How to think about today’s larger than life tech moguls

Stephen Hawking predicts that humans only have at best 100 years left on Earth, therefore colonizing space as fast as possible is essential. Elon Musk wants to bring tens of thousands of people to Mars for the same reason. He also expects a brain computer to become feasible within a comparatively near future. Mark Zuckerberg believes that connecting every human being on a digital platform (his digital platform) will make the world a better place. And Jack Dorsey believes in the importance of a platform to spread 140-character messages to the world.

When very accomplished and respected people from the technology industry and neighboring fields forecast the future and explain their visions, we listen. But should we?

That’s a question I ask myself every time when some bold quote about the future made by one of today’s tech celebrities travels through the international media.

The larger than life individuals from the entrepreneurial and technology sphere that nowadays dominate the headlines belong without a doubt to the smartest people on this planet. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in positions in which everyone listen to them. But they also are humans with the same flaws as everyone else. Their brains don’t fundamentally function in a different way. They simply have developed ways to leverage the brain’s capabilities in an especially effective way while simultaneously limiting or controlling the negative effects that their cognitive biases and primal impulses have on their own thinking.

Still, as long as they are human beings (to which there are no indications for the contrary), there will be flaws, thinking errors, biases. If whenever you speak everyone pays attention no matter how freaky your ideas are, how do you make sure not to develop hubris? The risk for an inflated ego inevitably increases.

That alone suggests that one should never stop being skeptical about any of these claims, no matter how much one otherwise admires a person. In addition, it’s impossible to distinguish the genuine result of hard and long thinking about humanity and the future from the self-serving promotion of narratives conducive to one individual’s reputation or strategic business interests. Does Mark Zuckerberg really believe what he wrote in his controversial manifesto, or has he chosen to claim to believe it knowing that promoting this vision will make his company prosper?

What I am writing here might sound obvious. Yet, thanks to the Halo effect, once we acknowledge someone’s accomplishments and intellectual authority, we tend to be susceptible to overestimating their foresight and intelligence in other areas of life and fields of knowledge. We tend to ignore the range of other motivations or causes that could be behind their statements.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt just cited a popular story about how ATMs led to more bank teller jobs – and was properly called out for this flawed anecdote. But he of course knows that rebuttals usually are only seen by a small share of those who heard or read about the initial claim.

In these moments when I catch myself forgetting to remain sceptical, I like to picture sitting with Musk or Zuckerberg in a bar, them being completely drunk. That usually helps to put things into perspective.

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Simulating worlds

Some time during the past weekend, I ended up in a rather silly but for me entertaining thought experiment: I was musing about that there should be a way to produce the so called “hindsight bias” in advance of an event. What started as a joking idea quickly led me to some more serious reflections.

The term hindsight bias (according to Wikipedia also called “knew-it-all-along effect”) refers to a cognitive bias which brings people to the belief that the outcome of a certain event or situation was the only logical and possible result. Before the specific event, uncertainty about what happens next is widespread and predictions about the future are varying widely. But in the aftermath people experience a feeling of obvious and overwhelming retroactive predictability of whatever happened. Suddenly, everyone claims to always have expected this very outcome.

If you debate the question of how Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality or self-driving cars will change human life, you can hear plenty of different theories and predictions. However, in 20 or 30 years, people will point out that whatever will have happened after AI, VR and self-driving cars took over, was the one and only logical scenario. Continue Reading

The urge to predict the future – and how to do it right

The best specialist books are those that immediately impact the reader’s behaviour. I just finished Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Telock and Dan Gardner – and experienced this very effect.

As the title suggests, the book investigates and explains what qualities and skills are needed to make accurate predictions. The insights are based on a large-scale forecasting experiment conducted by one of the two authors and involving hundreds of forecasters.

Being able to excel in forecasting can be extremely valuable. In the field of digital technology, forecasting is a preferred activity by many. Pundits, analysts, entrepreneurs and everyone only slightly affiliated with the industry is constantly trying to predict the future. For financial gains through wise strategic decisions involving foresight, in order to build a professional reputation as visionary, or – unfortunately – in order to advance personal interests or the interests of “the forecaster’s tribe” (as the authors of the book put it). Continue Reading

Do you make a lot of predictions that turn out to be wrong? Then be afraid of Staked

If you have opinions about the future, the Internet is a great place to make predictions: Most people won’t remember predictions that turn out to be incorrect (except maybe if you are an industry heavyweight). But if a bold forecast comes true, the person who made it can proudly (or subtly) refer to it and gain reputation points. Believe me, as someone who has been writing about tech since 2007, I know how this game works.

But a new app might make it much harder to come up with a host of failed predictions and yet to gain a lot of respect for the lucky few that match the facts. A very interesting app. So interesting that I had to write a dedicated post about it. Continue Reading