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I’ve always been fascinated by organizations like the Institute For The Future and the World Future Society.  The folks at both these fine institutions sincerely want to help steer humanity towards a better future through careful foresight, and I applaud their efforts. But at the same time, I remain skeptical about the impact these types of efforts are likely to have. 

Perhaps the biggest issue is critical mass. How can organizations like these hope to be heard over the din of everyone else shouting out their own prognostications, and jockeying for people’s attention?

Beginning with the Greeks and the myth of Cassandra, history is full of fortune tellers who have sat on the sidelines and tried in vain to tell others about what lies ahead.  Their passive style has usually meant they’ve been impotent when it comes to actually bringing about (or in the case of dire predictions, preventing) the future they predict. The future is what happens when these folks are making other plans.

History has shown that they people who shape the course of human events are those who engage in the fray, and who get their hands dirty creating the future rather than simply talking about it. Think of Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Bill Gates.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we need people like Ray Kurzweil to show us possible futures. But it is world leaders and entrepreneurs ‘in the trenches’ who in the end have the most influence.

I wonder – in this new socially connected world that is emerging, is there a way to empower the collective intelligence to have a concrete influence, rather than just waiting for industrious individuals to take the bull by the horns and make things happen?  The upcoming attempt by iPhone users to influence AT&T’s service and policies, dubbed Operation Chokehold, might be a modest first step in this direction.

But I have something much more creative in mind.

I wonder if there is a way to connect collective intelligence, and the individuals that make it up, directly with folks in a position to help bring about the ‘next big thing’?  Here is a concrete idea. What I’d like to see is a venture capital fund that lets little guys (like me) participate. What it might do is allow the collective wisdom of lots of little guys to guide investments, and therefore help create the future of technology, rather than just talking about it and waiting passively for it to happen.

It sounds like a business plan someone must have already thought of. Maybe there is such an organization out there already. If so, can someone point me to it?

"This Will Change Everything Book"Yesterday I read the latest survey by John Brockman from the Edge.org. This year, John asked 125 leading thinkers of today one simple question:

“What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

Respondents included Richard Dawkins,  Freeman Dyson, Dan Dennett and Brian Eno. Each wrote a few paragraphs describing their vision of the ‘Big Thing’ likely to happen that will be a game-changer (good or bad) for humanity.

The results were fascinating, and well worth reading in their entirety either in Brockman’s soon-to-be-released book, This Will Change Everything, or online at the Edge.org’s World Question Center 2009.

For people who don’t want to wait for the book release later this month, and who don’t have the time to real all 125 essays, I took a couple hours to read and categorize their responses, to get a sense of what big developments the visionaries as a group are expecting to happen.  Here is a histogram of how frequently the contributors mentioned various topics.  There are more than 125 votes since several of the contributors mentioned more than one idea or development.

Edge.org 2009 Survey - What will Change Everything?

The results were pretty surprising. By far the most often cited development that these experts think will dramatically change our lives were advances in brain science and brain-computer interfaces (BCI).  Biotech and genetic engineering came in second, followed by artificial intelligence/robotics.

I had expected climate change to be up at the top, but it was tied for 4th. Perhaps the scientifically-minded participants in the survey figure humanity will get a handle on climate change via a combination of new energy technology & geo-engineering.  Maybe they think climate change won’t be a global catastrophe after all, but more like the Y2K glitch.

My personal favorite, the emergence of global consciousness (perhaps through some kind of singularity transition) was the 7th most frequently mentioned development that could change everything.

For people who don’t want to wait for the book release and who don’t have time to read all the contributor’s essays

Ever feel like you're part of a big machine?

This blog is an exploration of what being part of a collective might mean for each of us as individuals, and for society.

What is it that is struggling to emerge from the convergence of people and technology?

How can each of us play a role, as a thoughtful cog in the big machine?

Dean Pomerleau
@deanpomerleau

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