The futuristic and the future

From the many requests I get, the one thing that excites people most about the future is to be presented with a futuristic picture of the future. They like the idea of seeing a different world than the one they know. Maybe it has to do with the fact that many feel unhappy with our world the way it is. Maybe they want to dream a bit or maybe they simply want to have a feeling that there is hope for a utopian world. Science fiction is full of that futuristic feeling. Sometimes it carries an optimistic feeling and sometimes it paints a brutally gloomy vision of the future.

Very often, conference organizers approach me because they would like me to present a futuristic view of food and agriculture. If all they are looking for is science fiction entertainment, I prefer to decline. Fiction is nice, but my business is about realistic and practical evolution of food and agriculture. Everyone who knows me well will tell you that I have no lack of imagination, on the contrary, but that is not what I do as a futurist. My main objective is that my audiences go home with a feeling that it is possible to evolve from today to tomorrow with feasible changes, instead of chasing dreams, which nobody can say whether they have any chance of succeeding. I believe in baby steps, and possibly quick ones.

Perhaps it is the advantage of having been around the block for quite a while, but I always take a circumspect attitude regarding futuristic visions. I am old enough to have heard that we were all going to shift away from traditional foods and that our future diet would be made of pills, one for energy, one for protein and one for God knows what else. That was the time of the Apollo space missions and of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Our future meals would be an astronaut type of diet. Well, guess what, we have passed 2001 a long time ago and meat and potatoes are still on our plates. Be careful about science fiction, because although it certainly is a great source of inspiration for exciting innovations, it also contains the word “fiction”. To me, the most realistic part of 2001: A Space Odyssey is HAL 9000, the computer. As we are eagerly working on artificial intelligence, I can very well see that we could end up with machines that can think and feel the way that HAL does. If some genius finds a way of creating an artificial ego and implant it in such an AI machine, then humans would have a problem. Anyway, we are not there yet.

Another big change in our food, presented several decades ago, was making synthetic meat out of oil (does that sound somehow familiar; you know meat from an incubator?). I started my Career at BP Nutrition, which was part of the BP oil and gas company. Apparently, BP had moved into the food business because they thought that the “oil steaks” could be a reality and be a part of their business. Of course and as usual, nobody can foresee everything and the oil crisis of the 1970s hit and that was the end of the synthetic meat, because guess what? Money matters and if the numbers do not add up, the project dies.

In more current innovations, I remember feeling a bit of the ugly duckling in a conference about the future of agriculture where one of the hottest topics was the Google glass. Maybe you remember, some sort of portable smart device that would make you feel like a cyborg. I did not see the added value of the glasses for a farmer. Apparently, I was one of the very few and you know almost not much a futurist at all for not embracing unconditionally some tech innovation. No, I do not do unconditional support. Instead, in these current days of compulsively pressing “Like” buttons, I did –and still do- this almost heretic thing: I think and exercise my critical sense. Just as a short addendum, I would like to remind you of the quote by Descartes ”I think, therefore I am”. The way, I look at things, a derivative of that quote would be “I don’t think, therefore I am nothing”

Another recent hot topic that seems to have lost steam is the 3D printer that would produce food. I remember even posting a question on a futurist’s website. It was several years ago and I am still waiting for an answer. My question related to an article with the illustration of a banana laid on the printing area of a 3D printer. I was asking two things. The first was why anyone would use resources to make the banana peel as it appears on the posted picture, as the peel is waste. The second was to know what material would be used to make the flesh of the banana (and where it would be coming from) because if it were banana flesh, that would be rather absurd. This banana example is the perfect illustration of hypes being parroted by everyone who wants to be trendy without thinking about the most basic principles, such as the one expressed by Lavoisier “Nothing is created, everything is transformed” If you want to print a banana, you need some material to print with. Everyone seems to think that it would be created out of nothing. Great way to solve famine…

If I have an issue with the banana, I do not have any about 3D printing. When it comes to food, it could certainly crate new textures and new ways to experience foods and perhaps even discover new flavors that do not pop up in traditional textures. That is an area that could be useful. If lab meat is to be a viable production system, 3D printing might be a way of making it more appealing to the market. It is worth investigating. Another area that I would hope 3D printing to be useful is the production, possibly at home, of spare parts that you and I could use when some device gets broken (instead of having to buy an entire device all together), and possibly by using recycled raw materials to make the replacement parts. That would be a great step towards sustainability and in the fight against planned obsolescence.

