GENEVA — One day last October, during the morning talk show on Swiss state broadcaster RTS, still groggy viewers were brutally awakened by a sentence dropped live on-air: “Schools train children who will be decimated by artificial intelligence.” The voice that dragged them out of their reverie belonged to a French doctor and entrepreneur named Laurent Alexandre. His words hit their mark, so much so that the video clip instantly went viral on social media.

Laurent Alexandre doesn’t have a monopoly on snappy sentences. “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300.” This prediction is trademarked by Gerd Leonhard, one of Europe's leading thinkers of the future. The website of this Zurich-based German thinker is worth its weight in divinatory herbs. In the background, a video plays on a loop, showing the spry 50-year-old in a dark suit with a sly smile and wavy gray hair. Leonhard's face turns in slow motion towards the horizon, his gaze plunged serenely towards the future. A yellow sticker that reads “Top 100 Wired” reminds us that Leonhard is among the world's most influential personalities on innovation. Visitors are then invited to "futurize [their] business", in other words, hire Gerd's services for a conference.

Each era has its own oracles

One last pithy pitch? “By 2045, human and artificial intelligence will have merged, and humans will live forever, in digital form.” This is from Ray Kurzweil, head of engineering at Google and “pope” of the movement of transhumanists. For him, humanity is on the verge of “Singularity,” a formidable technological leap that will make it immortal, either via a decisive medical discovery or the possibility of uploading one’s mind onto a computer. What a future!

These and other openly undeterred optimists or grim Cassandras of technology are among us. Their prophecies abound on social media, and they themselves abound in the media. “They” are the futurists, experts who care so much about our future that they feel invested with an almost sacred mission to spread the good (or bad) word of the future. In the current era of technological developments and the questions they raise, such Prophets 2.0 disseminate their predictions to anyone willing to listen, operators of a fascinating social phenomenon.

Knowing the future has been a major concern for all civilizations. To know whether the hunt would be good, whether a drought or rainfall would hit the city or whether it was necessary to attack the neighboring kingdom has always interested humans, hunter-gatherers and powerful urban bigwigs alike. This thirst for the future is what paved the way for the druids, the magi, the shamans, the fortune tellers and the like, a way that’s now occupied by professional futurists.

“Each era has its own oracles,” says Nicolas Nova, a professor at the Geneva University of Art and Design and co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory, which specializes in foresight and innovation. “Since the end of World War II, there has been a more rational corps of professionals dedicated to these questions.” It’s something the Americans call future research.

The 1960s marked the golden age of futurology, although the predictions made at the time for the dawn of the third millennium now seem rather grotesque. We were told that we’d be using flying cars, though we’re still rotting away in ground traffic. We were supposed to make the Moon or Mars colonies of the Earth, but they’ll remain deserted for a long time. And what about visions of jetpacks, which science promised us, but haven't gotten past clunky and dangerous prototypes?

Laurent Alexandre introduced himself as a “televangelist” to a French Senate committee in January 2017 that listened to him talk about the future of A — Photo: Olivier Ezratty/TEDX Paris

In the midst of the Cold War and the excitement from the conquest of space, most of the predictions focused on space. But now, they are being replaced by artificial intelligence and transhumanism. “Futurists are opinion leaders. They are listened to, though they don’t have any real scientific legitimacy,” regrets Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, specialist of artificial intelligence and author of an essay that deconstructs the “myth of singularity.” Could it be that, like their elders, today's futurists have it all wrong?

It’s more complicated than that. “Their role is not so much to predict the future as to anticipate possible futures,” says professor Nova. Futurists always make a point of reminding us of this. “I don't make predictions, but short-term forecasts over the next five to ten years,” insists Gerd Leonhard. While Laurent Alexandre declares that his "thinking is rather nuanced, I outline several scenarios.”

Futurists have a certain tendency to forget black swans.

To produce such scenarios, Leonhard, who says he reads five or six books each month, says he spends a lot of time gathering material and exchanging ideas with experts at his conferences. “If you look closely at how a sector works, you can develop forecasts, it's not that difficult,” says the former guitarist and music producer, who rose to fame after the publication the 2005 essay The Future of Music, a book that got it right about how music would play out on the Internet.

While their predictions are sometimes confirmed, their rhetoric tends to underestimate the complexity and unexpected side of reality. In 2007, the philosopher Nicholas Taleb developed the “Black Swan” theory, in which this animal represents an unpredictable event with major consequences. “Futurists have a certain tendency to forget black swans,” Nicolas Nova says. “Of course, they are very difficult to predict since they are, by definition, unpredictable. But to make good predictions, you have to integrate unexpected or harebrained events.” In other words, and as risky as it might be to do so, you need to add some whimsicality if you want to be taken seriously.

Laurent Alexandre knows a thing or two about whim. He introduced himself as a “televangelist” to a French Senate committee in January 2017 that listened to him talk about the future of AI. And he went on with an almost theatrical intervention, delivering one quotable sentence after another: “We risk becoming the Zimbabwe of 2080!” The video of his hearing was viewed more than 1.4 million times on his Facebook page.

And never mind if he's got it all wrong. “We must accept that futurists don’t think like everyone else, that they can say stupid things. If we block any debate on the future, we’re not allowing the maturation of society to prepare for the future,” says Alexandre, who has also been singled out for uninhibitedly calling for eugenic policies in a column for the French weekly magazine Le Point.

Gerd Leonhard and Laurent Alexandre sell their expertise at conferences and company seminars. Though they’re sometimes gratis, these interventions — when paid — can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Alexandre says he gets “about ten requests a day,” though he doesn’t reveal any financial figures. Predicting the future is already a profitable business.


See more from Tech / Science here