Originally created 01/19/98

Handicapping the Future



WASHINGTON -- Given the difficulty in predicting what the economy will do over the next few years, or even what the weather will be tomorrow, how can three researchers know what the hot technologies will be in 30 years?

Professor William E. Halal and two of his students at George Washington University's School of Business and Public Management, in the NovemberDecember 1997 issue of The Futurist magazine, have charted the emergence of 85 crucial technologies, complete with the dates when the rest of us will likely feel their impact.

For example, they say that 2028 is the year that a permanent base will be established on the moon -- nine years before the first humans make the trip to Mars.

Halal and his colleagues acknowledge that forecasting is inexact. They have greater confidence about nearer-term technologies such as videoconferencing, which they see coming into routine use in six years. But they insist that their forecasts, based on scientific methodology, are more reliable -- and serve a greater purpose -- than scientific cartoons.

"It is not speculation like we have seen with the Jetsons," Halal says. "This is the best available knowledge that we can pull together. It is the best scientific consensus from a panel of 50 international authorities."

History is replete with examples of futurists who got it wrong. The most famous may be Thomas Malthus, an economist who predicted 200 years ago that the Earth could not sustain an ever-growing population, and that famines were inevitable. He failed to foresee improvements and efficiencies in agriculture and trade that allow the Earth to feed five times as many people as in Malthus' time -- with fewer famines.

More recently, warnings in the 1970s that oil prices would skyrocket were wrong -- but not because the forecasters made a bad guess. Rather, business, industry and political leaders believed the forecasts and took steps to deal with the expected oil scarcity -- conservation, energy-efficient technologies and substitution of other resources. That pulled the rug out from under the forecast.

Futurists are careful to avoid the term "prediction." What they do, they say, is try to forecast what might happen.

"I think there are people who take (forecasts) as a statement of what will happen," says Joseph F. Coates, a Washington-based futurist who consulted on the study. "But if you are serious about this, you use this as an input to your thinking, not as an output."

"If we could predict the future, it would mean we couldn't change it," says Edward Cornish, editor of The Futurist and founder of the World Future Society. "We are interested in a better future, and that can only happen if the future is changeable -- and therefore unpredictable."

Futurists have several methods for gathering their information. Halal and his co-authors, graduate students Michael D. Kull and Ann Leffmann, drew up their list by examining current trends to see which technologies appeared most promising.

Then they surveyed experts in various fields, including futurists, authors and technical experts, asking them when the select technologies might emerge into "mainstream" use. The answers were averaged to get a year that serves as a best estimate for when the technology will start to have a large impact in society.

Halal acknowledges that by looking at what is being discussed now, it is easy to miss potentially revolutionary technologies. A century ago, for example, urban planners decided that New York had reached the limit of its growth because it would be unable to handle the manure generated by an expanding horse population. They didn't imagine the automobile.

More recently, futurists -- while doing their forecasting on computers -- nevertheless failed to anticipate the rapid development of the Internet.

Information technologies have had a revolutionary impact. Over the next 10 to 15 years, Halal, Kull and Leffmann see entertainment centers in the home, combining television, telephone and computer access. Personal computers will recognize individual speech and handwriting, and will be able to translate languages.

Halal sees progress in other areas, too. At least 10 percent of energy needs will be met with alternative sources such as geothermal and solar, the study forecasts, and most manufactured goods will use recycled materials. Artificial foods -- meats, vegetables and breads -- commonly will be consumed.

There is increasing interest in such forecasting. The Bethesda-based World Future Society, which publishes The Futurist magazine, has 30,000 members, compared to 3,000 when the society was founded. Many corporations and politicians use forecasting to understand the implications of decisions they must make today.

How reliable are those forecasts? Halal has conducted three similar surveys since 1991, and he says breakout years forecast for most technologies were consistent through each survey, perhaps changing by three years. The survey technique is an accepted one among futurists, used on a much wider scale in Europe and Japan.

Dennis C. Pirages, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland-College Park, points out that the best way to evaluate a futurist is to look at his record over time, or to deploy the methodology used into the past to see if it would have anticipated what in fact did happen.

By that standard, forecasting has had mixed success. Cornish recently reviewed the first issue of The Futurist, published in 1967. Among 34 forecasts made by eminent scientists, engineers and policy makers, Cornish found 23 on target and 11 wrong. Those futurists correctly predicted transplants of human body organs, that credit cards virtually would replace cash and that most Americans would be living in cities.

But they also said that humans would land on other planets, that a permanent base would be established on the moon and that primitive life forms would be created in the laboratory by 1989. Cornish is satisfied with the overall 68 percent success rate.

Space exploration has proved troublesome for forecasters. In 1966, the year the World Future Society was founded, the country was gearing up for manned exploration of the moon, which happened three years later. The first issue of The Futurist included predictions of manned military bases in space and permanent lunar colonies. But the country lost interest in the moon after the Apollo landings.

Now, with construction set to begin on a manned space station, Halal is forecasting that humans will visit Mars by 2037.

"Back in the 1960s, futurists were viewed as science-fiction freaks," Cornish says. "They were wild-eyed fanatics. Now futurists are recognized as people who are quite concerned about the long-term."

Pirages is concerned, however, about the future of futurists themselves. As a member of the World Future Society since its early days, he points out that most of the society's directors are of retirement age. Few universities have programs specifically designed to develop new futurists. Pirages heads a new program in College Park that provides graduate-level research opportunities looking at future environmental, demographic and technological trends.

"The present cadre of prominent futurists all came to maturity during the 1960s and '70s, when all this change first appeared," Halal says. "They are getting to be old people ... and the younger generation is not taking over."

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service