A man on Mars? Ask a futurist Forecasting: Three futurists predict man's first visit to the red planet in 2037. In six years, they say, video conferencing will be coming into use.

Sun Journal

January 18, 1998|By Eric Lekus | Eric Lekus,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

WASHINGTON -- Given the difficulty in predicting what the economy will do over the next few years, or even what the weather will be tomorrow, how can three researchers know what the hot technologies will be in 30 years?

Professor William E. Halal and two of his students at George Washington University's School of Business and Public Management, in the November/December issue of Futurist magazine, have charted the emergence of 85 crucial technologies, complete with the dates when the rest of us will likely feel their impact.

For example, they say that 2028 is the year that a permanent base will be established on the moon -- nine years before the first humans make the trip to Mars.

Halal and his colleagues acknowledge that forecasting is inexact. They have greater confidence about predicting nearer-term technologies, such as video conferencing, which they foresee coming into routine use in six years. And they insist their forecasts are based on scientific methodology and not mere conjecture.

"It is not speculation like we have seen with the Jetsons," Halal says, referring to the television cartoon series. "This is the best available knowledge that we can pull together. It is the best scientific consensus from a panel of 50 international authorities."

History is replete with examples of futurists who got it wrong.

The most famous may be Thomas Malthus, an economist who predicted 200 years ago that the Earth could not sustain an ever-growing population, and that famines were inevitable. He failed to foresee how improved trade and agriculture would allow the Earth to feed five times as many people as in his time -- and with fewer famines.

More recently, warnings in the 1970s that oil prices would skyrocket were wrong -- but not because the forecasters made a bad guess.

Rather, business, industry and political leaders believed the forecasts and took steps to deal with the expected oil scarcity -- conservation, fuel-efficient technologies and substitute energy sources. That pulled the rug out from under the forecast.

Futurists are careful to avoid the term "prediction." What they do, they say, is try to forecast what might happen.

"I think there are people who take [forecasts] as a statement of what will happen," says Joseph F. Coates, a Washington futurist who was consulted on the study. "But if you are serious about this, you use this as an input to your thinking, not as an output."

"If we could predict the future, it would mean we couldn't change it," says Edward Cornish, editor of the Futurist and founder of the World Future Society in Bethesda. "We are interested in a better future, and that can only happen if the future is changeable -- and therefore unpredictable."

Futurists have several methods for gathering their information. Halal and his co-authors, graduate students Michael D. Kull and Ann Leffmann, drew up their list by examining current trends to see which technologies appeared most promising.

Then they surveyed futurists, authors and technical experts, asking them when a selected technology might emerge into "mainstream" use.

The answers were averaged to get a year that serves as a best estimate for when the technology will start to have a large impact in society.

But Halal acknowledges that by looking at what is being discussed now, it is possible to miss potentially revolutionary technologies.

A century ago, for example, urban planners decided that New York had reached the limit of its growth because it would be unable to handle the manure generated by an expanding horse population. They didn't imagine the automobile.

More recently, futurists -- while doing their forecasting on computers -- failed to anticipate the rapid development of the Internet.

Information technologies already have had a revolutionary impact.

Over the next 10 to 15 years, Halal, Kull and Leffmann foresee entertainment centers in the home that combine television, telephone and computers access.

Personal computers will recognize individual speech and handwriting, and will be able to translate languages.

Halal sees progress in other areas, too. At least 10 percent of energy needs will be met with alternative sources, such as geothermal and solar, the study forecasts. Most manufactured goods will use recycled materials. Artificial foods -- meats, vegetables and breads -- will be commonly consumed.

There is increasing interest in such forecasting.

The World Future Society, which publishes Futurist, currently has 30,000 members, compared with 3,000 when the society was founded.

Many corporations and politicians use forecasting to understand the implications of decisions they must make today.

But how reliable are those forecasts?

Halal has conducted three similar surveys since 1991, and he says breakout years forecast for most technologies were consistent through each survey, perhaps changing by three years. His survey technique is accepted by futurists and is used on a much wider scale in Europe and Japan.

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