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How Accurate Were Predictions for the Future?

Illustration by yogysic/Getty Images

July 14, 2020

What keeps researchers up at night? Fifty years ago, it might have been controlling gravity.

Anticipating the risks and opportunities posed by all kinds of change is a RAND specialty. The most recent example is RAND's Security 2040 initiative but one of its earliest attempts was in 1964. Using RAND's now-famous Delphi method for reaching consensus among experts, 82 authorities in various fields pondered topics like medical advancements, outposts in space, artificial intelligence, and controlling the weather.

Many predictions came true. Today, artificial organs keep people alive, and oral contraception is readily available. We have automated language translators and grammar assistants, and robotics have eliminated some jobs. While a worldwide universal income hasn't come to fruition, a few nations have experimented with basic incomes, and many are providing financial support during stay-at-home orders for COVID-19.

Some ideas seemed pretty out there—but were they? While we have yet to implant information directly into the human brain, Pentagon researchers have successfully done so with mice. One expert thought humans would breed superintelligent apes and cetaceans to perform “low-grade labor.” Animals aren't doing our housework yet, but even in 1964 various militaries were training marine mammals for mine detection (and possibly combat).

Other forecasts clearly missed the mark. Their population calculations were off by about 80 years: 8 billion people by 2100 versus 7.8 billion today. One panelist predicted the ability to control gravity and lift enemy troops off the ground—causing the report's authors to “register our surprise” that the other experts didn't reject the prediction outright.

We also have yet to control the aging process. But fingers crossed!

— Melissa Bauman

Sources: RAND archives, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Wikipedia, RAND.org