Future World in Hindsight; History Shows Long-Term Forecasts Get Blown Away by Unknowables, but Here Comes Latest Global Trends

Article excerpt

Byline: Patrick Hruby, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

By 2030, the United States will no longer stand as the world's sole superpower. Islamist terrorism will be mostly a thing of the past; cyberwarfare will be a major threat. The ranks of the world's middle class will triple, food and water supplies will be pinched in places like the Middle East, natural gas will trump renewables as a primary energy source, and climate change will intensify extreme weather, with damp areas wetter and dry regions more arid.

Oh, and we'll be enjoying night-vision eye implants, simple replacement organs created on three-dimensional printers and cars that drive themselves.

Such are some of the forecasts found in Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, the latest edition of a quadrennial report released Monday by the National Intelligence Council, which serves under U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. Intended to help new or returning presidential administrations make forward-thinking policy decisions, the document is the intelligence community's collective and expert best guess at what the long-term future holds.

That means, of course, that much of what it contains will be either too obvious to be of any particular use or will be totally wrong.

Imagine you were an analyst in 1900 trying to predict what the world would look like 20 years in the future, said Michael Horowitz, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Think of how much of the world you would have missed, like [World War I]. Or imagine you were in 1930, predicting 20 years forward. You would have missed the rise of Hitler and [World War II]. The world is really complicated and unpredictable.

Indeed. From astonishment over the Arab Spring to the unexpected resurrection of Apple Inc., from the spread of smartphones to the shock of 9/11, ours is a world that mocks expert judgment and confounds informed prognostication.

According to research on the psychology and efficacy of predictions, long-term analyst predictions have been found to be about as accurate as monkeys tossing darts at a board labeled with potential future outcomes. Yet forecasting remains a growth industry in both the intelligence community and televised political punditry

In the short term, we can beat the dart-throwing chimp by pretty good margins, said Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? "But as you get further out into the future, it gets increasingly difficult."

Future imperfect

Seinfeld was hot. Netscape was cool. The year was 1997, and the U.S. intelligence community released its first Global Trends report, a look ahead to 2010 that did not predict:

* The 2008 financial crisis, perhaps the biggest global event of the decade.

* The Asian financial crisis and subsequent meltdowns in Brazil and Russia that began later that same year.

Global Trends 2010, however, did predict that the erosion in the authority of the central Russian government that has occurred will not be easily reversed. Oops. The document also foresaw that the next 15 years will witness the transformation of North Korea and resulting elimination of military tensions on the peninsula. Oops again.

Still, the failures in the 1997 report were less cringeworthy than the biggest miss in Global Trends 2015. Released in January 2001, it perfunctorily noted that terrorist groups will continue to find ways to attack U.S. military and diplomatic facilities abroad while mentioning neither al Qaeda nor the possibility of a terror attack on American soil.

Like the experts who produced it, the report did not see the 9/11 attacks coming.

I think what they wrote about terrorism reflects the fact that people knew the threat of nonstate actors was growing in the 1990s, said Mr. …