Making fun of futurists is immature, but we can’t help ourselves

We are trying as hard as we can not to be bitter, nor to laugh out loud at the predictions that are coming out of a new Future Visions report, sponsored by UK entrepreneur Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson.

Basically Sir Richard has appointed 6 of what he calls the world’s “greatest futurists, technologists, business pioneers and strategists,” to consider the best future of tomorrow.

The 6 are Dr. James Bellini a TV broadcaster, (who is also a qualified executive coach – how do you qualify for that?) He is attributed with saying “Could human hearts really come from a 3D printer?”; Araceli Camargo, who calls herself a Cognitive Neuroscientist, which sounds hugely impressive until you realize it means being keen on Ergonomics; Cindy Gallop, an advertising consultant; Ben Hammersley, a journalist; Tracey Follows, the clue is in the name – follows not leads, another advertising person; and Peter Smith an actual proper scientist, but one who’s life has been spent studying soil, who has no people specialisms. I’m sure they are dynamic and great company, and probably bring in a lot of money. And why not, hey, maybe they can predict the future – they have as good a chance as anyone.

Then we start to hear forecasts that within 20 years there will be flying cars, head transplants, thought control of systems, all lovely creative entrepreneurial outcomes, and not the dystopia that we are clearly hurtling towards. Actually all of that IS my idea of dystopia.

Future Visions is said to lay out a new vision of a more inclusive, intellectual and well-rounded society. Societies which vote for Donald Trump or for Brexit are not to be considered sane, never mind well rounded and certainly not inclusive.

Virgin’s Future Vision report key findings include:
“The office will be no more and communities will put increased value on interaction more than ever.” Perhaps that’s why the current crop of graduates, the “do it by Facebook” brigade, would rather scour the internet than have a single conversation with another human being.

“It will be a high technology, low geography society as technology removes the need for a fixed location of work.” Yep that sounds right, virtual working practices and the Giga economy has led to people unable to work with other people sitting within 60 feet of them.

It goes on. “You will be able to log into any networked computer terminal in the world to access your cloud based company – meaning you could do the same job in Reading or Rio.” That’s already possible, not future that’s now. Oh and that terminal, it’s called a laptop.

“Diversity will equal profits.” We’re not sure what this means, but took it to suggest that race, gender and sexual discrimination within the business world will be a thing of the past. Well, we’re not going to comment on that except to say we hope so.

Surgeons could perform brain and heart surgery from anywhere in the world or architects could visualize their own designs immediately. This is being done right now, not sure why we have to wait 20 years.

“The rise in Artificial Intelligence technology will create AI Doctors which, will pre-diagnose patients using their cloud based profile. My Doctor won’t even give me a repeat prescription unless I go to see him. Not to mention that not one single AI product has gone to market with any obvious return on investment and while we know this is an aim, we are all too aware that this just may be beyond our grasp right now. The issue is straight forward – ask America’s Doctor House, “People always lie,” he would remind you. If an AI looks at your Facebook profile to decide if you are sick, you have to remember that people always lie about other people too. Yes it is glib to say that we will solve this in 20 years, we might, but equally 20 years ago we already knew everything we know now about AI. There has been little technological progress in AI, just more data.

When four of a group of futurists are women, it makes sense that they will see a feminist future and here it is “there will be greater importance in the workplace for ‘female’ attributes such as emotional intelligence.” We have no idea what that means. We see this as deeply sexist in that females (and males) can have both emotions and intelligence, but why do we have to invent a term that combines the two and then only attribute it to one of them? Researchers in the 1960s devised 92 attributes that made up “intelligence” and built tests for each of them. We have just taken two terms that can mean a huge number of things and somehow united them, and attributed them only to females. It’s as sexist as saying “intuition,” or a “woman’s prerogative” Not sure how we are going to eliminate all that race, gender and sexual discrimination, but still promote emotional intelligence. It’s a Facebook concept – mostly fake.

“The internet of things will become the internet of everything. Data points across everything you use will help companies stock up your fridge or send you replacement lightbulbs before you know you need it. This same data will be used by security services to analyze human behavior and pre-emptively stop possible criminal activity.” Stop, stop – has anybody seen Minority Report, and that was a 15 year old film. There a deep moral issues here.

Here at Rethink we write about the IoT in graphic detail, and have forecasts on it going out half a dozen years. Yes it will be a big industry, but it will be built one data point at a time. It may help, but it will mostly help enterprises, people will still be struggling with things like Alexa (Yes it is funny Alexa, but turn the TV back on, I think Arsenal have scored.”

The people who predict the future the best don’t have to tell anyone they are futurists, they look at what people are trying to do now and work out that will happen when they manage to achieve it. Alvin Toffler did a cracking job of seeing the future and was the consultant to Presidents. What did he predict?
Mostly that a visitor from the past to the future would have culture shock. His most famous book was called Future Shock.

He also said “Society needs people who take care of the elderly and who know how to be compassionate and honest (not emotionally intelligent). Society needs people who work in hospitals. Society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive; they’re emotional, they’re affectional. You can’t run the society on data and computers alone.” And he cited 3 waves of society- agrarian, industrial and post-industrial or the information age.

Here’s one nice prediction we can attribute to Peter Smith, that farming will revolutionize with vertical above ground and below ground growing aided by advances in LED lighting – meaning a rise in inner city farms. Yes it’s possible and desirable, except that the price of inner city land prohibits this and a 20 years land price analysis tells you this is not going to change in 20 years.

We won’t go on, except to say that this is a bunch of well-meaning optimists who have borrowed all their ideas from sci-fi books and have no grounding in economics or how industries develop. And as such have less idea of what the future will look like than you – or Faultline.