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Cool Jobs: Paid to dream

Futurists see what lies ahead

Futurists make predictions, often based on current trends. Brian David Johnson excels at translating visions of the future into the 1s and 0s of computer language. 

Joe Zawadsky, Intel Corp.

This is one in a series on careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics made possible by support from the Northrop Grumman Foundation.

We all think about the future. We also make predictions. In that sense, all of us are futurists. While most of us are amateurs, some people get paid to make these educated predictions.

In this story, we will meet three experts who spend their time looking into humanity’s future. Each, in his own way, tries to predict what can happen, and even what should happen.

Brian David Johnson studies the big future of something very small, and shrinking: the microprocessor. These are the brains in electronics. When today’s middle-school students graduate from college, these devices will be unimaginably small and rugged. A microprocessor built into a shirt might be able to tell its wearer when the garment needs washing, says Johnson. He’s a professional futurist and principal engineer for Intel Corp. Intel is a major manufacturer of computer chips. (The company also supports a number of high-school programs run by Society for Science & the Public, which publishes this Science News for Students.)

Lester Brown foresees a brighter future for the East African nation of Kenya. He thinks that within a decade, Kenya may be producing all of its electricity from energy in the ground. That means average Kenyans would be doing much more to reduce the release of greenhouse gases than most people in North America. While Brown doesn’t call himself a futurist, as president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., he does spend plenty of time envisioning what our planet could and should look like decades from now.

Glen Hiemstra sees a very distant future. This futurist speaker, consultant and author, based in Seattle, Wash., runs the futurist.com website. By the time today’s teens have teenagers of their own — maybe in 2030 or 2040 — people could be traveling to Mars, predicts Hiemstra. Now how ‘bout that for some far-flung future family fun?

What is a futurist?

In general, a futurist studies the future and bases predictions on these findings. Futurists, Hiemstra says, typically focus on one of three questions: What will probably happen in the future; what could possibly happen in the future; and in what sort of future would society prefer to live?

Some futurists, including Brown, forecast future developments based on current trends. They also use their knowledge of what is possible. Other futurists use their knowledge of science to dream up new innovations and ideas about what should be possible. While Hiemstra says he tries to focus on identifying what future people would like to see — then mapping out how to get us there.

And then there is Johnson. He considers Hiemstra’s trio of questions so pivotal, he’s trying to tackle all three at once.

A cautionary note

History shows that it’s really easy to be wrong about the future. Consider British physicist Sir William Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin. In 1899, he predicted "radio has no future,” heavier-than-air flying machines “are impossible” and “X-rays will prove to be a hoax."

These predictions — all so wrong —came from the same man who played an important role in explaining the mathematical underpinnings of electricity and magnetism. Lord Kelvin also helped determine the geologic age of Earth. Most people know him best for his work in developingthe temperature scale that uses a unit called the kelvin. The scale starts at the coldest possible temperature: absolute zero. Clearly, this scientist was no slouch.

Back in Lord Kelvin’s day, only a real visionary could have predicted the value of harnessing radio waves, the very real nature of X-rays or the ease with which people might one day fly aboard airplanes, helicopters and rockets.

In fact, such a visionary did exist. Just one year after Lord Kelvin made his mistaken pronouncements, American engineer John Elfreth Watkins offered some surprisingly accurate predictions of his own. He wrote an article for the Ladies' Home Journal titled, “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” This article foresaw mobile phones, digital photography, television and military tanks. But not even Watkins, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, got everything right. By the year 2000, he predicted, “(m)osquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated.” He also said the modern alphabet would drop the letters C, X and Q.

Looking forward to a cleaner future

Brown says he “spends a lot of time looking at the future.” And his many awards, including a so-called “genius” fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, attest that he has been very good at it. Brown has forecast the impacts of everything from overfishing to failing to protect the planet’s supply of freshwater.

In particular, Brown has spent most of the last half century analyzing how Earth’s growing population uses energy, food and water and the ways that will shape life years from now. The Earth Policy Institute that he created in 2001 focuses on identifying and publicizing technologies that can affect how the future plays out. His organization is best known for raising awareness about policies that people, businesses and governments can adopt to create a “sustainable” future. A sustainable future would be one where people never use more resources than they can replace.

For Kenya, Brown predicts the country will be able to produce more and more of its electricity from the geothermally active Great Rift Valley. This valley stretches more than 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) through much of East Africa. It marks where the huge plates that make up Earth’s surface are spreading apart. Within the Rift Valley, magma, or molten rock, rises up near the surface. Kenya is only one of the countries in this region that taps this enormous source of heat. The heat is a resource that can be used to make steam to turn turbines and generate electricity.

Environmental scientists like geothermal energy because it is renewable. No matter how much of it you use today, there will be just as much available tomorrow, Brown explains.

With coal, oil and other fossil fuels, it is different. Any quantity pulled from the ground reduces the overall amount left for future generations. Fossil fuels also release huge amounts of carbon dioxide when burned. That gas traps heat in the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. Using renewable energy generates far less carbon dioxide.

Brown would like to see other places around the world follow in Kenya’s footsteps and increase their reliance on renewable energy. As an example, he points to Texas, where steady winds represent a source of renewable energy. “Texas alone probably could generate more energy than the U.S. can consume,” he says.

Over the past 12 years, Brown has shifted his focus to answering the second and third of Hiemstra’s questions for futurists. The 79-year-old now identifies what will be possible in the world of tomorrow, and which future paths humanity should take. The reason he charts this path: If people believe there is little hope that things will turn out well, they may give up trying to make things better.

