A Futurist on … the Future
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes an “out there” prediction is enough to start a crucial conversation.
Mining asteroids, an activity that could produce the world’s first trillionaire by 2030. 3D-printed cruises ships and hospitals. But no more taxi drivers, firefighters and (gulp) journalists. Indeed, the future of the world according to Thomas Frey is not quite what you might expect.
Frey is executive director and “senior futurist” at the DaVinci Institute, a 17-year-old think tank where he gathers a group of high-profile intellectuals for deep conversations about tomorrow. And we mean high profile: regular contributors to these “mastermind groups” include nearly every sitting governor of Colorado (the think tank’s home state), CEOs like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, the commissioner of the U.S. patent office, university presidents and science fiction authors like David Brin.
His most spot-on predictions have included calling the invention of prepaid credit cards as well as the proliferation of mobile communications technology — both of which he guessed back in ’98. And his prediction that we would eventually be able to suck moisture out of the air to create self-filling water bottles came true earlier this year. But not all of his predictions, as he readily admits, have come to fruition, and there are some harsh critics of his practice. “Futurologists are impersonating public intellectuals,” says Dale Carrico, a lecturer of critical theory at UCLA Berkeley. Here is what Frey had to say to OZY, in our edited conversation.
What separates you from a fortuneteller?
The difference is a futurist uses a set of tools, referred to as “anticipatory thinking protocols.” There are a number of techniques that are used specifically for stretching people’s imagination and expanding their understanding of the future. As an example, there are a little over 600 cycles that are being tracked in the world, from the earth going around the sun to trends that permeate workplaces and technologies, so tracking these cycles is a good starting point.
I’m not sure if the timing will be the same, but I have since written a piece on how long it will be before we can 3D print replacement body parts, because we are using 3D printers now to print bladders, spleens, kidneys, pieces of livers and heart valves. Some of these devices are working with stem cells. So there’s this notion that some time in the future we can actually 3D print our entire body. Experimentation is happening all over the world as we speak.
I’m not predicting that we will get there, I’m asking “Can we get there?” and it’s this “Can we/should we?” stuff that’s worth debating. If everyone could suddenly live to be 1,000 years old that creates a whole other set of issues to look at. Most people have this notion in their head that every prediction has to be true. Well, a lot of the time the prediction is intended to start a conversation.
More concretely, what do you think daily life will be like in 2030?
In 2030, the average person will wear printed clothing, own more than one robot and have to reboot their career six times because of this whole issue of technological unemployment — they’ll have to switch gears a lot. I’ve predicted that half of traditional colleges are going to fail by 2030 because they will not be able to adapt to those new realities, and people will need to learn things in a much shorter period of time. I’ve also predicted that over 2 billion jobs are going to go away, and that’s not intended to be a doom and gloom statement, but more of a wakeup call, because jobs are being eliminated at a faster and faster rate.
On the other hand, the flying drone world is going to take off, and I think driverless cars are going to produce a lot of exciting new opportunities.
Why are many of your predictions so positive about the future?
When I was a kid growing up I would see the covers of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines with these fascinating images of the future and I just couldn’t wait for it to happen. Today, if you ask the average person on the street what they think about the future, there’s lots of fear, lots of trepidation. Yes, things will go wrong, but when they do it’s an opportunity. We live in such exciting times; I couldn’t imagine a better time to be alive.