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Monday, February 1, 4094

How to predict the future

Why are we so obsessed with predicting the future?

W e've all seen those stories about how, by 2050, everybody will be living to age 120 by eating raw unprocessed foods, how gene therapy will eliminate all disease, and how gasoline engines will be replaced by solar-powered chipmunks. But how do they come up with such insightful and accurate predictions?

Most predictions are just extrapolations of current trends. This article on Quora is an example: housing will be too expensive, environment police will tell us what to do, and unemployment will be 99% thanks to robots. Cars will be made of graphene and everyone will live in a trailer. And, most importantly, their website will not only still exist, it will become very, very popular.

Cube-shaped crystal ball
In the future, crystal balls will be square, and a little scratched up on one side

These guys boldly predict a black pope, fewer Americans in prison, food shortfalls, and riots. There will still, they say, be ‘racism’ in America.

In other words, most predictions are not really predictions. They're just a way of reinforcing our biases. It's especially difficult to escape political biases.

Those biases make predicting impossible. If you just bought a laptop, you're motivated to believe laptop prices are not going to crash. If your friends live in California, your hope that they won't drown will interfere with any predictions about any upcoming disaster there.

And then there's climate. If I hear one more person predicting a global warming apocalypse I'm going to scream.

So maybe that's the answer: in the future, we will all be screaming, but no one will be listening. In other words, the real world will be just like today's Internet.

Radical thinking is not predicting that your side will win the culture wars. It's not predicting intelligent viruses that will rearrange our synapses to teach us five-dimensional quantum calculus, or brain implants that will allow us to multiply ten-digit numbers in our heads, translate Hakka into Pitjantjatjara, and download the latest news, sports, and weather wirelessly while we sleep. It's not even predicting that superintelligent flying nanomachines will blast off and head toward Alpha Centauri. We all know those things will happen sooner or later, so it's just a matter of getting the date right. In the future, we will all be screaming, but no one will be listening. So it will be just like the Internet.

Radical thinking would be predicting that we'll discover we were never really on Earth at all, and we're actually rogue viruses who were so bored that we invented a mythical Eden so we could relive our lives as organic creatures. But nobody would want to hear this. How awful must our virusy lives have to have been to think that 21st century Earth would be an improvement? Instead we pay people to tell us we'll get flying cars and robots. We want to believe the present is the best of all possible worlds, so we pay people to scare us about a dystopic future where robots exterminate humanity and flying cars smash into each other.

Predicting the future will always go wrong unless you take into account the three basic principles of human motivation: (1) power, (2) safety, and (3) self-deception. Power allows you to do more—to get more resources, reproduce more, and get people to do what you want. Safety allows you to exercise that power without getting killed. Self-deception allows you to believe that whatever you're doing is beneficial.

All of history can be reduced to combinations of these three basic drives. The Reformation and World War II were about power and self-deception. World War I, the jogging craze, and the Cold War were about power and safety. The United Nations and cottage cheese pancakes are about safety and self-deception.

If we based our prognostications on cold economic considerations, we might predict that there will be no corporations, no cars, and we will all live in 144-story underground apartments with fake windows showing us what we want to see instead of what's really there. Economics would predict that humans are not needed at all, and the cheapest thing is to eliminate us. The economy would grow faster, a dispassionate economist would say, without the humans dragging it down and draining its resources.

But that will never happen. If it did, sooner or later we'd all run screaming into the wilderness. Economics doesn't control our lives; it describes them.

Predicting technological progress is easier, if you have a deep understanding of the science and technology. But even here you have to be willing to face losing everything you value, because that just might be what's in store.

We need predictions because they are the mind's way of evaluating whether we're making the right decisions. Predicting improvements gives us hope, and predicting disasters helps us prepare for them. And just knowing that there will be a future allows us, in some small way, to escape the reality of our individual death.

So my prediction is that, yes, there will be a future. Probably.

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