Back to the future – do we really need futurologists?

This week’s New Statesman features an article questioning the high status of so-called futurologists – the gurus of the digital age who believe they can predict the movements of the technology industry and declare that ‘the future’, the really futuristic future, is almost here.

Calling out the likes of Ray Kurzweil and Michio Kaku, the article’s author, Brian Appleyard, lays out how he believes such bombastic figures may actually be hindering scientific and technological development.

"The future will arrive at its own pace, no matter how hard we press the accelerator," says Appleyard. "Futurologists are almost always wrong." He claims that ‘the curious phenomenon’ of TED talks, the hugely popular online video series, has led to a warped view of what progress towards ‘the future’ actually entails, and has even created complacency within the technological industry, meaning future developments are being hindered.

"Futurologists seldom let facts get in the way of a good prophecy," Appleyard believes, stating that a lot of money is donated or given to those who simply deliver a good TED talk without actually presenting facts. This is extremely pertinent for Kurzweil (recently hired by Google to work on ‘new projects involving machine learning and language processing’) who predicted that the ‘Singularity’ – the Holy Grail of computing, when mankind creates a computer more intelligent than man which promises eternal life – will arrive in 2045. Yet just over 30 years away, many of us still struggle to install new computer software or send an email on an unfamiliar device.

Ironically, it seems that the days of the futurologist may be numbered. The technology world changes so rapidly these days that no-one can really predict what may be on the horizon. Granted, we have come a long way in the last 30 years (to take Kurzweil’s Singularity timeframe). But technology has only slowly been adopted into our everyday lives, and many people still hold a grudging distrust of many aspects of it.

And in these days of cybercrime, government surveillance and cuts to NASA budgets, perhaps such rapid technological progress without regulation isn’t quite such a good idea after all?

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