Monday, July 03, 2017

Predicting

Prediction is notoriously difficult, especially when it involves something as complex as society. In his new book, Israeli historian Harari makes a number of predictions for the Twenty first century, in particular, that the quest for immortality, bliss, and godlike powers will be a major focus. Of course, the immortality quest has been a human preoccupation at least since Gilgamesh, but now we have tools that could be a lot more potent than pyramids. It's also true that some of our powers, in particular for destruction, already make the old gods look like pikers.

So why predict, if it's such an unreliable guide?

Fourthly, and most importantly, this prediction is less of a prophecy and more a way of discussing our present choices. If the discussion makes us choose differently, so that the prediction is proven wrong, all the better. What’s the point of making predictions if they cannot change anything?

Some complex systems, such as the weather, are oblivious to our predictions. The process of human development, in contrast, reacts to them. Indeed, the better our forecasts, the more reactions they engender. Hence paradoxically, as we accumulate more data and increase our computing power, events become wilder and more unexpected. The more we know, the less we can predict. Imagine, for example, that one day experts decipher the basic laws of the economy. Once this happens, banks, governments, investors and customers will begin to use this new knowledge to act in novel ways, and gain an edge over their competitors. For what is the use of new knowledge if it doesn’t lead to novel behaviours?

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 56). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.