Science and Leadership for the Future: Future

Ross Dawson recently gave a keynote address on Science and Leadership for the Future to a small group of major media and corporate clients of New Scientist magazine.

Given the context, he was able to delve a little deeper into the issues than he would for most audiences. The video of his presentation was sliced into a number of brief segments. Below is the video of the section of his presentation where he takes an insightful look at the future and how we think about it. Please click here to view the complete presentation.

Full Transcription: Science and Leadership for the Future – Future

Ross Dawson:

So we’re going to look at the future and how it is that we think about the future. There are many people that try to make predictions and I don’t believe in making predictions about the future because they will inevitably be wrong. The future is unknowable. Yet we do have many tools to be able to think effectively about the future. The issue is about how can we…we do have some insights, we can see trends, we can push out to be able to see some of the things which are coming moving forward. And on the basis of that we can think usefully about the future in order to be able to act better in the present.

If we look at “The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies,” – Rick Slaughter is the editor of that. It’s five volumes and there are 40 different ways to be able to think effectively about the future, which are covered. There are now a number of tertiary postgraduate programs in Australia and around the world in future studies. There is some science around that.

But these are all ways to be able to gain insights from what we do know, the only evidence we have is around the present and the past. We can use that to be able to think more effectively about the future.

There are three domains that we need to look at when we’re thinking about the future. The first is in terms of trends. There are a number of different types of trends that we can see. Some of them are the technological trends, which we described a little earlier. Some of them are in fact demographic trends, which can fairly & confidently predict, at least in the short to medium term, because they’re based on immigrations and births and deaths.

Urbanization is an example of a behavioral trend, a mass behavioral trend across the planet supported by many other trends, and we can see that this is a particular trend. There are also trends in terms of social trends, for instance, in particular heightened expectations. One sustained trend over the years which we can see moving forward is people have greater expectations of organizations in society in terms of their environmental impact. These are trends which we can observe and we can see.

At the same time there are many uncertainties so we need to think about what are the types of uncertainties we have. Some of the uncertainties are, for example, around social and regulatory change. These are things, because they are so complex in terms of how people think collectively…how that flows through into political systems…we can see a lot of these are deeply uncertain.

One of the other categories of uncertainty is the time it takes for trends to play out. For example, we can confidently predict that we will be able to do customer support voice call and not be able to tell whether we are speaking to a human or a computer. This is in the bounded domain of customer support.

What is uncertain is how long this will take. I would estimate 12 years. In 12 years we can probably pick up the phone, call a company, have a conversation about our bill or support issue, and not know whether it was a computer or a human. I may well be wrong, and it may happen before then or it may take a lot longer than that.

And there are lots of errors which we have made in prognosticating that how technology will play out. For example, voice recognition has taken a lot longer than expected, to be able to get to a point where it’s at a decent level. It’s just now getting to the point where voice recognition is decent, even though we’ve been working on that since the 1980s.

Yet in 1998, computers beat a chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, and that was before, well before most forecasts of when computational power will enable chess to be the domain of computers rather than humans. Though very interestingly, in that domain, the best, who wins in the open tournaments in chess today are not computers, they are not humans, they are a combination of humans and computers working together where the humans can actually interpret what the computers are doing to be able to beat computers playing alone or beat humans playing alone.

And the third domain when we’re thinking about the future is wild cards and again there are a number of categories of wild cards. There are natural events which we can’t predict, such as earthquakes. We’ve just found out over the last couple of weeks that there was a solar flare two years ago that narrowly missed being directed towards the Earth and would have wiped out much of our electrical & electronic equipment on the planet and so we’ve actually learned that there’s a whole new domain of wild cards.

And in fact, one scientist estimates that there’s a 12% chance that in the next 10 years there will be a solar flare that will actually dramatically impact our electronic communications equipment.

Other categories of wild cards for example, in terms of financial systems. Now the inter-global financial crisis was not well predicted beforehand and that was considered highly unexpected. Today, I think it would not be that unexpected if we got a further global shock to the financial system.

So these three domains in terms of trends…there are a number of categories of trends which we can look at, number of uncertainties including not just the ways in which trends pan out but also the responses to those trends. In thinking about the future effectively, we need to look at.. for every trend there is some kind of a countertrend which often can reverse that. That can be in terms of, for example, social response, for example social responses to our decreasing privacy. Again we’ve observed that play out but there’s still a lot of uncertainties around there and finally the wild cards.

Now as I described, there’s 40 or so different categories of thinking about the future, all taking different ways. We can have a structured view, gain insights into those trends, gain insights into the uncertainties and the categories of uncertainties, to examine the wild cards, potential categories of wild cards, to come back to a structured view of how we can make more effective decisions today. So I’m going to come back in a little bit to think, look at some of the approaches to be able to take those trends, uncertainties, and wild cards into more effective thinking about the future.

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