The economy in shambles and the future as uncertain as ever, we turn to those who make a habit or even a career out of looking ahead. In the techie, entrepreneurial Pacific Northwest, there are plenty of people with ideas.
YOU COULD SAY we’ve always been interested in the future, but never more than now.
In humankind’s long-ago past, the future may have been as close as tomorrow.
Will that woolly mammoth be passing by in spear range? Will we kill one, or go hungry?
Slowly, we began to push the future a little farther out, and technology helped even more. Weather forecasters in the Northwest, for example, augmented their “wind from the south = rain; wind from the north = no rain” formula with more sophisticated tracking.
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Like them, we began feeling more confident about our forecasts.
But, as the worldwide financial meltdown impressed upon us with the subtlety of an asteroid, some of those “predicting” were actually manipulating and spinning for their own gain.
We also learned — many of us the hard way — that their brilliance often amounted to simply extending those rising lines on the graph, “predicting” that the value of homes, the stock market and income would continue to climb.
So now we know: The future is not just a bigger, better, richer version of the past. What’s to come won’t be a straight line from here to there. We should be wary of people bearing Ponzi schemes. Most scary of all, our future may be shaped by forces, people and ideas over which we have little control.
What we don’t know, but desperately want to: Now what?
HOW MUCH MOXIE, adrenaline and/or nerve does it take to call yourself a “futurist,” or, as Strategic News Service’s Mark Anderson does, to skip all the labels and simply announce: “I predict the future.” And then, just when you’re thinking he’s well and truly nuts, to add: “And I grade myself.”
Or, take Glen Hiemstra, who does use the “f” word. The Kirkland-based founder of futurist.com, Hiemstra has for two decades made his living writing and speaking to organizations seeking clues for adapting, surviving and thriving in the future.
Like most who dare to predict, Hiemstra has been both reassuringly right and embarrassingly wrong: In 2007, he warned that the housing crash would be more drastic than expected. But in 1987, he predicted the end of the internal combustion engine by 2001.
There are futurists in nearly every realm, many specializing in fields such as health, transportation or environment. Others are generalists, some believing, as Hiemstra does, that “you can’t understand anything unless you look at the whole system.”
There are also doomsday futurists, a subgenre that always has plenty of fodder. Most recently, a series on Slate.com titled “How is America Going to End?” featured an interactive “Choose your own Apocalypse” tool. (I say: Surprise me.)
Earlier this year, artificial-intelligence experts, convened by Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft researcher who headed their professional association, met in California to revisit long-standing public concerns that smart technology could get out of control, endangering humans. Despite alarmist “killer robot” headlines, Horvitz insists that most of his ilk don’t see a scary future but want to do more research, “even if it’s just to calm a jumpy public.”
At the Foundation for the Future in Bellevue, the underlying assumption by founder Walter Kistler, an aerospace engineer, is either bleak or realistic, depending on your perspective. The foundation gives awards, including a yearly $100,000 prize for work on the human genome and society, and gathers top thinkers to brainstorm about humanity’s long-term future.
Kistler, at 91, still works on perfecting space travel, because he thinks humans are going to need to start over — maybe on the moon, maybe on Mars, spokesman Sesh Velamoor says. Kistler endowed this foundation, Velamoor adds, because he thinks “we as a species are in a vehicle that is careening down the slope with no brakes, no steering, no headlights.”
Many consider the Northwest to be a hotbed of predictors, forecasters and even fortune-tellers. Some believe futurism is in the boom-and-bust Northwest’s cultural DNA, because so many people who come here have disconnected from family, religion and/or other sources of conventional wisdom. Perhaps it’s the legions of tech-types nurtured by Microsoft, eager to be on the cutting edges. Or maybe it’s just so dark in the winter it prompts mind flight.
Over the past decade, though, the rest of us have run hot and cold about whether we want to hear those predictions.
Around the millennium, looking ahead was a national pastime. But 9/11 buried that enthusiasm. Suddenly, digging a psychological foxhole seemed more pressing than foretelling a long-term future that was possibly — probably — too scary.
Now, in the midst of a worldwide economic meltdown, we’ve turned another corner.
The change has been felt even at psychiccosmos.com, where calls to the Web site’s 50 or so hand-picked psychics have increased dramatically since January, says spokeswoman Kathryn Gordon, and questions have shifted from love lives to jobs and housing.
Bleak or not, we want to know what’s ahead. So we asked people who predict, warn, envision and otherwise interact with the future, and get paid to do it: How do they dare predict? Will we be able to shape the future or will it simply whack us? And, because we’re curious: What will it look like?
MANY OF THOSE who offer visions of the future don’t call themselves futurists. Some deny that they predict, or that it’s possible to do so. But, by the nature of their fields, or the nature of their nature, they have to. Or want to. Or just do, when asked.
Dr. Chuck Murry, a University of Washington researcher who works with heart muscles and stem cells, doesn’t call himself a futurist, but adds: “I think we have to predict the future, and I think we are part of shaping the future.”
Recently, scientists learned how to push skin cells back to their primitive state, then coax them forward to become heart-muscle cells.
In trials, “We’ll start growing heart muscles back in patients in three to five years,” and regeneration of other solid organs will follow, predicts Murry, director of the UW’s Center for Cardiovascular Biology and co-director of its Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.
At that point, maybe a decade away, the technique will revolutionize medicine much as antibiotics once did, he says.
Others in the business of looking ahead, such as Redmond author Brenda Cooper, call themselves science-fiction writers. Many tech types admire them for their prescient presentations of social and ethical dilemmas stemming from technology.
