Predicting the Future

If asked this time last year, “What will happen in the world in 2011?,” what would your response have been? It would probably have started with something akin to, “That’s a hard question with too many variables and unknowns,” while you might have followed with some tacit predictions in modest arenas like sports or astrology.

It seems there are two basic types of human prediction. One is the attempt to predict nature, which is solely driven by science, even where humans do exercise influence. Things like weather prediction, earthquakes, and even particle physics like that at the CERN LHC. The other is the attempt to predict human activity. Although some of these latter predictions employ scientific tools, the majority are based on expectations.

Predictions of human activity range from businesses that want to know how much product their customers will want to use, to predicting outcomes of elections and political climates, to predicting the flu season.

But, back to the future. Some predictions seem easy to make. The Summer Olympics will be held in London. But preparations have been underway for a long time, and the likelihood of postponement is very small. Predicting who will win medals is harder, even though broad predictions aren’t. That is, there are known major players in the medal scene, and although their exact winnings aren’t known, it wouldn’t be hard to put them all within a fairly small range with high confidence.

Although expectations do play into the outcome of the Olympics, they are mostly down to the amount of time and money the individual nations provided their athletes for training, plus the number of people in those nations (as some of the sports rely on physical characteristics which will be more likely to occur in larger populations).

The Arab Spring on the other hand seemed to be born out of expectations. The initial uprising in Tunisia was born of a single act, but it still took time for that act’s fire to spread across a region, the flames of which still burn. The expectation prior to that beginning was that the path was fixed. Suddenly, the path was not fixed, the expectations shifted.

One prediction that’s slowly coming to fruition and seems driven by expectations is the rise of the web as the primary interface of computing. From Chromebooks that run a browser to the Boot to Gecko project that aims to replace smartphone interfaces with a userland built atop the Mozilla stack (which is primarily a browser environment), the web’s prominence only continues to rise.

The Internet Protocol is capable of all sorts of delivery mechanisms and services, and yet this single protocol and form is taking precedence. So much that it’s common for many (most?) people to consider the Internet to be the Web. Sure, other protocols still have their place. E-mail in particular. But even there, more and more people use web-based clients for accessing their e-mail.

While the web is very useful, its rise seems more based on expectations of both businesses and individuals than anything else. There’s no active competitor to the web.

This has some benefits. Mainly, over time the access of average people goes up, as they don’t need to learn multiple competing interfaces. It also lets business focus on single interfaces for customers.

But it has downsides, too. Services that don’t really fit end up shoehorned into the single interface. We have to put up with the cruft of the aging system.

It’s clear enough that at some point in the future there will be competition for the web, but it doesn’t seem that will happen in the next year. Other fights, however, may finally break out. Facebook may finally get competition, while they may also move to compete in new spaces. The current sign-up and password systems may finally start to wane in favor of alternatives like BrowserID. Flash Video may drop precipitously.

Those three are things that seem inevitable, but their timeframes are not fixed.

That’s an important difference in predicting the future. Some things are highly probable, but over some unknown period. They can happen overnight, given sufficient need, but usually they happen slowly.

The future seems uncertain most of the time, but the uncertainty is due to the unknown factors and wildcards. The things we do know about the future give us good reason to welcome it.