‘It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future’

This is one of my favourite quotes, attributed to one of the most quotable sportsmen of the 20th century, New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra. I like it because it humorously and succinctly encapsulates the human weakness around predictions, that not only are we bad at making predictions of the future, but, and much more dangerously, we are also bad at realising how bad we are at making predictions.

You only have to venture into the recent past to rediscover plenty of failed predictions of the future, many of which were considered to be part of conventional wisdom at the time.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

There is scene in Blade Runner, a movie that was made in 1982 and set in 2019, that reflects this divide between predicted and realised visions of the future. Blade Runner reflects many of the past ideas about the future, that it would involve extensive space travel, urban travel in flying cars, and self-aware androids. In this case, the androids are bioengineered and so far past the good side of uncanny valley that only a skilled investigator can tell the difference between the androids and real humans. The scene that I am referring to sees Harrison Ford’s Deckard drinking at a bar, ruminating on his obsession with the ‘replicant’ Rachel. He attempts to contact her by walking up to the equivalent of a pay phone to call her on her home phone – he gets lucky, she’s at home! So what’s the concession to the future in this scene? Because by our standards that’s a pretty primitive method of connecting to someone else. Well, at least they both can see each other via the clunky phone interface. What this reveals is that the future that eventuated was not about space travel, but about communication. Our lives would be defined not by commuting to Mars, or visiting the rings of Saturn, but by addiction to  small personal devices that have access to everything and everyone. 

Blade Runner – 1982 science fiction film set in 2019

I recall another occasion when I was teaching in a primary school and a couple of the students found a very old book in the library that described the various ‘Ages’ in human history (Iron, Bronze etc) and confidently stated that now we had moved into the Space Age. When I was a very small child this language was a popular part of mainstream discourse, but this framework has now largely disappeared from use. The last time that a human left low earth orbit was in 1972, so for these students the book was a confusing and funny artefact.

Vacation house of the future 1957, James Powers

This idea that the most influential events are unpredictable is expressed by Taleb in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He talks about the notion of the Black Swan Event as being an extremely influential event that cannot be predicted. The name is inspired by the fragility contained in the statement that all swans are white, the conventional wisdom in Europe until black swans were discovered in Western Australia. It’s also exposes another blind spot that humans have around predictions of the future. With so many people and organisations attempting to making bets about the future, it’s inevitable that some will be right, but, according to Taleb, this is likely to be through nothing else other than chance. But too often we attribute genius and prescience to those who are right and foolishness to those who are wrong. He describes the rise of the Internet as an example of a Black Swan event – not accurately predicted, influential and, as another example of our weakness around prediction, rationalised later on as something that made sense – in hindsight we think we did see it coming, it’s an example of the kind of cognitive dissonance that humans are capable of.

I took this photo of a black swan at Maroochydore – not too far away from my home town of Brisbane

What you will hear today is that we have moved into an age defined by the exponential progression of breakthroughs that combine a range of technologies: AI, nanotechnology, aviation, biotechnology, etc. You will hear that we have arrived in the Fourth Industrial Revolution that will be defined by ‘this’ and also ‘this’ and probably ‘this’. That we will begin to see ‘this’ and ‘this’. And consequently we need to prepare students for a future that’s defined by ‘this’ and ‘this’. But I think that we need to prepare students for a future that is completely unpredictable. Sure, inspire or caution or excite your students with the most credible predictions of the future, but alert them to the reality that usually the future is most influenced by an event or movement that nobody can reliably predict. That its unpredictability is one of the reasons that it is so influential. That these monumental events will emerge from the ‘unknown unknowns’, the principle famously articulated by Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference regarding events in Iraq in 2002, that it’s the things we don’t know we don’t know that can have the most impact.

Sure, inspire or caution your students with the most credible predictions of the future, but alert them to the reality that usually the future is most influenced by an event or movement that nobody can reliably predict.

How do you prepare students for a future that is unpredictable? What qualities or values do we want to promote? I hope it’s resilience, flexibility, adaptability, and the capacity to think critically. Because maybe the future will be defined by AI, or environmental collapse, or maybe by the outcome of the work done by a small research team somewhere,  that is considered to be too esoteric to have any far reaching influence, but will suddenly explode and transform our lives. Michael Faraday built an electric motor in 1821 and later developed the theory of electromagnetism but few at the time would have realised that a few decades later this discovery would change the day-to-day lives of individuals all over the globe.
It’s possible too, that the oft-repeated notion that we need to promote creativity and soft skills amongst our students because it’s those qualities that won’t be matched or  surpassed by computers may reveal some flawed assumptions. Who is to say the future algorithms won’t be able to create, connect, negotiate, persuade as well or better than any human? So I believe that we may be doing a disservice to our students by making assured statements about the future, by compelling them to learn a specific set of skills defined by the current perceived wisdom of what the future will hold, because so often it is completely wrong.

As Yogi Berra once said, ‘The future ain’t what it used to be’.

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