So Brown shows people there is still time to improve our outlook, if we begin acting soon. Rather than stop there, he also researches which actions would be easiest and help the most.

Looking into a crystal ball

Hiemstra’s path to becoming a futurist included a decision 20 years ago to buy the rights to the futurist.com website domain name. Search for “futurist,” and his site appears as a top pick. Not surprisingly, he calls it “the most important piece of real estate I’ve owned.”

By exploring the future, people can discover when new developments might lead to sudden and widespread changes to everyday life, Hiemstra says. For example, Hiemstra has spent years following the efforts to develop technologies that can allow cars to drive themselves. He now predicts that in five years, such robotic technology will help control many cars. He even recently arranged to speak to a trucking association about a time in the near future when driverless trucks will transport goods. “If you are paying attention, you can see this coming,” he says.

The 64-year-old describes his career as a “constant adventure.” Most of his work involves studying current trends to predict what the world might look like in 10, 15 or 20 years — or even in a specific year, such as 2050. “You really are playing a game of ‘let’s pretend,’” he says. “It’s the same game I played as a kid.”

At Intel, Johnson makes his predictions by what he calls “future hunting.” He too looks for instances of technologies or conditions that might be rare today, but soon could become common.

For example, seven years ago, Johnson focused on the relationship we have with television. He talked to people and learned they wanted to watch specific programs and movies whenever they wanted. Some had already recognized the Internet’s ability to provide programming in just the same way that television does — only without time constraints. Johnson’s investigation took him to the part of Mumbai, India, known as “Bollywood.” Like America’s Hollywood, India’s Bollywood is the center of that country’s movie industry. There, Johnson learned many Bollywood directors had begun producing movies for watching not just on the big screen, but on tiny cell phones too.

What Johnson learned inspired Intel to develop computer chips that improve the delivery of video to smart phones, as well as to TV set-top boxes, laptops and tablet computers.

Understand your world

Lately, Johnson’s hunt for the future has brought him to where technology and biology meet. The human brain requires much less energy to solve complex problems than even the smartest phone, he notes. Last year, Johnson learned of a project that demonstrated how simple organisms, such as bacteria, can store data much like a computer’s hard drive does. He now believes such a system could become “a really efficient, self-replicating hard drive.” (For more about the findings from this project, see “Genetic memory,” another story from Science News for Students.)

“As a futurist, you’re going to want to know what’s going on in biology, chemistry and physics,” Hiemstra advises. Engineering is also helpful, he adds. And communicating well is crucial, if futurists hope to make the public understand and appreciate their predictions, he concludes.

Brown agrees about the wisdom of studying science. He took almost every science class available when he attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. The 24 classes in 19 fields that he took ranged from entomology (insects) to meteorology (weather).

Specializing in a single field of science or engineering won’t help you learn to think broadly, he says. To envision the future, people need “to look at ‘the big picture’ and see how things fit together.”

Johnson’s main advice to would-be futurists is to learn computer programming. At 10, he took his first college-level class in the field. By then he was already skilled at writing the coded instructions that tell a computer what to do.

There will be “a lot more computers in the future,” he stresses. Being able to speak the language of computers can only be helpful. Like Brown, Johnson too recommends that one-day futurists study broadly. And not just in science and math.

“The type of engineers that we will need in the future are not like the engineers we have today,” Johnson says. “Computers are going to get so smart that we’re going to need to solve a whole new set of problems that we weren’t able to solve in the past.” Computers will know you when you pick them up, he says. They will recognize your moods. These new computers could care for you, your health and perhaps even your happiness, he predicts.

Think about it!

Today, what people build “is only limited by our imaginations,” Johnson argues. That hasn’t always been true. Until very recently, most people could only dream up a new process or device. Too often, they lacked the technology to make that dream come true. Now that engineers can deliver more wild and crazy — but ultimately useful and clever — products, processes and gizmos, “We need everybody to be a futurist,” Johnson says.

Brown and Hiemstra agree. They say it’s especially important to think about what we want — and don’t want — when thinking of scenarios for the future.

The readers of this story will help determine what society can and will do with the vast computing power that will be accessible in just 10 years, Johnson says. Today’s teens will become the adults who create amazing new devices, he predicts, “and build the future.”

Power Words

absolute zero  The coldest possible temperature, also known as 0 kelvin. It is equal to minus 273.15 degrees Celsius (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit).

amateur  One who engages in a pursuit as a pastime, and not as a profession.

anthropologist  A social scientist who studies different societies and cultures.  

code  (in computing) To use special language to write or revise a program that makes a computer do something.

DNA  (short for deoxyribonucleic acid)  A long, spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

electronics Devices powered by electricity and whose properties are controlled by semiconductors or other circuitry that channel or gate the movement of electric charges.

engineering  The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

entomology  The study of insects.

futurist A person who studies and predicts the future, often on the basis of current trends.

geologist A scientist who studies Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it.

geothermal energy  The internal heat of the Earth or other planet.

climate change  Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

meteorology  The study of the natural forces that shape our weather and climate.

microprocessors  The components inside computers, cell phones and other “smart” devices that manage information and control a device’s performance. Most microprocessors start with a computer “chip” made from silicon.

programming (in computing) To use a computer language to write or revise a set of instructions that makes a computer do something.

renewable energy  Energy from a source that is not depleted by use. These include hydropower (water), wind power and solar power.

silicon  A nonmetal, semiconducting element used in making electronic circuits. Pure silicon exists in a shiny, dark-gray crystalline form and as a shapeless powder.

Word find (click here to enlarge for printing)

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