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One strand of our Life Design course is Futurism. What will the future be like?
We know the world is changing rapidly. Thus one element of our futurism course consists of exposure to rapidly developing technologies that might be transformative. Consider, for instance, CRISPR technology, which will allow an unprecedented degree of genetic engineering; or liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR), which could provide safe, affordable, carbon free power generation; or brain-computer interfaces that are helping paralyzed individuals today but which may gradually allow cyborg possibilities straight out of science fiction movies; and countless more.
In addition, we can look at trends in the past and forecast them into the future. For instance, Hans Rosling has become famous for mainstreaming the evidence that poverty is in rapid decline around the world as well as the fact that most people are living longer, healthier lives around the world as well. The Gapminder data visualization software that he developed empowered our students to explore the stunning improvements in quality of life experienced by most people around the world in recent decades.
But both the state of existing technology as well as past trends don’t in and of themselves tell us what will happen in the future. In order to experience a tiny example of the challenges of actually predicting the future, prior to the 2018 mid-term elections we had students explore Congressional elections on PredictIt.org, an online prediction market. It quickly became evident that it is very hard to outperform markets in elections.
All of the foregoing provide very preliminary background to exploring the future. This spring we’ll do a much more concrete budgeting exercise: How much does one need to earn to have the lifestyle one desires? We’ll have students look at data on average salaries associated with various college majors along with cities they’d like to live in. They will then create budgets that include housing, transportation, food, entertainment, insurance, etc. What kind of lifestyle can they afford immediately after college? Will they need roommates to make ends meet? This exercise will ground the future more immediately in the decisions they are making today.
After scaling back to their very personal futures, we’ll scale back out to the big picture. Ultimately we want the class to propose a specific public position on Long Bets, where people can make public bets on long-term outcomes. Here Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired, bets that global population will peak before 2060. Is he correct? How could we know? More importantly, what are the premises underlying various future predictions?
We don’t claim that our students will develop the expertise to develop reasonable models of these and other complex events. But we do want them to think about the future, and to do so rationally. The habit of thinking about the plausibility of various future outcomes, and studying the evidence associated with those outcomes, will be valuable throughout their lives.