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MIT Technology Review

The professionals who predict the future for a living

Everywhere from business to medicine to the climate, forecasting the future is a complex and absolutely critical job. So how do you do it—and what comes next?

February 26, 2020

Inez Fung

Professor of atmospheric science, University of California, Berkeley

Inez Fung
Leah Fasten

Prediction for 2030: We’ll light up the world … safely

I’ve spoken to people who want climate model information, but they’re not really sure what they’re asking me for. So I say to them, “Suppose I tell you that some event will happen with a probability of 60% in 2030. Will that be good enough for you, or will you need 70%? Or would you need 90%? What level of information do you want out of climate model projections in order to be useful?”

I joined Jim Hansen’s group in 1979, and I was there for all the early climate projections. And the way we thought about it then, those things are all still totally there. What we’ve done since then is add richness and higher resolution, but the projections are really grounded in the same kind of data, physics, and observations.

Still, there are things we’re missing. We still don’t have a real theory of precipitation, for example. But there are two exciting things happening there. One is the availability of satellite observations: looking at the cloud is still not totally utilized. The other is that there used to be no way to get regional precipitation patterns through history—and now there is. Scientists found these caves in China and elsewhere, and they go in, look for a nice little chamber with stalagmites, and then they chop them up and send them back to the lab, where they do fantastic uranium-thorium dating and measure oxygen isotopes in calcium carbonate. From there they can interpret a record of  historic rainfall. The data are incredible: we have got over half a million years of precipitation records all over Asia.

I don’t see us reducing fossil fuels by 2030. I don’t see us reducing CO2 or atmospheric methane. Some 1.2 billion people in the world right now have no access to electricity, so I’m looking forward to the growth in alternative energy going to parts of the world that have no electricity. That’s important because it’s education, health, everything associated with a Western standard of living. That’s where I’m putting my hopes.

Anne-Lise Kjaer
Dvora Photography

Anne Lise Kjaer

Futurist, Kjaer Global, London

Prediction for 2030: Adults will learn to grasp new ideas

As a kid I wanted to become an archaeologist, and I did in a way. Archaeologists find artifacts from the past and try to connect the dots and tell a story about how the past might have been. We do the same thing as futurists; we use artifacts from the present and try to connect the dots into interesting narratives in the future.

When it comes to the future, you have two choices. You can sit back and think “It’s not happening to me” and build a great big wall to keep out all the bad news. Or you can build windmills and harness the winds of change.

A lot of companies come to us and think they want to hear about the future, but really it’s just an exercise for them—let’s just tick that box, do a report, and put it on our bookshelf.

So we have a little test for them. We do interviews, we ask them questions; then we use a model called a Trend Atlas that considers both the scientific dimensions of society and the social ones. We look at the trends in politics, economics, societal drivers, technology, environment, legislation—how does that fit with what we know currently? We look back maybe 10, 20 years: can we see a little bit of a trend and try to put that into the future?

What’s next? Obviously with technology we can educate much better than we could in the past. But it’s a huge opportunity to educate the parents of the next generation, not just the children. Kids are learning about sustainability goals, but what about the people who actually rule our world?

Philip Tetlock
Courtesy Photo

Philip Tetlock

Coauthor of Superforecasting and professor, University of Pennsylvania

Prediction for 2030: We’ll get better at being uncertain

At the Good Judgment Project, we try to track the accuracy of commentators and experts in domains in which it’s usually thought impossible to track accuracy. You take a big debate and break it down into a series of testable short-term indicators. So you could take a debate over whether strong forms of artificial intelligence are going to cause major dislocations in white-collar labor markets by 2035, 2040, 2050. A lot of discussion already occurs at that level of abstractionbut from our point of view, it’s more useful to break it down and to say: If we were on a long-term trajectory toward an outcome like that, what sorts of things would we expect to observe in the short term? So we started this off in 2015, and in 2016 AlphaGo defeated people in Go. But then other things didn’t happen: driverless Ubers weren’t picking people up for fares in any major American city at the end of 2017. Watson didn’t defeat the world’s best oncologists in a medical diagnosis tournament. So I don’t think we’re on a fast track toward the singularity, put it that way.

Forecasts have the potential to be either self-fulfilling or self-negatingY2K was arguably a self-negating forecast. But it’s possible to build that into a forecasting tournament by asking conditional forecasting questions: i.e., How likely is X conditional on our doing this or doing that?

What I’ve seen over the last 10 years, and it’s a trend that I expect will continue, is an increasing openness to the quantification of uncertainty. I think there’s a grudging, halting, but cumulative movement toward thinking about uncertainty, and more granular and nuanced ways that permit keeping score.

Keith Chen
Ryan Young

Keith Chen

Associate professor of economics, UCLA

Prediction for 2030: We’ll be more—and less—private

When I worked on Uber’s surge pricing algorithm, the problem it was built to solve was very coarse: we were trying to convince drivers to put in extra time when they were most needed. There were predictable times—like New Year’s—when we knew we were going to need a lot of people. The deeper problem was that this was a system with basically no control. It’s like trying to predict the weather. Yes, the amount of weather data that we collect today—temperature, wind speed, barometric pressure, humidity data—is 10,000 times greater than what we were collecting 20 years ago. But we still can’t predict the weather 10,000 times further out than we could back then. And social movements—even in a very specific setting, such as where riders want to go at any given point in time—are, if anything, even more chaotic than weather systems.

