Paul Saffo in SF, Friday, Jan 11

If I was in San Francisco, I’d go hear Paul Saffo…

“Effective forecasting is not merely possible, but remarkably easy,” he says. “All it takes is a simple shift in perspective and a few common-sense heuristics.”

Saffo draws on his study of the history of technology to give unusual perspective on the accelerating wavefront of current technology and what it means and will mean. As a Long Now board member, he slots forecasting neatly into long-term thinking.

“Embracing Uncertainty: the Secret to Effective Forecasting,” Paul Saffo, Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco, 7pm, Friday, January 11. The lecture starts promptly at 7:30pm. Admission is free (a $10 donation is always welcome, not required).

But I’m in New York, so I’ll wait for the podcast.

Update: Here’s Stewart Brand’s summary:

Reflecting on his 25 years as a forecaster, Paul Saffo pointed out that a forecaster’s job is not to predict outcomes, but to map the “cone of uncertainty” on a subject. Where are the edges of what might happen? (Uncertainty is cone-shaped because it expands as you project further into the future— next decade has more surprises in store than next week.)

Rule: Wild cards sensitize us to surprise, and they push the edges of the cone out further. You can call weird imaginings a wild card and not be ridiculed. Science fiction is brilliant at this, and often predictive, because it plants idea bombs in teenagers which they make real 15 years later.

Rule: Change is never linear. Our expectations are linear, but new technologies come in “S” curves, so we routinely overestimate short-term change and underestimate long-term change. “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”

“Inflection points are tiptoeing past us all the time.” He saw one at the DARPA Grand Challenge race for robot cars in the Mojave Desert in 2004 and 2005. In 2004 no cars finished the race, and only four got off the starting line. In 2005, all 23 cars started and five finished.

Rule: Look for indicators- things that don’t fit. At the same time the robot cars were triumphing in the desert, 108 human-driven cars piled into one another in the fog on a nearby freeway. A survey of owners of Roomba robot vacuum cleaners showed that 2/3 of owners give the machine a personal name, and 1/3 take it with them on vacations.

Rule: Look back twice as far. Every decade lately there’s a new technology that sets the landscape. In the 1980s, microprocessors made a processing decade that culminated in personal computers. In the 1990s it was the laser that made for communication bandwidth and an access decade culminating in the World Wide Web. In the 2000s cheap sensors are making an interaction decade culminating in a robot takeoff. The Web will soon be made largely of machines communicating with each other.

Rule: Cherish failure. Preferably other people’s. We fail our way into the future. Silicon Valley is brilliant at this. Since new technologies take 20 years to have an overnight success, for an easy win look for a field that has been failing for 20 years and build on that.

Rule: Be indifferent. Don’t confuse the desired with the likely. Christian end-time enthusiasts have been wrong for 2,000 years.

Rule: Assume you are wrong. And forecast often.

Rule: Embrace uncertainty.

Saffo ended with a photo he took of a jar by the cash register in a coffee shop in San Francisco. The handwritten note on the jar read, “If you fear change, leave it in here.”

–Stewart Brand


  1. I’ve heard him before, and some of what he says makes a lot of sense, and some of it shows that he isn’t as in touch with the culture as he would have to be in order to forecast as presciently as he might claim.

    The chief one that comes to mind is his claim that “your daughters” are probably on Second Life. Which isn’t true. Second Life is overwhelmingly used by adults. Teenagers just aren’t there. It’s mostly people his age and older fascinated by Second Life, which I think is far more interesting.

    He knows technology, not people. And technology forecasts are possible. Exactly what people will do in the same contexts, or which conflicts will reshape our society, or when the big swings will happen — that’s a question not of forecasting, but of foresight. The best you can hope for are a variety of compelling scenarios that depict the worlds we might live in and what each means. That’s not a forecast. It’s foresight.

    Plus, the last time I saw him talk, he announced that the future is “robots.” I have to take that as futurist humor, even if his point about sensors showing up all over is true.

  2. I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by Ray Kurzweil a year and a half ago, and he seems to use similar techniques (with much success). He took the time to point out that forecasting can tell you *what* will probably happen technologically, but not what people will like about it. The forecasts are quantitative, not qualitative.

    Nevertheless, the future is robots.


  3. For the purely quantitative forecast, I find Andrew Zolli a bit more compelling. His command of demographics is really rather stunning. He stumbles a bit more in terms of drawing conclusions as to what it will truly mean, which is always the trick…

    Hail our future Robot Overlords!

  4. I’ve seen Zolli, and love his presentation. He’s funny, has great visuals, and is insightful.

    Whereas Kurzweil will just get up and speak for 90 minutes.

    But, Kurzweil gave musicians pianos they could carry to a gig. And he taught machines to read text to the blind. Not too shabby.

    Punditry is nice, but it’s hard to argue with results.

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