Imagining the future trumps intelligence…

Whenever I meet young people, I alway stress how their future will be very different from the present.

To anyone who lived through the first Great War (1914-1918), they would have thought that the Second World War, if it were to happen, would be quite similar in nature. But, in fact, nothing of the sort happened. The first Great War saw the soldiers stuck in place in dirty holes for years… the Second World War saw soldiers literally running forward (or away) on the battlefield.

Importantly, the strategies that worked well in 1916 were totally obsolete by 1940. The difference between 1916 and 1940 is obvious to anyone who studies history. It should be equally obvious that the difference between 2016 and 2040 is going to much larger.

This means that whatever strategies you have today are going to be called into question in the next 25 years in radical ways. If you plan on doing the same things for next 25 years, you are planning to be a fool.

The Nazis were not smarter than the rest of Europe, but, as far as warfare went, they were able to out-innovate their competitors in a radical manner. The Nazis were able to invade entire countries in hours… not months or weeks, hours…

Progress is at least an order of magnitude faster in 2016 than it was in 1916… So the difference between 2016 and 2040 is probably going to feel more like the difference between 1916 and 1990.

I am never worried about my kids lacking intelligence, but I am often concerned when I see that they can’t imagine the future being different… If you are unable to imagine the future, how are you going to contribute toward inventing it?

Daniel Lemire, "Imagining the future trumps intelligence…," in Daniel Lemire's blog, February 8, 2016.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

7 thoughts on “Imagining the future trumps intelligence…”

  1. Hey Daniel, long-time reader of your blog, good stuff always. Lately I’ve read several tales of techno-optimism as well as some techno-pessimists such as Robert Gordon in “Rise and Fall of American Growth”, I see convincing arguments on both sides; that progress is dying down and that we’re only just getting started! What are the major reasons you’re in the optimism camp? 🙂

    1. If you look at just about any metric of progress over time, you see that things are getting better. We live in a more peaceful richer world.

      There have been people like Gordon telling us that the future is somber with every generation… and they have always been wrong. Time and time again.

      We can summarize the arguments coming from people like Gordon by using airplanes. We went from no airplane (in 1905) to really fast commercial airplanes in 1970. Then “progress stalled”. Planes today are not remarkably faster than planes in 1970. If anything, they are slower.

      If you don’t like planes, consider trains or radios…

      What happens if you look at any one metric, say airplane or computer speed, is that you get a phase of exponential growth… and then, unavoidably, you reach a plateau (say airplane speed). People get stuck psychologically with the plateau and insist that progress has stalled.

      Of course, air fares have come down drastically if you take into rising taxes and account for fuel cost. Safety has much improved. People complain about being crammed in small passenger seats, but with the exception of the security theater, it is much nicer to fly today than it was ten or twenty years ago, and cheaper still.

      The thing is, technology gets better, a lot better, but not in a predictable manner. I can try to guess what tomorrow will bring but I cannot accurately predict.

      What technology does is to pivot repeatedly. One thing improves very fast… then it reaches a local maximum… but far from stalling, technology using start accelerating in another direction. And so forth.

      It is true that I can’t make it to Europe faster than I did in 1970… but I can show up to a meeting using videoconference while spending pennies. Give it a few more years and we might regularly hold meetings using augmented reality. Will planes ever fly much faster than they did in 1970? Maybe not. We will colonize space in time however.

      Gordon says that we won’t be able to progress as much from 1970 to 2070 as we did from 1870 to 1970… I don’t know if I’ll make it to 2070… it is a long time away… but if I do, I am quite sure that it will be very different from 1970, and much much better technologically. Still, I admit, planes may not be flying any faster.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    I’m not sure whether young people can’t imagine the future being different. I think they imagine and dream about a lot of different things. They probably can’t even stop dreaming, just like us when we were younger – I’m 38. Should we know these different things, they would tell us a lot about the future they are about to build.

    However, I fear it’s not enough to be optimistic. I believe that, in order to shape the future, the key is to make imagination happen in the real world, today. This requires the combination of two things: desire and incarnation.

    Desire, because imagination alone is ambivalent. You can imagine both good and bad things. For imagination to drive behaviors, it has to be valuable enough to be considered as an something you want to achieve. It has to be an utopia. It has to inspire actions. It’s all about making a desire a reality.

    Incarnation, because imagination is nothing more than a dream. In order to happen in the real world, imagination must be somehow connected to reality first. It must saturate the heart and the mind – where desire lives -, then extends, through our bodies, into actions.

    Imagination is an horizon. For actions that build tomorrow to take place today, a path from tomorrow to today has to be visualized. Such a path depends on today, on the present, and it must be precise enough for actions to take place precisely. I believe that’s the problem: this starting point doesn’t really exist.

    The world is complex than ever. We all have to cope with it, and the younger we are, the harder it is because we have to face its increasing complexity all at once, before being able to disentangle it enough to breathe. We first have to be part of the current world, but while we are part of it, we only look at it through our very own and narrow keyhole. It makes the world very mysterious and unintelligible. The starting point where actions could take place thus remains beyond our sight.

    To (freely) quote a blog post I read recently: “in order to work, you need to go to the university and contract a debt which then gives you the right to work to make someone else’s dream come true”.

    In our complex world, they key to define the future is to shape imagination and empower people with proper tools. On the tech side, that’s what most web silos are about. They try to shape the future from the present, by people from the past. It has nothing to do with an utopia. And that’s a _big_ problem.

    From here, there are fortunately plenty of strategies, but presenting them is beyond the scope of my comment 🙂


    1. I’m not sure whether young people can’t imagine the future being different. I think they imagine and dream about a lot of different things.

      I find that many young people today imagine that the future (e.g., the coming decades) will be much like the present. Run this experiment. Ask kids today what video games will be like in 20 years. See what answers you get.

      Whether you are talking about health, environment, computing… I fear that kids do not have much optimism.

      I agree that imagination is not sufficient, but I think that if you can’t imagine things being different… you are unlikely to take action. If you are the Wright Brothers, and you can’t imagine the technology ever changing, you are not going to try and build an airplane.

      1. In fact, I also observe what you said: it’s hard for young people to imagine the future, it’s just that I don’t know how representative our sampling are.

        I was speaking about imagination in a more general, non-oriented way. I said that imagination is here as it always has been. You can’t stop your imagination just like you can’t stop dreaming. This is beyond will, and that’s precisely why there’s a need to organize it and to connect it to ourselves, then to be able to act in consistently in the present.

        You might like what Scott Altran said in front of the UN security council. It’s a short talk with a lot of impact:

        Maybe what I said will be clearer after this video.


    1. I think that in 20 years, we will have full immersion. Not merely “virtual reality” but something that feels more real than reality itself. The joysticks we use today will look like a thing of the past.

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