If history has taught us anything, it's that people who try to predict the future are often spectacularly wrong. Like when Variety magazine declared in 1955 that rock 'n roll would be "gone by June," or when the CEO of Microsoft said in 2007 that there was "no chance" the iPhone would catch on.
And yet somebody's got to do it — for academia, for curiosity, but mostly for companies searching for the next big thing to sell or invest in. Enter the futurist: you probably never knew the job existed, but it is the totally real occupation of more than 400 people (at least according to the Association of Professional Futurists). They emphasize that they don't "predict" what will happen in the future, because that's impossible. Rather, futurists use science and data to figure out what the world might look like in 20, 50 or 100 years. You can find them employed by large corporations like Ford and Google, as well as governments and non-profits.
We talked to futurist Glen Hiemstra, founder of futurist.com, about what he looks at when spotting trends. If you want to do some amateur futurology, here are the three basic tests to consider.
Is the potential future technologically feasible?
If it sounds like it belongs in a sci-fi movie, this is the question to ask. Take, for example, teleportation. Physicists have determined that Star Trek-style teleportation is impossible. Not just "we can't do it now," but "it will never be something that is doable, at least in this universe." That makes teleportation a really risky and downright ridiculous prediction.
For more reasonable technologies, this question is still worth asking if they will need to drastically scale up from small demonstrations for use with the larger population. For this reason, it's fair to be dubious we'll see large-scale space colonies or the Hyperloop anytime soon.
Is it economically viable?
In the 1990's Hiemstra was on the board of a Virtual Reality company. He later realized their units, priced in the thousands of dollars, were probably too expensive to ever become a staple of the American home. Today there are several VR devices on the market—substantially cheaper than what he worked on—but the technology still isn't cheap enough to be a standard way of consuming media.
That's why his second test is about economics: even great technologies have to be affordable to catch on. Solar power is another interesting case. In previous decades it wasn't considered a viable alternative energy option, mostly because units were so expensive to install and took years to pay for themselves. But fossil fuels are becoming more expensive and solar panels are getting cheaper and cheaper, so some futurists think it is poised to become the dominant energy source in the United States.
Is it socially and politically acceptable?
Finally, Hiemstra considers other barriers to a technology's adoption, like whether people will actually want to use it, and whether regulatory agencies will allow it. He thinks this is often the most important criterion.
A prime example is self-driving vehicles. In other parts of the world—like Europe—self-driving, autonomous freight trucks have already been deployed, proving their technological and economic viability. But for them to be adopted in the United States, regulators will have to deem them safe, and companies will have to decide if they are worth the war with trucking unions they'd be sure to instigate.
Then there are passenger cars. Will people be happy to hand control over to a computer? Will those in standard cars be ok with robot cars on their roads? Questions like these could take decades to resolve—unless someone like Elon Musk comes along and accelerates the process. That's what makes prediction impossible, but always so compelling.
For more on futurists and what might be trendy in 2025, download the latest episode of the , available now on iTunes.