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The Big Domes at play. (Looking Ahead).

"Put your money where your mouth is" has acquired a new, albeit intimidating, specificity for those who dare speculate seriously about the long-term future. The Long Bets Foundation, set up by Stuart Brand and Kevin Kelly, has now made it practical--and magnetic--for cosmologists, technological gurus and other "Big Domes" of the world to come together, lay out their differences, and put their money on the line. With a $1,000 floor and no ceiling on bets, the amounts in question are big enough to keep out the pikers, but small enough to make betting attractive--provided you have a Charles Atlas ego.

Kelly is the editor of Wired and hence the Long Bets Foundation had a nine-page treatment in the May 2002 issue as "Seventeen of the world's most wired minds stake their names--and their cash--on the future."

The idea is elementary, and in principle doesn't require such high stakes. The Long Bets Foundation will hold the cash and keep tabs on the wagers. Neither the person who makes the prediction nor the one who challenges it collects. To give a positive social twist to the game, all bets are treated as charitable donations and hence are considered deductible when the bet is made. The bettors designate a non-profit organization to receive the proceeds. By holding the funds, the Long Bets Foundation can invest the money through the period of the bet. It splits the money; half of the increase in the invested wager goes for administrative costs, the other half to the designated non-profit. If you don't want to buy Wired, you can go directly to

The element of clashing egos is charming as each person--the predictor and the challenger--makes a brief statement of reasons why the forecast will or will not pan out. Some background material is also provided.

Pilotless Planes?

The first contender in the Wired issue has the CTO of Microsoft, Craig Mundie, announcing that "commercial airline passengers will routinely fly in pilotless planes by 2030." Erich Schmidt, the CEO of Google, argues to the contrary.

Mundie's logic is simple: the most pilots do today is hang around in case something goes wrong; aircraft, as demonstrated in Afghanistan, are becoming much more sophisticated and can be piloted remotely. That, coupled with the desire for greater safety, inevitably supports his bet. Notice the element of technological determinism and the unlimited faith in people's willingness to submit their lives and well-being to the watchful eyes of computers.

Schmidt, on the other hand, argues that pilots will always have to be on the plane because things will happen, such as engine failure, that are not transferable to autopilots or machines. Furthermore, the sluggishness of the FAA in making decisions would, at a minimum, delay pilotless commercial planes for at least 50 years.

Notice how each contender argues a technical point or points and chooses to overlook how people will respond to the anticipated situation. Pshaw to both for taking an excessively narrow systems view.

Expanding Universe?

"The universe will eventually stop expanding" is the point of contention between Danny Hillis, co-chair of Applied Minds, and Nathan Myhrvold, co-president and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures. They each educe non-argument arguments, for a position amounting very much to "my old man can lick your old man." They have no point at which the matter will be decided and no clear criteria for a scientifically confirmed conclusion. This is particularly ironic since over the last several decades we have had fundamental cosmological, or if you prefer, astronomical, beliefs challenged, upset and modified. So this bet fails to take into account criteria for deciding who wins. Pretty thin stuff. Perhaps that thousand bucks will never be collected and will accrue to be trillions and trillions of dollars and eventually control all the world's wealth!

Software Leader?

The argument between Esther Dyson and Bill Campbell, for $5000, pits a kind of blind patriotism--or perhaps, more correctly, blinding patriotism--against a substantial but flawed argument. Campbell, who rejects Dyson's thesis that by 2012 Russia will be referred to as the world leader in software development, both in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, is flawed in his argument by unsubstantiated optimism that the United States will provide world leadership in software development indefinitely. Yet, Dyson points out quite correctly that right now the mathematical and logical talents and skills in Russia are virtually without parallel anywhere, and as they move into increasingly effective entrepreneurship, that software programming will flourish. She misses the point that at the same time that Russia's position looks great, other central European countries are becoming competitors, as are China and India, all of which have legions of highly talented, underemployed, highly skilled people, ready to jump at any money-making opportunity.

As I see it, Campbell ought to lose, but I'm afraid Dyson will lose. The bet also fails to define the criteria of "refer by the New York Times." It would be a much better bet if they "declared" or "proclaimed," rather than "referring." "Referring" might be by some third or fourth party to whom the paper makes reference. Pshaw for a sloppy forecast.

Live 'Til 1507?

Turning to a professional futurist, in contrast to Big Dome amateurs, Peter Schwartz, co-founder and chair of the Global Business Network, sticks his neck out with the forecast that "at least one human born in the year 2000 will still be alive in the year 2150." He alludes to some of the biological developments underway, to challenge the so-called Hayflick span of 120 years, which is based upon best estimates of both human lifespan and the capacity of cells to reproduce. Schwartz refers to possible developments in stem cells and possible developments with telomeres. Telomeres enter into the aging of cells by chopping off, with each new cell division, a bit of the DNA tail. No more tail and you are done for.

