July 25, 2003

Seven Questions About the Future

One of the coming weekly features on this site is an interview with someone who has something interesting or unusual to say about the future. The interview is made up of two parts. In the first part, I ask the individual about his or her own area of expertise and explore what that tells us about the future. In the second part, I ask the seven questions shown below.

These questions weren't designed just for futurists, however. Or maybe I should say, these questions weren't designed just for professional futurists. There also for the rest of us, the non-professionals, the folks who spend a good chunk of our lives thinking about, fearing, trying to prevent, hoping for, and trying to bring about certain future outcomes. We're all futurists; we always have been. Looking ahead is an old and fundamental subroutine in the source code of human intelligence.

Only now, in an era of rapidly accelerating change, it may be time for something of a software upgrade. That's really what the Speculist is all about. I want to introduce tool sets and modes of thinking that can help us make the best possible use of the future. The Seven Questions are a tool designed to do exactly that. Let's take a look at them and think a little about what our answers to them can tell us.

  1. The present is the future relative to the past. What's the best thing about living here in the future?

    Questions one and two provide orientation. We never think about our day-to-day lives as taking place "here in the future," and yet that is precisely where we are relative to our day-to-day lives when we were children, or even a few years ago. The first question gets us focused on some positive change that has occured over the past few years, often something that we didn't expect.

  2. What's the biggest disappointment?

    Here we have the inevitable flip side to question one. What has gone wrong, or failed to go right, which has thwarted our hopes or expectations for the future? From the answers to these first two questions, we get a perspective on how the future unfolds in both positive and negative ways.

  3. Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference be between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

    The final orientation question, this one gives us a perspective on how much change we have encountered thus far in our lives and how much more we expect to see.

  4. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

    Here's a question that really shouldn't require any commentary. What big, wonderful thing do you believe will happen in the future? The reason it does require commentary is that this is not one of the questions we typically ask ourselves.

    Why not?

    Well, we want to be realistic and keep our eye on the ball. And that's all very well — you certainly won't hear me arguing against realism. But note the careful phrasing of the question: "likely (or inevitable.)" If there are wonderful developments coming down the pike that are likely (or inevitable), then it is the very picture of realism to focus some of our energy and attention on those developments.

    And by the way: yes, there are.

  5. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

    ...and what are you going to do about it?

    You want realism? Accelerating change isn't all sunshine and daisies and jetpacks. As individuals, as families, as organizations, and as nations, the failure to ask ourslves this simple question results in disaster. 9/11 proved it.

    And even if we do ask and answer this question (there were those who saw 9/11 coming), we need to be able to find alternatives and rewrite the probabilities. How we do that is, again, what the Speculist is all about.

  6. Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

    Time for a little modified realism. If we can shift the probabilities to prevent bad outcomes, can't we do the same thing to bring about good ones? "Unlikely" does not mean "impossible." It doesn't even mean "unrealistic" if you have the ability to modify the likelihood in your favor.

  7. Why is it that in the year 2003 I still don't have a flying car? When do you think I'll be able to get one?

    Despite appearances to the contrary, this question isn't really about flying cars. It's about dissatisfaction with the present relative to a better, expected future. It is often an echo of question number two, only notice the important difference. The other questions have ben asked of you. This is a question for you to ask.

    Personally, I like to get in the face of a prominent futurist and demand: "Dude, where's my flying car?"

    But you're probably interested in something else: a cure for the common cold, a city on the moon, carbo-free bread, tires that won't go flat, a 3D real-time picturephone, your own robot...world peace. Whatever it is, that's your question to ask.

    So I ask you: what's your flying car?

Feel free to have a go at the seven questions in the comments section.

Posted by Phil at July 25, 2003 08:40 AM | TrackBack

Okay, I'll bite...

  1. Personal computing and "connectedness"; I see this as being at least as big as the inventions of moveable type, writing and language itself. And I expect it will increase human productivity and freedom as significantly as those earlier inventions did.

  2. My biggest personal disappointment was when the US gave up on space in almost every significant way.

  3. I'm over halfway there; I expect nanotechnologies to have made the biggest difference (where "nanotech" includes bioengineering, since I expect the two to converge and merge). This should dramatically overshadow the changes from the electronic revolution, which has dominated the first 50-odd years of my life.