I can name other hypes that have never impressed me. Remember the “new economy” that was going to make the old economy obsolete? Well, the result was the dotcom crash (bubbles are made out of hot air usually) and the good old-fashioned economy came back with a vengeance, as the good old care for our living environment will. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were going to make existing currencies obsolete. Guess what? It is bursting simply because these are currencies that do not have any really economic roots. They are artificial with nothing to sustain them but hype, so poof goes the bubble. In the area of something more useful, I have not been impressed by blockchain either. I found it artificially inflated for something actually quite simple and basic. By the time, they complete it, if that ever happens, it will already be replaced by something more useful and effective. And I could go on with a list of things that would revolutionize our world and that nobody remembers.

To me, the main difference between the future and the futuristic is that the latter finds its source in imagination while the former is about practical and economical feasibility. We need both, but it is essential to make the distinction because it is difficult to find our way with a blurred vision. The virtual is not the real but it can become it under the right circumstances.

Similarly, we must not think that innovation is only about technology and that technology is only about high-tech. High tech is very sexy and the fact that teenagers can become billionaires overnight is very appealing but, in the grand scheme of things, that part is only a drop in the ocean of problems to solve for the future. I am convinced that many solutions will actually be low tech and inspired by old-fashioned wisdom. Innovation must address the causes of the problems it solves, not just the symptoms. Morphine can be very useful for cancer patients but it does not cure the disease. Another misconception is also to think that innovation is the same as progress. There is a difference. It may appear that way on the short term, but progress is also a relative concept. What seems progress today might appear as a disaster a few decades from now. I will let you think for yourselves of some examples for “progress” from the 19th and 20th centuries that hurt us today to illustrate my point.

A similar kind of confusion is to think that science and knowledge are the same. Indeed, good science is, but through the centuries people have known many facts even though they had not been scientifically proven. Here, I will only mean knowledge and not beliefs, as beliefs very often rest on non-proven concepts, and in some cases possibly improvable but beliefs are not about knowledge. They are about creating a system of values that help making sense of what we do not know or do not control. Therefore, beliefs and knowledge are two distinct things. Bordering on knowledge and science, but quite abundant in bad science is another confusion: statistics and facts. Anyone who has studied statistics knows that one must first make a hypothesis and then test it. If the test is negative, one must reject the hypothesis. That is the easy, and non-confusing, part. If the test result is positive, one can only say that one cannot reject the hypothesis and that is all. One cannot conclude that the hypothesis is correct. No, all one can say is that the hypothesis may just not be incorrect. But that subtle -yet essential- difference is never a problem for those who want to push their point of view and they will merrily go as far as using to claim the absence of evidence as being the evidence of absence. So much for intellectual integrity. Further, depending on which statistical test you chose, you may come to a different result about the same hypothesis. It can be a bit complicated, can’t it? That is the conundrum of research and science when they are not independent anymore, not to mention when they are funded by groups who are after making a profit of their “findings”, but that is the way human nature goes.

For a successful future, futuristic ideas are important but critical thinking, a solid dose of common sense, a practical approach and the ability to make the money work are essential. If we lose grip on reality or, worse, if we ignore it, it will catch up with us, a bit the way HAL 900 does in the movie. Dreaming is good as it feeds the human machine, but a strong sense of reality is essential to go in the right direction. It is a bit like both the legs and the brain when riding a bicycle.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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