The Profession of iT
Don’t Feel Bad if you
Can’t Predict the Future
The MaChiNe ThaT would pre- dict the future.” An article of that title appeared in the De- cember 2011 issue of Scien- tific American. It suggested
that advances in big data and super-
computing will finally enable the old
dream of an automated oracle. It set
me to reflecting on what machines we
already have available for forecasting
and what our track record is with them.
It also reminded me of a predicament I
have faced many times as a profession-
al, on being asked to make forecasts.
When can I offer forecasts that others
can trust? When should I refrain?
the Work of Futurists
I began by inquiring into the work
of the professionals who get paid for
their forecasts. 2 Forecasting the future became a profession in the 1940s.
Most professional futurists see their
mission as investigating how social,
demographic, economic, and technological developments will shape the
future. They advise on global trends,
plausible scenarios, emerging market
opportunities, and risk management.
They are heavy users of information
technology. Futurists rely on three
Revelation of current realities.
Often we are oblivious or blind to what is
going on around us. We operate with
interpretations of the world that are
unsupported by evidence. Futurists
gather data and propose new interpretations grounded in that data. They
then examine how policy and action
might change to align with the reality.
For many people, simply showing them
what is already going on around them
is a revelation of the future to them.
Peter Drucker was a master at this.
His book The New Realities (Harper
Business, 1989) is loaded with examples. In his chapter “When the Russian
Empire Is Gone,” he analyzed economic data, conversations of politicians
and the media, and moods of Soviet
citizens to conclude that the Soviet
Union would soon fall. It did—within
a year of the book’s publication, even
sooner than he expected.
Drucker was once asked what his
method of forecasting was. He replied
that he made no forecasts. He simply
looked at the current realities and told
people what the consequences are.
When pressed to make long-term forecasts, he offered probability estimates
based on past history.
photograph By BrIan greenBerg/anDr IJ Borys asso CIates