You Suck At Predicting the Future

I see darkness in your future...

The human animal is a predictive animal. The popular opinion is that we’re a pattern recognizing creature, but in truth, we only care about patterns in so far as they allow us to predict a successive step. It’s why we spend fortunes on psychics and industry analysts (the same breed of charlatanry). Mankind’s chief sport and religion is to predict tomorrow, and the high priest is a breed called the futurist.

A futurist or futurologist is a social scientist who attempts to systematically predict the future, whether of advancement or society, or of life on earth. The particular futurists we’re interested in are far less lofty and can be found in the halls of Hollywood, advising on the next science fiction blockbuster or plugging away at the next great overlooked novel. They are often wrong — very wrong, on the simplest of topics. Apple product predictions are the perfect example. The rumor mill starts churning early and you hear every possible variation of the prediction, but the only predictions that are correct turn out to be the ones predicted based on some privy knowledge such as an inside source or a leaked image.

If you want a more common example, answer me this: where the hell is my flying car and spare jet pack? These things are already two decades late and counting. Actually, these particular devices present excellent examples of the problems with prediction. In short, human beings overestimate our exposure to randomness while underestimating our exposure to serendipity. Humans construct narratives to explain deviations. We fail to adequately grasp complexity or take into account the problem of iterated expectations and generally feel that we know all that can be known even though we consciously know that’s not the case. However, this inability to predict doesn’t mean that we can’t benefit from planning.


Predictable but a good analogy for simple randomness

The Oxford dictionary defines random as “Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard.” While this definition is sufficient for our purposes, it’s important to note that randomness has slightly different meanings in different subjects. The problem with prediction arises when, in the course of predicting things in the real world, we begin to compare real world randomness with the structured randomness of quantum physics and game theory. Structured randomness seeks to add a certain amount of mathematical purity to a system while ignoring key concepts, so we’re left with ridiculous notions. Notions like the bell curve or pronouncements such as the foolish Moore’s Law — which has objectively been false thus far — or Kurzweil’s silly law of accelerating returns. These systems seek to smooth out or add trends to what are in effect twists and turns.

Look back to your high school math classes and try to remember scatter graphs. You were taught to ignore the inherent randomness and to draw a line creating a trend.  Any fool can divine direction, but randomness makes the details difficult and predictive precision suffers. We are blind, whether by self-imposition or biological programming, to random events and deviations. In fact, the word ‘deviation’ implies something that is behaving abnormally but will return to the fold.

Trends are the biggest “evil” of all in our inability to come to terms with randomness. Especially prevalent in economics is the belief that past performance can be used to predict the future. This is often proven absurd in the face of improbable events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb gave a brilliant analogy in the form of a ‘turkey’. A turkey lives its entire life getting fed and taken care of and may reasonably expect this behavior to continue. It can predict a positive trend as its feeding and care continues and has every right, by that logic, to expect the same to continue and thus awaken happy and aware of its guiding trend. That is, of course, until the day before Thanksgiving. Trends are only useful until they’re no longer trends.

It would take an entire book to describe how awful we are with dealing with randomness, and how we fail to cope. We create pleasing narratives to explain anomalies away and then forget them, or we convince ourselves that they are the new status quo and upend our lives (see 9/11 and the Twin Towers). The bottom line is that all major advancements that have occurred have been because of a disruptive object, a random event, and not anything as clearly predictable as we later narrate it to be. The modern world owes a lot more of itself to serendipity than genius.

A Serendipitous Century

Perhaps the best example of serendipity would be the laser. Gordon Gould invented the optical laser though the first successful

With the advent of lasers, sharks became even more dangerous.

optical laser was the ruby laser by Theodore Maiman two years later. The purpose was to split light for science. The outcome was unforeseen advancements that continue today. The invention of the laser led to a mastery of light that would spark everything from the Blu-Ray player in a PlayStation to the guidance systems attached to the most advanced missiles in the world. The laser is a watershed device on which the modern world rests, and yet it wasn’t predicted until Einstein in 1917, nor were there logical advancements leading to it or a clear roadmap of all the remarkable things to come of it after.

A walk through human advancement and societal advancement is a walk through a park made up of random fixtures, few predicted before you arrived. Human beings are exceedingly good at being surprised, only to turn around and create stories explaining what was previously unforeseen. It’s not always good things that lend themselves to this narrative fallacy. If you return to World War I, as history books would have us believe, the pieces were set and tensions were high. Everyone knew that a great war was coming though no one knew how big. To modern historians, World War I should not have been a surprise. Someone should remind historians the old saying about hindsight. An actual dip into history would show you that *no one at the time had any inkling of what was over the horizon*. The one thing that all players in WWI had in common was surprise.

The tendency and desire to underestimate the role of randomness and serendipity is aided by this incredible ability we have to find patterns and create comfortable stories. Everything that happens, with hindsight, ends up looking inevitable, planned, and obvious. Simple logic and common sense could show us that we could never have truly known because the options are just too complex.

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