Images Photography [left]/Clint Spencer [right]

It’s easier to predict that societal surprises will occur than it is to predict what those surprises will be and when they will occur. What if, for example, life expectancy becomes significantly longer than expected in the not-too-distant future? 

“That’s one of the potential surprises that may occur when you least expect it,” says SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Béla Nagy. He and SFI Professor Doyne Farmer are co-organizers of a September 14-17 Business Network theme week held at SFI called “The future is not what it used to be.” During the week, nearly 20 participants will hear SFI researchers and veteran futurists review past attempts to predict the future, assess lessons learned, and, of course, consider what the future holds. 

Attendees will come from high-tech and telecommunication companies, government agencies, and financial institutions.

In addition to Béla, SFI speakers include Professor Doug Erwin, External Professor Luis Bettencourt, and Omidyar Fellow Jessika Trancik.

Also presenting are Peter C. Bishop, associate professor of Strategic Foresight and coordinator of the graduate program in Futures Studies, University of Houston; Robert J. Lempert, senior physical scientist at RAND and professor, Pardee RAND Graduate School; Scott Matthews, associate technical fellow, The Boeing Company; Anna Salamon, researcher, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence; and John Smart, president, Acceleration Studies Foundation.

Doyne recalls the days when the world was terrified by the prospect of a nuclear war. Now some find themselves more concerned with climate change, he says, prompted in part by sophisticated computer models that simulate dire scenarios. These and other planning tools, such as agent-based models to evaluate economic policies, could become prediction tools of the future.

“Through these models,” says Béla, “we may be able to gain some insight into the potential impact – and unintended consequences – of various policies or regulations before they are implemented.”

According to Béla, many empirical regularities in technology (the most famous of which is probably Moore’s Law) suggest the possibility of long-term predictability in several key industries, including information technology and energy.

Paradoxically, he says, these long-term trends lead some to speculate about the possibility of a concept known as “technological singularity,” which posits that within a few decades, technological change will be so fast that all models break down – and with that our forecasting ability.

A traveling Smithsonian exhibition called “Yesterday’s tomorrows” will provide a backdrop for the meeting. It features depictions of America’s past visions of the future.

According to Béla, such past forecasts serve to emphasize the importance of asking the same question today: How accurate will today’s ideas of the future seem decades from now?

“If history is any guide to the future, we shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that again we find we were either too worried or overly enthusiastic about the wrong things, and ignored the most important issues that will shape our tomorrows.”