There's a lot to be said for moving the biological set point of death which is characteristic of our species. Every species has a biological set point, or maximum life span--in some species of tortoise it may be 400 years; in some kinds of flying insect it may be a matter of hours or days. For our species, it's about 85 years, about a bell curve, of course, but it certainly does not go far beyond that for many people. As Schwartz points out, the oldest known person whose age was certifiable recently died in France at 122 years, 164 days.

Where Schwartz stumbles, however, is rather interesting and amusing. He points out that over the last century we have doubled the average human life span from 45 to 85 years, and there's no reason to assume (Schwartz says) that we won't do at least as well in the next century. This is a high-school-level logical error in understanding of statistics--coming from a trained engineer, and distinguished futurist. The reason life span has doubled has nothing to do with our having influenced the life span setpoint but with our having eliminated most of the diseases and disorders that once wiped out people wholesale in infancy and childhood and childbearing, as well as a sharp reduction of deaths from industrial accidents.

Schwartz's point is intrinsically irrelevant to his bet. He also neglects the fact that anything that will intervene in any of the forthcoming and promising ways is likely to be ineffective unless introduced relatively early in life. Remember, deterioration sets in virtually from birth, and if we are going to get that extra 50 or 60 years, or perhaps the extra 28 (i.e., 150 less 122) years, we will have to start working on it early in life, and probably genetically. He also neglects the question of record-keeping and how to certify who lives that long.


The Long Bets Foundation website has a couple of interesting bets that were not discussed in the printed article. There are bets not yet taken. For instance, Freeman Dyson has an interesting forecast that, "the first discovery of extraterrestrial life will be someplace other than on a planet or on a satellite of a planet." His argument is that a cold region out in space and conditions of high vacuum will require special concentrators of light energy in order to sustain life. We should therefore look away from the sun to find points of reflection, like deer eyes in the automobile headlights. One of the things missing from this charming notion is that there is no time limit on the bet, although that might be settled later. It also misses the point that almost anything discovered in space will be a subject of lengthy conjecture as to what it really is and how it came about.

What We Can Learn

1. It's a commonplace among futurists that ambiguity, badly formulated propositions, vagueness in meaning, and unspecified time periods are characteristic of poor forecasts and amateur forecasters. As several of the Big Dome bets highlight those failings, they should be cautionary for those concerned with more down-to-earth forecasts--events likely to occur in the next 5 to 50 years.

2. They illustrate that pros and cons are often like ships passing in the night, without engagement. They don't often lock head to head on the strengths and weaknesses of the other's point of view. This common situation in controversies about the future is a second cautionary.

3. Time is an essential element in forecasts. One can see how vague timing in many of these forecasts blunts the point of the bet.

Why You Should Look at the Article

1. It's fun.

2. If the wagers are serious--at least serious to the level of X thousand dollars per bet--it is very informative to see how serious people can misfire in framing a vision of the future.

3. There are a number of lessons to be learned that are transferable to prosaic and mundane business, governmental and organizational forecasting:

* Be alert to, and wary of, arguing beside the point. If the pros and cons don't clash head to head, the discussion is useless.

* Be wary of the prestigious ideologue who often sweeps aside, overwhelms, and tends to dominate alternative positions.

* Forecasts without a specified time or time interval are useless.

* In a set of forecasts, there are often different likelihoods that should be specified. Be wary of false quantification, but insist on relative likelihood or importance by specific criteria.

* Always understand how one tests a forecast. In a practical situation, the first person to do something is often of no great importance. You may be more concerned when 3, 5 or 10 percent of the population are doing something, buying something, or engaged in a certain activity.

* Identify and consider the advocacy implicit in many forecasts and determine if that advocacy has taken into account ultimate consumers or users.

* Review past experience with forecasts. Examine the successful and unsuccessful ones and identify the conditions or reasons for success or failure.

Finally, my hope is that this public playtime between Big Domes will extend to lower-priced gambles of more immediate significance to organizational thinking and planning. Groups like the IRI, AAAS, IEEE, ACS, and World Future Society could copy this at lower entry fees and enjoy the goals so common to Quakers--to do good and do well at the same time.

As they say at my local delicatessen, Enjoy!

Tech Talk

"... change is the medium of opportunity."--Applied Materials CEO James Morgan, in Business Week, Sept. 23.
Joseph F. Coates, Consulting
Futurist, Inc., Washington, DC;
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Title Annotation:the Long Bets Foundation, founded by kevin Kelly, editor of Wired, and Stuart Brand, bet on future technology predictions
Author:Coates, Joseph F.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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