The topic of using analytics to predict future events has been generating a lot of buzz lately. Much of the current excitement was caused by Google’s announcement that it was buying start-up Recorded Future, whose Temporal Analytics Engine will make it possible for you to “visualize the future.” It seems that Google not only will know every thing about you today, but will even be able to tell what you’ll be doing tomorrow.
Of course, efforts to predict the future are not new. The ancient Geeks had their oracles, and medieval kings employed astronomers to search the heavens for foresight into the tides of fortune. There is even evidence that humans were practicing the art of prediction while still living in caves.
It is only in the last half century that we have elevated prediction into a “science.” Modern efforts rely upon the power of computers to collect massive amounts of data and then employ sophisticated programs to crunch these numbers. The resulting equations are claimed to offer an almost magical window into the future. With such tools at their disposal, today’s soothsayers have wrapped themselves in a claim of legitimacy that is hard to breach.
All of this concerns me on two fronts. First, and most obvious, is the fact that for all its “science” prediction still has a lousy track record. Being able to analyze massive amounts of data does make it possible to create a fairly accurate picture of those things known to move in a consistent pattern. But, the really big issues, the ones most likely to be influenced by unexpected events, or irrational acts of individuals or groups, are rarely consistent. For those events, reliance on prediction can mean more than just missed opportunities; it can mean being blinded to huge disasters.
THE MORE SERIOUS PROBLEM WITH PREDICTION IS THAT IT SEPARATES US FROM OUR FUTURE. Whether we rely on sophisticated data analysis or reading tea leaves, prediction carries with it a promise of inevitability. This is what the future will be because the data tells us so. What it ignores is that futures do not just happen. They are the result of a vast network of action and choices.
When we predict we subconsciously remove ourselves from that process. The result can be psychologically numbing. When we give up our free will to create the future we lose the power to build better tomorrows. Even if our predictions are for a world filled with promise, it is not our tomorrow, but THE tomorrow. Imposed, not created. If we are to have any chance for better futures, we have to put all our efforts into the process of understanding options, uncovering challenges, and working to create the outcomes we value.
Certainly, our ability to mine and analyze massive quantities of data can be a useful tool for discovering potential trends and possible patterns. Seeing these possibilities can help us anticipate opportunities and obstacles. When we find them, we need to focus our efforts on creative ways to foster the opportunities and avoid the obstacles. We also need to look for ways that we can connect many different trends and possibilities into holistic networks for building our tomorrows.
Most importantly, we must remember that these tools do not possess any magical power to shape what will happen. No matter how sophisticated our analytical tools become, it is our passion for creating better tomorrows, and our hard work to create change, that will make the future ours.