered (perhaps never even posed) was the air traffic control problem when millions of people are flying everywhere at the same time.

Imagine what a different world this would be had transistors never been invented. Or, even more importantly, if discrete transistors been invented but not integrated circuits with first a dozen, then a hundred, then a thousand,…, then billions of transistors on a single cm by cm chip. Is there going to be such a development that will upend everything? Will it be grapheme? I heard a very tentative prediction of the possibility on Quirks and Quarks 6 days ago. Anyway, it is things like this that made prediction hard, especially of the future.

I honestly think it’s better to look at what movies and popular culture shows the future looking like, than what scientists show it looking like.

Movies drive imagination, and especially the imagination of innovators. They may get the dates WAY off, and but it is amazing stuff that has been predicted (or more accurately, caused).

I do think “flying cars” will eventually be a thing. They are testing autonomous drone taxi prototypes right now.

We already have flying cars–they are called “airplanes” and “helicopters.” When people think of “flying cars”, they see something with no wings (fixed or rotating) that are the same dimensions as a normal car. The reason that never happened is because physics stubbornly keeps refusing to be broken. There ain’t no antigravity.

As for drone taxis, here’s a prototype that can tops out at a blistering 63 miles per hour for a full 23 minutes–so a range of almost 25 miles!

Not going to judge viability of a prototype. The first car had .75hp, which is laugable even measuring it against the worlds weakest cars today which are 100hp+.