17 questions to ask about that gee-whiz tech development

Science-fiction author David Brin explains his method of examining the future:

“The top method is simply to stay keenly attuned to trends in the laboratories and research centres around the world, taking note of even things that seem impractical or useless,” says Brin. “You then ask yourself: ‘What if they found a way to do that thing ten thousand times as quickly/powerfully/well? What if someone weaponised it? Monopolised it? Or commercialised it, enabling millions of people to do this new thing, routinely? What would society look like, if everybody took this new thing for granted?'”

Those are good questions, as far as they go. My methodology for examining new developments (especially technologies) is to ask additional questions, some with a decidedly negative slant:

  • What if it runs into legal or political problems?
  • What if it can be used by criminals?
  • What if it raises ethical or religious objections?
  • What if people prefer doing it the “old way”?
  • What if a cheaper alternative overtakes it?
  • What if it’s too expensive to make or distribute (in volume)?
  • What if it lacks the necessary ecosystem or support infrastructure?
  • What if it runs smack into a counter-trend?
  • What if entrenched interests squelch it?
  • What if it has unintended consequences?
  • What if the roll-out is botched, glitchy, underfunded, embarrassing?

And, when will it emerge from the Hype Cycle‘s “peak of inflated expectations” and “trough of disillusionment”?

The future of agriculture: Two scenarios

Here are links to two scenarios for the future of agriculture. The first, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the “expected future.” It assumes zero disruptive change, a mere mid-point extrapolation of current conditions.  The second is from a group of scientists concerned about the effects of global climate change on agriculture — including lower crop yields, flooding and crop disease — and thinking about the possibilities of biotech to deal with that. Continue reading “The future of agriculture: Two scenarios”

Study: Experts aren’t necessarily better forecasters than ordinary Joes

There’s a geopolitical conflict, or a labor dispute. You’d think that long-time experts in the field — who’ve seen this kind of thing time and time again — would be the best at predicting the outcome of those disputes. But they aren’t.

“The short answer is that they [expert predictions] are of little value in terms of accuracy. In addition, they lead people into false confidence,” says Kesten Green of Monash University in Australia.

The forecasts of experts who use their unaided judgment are little better than those of novices, according to a new study in a publication of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).

When presented with actual crises, such as a disguised version of a 1970s border dispute between Iraq and Syria and an unfolding dispute between football players and management, experts were able to forecast the decisions the parties made in only 32% of the cases, little better than the 29% scored by undergraduate students. Chance guesses at the outcomes would be right 28% of the time.

Moreover, the study’s authors say that relying on “expert predictions” discourages decision-makers from investigating alternative approaches.

However, remember that the results above were based on experts’ “unaided judgment” (translation: off-the-top-of-the-head opinions). The researchers say that experts can improve their forecasts by using “reliable decision-support tools,” such as:

  • simulated interaction, a type of role-playing for forecasting behavior in conflicts, which reduced experts’ forecast errors by 47%
  • structured analogies, which reduced experts’ forecast errors by 39%.

More information on this topic is available at ConflictForecasting.com.

Source: “The Ombudsman: Value of Expertise for Forecasting Decisions in Conflicts,” by Kesten C. Green of Monash University in Australia, and J. Scott Armstrong of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It appears in the INFORMS journal Interfaces, Vol. 37, No. 3.

The future of college athletics

What changes will occur in college sports departments in the next five to 10 years? The Chronicle of Higher Education asked three dozen experts and concluded:

More athletics departments will follow the lead of the University of Georgia and fine or suspend players for skipping classes. And they’ll crack down harder on unethical off-court behavior.

Programs will hire “learning specialists” to work one-on-one with at-risk athletes, allowing coaches to recruit increasingly marginal students. Colleges will create “safe” jock majors, with lots of electives, for impact players. And more athletes will need to go to summer school to graduate.

Programs will create narrow, specialized jobs, like director of football communications. “Some teams will have nearly as many coaches as players.”

College arenas will add amenities found in professional-sports facilities, such as high-quality food services and flat-screen TVs.

Presidents and athletics directors will insist on hiring more female and minority candidates for administrative and coaching positions.

As financial pressures mount, more athletics departments will eliminate particular sports from their lineup. Exception: They may add flag football for women because it’s becoming so popular.

Co-ed teams: “The NCAA will have its first mixed-doubles tennis championship.”

Source: “The Athletics Department of the Future,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (20 July 2007)

Futurists need to be historians, too

“Look back twice as far as you look forward,” writes forecaster Paul Saffo in his Harvard Business Review article “Six Rules for Effective Forecasting” (July-August 2007). It would be easy to misunderstand that powerful statement — Saffo’s Rule No. 5 — so let’s dissect it a bit.

Notice that he says “look back twice as far.” Recent history rarely repeats itself directly. Futurists can make big mistakes extrapolating from recent history, Saffo says, so you need to look much farther back to identify useful patterns. For example, the Web’s dramatic transformation of the media landscape seems to defy categorization, unless you look back 50 years to the emergence of television. Saffo writes:

The texture of past events can be used to connect the dots of present indicators and thus reliably map the future’s trajectory — provided one looks back far enough.

He adds that, although you may find useful patterns in the past, don’t try to force exact matches.

It’s been written that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” The effective forecaster looks to history to find the rhymes, not the identical events.

Two other interesting Saffo Rules (paraphrased by me):

  • Good forecasting is the process of having strong opinions that are held weakly. Always look for conflicting evidence so you can ditch a bad prediction.
  • Know when not to make a forecast. Sometimes there are “moments of unprecedented uncertainty,” when it’s better to let things settle down before even attempting a prediction.

How to Forecast the Future, a Q&A interview with Paul Saffo