  4. The development and widespread use of nanotech assemblers.

  5. Increasing crowdedness and the accompanying necessary compromises of personal freedom, due to lack of "elbow room". (I did a lot of wilderness backpacking as a youngster; wilderness is fast disappearing. This is only a tiny sample of what I'm talking about.) What can I do? Push for #7.

  6. Even though it's scary, I'm tempted to answer "Vinge's Singularity". The "unlikely or uncertain" issue arises over whether Strong AI is possible -- I just don't know; nor do I know how much I'll personally enjoy the experience, but the other side should be remarkable!

  7. My "flying car" is space colonization, and I really want it because it will tend to offset my answer to #5. Humans function best in a frontier setting, I think, so gimme that frontier, damnit!

Posted by: Troy at August 9, 2003 04:46 AM

1. Having a chance to help make a difference. It is a fluid and dynamic world that offers so many different ways to make things better that anyone (believing they can) can make a difference. It is to me an epic struggle against all odds and I’m glad to be here to help!

2. Wasting so much resources and time on Warfare! War is not a good economic policy, nor is it the only path to high technology! I believe that what people are really seeing (and love) in both historic and modern weapons are 'designs' that are 'purpose-built:' dedicated machines that truly excel at what they were meant to do! The fact that they're for war isn't what attracts us. It is their embodiment of serious thought and 'functionality' that so entices us, but which is so lacking in other parts of society. Would an M-1 tank sport frillies and other wasteful, non-critical 'esthetics' like a false hood-scoop and spoilers? No, of course not! Our clamor for esthetics is the opposite: a 'false desire' geared more for displaying wealth in a 'class system' than it is a true 'inner call' for effectiveness and functionality!

3. 2067? World piece!

4. Being able to read the history of this solar system to the same extent that we understand the biological and geological history of earth. That will take 40-80 Cassini Sized missions. Also, would love to know about Exoplanets the size of earth - how common - atmosphere consistency etc…

5. An era of Superdisasters as the Red Cross says. 40 of the 50 fastest growing cities are at risk of earthquakes: millions more in flood planes. Hell, we’ll die off from our own stupidity before we’ve had a chance to blow ourselves up…

6. Communal Living - in a very modern sens: 21 story buildings with the likes of sub industrial scale shops able to cast an engine block…. 1/50th the land use and a doubling of the quality of living…

7. Point of Divergence: our society is becoming so complex that most of our resources have to go to its simple maintenance. This makes implementing even vastly superior ideas like Hydrogen power and flying cars very hard - nearing the point of impossibility. It is also a wrong notion to assume that everyone needs a Skycar. Sky taxicabs that can drop you off would prevent the sky from being full of reckless individuals.

Posted by: Chris Eldridge at August 29, 2003 11:27 AM

Oh, why not.

1. As I do not live in the past, it matters not that the present is the future relative to it - it still live only in the present. :p

But, since you asked, I'll just say "yes."

In one way or another, every aspect of life is affected by modern technology; asking what I like best about modernity is thus equivalent to simply asking what I like. Likewise, my hobbies are equally ubiquitously touched by modernity, and it is, therefore, modernity in and of itself which I enjoy.

2. In the vein of the above, that we are not more modern than we are.

3. Ubiquitous informational availability.

4. Immortality.

5. Singularity.

6. Singularity.

7. Singularity.

Posted by: Jason at September 5, 2003 04:11 AM

I was rather hoping that you'd e-mail me personally, asking me all the questions, begging me to answer, as a deity.

Hey, everyone needs a dream, right? That's mine.

Good job with the site, Phil!

Posted by: Da Goddess at October 14, 2003 07:06 AM

Answered and (supposedly) pinging.

Posted by: Da Goddess at October 15, 2003 12:06 AM

1.The Chinese supposedly have an ancient curse: "may you live in interesting times."


Perhaps we've been cursed, perhaps blessed, but there is no end to avenues to pursue today if you are intellectually engaged. Do you have an interest in politics? Word is that there's an election this year. Are you a hawk or a dove? Either way, you'll want to keep up-to-date on the war. Science? It's impossible to keep up. Do you want to find a date but you're only interested in Jewish cowboys who have a passion for lawn darts? Kiss.com probably has five to choose from. Traveling, shopping, working and playing have all been changed by one development – The Internet.

When I graduated college in 1991 few of my class outside of the computer department had ever heard of the Internet. When I told a college student last year that I first logged onto the Internet two years after graduation she looked at me with a certain amount of pity. For her, college IS the Internet - instant access to knowledge 24/7.

