Futurism's Track Record

by lukeprog 6y29th Jan 201417 comments


It would be nice (and expensive) to get a systematic survey on this, but my impressions [1] after tracking down lots of past technology predictions, and reading histories of technological speculation and invention, and reading about “elite common sense” at various times in the past, are that:

  • Elite common sense at a given time almost always massively underestimates what will be technologically feasible in the future.
  • “Futurists” in history tend to be far more accurate about what will be technologically feasible (when they don’t grossly violate known physics), but they are often too optimistic about timelines, and (like everyone else) show little ability to predict (1) the long-term social consequences of future technologies, or (2) the details of which (technologically feasible; successfully prototyped) things will make commercial sense, or be popular products.

Naturally, as someone who thinks it’s incredibly important to predict the long-term future as well as we can while also avoiding overconfidence, I try to put myself in a position to learn what past futurists were doing right, and what they were doing wrong. For example, I recommend: Be a fox not a hedgehog. Do calibration training. Know how your brain works. Build quantitative models even if you don’t believe the outputs, so that specific pieces of the model are easier to attack and update. Have broad confidence intervals over the timing of innovations. Remember to forecast future developments by looking at trends in many inputs to innovation, not just the “calendar years” input. Use model combination. Study history and learn from it. Etc.

Anyway: do others who have studied the history of futurism, elite common sense, innovation, etc. have different impressions about futurism’s track record? And, anybody want to do a PhD thesis examining futurism’s track record? Or on some piece of it, ala this or this or this? :)

  1. I should explain one additional piece of reasoning which contributes to my impressions on the matter. How do I think about futurist predictions of technologies that haven’t yet been definitely demonstrated to be technologically feasible or infeasible? For these, I try to use something like the truth-tracking fields proxy. E.g. very few intellectual elites (outside Turing, von Neumann, Good, etc.) in 1955 thought AGI would be technologically feasible. By 1980, we’d made a bunch of progress in computing and AI and neuroscience, and a much greater proportion of intellectual elites came to think AGI would be technologically feasible. Today, I think the proportion is even greater. The issue hasn’t been “definitely decided” yet (from a social point of view), but things are strongly trending in favor of Good and Turing, and against (e.g.) Dreyfus.  ↩