Predicting the future

It is very useful to predict the future, but difficult too. And yet, for small and big things, humans are always doing it! Our brains are keen to detect or imagine patterns and deduct what comes next.

Researchers, innovation managers, also have to constantly make decisions trying to figure out the future. A good strategic manager will look to choose the lines of research, the products, the markets, with more chances of success. I myself can’t help doing it just for fun, and I like to imagine how the future will be for the most intriguing breakthroughs in science. This is usually about rather short term predictions, like what clinical applications or diseases will be favoured in a biomedical research funding call. Long term predictions are much more difficult to imagine, let alone to guess right. Anyway I realised, as many other before no doubt, that the standpoint that helps to make these predictions more robust and systematic is the human perspective, not the technological perspective. If we focus on predicting technological or scientific breakthrough we will usually fail routinely. There is actually a tradition that fills many magazine pages and media of all kinds that makes little effort to understand the state of the art of basic science, and makes predictions using the recurrent theme where future technology will be ridiculous applications of the technology already available, at last used to make our daily lives better, in pretty meaningless ways. We are going to have robots that make our favourite sandwiches and order from the supermarket when the cheese runs out, microwave ovens with voice recognition. We could, but we don’t really need these things so they won’t be really mainstream even if the technology exists to make them. Even if these pointless little things do happen, most people won’t care.

That’s not the story of the future. The human perspective is what determines the use of new science and tech, and the key idea for the prediction of the future is that our quest for knowledge keeps fundamentally close to what are our human needs, and it will keep doing so. It has changed and will conceptually change communication and warfare, architecture and transport, education, food and medicine. It will change how we evolve as society. These things are far more complex and harder to predict, so focus is given to predictable improvements in technology that solve problems that don’t really exist, and even if they do they don’t matter much. Good predictions come from understanding how a scientific breakthrough will impact how we handle our fundamental human needs.

 

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