Will We Have Microchips for Brains in 20 Years? Futurists Weigh in on... the Future.

Universal Pictures International
Universal Pictures International

Imagine if you had the power to see into the future. What would you do? Cash in on the winning Powerball numbers? Nip that relationship-ending fight in the bud? Avoid California when that huge apocalyptic earthquake goes down? It’s an intriguing thought, and it’s probably why a lot of people (read: suckers) still pay psychics way too much money. But the sad truth is that no one knows for sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next day, or 10 years from now. 

And yet, there are people out there who will say they’re a “futurist" when you ask what they do for a living. People who get paid big, big money by major corporations, investors, and governments to forecast what’s going to happen and what society will be like down the road. How does a career like this even exist? And what sort of cajones does it take to think you can do such a thing?

The terms "futurology," "futurism," and "futures studies" have been shorthand for a whole patchwork of disciplines over the years; the profession of "futurist" has, at one time or another, included everyone from sci-fi authors to stock brokers. In the last couple decades, however, it's come to denote a high-level "trend forecaster," or someone who carefully considers data to help big important people and businesses make decisions and lay out strategy.

So what’s it like to have that job? I talked to two full-time futurists to find out. Then asked them to tell us about all the crazy, cool, and scary stuff we have to look forward to.

Flickr/XPRIZE Foundation

Basically, futurists are really, really good trend analysts

Having "futurist" on your business card has an intriguing ring to it, but it can be misleading. "I never predict or forecast. In fact, I think my role is to remind people that no one can predict the future," says Sheryl Connelly, the longtime in-house futurist at Ford. (If you're wondering what's going on at Ford these days, they're exploring technologies like smart infotainment centers that will sync up with Amazon Echo and all your smart home gadgets, not to mention their full-scale "city" designed to test autonomous cars in real-world conditions.)

"A more apt title for me might be 'polite contrarian' -- so if you say go right, I’ll advocate to go left," Connelly says. "If we’re planning for a future of roses and bunnies and 'Kumbaya' utopia, then what happens if the future is deep, dark, ugly, cynical, corrupt, and full of suffering? I make no bets about which one will happen, but if we can come up with plans that can weather either end of those extremes, then we don’t need to know the future."

What it's like at the office

For Connelly, her work involves a series of steps, the first of which is to collect as much information as possible. “I do my research, look for the patterns, identify trends, try to dig deeper to figure out the main drivers, and come up with a point of view. The second step is to cascade that information widely, broadly across the entire enterprise. That means I could meet with design one day or advanced engineering the next. The third is to collaborate, so I can sit down with someone in design and say 'here’s the trend of aging' or ‘let me tell you what cellphones are doing.' Sharing that information will hopefully lead to insights neither one of us could have come up with on our own.”


Look at big, sweeping trends, not passing fads

There’s a huge difference between recognizing changes from season to season, and identifying broader shifts in how people are thinking and living. "We think of a trend as some sort of manifestation to suggest that a deep-rooted value is changing," Connelly says. Fast-fashion retailers like H&M or Zara live or die by following fads, but the long lead time required for a car company poses unique challenges. "If we chased things that changed every season, they’d be obsolete before we were ever able to act on them."

"We have the tools to reengineer humans and biological life. We’re doing it in labs today. There are huge, amazing, scary ethical concerns."

So how does one keep their finger on the pulse of the future? TED Talks. "That’s one of my favorite sources of inspiration," says Connelly, who's been going to TED Global conferences for over a decade. "I take 100 pages of notes over the five days of presentations, and then I’ll look for patterns. ‘What are the things I keep hearing about? What am I bumping into?’”

For Connelly, traveling the world is also crucial -- unique perspectives help her gauge how well Ford’s sense of trends line up with individuals outside the auto industry, and where certain trends may index higher around the world. In fact, to create Ford’s 2016 trend book, she hosted workshops and conducted field research in a handful of international cities.

Of course, there's a lot of math involved

Rob Nail is the CEO of Singularity University, a think tank-cum-university co-founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil where business leaders, entrepreneurs, and government officials meet to learn about futurism and "apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges." In very basic terms, using numbers to track the future.

He explains that determining how technology is evolving comes down to a few core metrics: price, performance, size, and capacity. "That points you to the exponential nature [of a particular technology]. So we help organizations and individuals by saying, 'OK, you can see how it’s been tracking. If it continues to track at the same pace for another five or seven doublings, where does that potentially take us?'" I was too embarrassed to ask what a doubling was, but basically, there’s a lot of high-level math involved.

"The $1,000 laptop today, that thing, on a 10-year timeline, is going to be the size of a blood cell."

Fæ/Wikimedia Commons

Some of these changes can be pretty terrifying...

Nail emphasizes how important it is for futurists to consider all the angles when it comes to emerging trends and potentially disruptive technology. "What kind of different disruptions are you foreseeing? And what does that do to your life, what does it do to your business, what does it do for your industry? What does it do for society? What regulatory bodies are even aware of these changing paradigms? And what ethical concerns should we have as these things progress?"

