Jul 20 2011

I Predict That My Predictions Will Be Proven Wrong


“Personally, when I hear someone who is generally upbeat being pessimistic, it makes me optimistic…”


Tonight, the audio podcast “Future Forward” will be uploading an interview with myself, Sonia Arrison and George Dvorsky.  Before doing the interview (twice, but that’s a whole other story) we were informed that we would be talking about likely human enhancements 25 years from now.

This got me thinking about the nature of predicting the future and the transhumanist project.  I began to wonder how accurate the predictions made by “futurists” 25 years ago would look today.  My unscientific sense (based on my admittedly faulty memory) is that most predictions made 25 years ago were probably either way too optimistic or way too pessimistic.  I can remember, for instance, when the very existence of genetic engineering seemed to hold a near future promise of mega-cures for the worst diseases.  Now we’ve got the whole genome and curing — for example — cancer is still a work in progress.  Thirty years ago, the future was in space colonization.  By 1986, disillusionment had already set it. (I suppose a study of futurist predictions made in 1986 is in order.  Meanwhile, Singularity Hub provides these predictions of the future from the 1960s.  The results are mixed… and amusing.)

In terms of people being too optimistic or pessimistic, the latter half of the 20th Century was filled with promises of utopia and/or apocalypse.  Indeed, the design theorist Buckminster Fuller made the case that it was going to be one or the other.  And yet, we seem instead to have muddled through, at least so far.

So on the one hand, I fear that those of us whose hopes have been raised by the transhumanist project may find ourselves 25 years hence still awaiting hyperlongevity, molecular engines of creation, really smart bots and so on.

On the other hand, assuming the technological ducks are in a row and astounding technological developments already in progress should be bearing magnificent fruit within 25 years, I find myself — in this age of massive oil spill disasters, crazy weather, announcements that the oceans are dying, and natural disasters rubbing up against nuclear power plants — wondering whether we will arrive at 2036 intact and without having encountered major disruption.

On the whole, the potential for environmental havoc that is disruptive enough to cancel the future seems to be a taboo subject in most transhumanist circles.  Indeed, Ray Kurzweil claims to have charted how two world wars and an economic depression didn’t seriously impede exponential growth in information processing power.  But the death of the oceans?

Of course, many transhumanist advocates will rise up to defend the memeplex by arguing that the science behind those predictions is all wrong.  People choose the science they want to believe and find the arguments — and even the statistics — to support their views. Of course, they could be right.

Am I becoming a pessimist?  I hope not.  I prefer to be agnostic on the optimism v. pessimism question.  Some otherwise hardcore rationalists argue that we should be optimistic because it generates positive action.  It’s also been shown that people with strong spiritual faith tend to be healthier and to live longer. (I’m just sayin’). Personally, when I hear someone who is generally upbeat being pessimistic, it makes me optimistic, because it tells me that this person is trying to deal honestly with things as they are rather than as they want them to be.

Meanwhile, on the Fast Forward show, I tossed out a brief challenge to the whole predicting thing and then let myself get carried along in the “what if” scenarios.  Ok, I’ll admit it. If nothing else, speculating can be fun.