Chapter 13. Visions and Challenges – Priorities for Professionals

Monotrend Extrapolation Errors (MEEs)

Extrapolating single trends while ignoring other moderating, competing, or opposing trends and factors is another common futurist mistake. We can call that a monotrend extrapolation error (MEE), and it can be considered as a specific type of hype cycle or extremism bias.

Future thinkers who fall into MEEs are obsessed with extrapolating one particular trend they are emotionally overexcited about (a hype cycle mistake) or think of as more powerful than it is (an extremism bias). They are emotionally or cognitively overinvested or overfocused on envisioning the trend and its future, so they anticipate its development much faster or farther than it deserves, ignore how difficult its early development will be, and all the countervailing trends, competitors, and constraints that will slow, stop, or outcompete it.

A good way to remember this mistake is to think about the future from the trend’s point of view. The trend, and its enamored futurist, think the future is all about “MEE”. But the real future is much more complex. MEEs always miss key constraints, countertrends and competitors likely to change their predictions. Here are just a small sample of recent MEEs you may have heard from an enthusiastic, visionary, yet not sufficiently critical futurist in recent years. Many many more could be named, this is just a small sample:

“We’ll soon be mining the asteroids.” This is just bunkum. Yes, private spaceflight can get into near space, but extrapolating to anything beyond even medium earth orbit anytime soon makes no sense, until we can solve the horrific launch cost problem. Enthusiastic space futurists have long tried to ignore that that robots and telepresence are far more likely and cost effective ways to leave Earth. For any who would look closely, humans in any numbers living off planet before the arrival of human surpassing AI was always a vision that was much too expensive, dangerous, and impractical to ever materialize. Of course after the AIs emerge, sometime this century, the key question at that point will be where they want to go, not us. As we have argued, their interests may lie in a very different direction than most people today think.

“We’ll soon be hacking our biology for personalized medicine.” Sure, we’re beginning to hack biology in lower organisms and plants, but we still have no good idea what we’re doing, because we cut back deep funding to molecular, genetic, cellular and organismic biology research decades ago, so we won’t really understand these things until deep computational biology and biologically-inspired computing arrive, and the AIs that result from those efforts themselves crack gene-protein regulatory networks for us. Of course, cracking those codes means they will necessarily wake up either just before or in the process of doing so. Until then, we’re mostly guessing in all the complex areas of biotech and medicine, and the ethical injunctions against doing such guessing in humans will only get higher as social wealth grows.

“We’ll all soon have 3D printers making complex things in our homes.” Sure, we’ll continue to see simple, solid object 3D printing make technical progress. We’ll eventually see 3D printing of complex objects at local rapid prototyping centers (Amazon warehouses?), with same day delivery to our homes. That would clearly be a major competitor to home 3D printing. Such a regionalized or neighborhood solution, done on expensive city-based rapid prototyping systems will clearly beat out home 3D printing of anything complex for many years to come, while these machines are expensive, and the technology is immature. Think of the $150,000 Xerox DocuTech that inexpensively prints books at your local FedEx Office. Of course, there are niche exceptions. We can imagine someone displacing Legos with a Minecraft-style 3D printer for home fabrication of plastic kids toys, if it has a great online design/game component, and if we can recycle the plastic. But widespread use of home 3D printers, for say, metal and electronic parts, are a futurist fantasy for years to come.

“We’ll soon have mass-adoption flying cars.” Think also of all those twentieth century futurists who looked at Moulton Tayler’s 1949 Aerocar, or the US Army’s 1959 jet packs, and assumed that we’d have affordable flying cars and personal jet packs just a few decades later. This was another classic MEE. Those futurists forgot all the other trends and factors that would regulate or compete with the arrival of their prediction long before it could materialize. Flying car technology remains highly expensive and unacceptably dangerous, both to folks on the ground and in the air. It is a mistake to assume that just because today’s society allows horrific levels of automobile deaths (30,000/year in the US, 1.3M/year globally) without mandating affordable crash-proof cars with seven point harnesses and external airbags (a major moral lapse on the part of industrial societies, in my view) that we’ll allow the same levels of deaths in flying automobiles. There is no chance. The marginal gain we would get in transportation value isn’t worth the cost, by any social calculation. Flying cars won’t emerge in any real numbers until we have in-plane collision avoidance (self-driving planes), in-plane radar (for clouds and fog), whole-plane parachutes and external airbags (in case of mechanical failure), and other such advances in safety and reliability.

Space flight, genetic engineering, 3D printers, flying cars, picture phones, Segways, almost anything that has been greatly overhyped in the past has been caught up in a MEE by some well-meaning future thinker. If you see yourself getting very excited about one kind of future, ask yourself if the trends truly support it, and if you’re mistaking a clear view for a short distance, or alternatively, overestimating the trend’s effects in the short run and underestimating them in the long run.