Can we influence the future, or is it pre-determined?

I’ve been getting more involved with The da Vinci Institute (they’re a sponsor for my upcoming Blog Smart! Business Blogging Workshop) and last night I had dinner with Thomas Frey, the head of the Institute. We had a fascinating and quite compelling discussion about how what we do today can influence the future, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since.
I believe that our society promotes a sort of helpless inevitability about the future, particularly with technology and innovation, a sort of “ceaseless march of progress” that’s embodied in Bill Joy’s famous dictum that “privacy is dead. deal with it.” I’ll call this the Inevitable Future. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, be it human cloning, dirty nukes, global outbreaks of avian flu, home abortion kits or whatever, and all we can do is hold on for the ride.
But some reflection reveals that we’re not helpless at all, and that we can individually and as groups influence the future quite a bit…


The da Vinci Institute believes that the future isn’t predetermined at all and that what we do today can unquestionably influence where we’ll end up as a race, as a society, and as individuals tomorrow, and I agree completely. I’ll call this the Influenced Future.
At the Institute, Thomas and his group are working on a bunch of different projects that are all focused on creating paths that will allow us to influence the future, none more interesting than The Museum of Future Inventions. I admit, the first time I heard about it I thought “how daft!” but here’s the basic idea: thoughtful futurist people submit ideas for innovations they’d like to see, and the best, the most interesting, the coolest are all anointed and become exhibits at what they hope will be a 100,000 square foot physical space. So far over 600 future inventions have been submitted to the museum, from 22 different countries.
But here’s what’s really fascinating about this: by simply sharing a brilliant idea for a future invention, the chance of that invention actually being invented increases significantly.
Now imagine what happens if you had a spare million dollars and decided that you really wanted to increase the chance that a particular invention was invented. Could you make a difference and really influence the path of the future? Of course you could. In fact, we see just this thinking with The X Prize, which “is a $10,000,000 prize to jumpstart the space tourism industry through competition among the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world.”
Now imagine what would happen if a group had access to hundreds of millions of dollars and created a half-dozen X Prizes each year, consciously influencing the future by incentivizing inventors and research groups to solve specific problems. What would you like to see solved? A cure for cancer? A vehicle 100% powered by renewable energy, with zero pollutants? A method of helping homeless people become productive members of society? A sustainable and globally applied model of intellectual property that takes P2P into account while protecting the rights of artists?
This is heady stuff, and certainly not without its own challenges. I’ve also been contemplating the critical question of who gets to decide what parts of the future are worth pursuing? Who gets to decide what inventions should come under the Influenced Future cloud, and to what degree?
I can’t yet answer these questions — though I am eager to debate them with fellow members of the da Vinci Institute — but I’m sure glad to know that there are bright thinkers out there working on creating a better tomorrow for all of us.
The future invention I’m thinking about today? I wouldn’t at all mind seeing the technological equivalent of Douglas Adam’s Babel Fish, personally. An enabling technology that would let me talk with someone else and have a spirited dialog, even if I don’t know their language and they don’t know mine. I think it would go a long way towards bringing more peace to our troubled planet.
What future invention would you like to see realized or influenced, and why?

6 comments on “Can we influence the future, or is it pre-determined?

  1. I don’t have specific invention in mind, but just a thought that so often we’re looking for a “free lunch”, a trick or gimmick that somehow makes life “easier” or more comfortable or less painful. Maybe it’s our nature or “in our genes” to be problem solvers.
    I would ask the question: What invention would truly make our lives “better” in some qualitative sense rather than merely in a quantitative manner. For example, rather than simply try to extend our lives with medical advances, how can we make the lives of normal, healthy people “better”?
    In other words, rather than easier, cheaper, and faster, focus on “better”.
    Back to your main question… here are the four inventions I would dearly love to see, if even only for a moment:
    1) An honest to God, no gimmicks perpetual motion machine.
    2) A matter transmitter… the primary application I want to see is a sealed refrigerator so that you can fetch and replace food without the energy waste of opening the damn refrigerator door! Or having to get out of your comfy chair.
    3) A time machine… but regulated so that you couldn only go more than a thousand years into the future and hence no be able to use it to cheat on betting on sports events or try to influence past events. But to actually see the far distant future, imagine it. Oh, and it would have a builti-in amnesia drug dispensor so that you can’t bring back any knowledge with you, other than the eery feeling that your mind had been blown.
    4) A mind reader so that there would no longer be secrets and our separate minds would become one large but distributed “multi-mind”. Imagine the possibilities there. Does that blow your mind, or what? Whether to enable mind at a distance is debatable. I think I’d rather have this “invention” encourage people to be face to face or in relatively close promximity (one mile?) or have the “feature” decay with distance to encourage group efforts and a sense of local community. But, I would also like to see an “internet” mind bridge so that multi-mind groups could selectively form across geographic gaps.
    Other than that, I can really think of any useful inventions.
    — Jack Krupansky

  2. After the Babelfish for language, we need one for emotions. Words are only a small part of communication, and too often an actual mask to what we’re *really* trying to say. Just ask any married couple. 🙂

  3. Dave,
    I missed the “babel fish” but invented translator birds for my sci-fi book, Invitation to Space. When approaching another species, a translator bird flutters up and whispers translations into your ear. If more beings join the conversation, two birds give complete translation of the whole bable.
    Invention is just one way to influence the future. Philosophy is probably more powerful, yet too many abdicate responsibility for developing their own philosophy and settle for what someone else tells them to think.
    So the real key is invention of philosophical widgets that easily get into minds. I call mine The Way of Change. One of these days, I’ll open a blog on that and invite dialog.

  4. Superb points, everyone. I like your thought, Derek, about an emotion translator, but who do you calibrate it against? Your wife?? 🙂
    Gary, very interesting idea about philosophy as the most powerful influence on the future. Asking “why” is something that we do far too little of in modern day society, in my opinion, so your perspective resonates with me. But philosophy, in my experience, gets bogged down in the objective/subjective paradox (think Socrates, then sprinkle in some modern day ‘juried’ research). It’s hard to talk about the philosophy of science, for example, when by its very nature one of the precepts of science is that there is a single perspective that is called “objective”.
    A glimmer of this is the reviled epithet “placebo effect”, as if it’s a bad thing, something that just shows how difficult and frustrating people are as research subjects. Not “how amazing that if someone *thinks* they’re getting this treatment they’ll actually be measurably healthier” but “these results don’t count because someone who doesn’t get the medication gets similar results just because they think they’re getting treated.”

  5. Along the lines of your suggestion of focusing on quality of life, I’d like to see a mechanism or process that interprets or at least clarifies for a person what exactly he/she is “meant to do” with his/her life, or what career pursuit will give them the most satisfaction. Most people struggle with this question – a few are lucky enough to know from an early age what they are meant to do, but most spend years in trial and error before they figure it out, if they figure it out at all. There is a lot of self-help literature out there to help people sift through their talents, strengths, interests, etc… but most of us have a lot of external “fuzz” to keep us from getting it, like pressure from parents or peers, economic desires, inaccurate self-understanding, etc… Imagine what a great thing it would be for someone who has struggled with his purpose in life for years, to suddenly have a clear picture of what he is supposed to do and how to get started?!?

  6. If there were a cure for ADD, wouldn’t more people be able to think clearly? If more people could think clearly, then there would be more ideas, inventions, philosophies, answers, etc.
    Face it, the gene pool is getting shallow, and there’s no lifeguard on duty. We’re going to need every sharp mind we can get if we’re set on fixing what mankind has messed up or destroyed in the short time he’s been here. Let’s start with the smaller things that will make the bigger difference.

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