Humans are terrible at predicting the future.

The Jetsons may portray a “world of the future” yet still overlook advances made in the 1990s.

Take the popular cartoon show The Jetsons which portrayed the world of the future, filled with flying cars and robots interacting with humans in every possible task, yet the creators used images of conventional cathode ray tube boxes which were quickly replaced by flat paneled screens as early as the 1990s. This is one small example, but a poignant one about how hard it is to estimate what the world of tomorrow may look like.

We aren’t just bad at predicting the future of society, but also, that of our own future. Take this excerpt from NPR’s hidden brain podcast featuring host Shankar Vedantam and Harvard University Psychologist Dan Gilbert:

GILBERT: Every animal learns from trial and error. Human beings learn from experiences they’ve never even had. They close their eyes and say, would I like liver and onion ice cream? Yuck. Would it be a good idea to put my finger in a pencil sharpener? No.

VEDANTAM: But just because we humans have great imaginations, it doesn’t mean we do a good job of predicting the future accurately.

GILBERT: People just aren’t very good at looking into their future and predicting correctly their emotional reactions to the events that might unfold.

VEDANTAM: We think a dentist appointment will be awful, and then it’s not so bad. We think buying a new car will make us very happy, but it ends up being just nice. We think losing a job is the worst thing that could happen to us, and then it becomes the best thing. The problem is, once our minds get to work imagining the future, we leave out important details, like the nice lady at the front desk in the dentist’s office or the free toothbrush.

When I think about the future, I also don’t consider the fact that I’m going to be a different person in the future – someone who may want a minivan instead of a convertible. Most of us also underestimate how good we are at rationalizing the decisions that we make. 

(link to the full interview)

As a society we look at clues for upcoming technologies to point us in the direction of the next innovation that will disrupt our way of life. But the mistake people make is stopping there. Emerging technologies often face a tremendous amount of hurdles before it even comes close to adoption by a critical mass. These hurdles involve societal questions, legal ramifications and ethical debates and nowhere is this more true than the autonomous vehicle movement.

How will societies handle this technology that promises to increase productivity and the efficiency of the systems around us? Will it be welcomed and adopted with open arms? Of course not. This technology opens the door to ethical debates on biases in software development with the inevitable debated about the trolley problem and all of its subsets and thought experiments. It will challenge our infrastructure and urban planning, insurance institution, legal system and will provide a challenge for policy makers to be proactive with legislation for corporations and individuals.

While our track record of predicting the future is far from a crystal ball, the process of planning, thinking ahead and imagining benefits, challenges and their unintended consequences is vital to the integration and adoption of this incredible technology.

This blog will focus on what a driverless world may look like, through the lens of the consumer and the consumed. From those living with disabilities and impairments that can be reintegrated in society, to the long haul truck driver that may have their life uprooted. As humans we might not have the best track record of predicting what the world will look like in 40 years let alone 5, but, regardless of technological advancement we must consider solutions for humanistic and societal hurdles that pop up with every question we ask.

Alexander Wulkan is a Junior at Tufts University studying Engineering Psychology (B.A. Human Factors Engineering) and Entrepreneurial Leadership from Montreal, Qc, Canada.