“Science fiction is the story of ‘What if?’ ” says Cooper, who is also chief technology officer for the city of Kirkland. Cooper, in “The Silver Ship and The Sea,” explores intolerance in a story of six genetically altered kids left on a colony planet after a war. Today, some people dislike others for their skin color or weight, notes Cooper, who began the series after 9/11. “What would happen if you were genetically engineered to be faster and smarter than me?”
Of course, nobody is more focused on the future than venture capitalists, pouring billions of their own and others’ cash into bets on the future.
Intellectual Ventures’ Nathan Myhrvold, who once headed Microsoft’s research group, now runs a $5 billion Bellevue startup that “invests in inventions” by acquiring patents and rights. He makes it sound easy, just a matter of searching for patterns and following the dots. Anybody could do it.
SO HOW do they do it?
Whatever their label, most who traffic in the future have this in common: voracious consumption of information, sorting of fact from fiction, insatiable curiosity and relentless focus on patterns, their blips and bounces.
Everyone talks fast. There’s a lot to know.
Often, “prediction” is simply “looking upstream and seeing what’s floating down the pike, what’s headed our way,” Myhrvold says.
Take the need for wireless bandwidth, the pipeline for communication. Right now, there are 3G networks and a plan for 4G. Myhrvold says he’s ready to make “a shocking prediction: There will be a 5 and a 6G!”
As an investor, he follows this thought downstream a bit to conclude: “The need for wireless bandwidth is going to be insatiable.” Then: What stuff will those systems need?
Ultimately, this gets very technical, he says. “But most of how you get there isn’t.”
In technology, trends are often signaled by early adopters who buy primitive versions that are “too expensive, under-functional — something that in retrospect will really suck.” So thank the porn industry for the Polaroid camera and VCRs, he says.
An amateur paleontologist, Myhrvold also vets technology with the human body in mind: He says he predicted an iPhone-type device that we could use at arm’s length, because our eyes see best at that distance.
The length of our arms, the way our eyes focus, even our padded butts play a part, as does quirky human nature, he says. For example, the Internet didn’t take off until there were pictures.
His caveats: You can’t predict big breakthroughs, which may be game-changers. Almost by definition, he says, if you can predict something, it’s not a breakthrough.
And: Often, you can predict what, or you can predict when, but not both.
Mark Anderson, a scientist by training, began his predicting business 14 years ago with a focus on technology and telecommunications. But he soon discovered that to make accurate, time-specific predictions, he needed to know the politics of countries, international economics, the personalities of company CEOs, the dollar/Japanese yen ratio, the forces behind the price of oil and more.
Now, he produces annual high-level tech conferences and an expensive newsletter — read by tech-world movers and shakers — from his waterfront office on San Juan Island, where he lives on a llama-, donkey- and sheep-dotted farm.
From Friday Harbor, he looks at Canada and beyond, observing patterns. “I don’t see any sign our leaders understand the foolishness of free trade,” he muses. “The low-cost provider of goods and services will dominate the globe, because they have slave labor.” Translation: “China will have everything.”
Anderson started work, you could say, at age 8, with a letter to Wernher von Braun, giving the legendary rocket scientist some advice on how better to power his spacecraft. (He still thinks he was right.) In the coming years, he left science for software and consulting, launching Strategic News Service in 1995 and, later, the yearly conferences, called FiRe (Future in Review). He’s beginning a regional-problem-solving series, called FiReGlobal, next month in Seattle.
To do his work, Anderson reads, watches, searches for trends.
He claims a 90-plus percent accuracy rate. But like others who go out on a limb, he’s been spectacularly wrong: A hedge fund he managed crashed badly, and he returned investors’ cash.
On the other hand, he says, he predicted the global monetary meltdown in early 2007, after chasing a “smoke trail” from an unexplained blip in world equities markets. His dogged search for the “why” uncovered a dangerously vulnerable “liquidity bubble,” a surfeit of “hot money” careening around the globe. On television and in his newsletter he warned: “Go into cash.”
Now, the economy is anemic, but for some, it could be a great time to start a company, Anderson advises. Startup costs are low, and there are “great people on the street, looking to work with you.”
NOT SURPRISINGLY, the business of seeing ahead tends to be top-heavy with tech types. The connectivity and transparency of the Internet, social networks and telecommunications are game-changers, they believe, in society and politics.
“Technology is not life,” Anderson says. But, “It does turn out that technology is driving economics. If you’re interested in the larger question of what’s going to happen in the world from a business or economic perspective, you have to start with technology. It’s the sharp end of the spear.”
OK, but who’s holding the spear? Me, some nameless dark-socks investment banker or an oil speculator in China?
Is the future something that is just going to crash down on me, or can I make mine happen?
“The future is not something that just happens to us, it’s something we do,” Hiemstra says. Predicting allows control, he believes. “That’s the whole purpose of doing it, to exert some influence over the future, so it isn’t purely inevitable.”
On the other side, many believe the future is such a complex combination of factors, including “wild cards,” “breakthroughs” and human reaction, that predicting is impossible.
Rick Rashid heads Microsoft Research, which, in labs around the world, employs 850 of the best-and-brightest Ph.Ds from a wide variety of fields to push the envelope every day. He believes the future is a mystery and that predicting will only lead people astray.
You don’t know what’s going to happen, Rashid says. It could be “a new disease, a famine, a substantial change in the economy, a war.”
What he’s aiming for with his group’s basic research is to build a deep “treasure chest” of skills, knowledge and cutting-edge technology that will let Microsoft respond quickly.
He recalls once being asked by a TV reporter for predictions. She told him they’d talked to a futurist, a psychic, a science-fiction writer, a warlock and him.
It took Rashid only a moment to respond. “My money is on the warlock.”
Carol M. Ostrom is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Tom Reese is a former Seattle Times staff photographer.