Where’s the Fun in Predicting the Future

Crystal BallI watched the first episode of “Person of Interest” back in the fall of 2011 thinking it would be cool to have a computer that predicts the future (or a group of special people like in Minority Report). It turns out that I was a lot less excited by the show than I had hoped. At first, I thought it was because of the difficulty of writing a show where the future us predictable, and changeable at the same time. It brings up the religious talk about the conflict between an omniscient God and free will. Anyway, I didn’t watch another episode of the show.

Now I’m starting to hear about future predicting algorithms from all over the place. A team from Microsoft and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology are working on a system to predict disease outbreaks in advance. Google uses search phrases to predict flu outbreaks. Others are using satellite data and rates of prescription fillings to make predictions of all kinds of illnesses. For the most part, they’ve been successful in the Monday-Morning-Quarterback kind of way. When these programs are run against historic data, they do a decent job of predicting what already happened. All assumptions are that their success at predicting past events is a positive indication of their ability to predict future events. I’ll leave that one to you to ponder.

My take is this: An unknown future is what makes life exciting. I spend as little time as I can thinking about the future. It tends to annoy the people around me sometimes, like when I don’t plan tonight’s dinner until it’s time to start cooking it. While I understand the comfort that comes from having a plan, I contend that it’s a false comfort. You’ll have no trouble finding a cliche about the uselessness of a plan once the action starts. I had a plan to graduate from college and take the summer to ride my bike across the country then settle into a job in a big city where I could date a lot for a decade. Turns out I got married before finishing college, and I’m taking that cross country bike ride next summer, I think.

So I’m not interested in the future predicting machine. Knowing what will happen would leave me living an uninteresting life.


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