Capability forecasting

A lot of work has gone into what is sometimes called “technology forecasting” – attempting to understand how semiconductors, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, proteomics etc will evolve over the coming years. Such research is valuable and interesting – and can be interestingly contrasted with something we could call “capability forecasting”.

Capability forecasting is focusing not on the technology as much on what we will be able to do. Now, you may argue that capability forecasting is dependent on technology – and you would be partly right – but the point of forecasting capabilities is to try to approach the problem of forecasting generally from a new angle.

The question that interests us is this: what will we be able to do routinely and well in the coming ten years?

As we start generating capabilities we can figure out what they would require, and doing so allows us to see how technology can be used with organizational innovations — allowing us to forecast technology in context rather than as an isolated roadmap.

Here are a few future capabilities that could be interesting to explore – and think about. When do we think we will be able to do the following ?

  • Cure the top 10 killer cancers at 80% efficiency
  • Mine asteroids cost effectively
  • Generate 80% of our energy without any environmental impact
  • Educate 80% of the world’s kids
  • Extend our life spans to an average 120 years in the top 10 life span economies today
  • Reduce sum total prison time overall by 50% in the US

For some of these the answer maybe “never”, and that is not just a viable answer – it is a very interesting answer! It suggests that that path in the capability tree is closed off to us, and then we can ask why that is — eliminating possible future capabilities is something that allows us to back out scenarios more credibly; whenever a scenario depends on a capability that is ruled out that scenario falls.

If we, for example, say that humanity will never be able to terraform planets to become more hospitable to life, well, then interstellar expansion of humanity will depend on finding already inhabitable planets or some other means (large ships, space stations etc etc). Or to take a less sensational example: if we believe we will never be able to reduce overall time spent in prison, how do we then approach prison design to ensure that it prison time can be used productively, say?

Lists of things we will never be able to do tend to age badly, though, so one way to explore capability forecasting is to survey people on exactly this – what do you think we will absolutely not be able to do in the coming years? And then forecast a world where we do at least 50% of those things…

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