A predictable affair

The forecast for the future this weekend: partly cloudy, with occasional accuracy



First off, Dan Johnson wants to be clear about who was not invited to the Ninth General Assembly of the World Future Society going on in Washington this weekend.

Among the 1,000 attendees are scientists, sociologists, health policy experts, corporate strategists, economists and environmentalists.

Barred at the gates are psychics, bookies and, above all, New Age zealots.

"Our membership is very ra-tional," says a sober-sounding Johnson, an editor on the society's monthly journal, The Futurist. "They want to see facts, things from reliable sources. It's a serious group of thinkers."

Funny hats are definitely out.

The purpose of the society -- which has 30,000 members across 80 countries -- is to try to anticipate the future. "Our mission," says Johnson, "is to act as clearinghouse for information about trends that can affect the future so people can do better planning."

The futurists do not consider themselves to be dabbling in science fiction, though Arthur C. Clarke sits on the society's "council." But like science fiction writers, they look at what is happening now and try to forecast change. There's virtually no field they leave untouched -- from agriculture to terrorism to public libraries. Among the scores of topics being addressed at this year's conference are the future of religion, marriage, sexuality and warfare.

One of the hottest topics, Johnson says, is health care.

"The underlying change is that people are living longer and leading healthier lives. The debate is going on now as to whether people will be living lots longer, 50 or 60 years longer, and what are the implications of people routinely living to 120 or 130? How will they support themselves? What if they keep working and what kinds of jobs will they have? What happens to the next generation?"

Another popular topic, obviously, is technology.

"The vision people had of the future of robots looking like people is being replaced by embedded computers in appliances. Like you go into the kitchen and you have a microwave with a TV and computer access to the Internet. You have appliances with more capabilities, that have the capability of remembering how you want things done, like directing phone calls to different parts of the house or setting the lights a certain way. It's almost like the Jetsons."

Naturally enough, the futurists love to make predictions, although, as Johnson says, they tend to think of them more as "possibilities."

"If you really, really think your prediction is going to happen, you're probably not a futurist."

That doesn't stop The Futurist from forecasting, however. In the last year, the magazine has predicted, among other things, that:

* Tiny flying robots will be used to gather data in dangerous places like battlefields.

* Infectious disease could become more devastating as urban populations grow denser.

* Retailers will disappear in the face of Internet shopping.

* Senior citizens will one day wear computers with face-recognition capabilities that will help them to identify acquaintances.

Recently, the society decided to look backward, to its early predictions in the late 1960s and '70s. Its success rate was 68 percent. The society, for example, predicted a man would land on the moon by 1970, that artificial organs would one day be viable, and that drugs controlling personality would become widely accepted.

On the other hand, futurists also predicted that desalinated sea water would be widely used in agriculture and that there would be a permanent moon base.

But hey, what psychic didn't make those same predictions?

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