These days what I’m doing is a little bit more like forensic economics. We look to see what we can find and predict from people’s movement patterns. We’re just using simple cell-phone data like geolocation, but even just from movement patterns, we can infer salient information and build a psychological dimension of you. What terrifies me is I feel like I have much worse data than Facebook does. So what are they able to understand with their much better information?

I think the next big social tipping point is people actually starting to really care about their privacy. It’ll be like smoking in a restaurant: it will quickly go from causing outrage when people want to stop it to suddenly causing outrage if somebody does it. But at the same time, by 2030 almost every Chinese citizen will be completely genotyped. I don’t quite know how to reconcile the two.

Annalee Newitz
Sarah Deragon

Annalee Newitz

Science fiction and nonfiction author, San Francisco

Prediction for 2030: We’re going to see a lot more humble technology

Every era has its own ideas about the future. Go back to the 1950s and you’ll see that people fantasized about flying cars. Now we imagine bicycles and green cities where cars are limited, or where cars are autonomous. We have really different priorities now, so that works its way into our understanding of the future.

Science fiction writers can’t actually make predictions. I think of science fiction as engaging with questions being raised in the present. But what we can do, even if we can’t say what’s definitely going to happen, is offer a range of scenarios informed by history.

There are a lot of myths about the future that people believe are going to come true right now. I think a lot of people—not just science fiction writers but people who are working on machine learning—believe that relatively soon we’re going to have a human-equivalent brain running on some kind of computing substrate. This is as much a reflection of our time as it is what might actually happen.

It seems unlikely that a human-equivalent brain in a computer is right around the corner. But we live in an era where a lot of us feel like we live inside computers already, for work and everything else. So of course we have fantasies about digitizing our brains and putting our consciousness inside a machine or a robot.

I’m not saying that those things could never happen. But they seem much more closely allied to our fantasies in the present than they do to a real technical breakthrough on the horizon.

We’re going to have to develop much better technologies around disaster relief and emergency response, because we’ll be seeing a lot more floods, fires, storms. So I think there is going to be a lot more work on really humble technologies that allow you to take your community off the grid, or purify your own water. And I don’t mean in a creepy survivalist way; I mean just in a this-is-how-we-are-living-now kind of way.

Finale Doshi-Velez
Noah Willman

Finale Doshi-Velez

Associate professor of computer science, Harvard

Prediction for 2030: Humans and machines will make decisions together

In my lab, we’re trying to answer questions like “How might this patient respond to this antidepressant?” or “How might this patient respond to this vasopressor?” So we get as much data as we can from the hospital. For a psychiatric patient, we might have everything about their heart disease, kidney disease, cancer; for a blood pressure management recommendation for the ICU, we have all their oxygen information, their lactate, and more.

Some of it might be relevant to making predictions about their illnesses, some not, and we don’t know which is which. That’s why we ask for the large data set with everything.

There’s been about a decade of work trying to get unsupervised machine-­learning models to do a better job at making these predictions, and none worked really well. The breakthrough for us was when we found that all the previous approaches for doing this were wrong in the exact same way. Once we untangled all of this, we came up with a different method.

We also realized that even if our ability to predict what drug is going to work is not always that great, we can more reliably predict what drugs are not going to work, which is almost as valuable.

I’m excited about combining humans and AI to make predictions. Let’s say your AI has an error rate of 70% and your human is also only right 70% of the time. Combining the two is difficult, but if you can fuse their successes, then you should be able to do better than either system alone. How to do that is a really tough, exciting question.

All these predictive models were built and deployed and people didn’t think enough about potential biases. I’m hopeful that we’re going to have a future where these human-machine teams are making decisions that are better than either alone.

Abdoulaye Banire Diallo
Guillaume Simoneau

Abdoulaye Banire Diallo

Professor, director of the bioinformatics lab, University of Quebec at Montreal

Prediction for 2030: Machine-based forecasting will be regulated

When a farmer in Quebec decides whether to inseminate a cow or not, it might depend on the expectation of milk that will be produced every day for one year, two years, maybe three years after that. Farms have management systems that capture the data and the environment of the farm. I’m involved in projects that add a layer of genetic and genomic data to help forecastingto help decision makers like the farmer to have a full picture when they’re thinking about replacing cows, improving management, resilience, and animal welfare.

With the emergence of machine learning and AI, what we’re showing is that we can help tackle problems in a way that hasn’t been done before. We are adapting it to the dairy sector, where we’ve shown that some decisions can be anticipated 18 months in advance just by forecasting based on the integration of this genomic data. I think in some areas such as plant health we have only achieved 10% or 20% of our capacity to improve certain models.

Until now AI and machine learning have been associated with domain expertise. It’s not a public-wide thing. But less than 10 years from now they will need to be regulated. I think there are a lot of challenges for scientists like me to try to make those techniques more explainable, more transparent, and more auditable.