Saturday, 22 October 2011

Why the future is unpredictable

There is no doubt that certain computer models of social and economic systems can be more useful than harmful as planning tools. On balance the best models have considerably more than an even chance of being correct  and enable us to plan housing, medical services, sewage systems, transport, long term financial investment and much else in as rational a way as practicable.

However, it also essential to recognise their limitations. They have to be quantitative in nature and many of the models are based on Game Theory, which assumes that human beings are rational machines who act only out of self interest and enlightened self interest. There is also often an assumption that past trends are a guide to future trends.

It is not just computer models that get things wrong. History proceeds through large, sudden, unpredictable changes – referred to by N.N.Talab as ‘black swan events’ in his recent book The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable . E.g. the Cambrian explosion of life forms, 540 million years ago, as shown in the fossil record; the power of the atom; the television; space travel; the Internet; the abolition of slavery in the West; the National Health Service; and the current uprisings in  North Africa and the Middle East.

A good example of the folly of assuming that human behaviour is predictable and can be modelled on the assumption of selfishness is the Wikipedia. It requires the contributor to use non-intuitive editing software and spend a lot of time working for nothing. It also has no specialised refereeing teams yet achieves a high degree of reliability and is kept continually up to date. On top of this it is immeasurably more comprehensive than any ordinary encyclopaedia (for which, nevertheless, there is an important role, but that's another story) depending on paid referees. Anyone predicting the growth that actually happened in only a decade would have been dismissed as a naive dreamer.

The recently departed Steve Jobs was probably alone in having the vision to see that the iPhone would catch on. No focus groups, no user surveys, no trend projections. Just intuition and the resources to follow it up.

There are innumerable examples of great leap forwards in all fields of human endeavour and in the evolution of life. In fact the whole universe is like this when you examine what evidence we have of progress to date, starting with the Big Bang.

As Rabi Jonathan Sacks says in his highly acclaimed recent book and on a BBC radio programme called Start the week, the universe is creative, and creative events are by nature unpredictable.

The only aspect of reality that we can predict with certainty is that it will continue to be unpredictable.
Author, 2077 AD