The rise of blogging makes our relationship with information even more intimate. Blogging allows instant reporting/analysis of the news. Memes can rise, become either conventional wisdom or be discredited before print editions can even run.

So, absolutely, the neatest thing about living "in the future" today is the communication/information revolution brought about in the last ten years by mainstream adaptation of the Internet.

2. When I was about seven years old I had an uncle tell me that by the time I got to college there'd probably be learning machines that would zap knowledge straight into my brain. That idea sent shivers of uber-cool down my spine. And I still want to be able to dial the operator and tell him that I need to be able to speak Japanese and ZAP! Matrix-style I'm ready to go.

Alas, we don't have that yet. I would guess that this sort of technology is singularity-related (it will either a close cause or product of the singularity). So for now, the Internet will have to do.

3. I must start by saying that I doubt the premise of the question. Not, necessarily because I doubt that I will live that long (I have a long-shot of living 66 years more even with today's technology), but because if I manage to stay alive another 34 years I will probably live to be much older than 100. Such is the nature of exponential advances in all fields of knowledge – including geriatric medicine.

So I'll let that be my answer to your question. By my 100th birthday senescence will be optional (and I'm guessing a not very popular option). This will be a huge civilization-shaking change. Objectively death is the loss of a unique individual that cannot be replaced and the loss of a huge body of knowledge. Subjectively death is even more catastrophic. And the process of getting there is no joy ride either.

Whether this will be the biggest difference is, by definition, impossible to forecast if you believe as I that the singularity will occur within the next 66 years.

4. USAToday published an editorial by the head of the National Cancer Institute saying that its realistic goal to eliminate suffering and death by cancer by the year 2015.

Here's the address:


Over 500,000 Americans die each year from cancer. A cure will happen. But faster, please.

5. A year and a half ago


a team of scientist demonstrated that viruses can be assembled from scratch with chemicals readily available through mail order. Worse, "the gene sequences for ebola, influenza, smallpox, HIV and many other viruses are publicly available on the Internet."

A nuclear bomb requires facilities that are huge and, therefore, difficult to fund and hard to hide. A virus-based WMD program could be put together in a trailer house.

My answer is not to outlaw this research but to push it forward faster. Preserving life is always more difficult than destroying it, but the same researchers that showed us that virus construction is possible may be able to help us defend against a man-made viral attack.

6. Nanotech is a very exciting field (or group of fields). And of all the possible nanotech developments that are within our near-term grasp "peptide nanotubes that kill bacteria by punching holes in the bacteria's membrane" excites me the most.


We are losing the antibiotic arms race against bacteria. There are already bacterial strains for which the only treatment is to excise the infected tissue. It is only a matter of time before some highly contagious air-borne bacteria that is resistant to all antibiotics strikes us down by the millions… Unless some development like this one intervenes.

If this develops I think it will be very difficult for bacteria to evolve resistance to it. All bacteria require the protection of their cell encasement. I can't imagine a mutation that would provide a defense to a battering ram that breaches that protection.

7. While we've made remarkable strides in small scale technology – circuitry, the human genome, nanotech, it seems like we've lost ground with the big macho stuff. We haven't been to the moon in 30 years; we can't buy tickets to fly supersonic anymore.

While we're discovering inner space and creating cyberspace, we've done so little with outer space. Maybe this is a necessary retreat – a pause to let technology catch up with our aspirations. But I'm inclined to believe rather that its a lack of aspiration.

One piece of evidence that it's the latter: we've never tested artificial gravity. I'm not talking about exotic tech here. I'm talking about the kind created by spinning. This would require no technology that we don't presently have. Heck, take two Apollo era capsules, tether them together and spin away. Each capsule would then have gravity of sorts. We know we are going to need to do this to go to Mars. Astronauts can't take zero G for a year and a half before exerting themselves on Mars.

So why hasn't this been tested? Because NASA hasn't had the courage or the vision to do it.

Posted by: Stephen at February 2, 2004 04:27 PM

I loved reading the different answers. They all made me feel happy, knowing that there are "good minds" on this planet.
I found this site via www.imminst.org
For me, EXTRA TERRESTRIAL MIGRATION and GENE ENGINEERING is what keeps me ticking.

Posted by: Alfred at March 5, 2004 10:47 PM