The Future Is Not Here

For a while, this book was a big deal for people in certain tribes of the dissident right, but also with some in the mainstream. People like Thomas Friedman were championing it in the NY Times. so the beautiful people may have been reading it. The very short version is the robot revolution will have the same impact on humanity as the industrial revolution in the 19th century. There’s some truth to it, but like the paperless office, it is a thing that no one will live to see.

That’s the thing with futurists. They are almost always wrong. Most of them look around at current trends, then project those trends into the future. The trouble is no tree grows to the sky. Assuming some current trend will go on forever is like assuming your child will keep growing forever. The lack of 100-foot tall people tells as that trends always slow, come to a halt and often reverse themselves. The current technological trends will also slow and maybe go down dead ends and then end entirely.

On the other hand, many futurologist are just running a racket to get attention, sell book ans get on television to sell books. The way to do that is to either predict things that flatter people or predict things that scare people. Telling people their future will be the same as their present, but more boring, is not a big seller. Astrologers tell their female customers they will meet a mysterious stranger, for the same reason pulp writers crank out bodice rippers. Women by them.

This column in the New Statesman is a good summary.

Futurologists are almost always wrong. Indeed, Clive James invented a word – “Hermie” – to denote an inaccurate prediction by a futurologist. This was an ironic tribute to the cold war strategist and, in later life, pop futurologist Herman Kahn. It was slightly unfair, because Kahn made so many fairly obvious predictions – mobile phones and the like – that it was inevitable quite a few would be right.

Even poppier was Alvin Toffler, with his 1970 book Future Shock, which suggested that the pace of technological change would cause psychological breakdown and social paralysis, not an obvious feature of the Facebook generation. Most inaccurate of all was Paul R Ehrlich who, in The Population Bomb, predicted that hundreds of millions would die of starvation in the 1970s. Hunger, in fact, has since declined quite rapidly.

Science fiction writers are probably the best at getting some things about the future right, because they often have a good working knowledge of science. They also understand that human nature and human organization does not change all that much with technology.  Jules Verne got a bunch of stuff right and Aldous Huxley is looking to have nailed large chunks of cultural change. Still, most of what these people described never happened and will never happen.

Perhaps the most significant inaccuracy concerned artificial intelligence (AI). In 1956 the polymath Herbert Simon predicted that “machines will be capable, within 20 years, of doing any work a man can do” and in 1967 the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky announced that “within a generation . . . the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved”. Yet, in spite of all the hype and the dizzying increases in the power and speed of computers, we are nowhere near creating a thinking machine.

Such a machine is the basis of Kurzweil’s singularity, but futurologists seldom let the facts get in the way of a good prophecy. Or, if they must, they simply move on. The nightmarishly intractable problem of space travel has more or less killed that futurological category and the unexpected complexities of genetics have put that on the back burner for the moment, leaving neuroscientists to take on the prediction game. But futurology as a whole is in rude health despite all the setbacks.

This is where the predictions about our machine future fall apart. Yes, massive leaps have been made recently, but we are not close to building machines smarter than their creators. When one second of human thought requires a room full of servers, we are a long way from Terminator. Even assuming some breakthrough where the machines self learn in an increasingly fast recursion, we’re a long way from the machines becoming aware and taking over the planet.

Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, has an astrophysicist friend who made a pitch to a potential donor of research funds. The pitch was excellent but he failed to get the money because, as the donor put it, “You know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired . . . you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.” Gladwellism – the hard sell of a big theme supported by dubious, incoherent but dramatically presented evidence – is the primary Ted style. Is this, wondered Bratton, the basis on which the future should be planned? To its credit, Ted had the good grace to let him give a virulently anti-Ted talk to make his case. “I submit,” he told the assembled geeks, “that astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilisational disaster.”

Bratton is not anti-futurology like me; rather, he is against simple-minded futurology. He thinks the Ted style evades awkward complexities and evokes a future in which, somehow, everything will be changed by technology and yet the same. The geeks will still be living their laid-back California lifestyle because that will not be affected by the radical social and political implications of the very technology they plan to impose on societies and states. This is a naive, very local vision of heaven in which everybody drinks beer and plays baseball and the sun always shines.

This really is the crux of it. There’s money in predicting the future. In every town there exists a tarot card reader or psychic. Women with advanced degrees go to these people to get their future. Religion is all about the future. Live your life a certain way and you gain ever lasting life or languish in hell. The animating philosophy of modern political elites is based on the belief that the right arrangements will result in heaven on earth, however that is currently imagined. The demand for these promises is unlimited.

The bits about Gladwell and Kurzweil in the article are interesting. It seems that the people who get rich from telling ruling class types about the future never know a lot about the science they promote. The two guys who authored The Second Machine Age have no science. One has a degree in math, but has never worked in science or technology. Instead he has remained in college teaching management. The other guy just writes books.

Thomas Friedman is a guy who appears to learn the jargon of science and technology, but knows nothing about science and technology. His skill is flattering rich people, especially his wife who is mega-rich. This allows Friedman to flit around the world telling rich people they are the best. The court jester has been a feature of human societies since the Bronze Age. Telling the boss he’s wonderful by predicting the current course will lead to times of plenty is never going to get you fed to the lions.

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10 years ago

3D printing has also been arousing my interest of late. The Chinese claim to have printed 12 houses in one day. If true, this manner of construction could wipe out millions of jobs not only in America but in the third-world too.

10 years ago

Thoughts on driverless vehicles and the impact on professional drivers?

10 years ago

“…a guy who appears to learn the jargon of science and technology, but knows nothing about science and technology….”
Why did Rasputin’s image pop into my head?
DANG, it was just supplanted by L.Ron Hubbard’s.

Orion's left elbow
Orion's left elbow
10 years ago

Yes, the future is hard to predict but where all super-technology predictions falter is in the human element.

People were always people, whether they had machines or not, and there isa very good chance that people will continue to be people no matter what they have at hand to seemingly make the future more exciting.

there will, irrespective of progress, still be the fools, the gullible, the despots, the swift-to-take-advantage and the sheep waddling along in line. They all may be fascinated by the tiny and the shiny but they will be just the same as people always were.