The Future of Prediction

Today, I’m dusting off two quickie-but-goodie items from my accumulated stash of articles.  They’re two different perspectives on the same question, a question that lies at the very heart of this blog: Can we ever know what the future holds?

Can we see the future?

courtesy flickr/bb_matt

The Folly of Prediction

David Pogue, writing in last month’s Scientific American magazine, says future prediction is for fools.  To be sure, it’s a lighthearted piece, but his point is well taken: It’s virtually impossible to make technology predictions without eventually looking like an idiot.  He cites, as an example, the assertion that “there’s a world market for maybe five computers,” apocryphally said by the chairman of IBM in 1943.  Oops.

It’s all good fun to laugh at Thomas Watson in retrospect, but this bodes really poorly for me!  If the guy whose name now graces an advanced quasi-intelligent computer could get it so wrong, what chance do I have?  I am but a simple blogger.

Fortunately, Pogue does throw me a small bone, namely the observation that it’s safer to predict something will happen, than that it won’t.  If nothing else, he suggests, I can just add “yet” to any prediction that hasn’t come true, and I won’t be wrong.  Hear that, readers?  Henceforth, be it known that there’s an unwritten “yet” at the end of every wild speculation I post.  Lawsuit averted!

predicting the future through thin pieces of paper

courtesy flickr/jamiesrabbits

The Prediction of Folly

The other item is this baffling idea featured in the same magazine, one issue earlier.  Sociology researcher Dirk Helbing, in Zurich, wants to build a comprehensive computer model of everything in the entire world.  His proposed system would integrate streaming data about politics, climate, economics, sociology, psychology, agriculture, technology, geology and more.

As a climate model might guess at next year’s hurricanes, Helbing’s “FuturICT” could predict the next financial crisis, or political revolt.  Or you could input a new environmental policy, and then observe its cascading effects on land use, the local economy, the spread of disease, the careers of various politicians, and more.

Color me skeptical.  Just to get started, Helbing needs an advanced computer system; vast amounts of highly detailed data; and intricate, novel algorithms that can turn the data into predictions.

Even if you take those as given, I’m pretty sure this “super-model” is theoretically unworkable.  A single random event anywhere in the world could easily throw any of the predictions into disarray. The simplest possible system that contains every relevant variable in the world already exists.  It’s the world itself, and I don’t think it can be simulated.

The Future of This Space

Look at me, not half a page later and I’m already breaking my new resolution about negative predictions!  Maybe I’d be safer if I predicted Helbing’s success… but no matter how many “yet”s I add, if it’s impossible in principle, then it’s just plain impossible.

Well, shoot.  Prediction sure doesn’t seem to have much of a future, does it?  It’s enough to make a blogger wonder whether he should hang up his future goggles and go start the internet’s umpteen-millionth beer blog instead.  Not to worry, though, in the end I’ve decided I’m not going anywhere.  For one thing, I’m content to describe a nebulous future, a patchwork of various possibilities.  Big ideas with far-reaching potential are more interesting than detailed predictions.

Plus, there’s only so much I could say about English brown ales before I meandered into the moral implications of artificial intelligence.  Folly or not, the future’s in my blood – why fight it?

6 thoughts on “The Future of Prediction

  1. This is a great meta-post, one that questions the basic premise and purpose of the blog itself. Really fun to think about!

    Whether or not predictions end up coming true, making predictions is a habit that’s ingrained in our DNA. Like the habit of generalizing (putting things into categories, filing in a picture in our minds, etc) it has kept us alive over and over again. And considering the possibilities of the future makes life worth living!

    • Interesting point! Wondering about the future might literally be in my blood, in that case. Glad you enjoyed this week’s meta-ramblings… perhaps I’ll do it again one day.

  2. Ah, contemplating the future! Fun historical perspective first from two novelists who wrote about the future.
    From Mark Twain (born 1835): “Plan for the future because that’s where you are going to spend the rest of your life.”
    And then, a little younger man (born 1866) H.G. Wells: “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”

    Fast-forward to now: check out the predictions contained in the new book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.

    I think any scientist will tell you, all “modeling” is a product of the assumptions you make. My first “assumption” question would be: what are your projections for population growth?

    • Great quotes, I love them! Interesting book, too, definitely something I should check out – well-informed optimism is all too rare these days. I hope it convinces me. And finally, I have to agree with you on the population growth, which will have to inform just about any analysis of future conditions.

  3. When tv was first introduced they thought it was commercially non-viable, that people would never want to sit in front of a box all day. Go figure.

    But hey, the way it looks is that all possibilities exist simultaneously, so predict whatever you would like and if you point in a hyper-dimensional direction, you’ll be correct!

    • Haha, that’s pretty hilarious about the television. Today, assuming your customers were going to sit in front of a box all day would be one of the safest guesses you could make. Also, thanks for the “hyper-dimensional” excuse, which I can now invoke as needed!

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