Do futurists have a future?

By Robert Hickson 21/03/2013

Obviously, I’m going to answer yes. Though we seem underutilised in New Zealand at the moment.

Increasingly, as with many other areas, data crunching is being used to attempt to predict the future, or at least help to do so. Media reports are starting to use the term “Nate Silver” as a verb when discussing data analytics. There is an expectation, or hope, by some that with more data and sophisticated analyses will come more accurate predictions.

Recorded Future provides a service where data (media reports, tweets, analyses, etc from the internet) on particular topics or issues (such as whether electronics manufacturer Foxconn will move production away from China) are collected and organised into a timeline to assist analysis. It also provides some network analysis to help explore the information. If you register on their website you can browse some of their searches, but subscription for greater access is US$149/month. Business Insider gives a short overview of the company. 

Quid combs patents, company info, etc to help identify technology trends and market opportunities for paying customers.

An article in Foreign policy (Registration required) discusses the use of data analytics to look for future political events (not just elections). There are mixed views on the likelihood of success.

The Pentagon is also taking a big data approach to see if it can spot when soldiers are likely to go rogue. It can’t do that yet, and could run into legal problems if it tries to. But it may be able to improve its training regimes through such studies.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is trying out a range of human and computational approaches to improve intelligence analysis.

Richard Danzig has already warned [Pdf] about placing too much reliance on predictions in relation to national security. He advocates the need to focus prediction on the short term and foster preparedness for the unexpected. IARPA recognises limitations in their approach, but are seeking to reduce uncertainty about what events are predictable and which aren’t.

As Garry Kasparov pointed out for machine-assisted chess competitions, middling humans working with middling computers but with a very good process for combining the strengths of both beats powerful computers alone as well as chess grand masters using computers ineffectively. The CIA also demonstrated many years ago that more information doesn’t always make intelligence analysis more accurate, it just enhances the confidence the analyst has in their predictions.

As analytical software improves computers will hopefully play a greater role in organising and exploring data themselves and finding meaningful information for the task at hand. The value a futurist provides (for the moment at least) is in helping frame the right questions to ask of the information, being able to identify what the most relevant pieces of information may be, and going some way to addressing the “so what?” questions that arise.