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why futurology has a future

It's like looking out of front window of car as you drive: Ian Pearson


Without a crystal balls or tea leaves, how do you predict what lies ahead? Ian Pearson, who started off designing missiles, is now one of the world's foremost futurologists. In an exclusive interaction with TOI-Crest, he explains why futurology has a future.

As an engineer, you were designing missile systems and then telecommunication systems. From there, how did you go to thinking about the future of everything - from sex and sleep to wars and mad scientists?

I am very much an engineer, but I have always worked in fields that wouldn't come to fruition for a decade or more. Engineering stuff for today is great, but doing so for tomorrow is even more exciting. During my early career, I concentrated more and more on looking at the future and what we can do with technology, as it became obvious that it will change every area of life, and it was fun to work out how, starting with what I knew we could already do and making reasonable judgments about what we could probably figure out. My core skill is systems engineering, thinking about how the whole system would work together, rather than specialising in the detail of a few components. That makes it easy to think through how changes in technology will affect business and everyday life. Whether it is sex or sleep or terrorism, the same technology base is available, and it is usually easy to think of ways the capability may be applied in that area.

How do you work - do you read a lot? Do you have a system - going through A, B, C? Do you have researchers assisting you? Has the Internet facilitated future studies? Do you have to travel around for research?

I read a lot, not just science and engineering, but any subject, and that provides me with lots of stimulation as well as continuous exposure to thinking across a wide base. Most of my insights come in areas where to fields meet, such as where biotech or fashion - or even political demonstrations - meet IT. It is these 'cross impact' areas that most people ignore but they are often the source of the next big thing. I think them through time and time again to see what else falls out. I work alone. I can and do work with others occasionally, but really, you need to have all the knowledge within the same brain, so collaboration can be extremely time-consuming since most of the time is spent sharing data.

How is a modern futurologist like you different from say, an astrologer or even a philosopher?

I rely entirely on looking at what is new in science and engineering and thinking logically how engineers could use those breakthroughs to create new tools, and how people might use those, and how that will change other things. I use that approach because it works. There simply isn't any other approach that works apart from logical analysis.

Technological predictions seem to be easier to understand but complex futures like whether socio-economic inequality will rise and if so, its consequences - can these really be worked out?

Generally, the further you get from the developments in core technology capability, the less accurate your predictions are likely to be. It is easy to take account of social and demographic and political trends of course, but humans are far less predictable because they are far more complex. So although you can make a good guess about how people might behave given certain stimuli and tools, you can't get it right all the time. Some futurists use a lot of different scenarios to cover this uncertainty. Personally, I prefer to think things through further until I work out what is the most likely path, and then highlight points at which we may deviate from that path.

Can you think of various stages of future - up to 50 years, up to 100 years etc? Do you work it out like that or is time irrelevant?

Some things will change our capability so much that it becomes impossible to go too far ahead. There are some things, such as the paths the planets will follow, that can be worked out fairly precisely thousands of years ahead, but human trends will change dramatically as we develop advanced nanotechnology, machines smarter than people, and acquire the ability to design organisms from scratch, and even the ability to live electronically forever. That's just the next 50 years. Going 100 years ahead is pointless, because 99 per cent of the technology that will underpin human systems in that time-frame hasn't even been invented yet. No one could have discussed 100 years ago the potential for genetically modifying bacteria to produce electronic circuit components for use in smart dust. None of the foundations for those things existed then.

What is the future of everyday life - for the common person - in the sense of work, love, family, leisure, etc?

I just wrote a book that is 85, 000 words that covers just part of future everyday life (an e-book called You Tomorrow). If I have to summarise it in a short paragraph I would say that we will have enormous capability to improve almost every area of life using future technology, but all that does is to move the focus to what people want. In the end, human wants and needs dominate. Advanced technology lets us concentrate on being human. We aren't really all that different from cavemen underneath our modern clothes, we just have better tools and toys now.

How is the study of future useful to various entities - corporations, individuals, interest groups, other collectives? Do they seriously consider the work of experts like you?

I liken futurology to looking out of the front window of your car as you drive. If you don't have a reasonable idea of what lies ahead, you will often be caught by surprise and be at a strong disadvantage compared to those that look ahead and are prepared. In the past I have advised many blue chip companies on stuff that will affect them that they may not have considered. Taking just a couple of typical examples, in 1994, I was already advising government about the potential use of the web to organise politics, something we are now seeing as very important, and also on the likely importance of social networking generally. By 2000, I was advising textile companies on the potential to build electronic displays into their clothes, and now that is starting. Each of these examples gave clients a good decade to prepare for the changes.

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