The 3 Key Elements of a Futurist
Editor’s Note: Back in 1990, a technological prophecy was made in a book called Life After Television.
“The computer of the future will be as portable as your watch and as personal as your wallet. It will recognise speech and navigate streets, collect your mail and your news.”
Steve Jobs later read the book and handed it to a few of his buddies.
So it’s safe to say that the author of that book, George Gilder, might have planted the seed that spawned the technological marvel in all of our pockets.
That’s not the only call that George made, either.
He actually handed Reagan his first microchip, saying it would be one of the most important technological advancements of our time.
Some people call George a futurist. Others call him a technology prophet.
Whatever term you use, he tends to be spot on when he makes a prediction.
But what is a futurist exactly? How is someone capable of predicting an emerging technology revolution decades in advance?
That’s exactly what bestselling author James Altucher wanted to find out.
He asked George onto his podcast and got to the heart of the issue.
James also got George to speak up about his views on artificial intelligence and its impact on American jobs.
Below is an excerpt of the interview.
James Altucher: Welcome George Gilder to my podcast. George, you’ve been active in either book writing, futurism, and policy making since the ‘60s. You’ve written 19 books so far. And your latest book, Life After Google, suggests the beginning of the end of companies like Google. But I want to talk about your book Life After Television, written in 1990, which accurately predicted the rise of smartphones.
George Gilder: I said the computer of the future would be as portable as your watch, as personal as your wallet. It would recognise speech. It would navigate streets. It would collect your mail and your news. It just might not do windows, but it would do doors. That is, open doors to your future.
Steve Jobs read the book and distributed it to friends. So I believe that I had some vague influence on the evolution of the iPhone.
JA: Whether you were involved in the revolution of it, or just predicting it, it’s still amazing. I mean, Moore’s Law suggests that computing power roughly doubles every two years. So it might have suggested that level of innovation.
But you actually took the laws and asked, “What does that actually mean five, 10, 20 years in the future?” It was really amazing. Now, you’ve written 19 books in total. Before that you were heavily involved in policy. You were a speech writer for Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, and Nixon. Am I correct?
JA: I just want to ask about this and then we’ll get into the futurist stuff. What are the components of a good political speech?
GG: My role with speech writing was just to see the candidate as little as possible. What the candidate really wants is the best speech for a particular situation. I wanted to do the best possible speech that I could write for that situation.
The better the candidate was the worst the speech is, I thought. Jacob Javits, for example, I wrote speeches for him. He knew exactly what he wanted to say already. He was ferociously articulate and had virtually no use for me.
Richard Nixon, he just assigned speeches, and I didn’t have to talk to him or anything. Nixon would deliver them word for word. It was very gratifying writing speeches for Nixon.
JA: Ok let’s jump to your role as a futurist. Scientists call it “futurism,” but others would call it “prophecy.” Words meaning the same exact thing which is of course related to ideas beyond our comprehension. Do you think it’s connected?
GG: I don’t think you can explain how you think. I think thought is a product of consciousness. Most neuroscientists believe that consciousness is an epi-phenomenon. A side effect of thought that they understand logical processing and they imagine that if logical processing is accelerated to high enough rate that somehow consciousness will emerge.
I believe that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the mind and that it undermines much of the prevailing neuroscience and almost all of computer science that purports to be imitating minds (i.e., artificial intelligence).
JA: We’re gonna gradually use this to segue into the heart of your book. You make a point in Life After Google which I think is excellent. Artificial intelligence is not what people think. It’s not like, suddenly some robot is gonna be stocking shelves in Walmart and suddenly wake up and be human. There’s no such thing.
GG: That’s right.
JA: 100% of artificial intelligence people don’t realise is essentially advanced statistics combined with faster and faster computer processing speeds.
GG: That’s right.
JA: That’s enough to fool people into, “it’s acting like a human.” Just because it recognises your face using very complicated statistics and very fast video graphics processing chips doesn’t mean it’s smart. It doesn’t mean it knows the taste of an apple is good.
Why do you think it’s really smart people now who believe that computers are gonna “wake up”?
GG: The smartest people in the world believe in the materials superstition. They believe that the universe is explicable entirely in terms of chemistry and physics. That assumption, I believe, is manifestly false. But it is a religious conviction underlying almost all neuroscience, and computer science.