For example, CRISPR technology for gene editing. We’re able to engineer anything and everything in terms of biological life. We have the tools to reengineer humans and we’re doing it in labs today. Huge, amazing, exciting, scary moral and ethical concerns. There are incredibly positive opportunities, and potentially very scary, negative implications."

... but the future looks bright

Nail takes issue with a lot of the dystopian narrative created by Hollywood and the media, and thinks it's important as a futurist to be optimistic. “We’re constantly bombarded by this dystopian future -- movies showing how the robots are going to kill us a hundred different ways. [At Singularity] we try to uphold a relatively optimistic long-term perspective, to look at how these technology breakthroughs stack up to create different scenarios for a future we want to create and live in, but also looking at the reality of the downside scenarios we should be actively trying to avoid.

"I do see people uploading themselves, uploading their memories and their minds into a digital arena."

"We talk a lot about A.I., and the implications of artificial intelligence. There’s been a lot of really terrible fear-mongering, but only because most people don’t understand the progress in those areas. We have this fear that technology is disconnecting us from other people and making our lives worse, when history has shown that technology has improved the human condition. Whether it be lifespan, infant mortality, education, cost of transportation, you name it -- technology is radically improving every aspect of our lives. There are always blips where it feels like things are getting worse."

Samuel Goldwyn Films


So what exactly should we expect in the next 10, 20, or 50 years? Neither Connelly or Nail know, of course, but that didn't stop me from asking some of my burning questions anyway.

Will we all drive flying cars in the future?

Connelly: "It’s tough for me to imagine a future of flying cars. The Jetsons firmly set the romantic idea of what the flying car would look like, but we never saw that come to be. [But] I think autonomous driving is going to be fundamentally different. Whether it becomes a reality will depend largely on stakeholders outside of auto manufacturing. It will have a lot to do with insurance -- how do you insure, where does liability lie when you’re dealing with a self-driving vehicle. How will we litigate issues around that? How will we regulate it? We have to overcome infrastructure, so urban planners will be huge stakeholders in bringing it into being."

"We'll be able to create a virtual world on top of the real one, such that it will be impossible within 10 years to discern what is real and what is not real."


What will a computer look like in 50 years?

Nail: "Fifty years is impossible, that is a ridiculous timescale [to predict]. The next five years alone are going to be insane with the rise of quantum computers. The types of computers that we’re using are going to be more and more embedded in our lives, and in our bodies. The $1,000 laptop today, that thing, on a 10-year timeline, is going to be the size of a blood cell.

"Ray Kurzweil likes to think we’re going to be integrating much of that into our own brains, making connections to computers through our own neurons. That freaks me out a little bit, but I’m certain that will happen and we will have even more human brain-to-computer interfaces that are going to be seamless.

"This is where the technology of A.I. gets to be really exciting. Beyond 20-30 years, it gets to a different place. I do see people uploading themselves, uploading their memories, uploading their minds into a digital arena. For the mere mortal in the next 30 years, our abilities, capacities, our cognitive processes, are going to be changing dramatically. That allows us to make better decisions; I’m very excited to see within the next five to 10 years A.I. advisors for CEOs and A.I. advisors on the boards of companies. A.I. advisors for our judges, our judicial systems, government officials."

Universal Pictures International

Where is virtual reality headed?

Nail: "There’s going to be a whole new channel of media distribution and consumption that’s in a wholly virtual world. So, imagine instead of buying nosebleed seats [to a sports game], you have just as good virtual seats that feel like you’re sitting next to the coach on the courtside bench. In a five-year timeline, movies, TV, and a whole subset of other content that will be completely virtual. Many social networks are going to be virtual.

"But then, where I think it really starts to be powerful and useful and valuable is augmented reality. We'll be able to create a virtual world on top of the real one, such that it will be impossible -- within 10 years -- to discern what is real and what is not real. [This] can really get sort of freaky and scary because there’s a whole philosophical construct called the simulation hypothesis, which suggests if you can develop a technology that mimics reality as we know it, how do you know that this is not just a virtual reality that we’re living in? If I can go visit Milan virtually, and it feels just as good as actually going there physically, I might consider doing that instead of jumping on a plane."

Will we fall in love with our tech, like in the movies Her and Ex Machina?

Nail: "I think the best movie that points to this is Robot & Frank. It’s one of my favorite movies. With [Japanese robot Pepper] we have a personal companion robot today. Technology interacting with us emotionally -- there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact I think it’s very natural. It does mean there’s a case for possible manipulation that’s a little bit unnerving, but there’s also bigger cases for people who have cognitive impairments, or are autistic. Technology is going to be a major emotional bridge in their lives.

"In five to 10 years, we’re going to have more and more real personal connection with these technologies. But I’m very, very bullish about falling in love with a robot. I’m a little bit creeped out with sex robots and how that is progressing, but even there, sexual health is an important part of our happiness and day-to-day life and there’s a whole demographic of people who don’t have access to sexual satisfaction, so robots are definitely going to play a role there -- and maybe that’s a very good thing?"

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist. He, too, is a little bit creeped out by sex robots and how that is progressing.