The single most necessary component of any attempt to make predictions about the future is a deep internalized understanding of the accelerating, exponential rate of change. So many supposed 'experts' merely project the rate of progress as a linear trend, or even worse, fail to recognize progress at all, and make predictions that end up being embarrassingly wrong.
For example, recall that in the early 1970s, everyone thought that by 2000, all of the Earth's oil would be used up. It has not, and the average American spends fewer hours of wages on gasoline each week than in 1970.
Equally simple-minded predictions are made today. How often do we read things like :
"By 2080, Social Security will no longer be able pay benefits, leaving many middle Americans with insufficient retirement funds."
2080?! By 2080, there will be no 'middle Americans'. There will be no people in their current form, as per their own choice, as we shall see later in this article.
Or how about this one? I see nonsense like this in Pat Buchanan's books.
"Immigration to the US from third-world countries will make such people a majority of the US population by 2100, making the US a third-world country."
'Third-world'? That term is already obsolete today as the Cold War has ended. Plus, aren't a lot of these same isolationists worried that India and China are overtaking us economically and benefiting from 'outsourcing' of US jobs? Isn't that mutually exclusive with a belief that the same countries will always be 'third-world'?
In any event, the world of 2100 will be more different from 2006 than 2006 is different from 8000 BC.
Here is why :
The rate of change in many aspects of human society, and even some aspects of all life on Earth, moves on an exponential trend, not a simple linear one.
Read Ray Kurzweil's essay on this topic first. About 20% of his article is just too optimistic, but he does a good job of describing the evidence of accelerating change in multiple, unrelated areas. The Wikipedia article is also useful.
Additionally, right here on The Futurist, we have identified and discussed multiple accelerating trends across seemingly unrelated areas :
1) The Impact of Computing is a critically important concept, as it surrounds each of you in your homes every day. Observation of the new gadgets you are adopting into your life reveals many things about what the future may hold, as simple acts such as upgrading your cellphone and buying a new iPod hold much deeper long-term significance. This will cause major changes in entertainment, travel, autos, and business productivity in the very near future.
2) Economic growth is exponential and accelerating. World GDP grows at a trendline of 4.5% a year, as opposed to under 1% a year in the 18th century and under 0.1% a year before the 16th century. More visible evidence of accelerating economic progress is found in long-term charts of the stock market. Furthermore, the number of millionaires in the world is rising by several percent each year. The ranks of the wealthy did not grow this rapidly even just a few decades ago.
3) Astronomical observation technology is also accelerating exponentially, which will result in the detection of Earth-like planets around other stars as soon as 2011. Transportation speeds also appear to be on an exponential curve of increase, even if significant jumps are decades apart. The cost to send a man to the Moon today in relation to US GDP is only 1/30th as much as it was in 1969.
4) Biotechnology is converging with information technology, and by some estimations medical knowledge is doubling every 8 years at this point. There is a lot of research underway that could directly or indirectly increase human life expectancy, which does appear to have been increasing at an accelerating rate throughout human history. But I am a bit more cautious to predict major gains here just yet, as each successive unit gain in lifespan might require increasingly greater research efforts. Negatives are also rising, as the dropping cost of small-scale biotech projects increase the ease at which small groups could create bioterror agents. The probability of a bioterror attack that kills over 1 million people before 2025 is very high.
5) Even energy has burst forth from what appeared to be a century of stagnation into an area of rapid technological advances. Beyond simple market forces like the price of oil, the revolutions in computing, biotechnology, and nanotechnology are all converging on the field of energy through multiple avenues to chip away at the seemingly gargantuan obstacles we face. Energy, too, is in the process of becoming a knowledge-based technology, and hence guaranteed to see accelerating exponential innovation.
The Milli, Micro, Nano, Pico curves are another dimension from which to view accelerating trends in an all-encompassing view. Internalize this chart, and much of the technological progress of the last 50 years seems natural, as do all of the future predictions here that may take most people by surprise.
Of course, not everything is accelerating. If a cat catches a bird, that action is no different today than it was 30, 3000, or 3 million years ago. The gestation period for a human is still 9 months, just as it was 30,000 years ago. The trends we have seen above do not appear to be on a path to change these natural processes. But don't assume that even these are permanently immune to change, as accelerating forces continue to swallow up more pieces of our world.
The Technological Singularity is defined as a time at which the rate of accelerating change increases to a point where it becomes human surpassing. To visualize what this can mean, ponder this chart, and then this chart. All credible futurists agree on such an event occurring, and differ only on predictions of the timing or nature of the Singularity. My own prediction is for 2050, but this is a vast subject that we will save for another day.
In any event, we need not worry just yet about whether the Singularity of 44 +/- 20 years hence will be a positive or a negative. Much more will be written about that in coming years, as many more people grasp the concept. For the present, just be observant of the accelerating trends that surround you, for the invisible forces that run the world gain much more clarity through that lens. There is much to gain by being acceleration aware..