The amazing thing is it’s utterly disproven by the computer itself. You can know the position of every atom and molecule in a computer and not have the slightest idea what it is accomplishing. What the computer’s function is at that point is utterly opaque to a physicist who knows everything about the physical substrate of all the chips in the computer.
Why do you imagine that understanding all the molecules and atoms of the brain will define a human mind?
Silicon Valley companies imagine that they’re gonna usurp human minds and destroy employment, and necessitate guaranteed annual income so all of us can retreat to beaches. While [Sergey] Brin and [Larry] Page fly off with Elon Musk to some nearby planet in a winner take all universe!
It’s absurd. Elon Musk is a brilliant entrepreneur but he’s a fool in many ways.
JA: Here’s what I want to know: What toolset are you reaching into to be so accurately a futurist? What are you looking at and how do you think about problems so you can come up with this assessment?
It’s very clear. Technology is gonna create more jobs. That’s what has always happened throughout history. Why doesn’t everyone think this? A lot of people don’t think this. What are you doing, right now?
GG: I really am a generalist. My very first book was about politics. It was called, The Party That Lost Its Head. Then I wrote about poverty. Then I saw that to understand poverty you really had to understand wealth. I wrote about economics in my first major book about economics was called, Wealth and Poverty. It sold literally millions of copies around the world. It was the #1 book in France for six months. It was Ronald Reagan’s favourite book for years. I was Ronald Reagan’s most quoted living author.
But back do your question. You want to know how to be a futurist?
GG: I read a cover story in Time Magazine about the microchip. That was my introduction to the microchip. I decided this was the most exciting thing happening in the world. I decided to learn microchips. What microchips meant to me was a real shift of all technology until physics was mostly about exerting forces on materials and moving them from outside.
Microchips seemed to be the first technology that consisted of manipulating matter from the inside and really reducing matter in a way, or expanding matter, through information. This seemed to be a fundamental pivot in the history of technology. I wrote four books on microchips.
Then fiber optics seemed to me to be the most exciting thing happening, so I wrote about fiber optics.
JA: So you saw that information was now scalable. Now, there’s no stop to how information can spread. Particularly when we combine it with the fact that computers are getting faster all the time.
So you ask the question, “What does this mean? Given a new state of the world, what does this mean?” You start to think of all the things that it might mean, and you eliminate the things that are ridiculous based on your knowledge.
This is where being a generalist comes in. Based on your information of economics, information is not gonna be used to create more flowers and peace in the world, but it’ll be used for this, this, this, and this.
GG: That’s pretty much how I met Carver Mead who was the Caltech professor who was Gordon Moore’s researcher at Intel — and who both redid the research and named Moore’s Law.
From the very beginning, my teacher was Carver Mead, who was in my view the most brilliant figure in technology of the last half century or so.
JA: That means I left out one thing, in terms of the making of a futurist. I said one is that you look at all the new innovations and see what it could possibly mean. The second is that being a generalist allows you to see how this might affect different areas of life. Because so many people are now educated with their PhDs, being a generalist allows you to see across disciplines.
The third thing is, and I noticed this in your book… You actually go out and meet everybody. It’s one thing if you read about them, it’s another thing if you go out and you meet the founders. You meet as many people as possible.
What’s the importance of meeting people in futurism, as opposed to just reading them?
GG: If you’re writing about technology, most of the key figures don’t write. If they do write, it’s relatively meager technical documents. In order to really cover Silicon Valley, as I did back with Rich Karlgaard at Forbes ASAP, I went out there. In order to truly cover what was going on, you had to go to the companies and talk to the engineers who were designing the products. They weren’t writing. There was nothing you could read that could tell you what these people were doing.
All these people were on frontiers building new devices and did not have time to actually write about them. I could read the books. But the books were all out of date by the time I wanted to write on the subjects they addressed.
JA: You would be able to take your theories based on generalism and the fact that you knew what innovations were happening. Then, run these theories by actually meeting the people, run these theories against them and see how they respond, and what they were working on. Then you developed your futuristic notions.
GG: All significant investment is insider trading. You have to have an intimate inside knowledge of these companies and their technologies, and their inventions, and their strategies. You really can’t have that kind of information by just reading what are increasingly products of public relations firms and lawyers in these technology companies.
George’s new book, Life After Google, holds a new prediction that promises to change everything about how we use technology.
It’s like the microchip, only bigger.
One Last Thing