What’s going to happen next?

Recently my wife and I have been indulging in a little nostalgia and inflicting a whole host of films from the 1980s upon our daughter. She and I have certainly enjoyed this opportunity to reminisce, though the reaction of our daughter has been mixed, though Ghostbusters and The Goonies seemed to have gone down quite well with her.

Amongst the films we have watched has been the Back to the Future trilogy. This has caused some confusion as we try to determine which Marty and which Doc belong to which time and what the implications of their actions are on ‘the space-time continuum’. I hadn’t watched these films for many years and so it was a lovely surprise to find that when our two heroes go into the future in the second film, they go to the year 2015. Cue, some family amusement as we lambast the filmmakers for their entirely inaccurate predictions.

Naturally the vision of 2015 depicted does not match my experience of last year (and I imagine you would feel the same). It is not an insightful observation to say that these visions of the future always get advances in technology wrong. They never predict smartphones, but they seem to think flying cars will be ubiquitous. Back to the Future Part II had flying cars, and real hover boards (not like the ones available last Christmas). Similarly, Bladerunner, which is set in 2019, has flying cars, as well as robots almost indistinguishable from humans, but still no smartphones. (There are still three years to go, but I doubt advances in technology are going to bring this vision to reality in time.)

Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised – how could we possibly expect the creators of films made nearly four decades ago to get this sort of stuff right? It is impossible to predict the future.

This impossibility has been made manifest by some recent studies which have looked at the predictions of experts in a variety of fields, but particularly in the areas of economics and politics. What these studies show is that so-called experts are almost no better at predicting what will happen than a lay person. For example, an American psychologist, Philip Tetlock, gathered nearly 300 experts and asked them all sorts of questions about the future. He then waited to see what would happen. The results are summed up by Tim Hartford in his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, as follows (p. 7):

‘It wasn’t that expertise was entirely useless. Tetlock compared his experts’ responses to those of a control group of undergraduates, and the experts did better. But by any objective standard, they didn’t do well. And the return on expertise was distinctly limited. Once experts have acquired a broad knowledge of the political world, deeper expertise in a specific field doesn’t seem to help much. Predictions about Russia from experts on Russia were no more accurate than predictions about Russia from experts on Canada.’

This is perhaps why the EU Referendum was so confusing. Of course, no one could tell us what would happen if Britain voted to leave the EU, or even what would happen next week if the country chose to remain. The world we live in is too complex, it has too many variables, and any forecasts we make rely on us trying to work out what other people, who don’t behave entirely rationally, will do.

This complexity and this uncertainty probably explain why we don’t have the humanoid robots or the flying vehicles which people in the 1980s imagined we might possess by now. Complexity and uncertainty make progress difficult. Complexity has led to ever-greater specialisation, meaning that any advance is reliant on an ever-increasing number of specialists; while in our risk-averse world uncertainty (particularly uncertainty of profit) scares most of us. One only needs to look at some major product disasters of recent years for illustration. The most recent prominent example is Samsung, who despite all their expertise, cannot seem to correct unidentified faults in their new Galaxy 7 phones.

Of course, this sort of major product recall terrifies companies. It can cost millions, or even billions. Shareholders will not be happy. And this has led many to focus on so-called marginal gains. This can particularly be seen with the pharmaceutical companies who seem no longer willing to make giant steps forward. It is simply too costly and too difficult to do so. Profit comes much easier from incremental advances.

Of course, marginal gains are worth considering – they have revolutionised GB’s performance at the Olympics. This work was of course spearheaded by Dave Brailsford with the British Cycling team, who made cyclists bring their own pillows on the road and focus on washing their thumbs very carefully. Do these actions make a significant difference? No, but in a world where the margin of victory can be a hundredth of a second, these gains can be the difference between a gold and no medal at all.

So, there are a few points in all of this which relate to what we do in schools. First, in a present which can often seem disconcerting uncertain it is pretty obvious that the future is impossible to predict. Given that we are preparing our pupils for the future, what can we do? The answer is that we must equip them with the skills to face this future. It is no use preparing most pupils for a particular career. Ten years ago, were there any social media managers, cloud services specialists, vloggers, app designers, big data analysts, driverless car engineers, sustainability managers or drone operators? We need to ensure that they are adaptable, resilient and able to be lifelong learners. They will need to flex, morph and bend during their working lives.

Secondly, the world is increasingly complex. We need to make sure we prepare pupils for this. They are constantly bombarded with information. How can they filter this? How can they know what information to trust? Can they spot flaws in the arguments of others? Can they discern the difference between correlation and cause? These are key skills for survival in the Google age, in the age of big data.

Thirdly, the world is becoming more and more risk averse. Surely this can’t be a good thing? Great ideas come from taking big risks. They come from boldly stating that we will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. We need to equip our young people with the skills to take risks and to not see failure as something to be avoided. Failure needs to be embraced. Everything that is good in this world has arisen out of failure.

I could go on . . . And I might in future blogs, but I’m going to stop there. In the meantime, can I suggest you revisit Back to the Future Part II? It really is a lesson in how doomed we are when it comes to working out what is going to happen next.

Published by: Dr Glenn Moodie
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