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We Are All Futurists Now

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It's time to figure out which companies other than IBM and Google are making big bets on futurism. Who will be the breakouts in 2022?

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In what is sure to be a new tradition in the snarky corners of Twitter, it took about two minutes yesterday for the "hologram Dick Clark" jokes to start rolling in.

What happened? How is it that eight months after financial markets were paralyzed with fear over the debt ceiling, downgrade of the credit rating of the United States, and cross-continental European contagion there's nothing cooler than futurism? Here are the developments I'm aware of since the start of 2011:
  • Last February, a computer, IBM's (IBM) Watson, defeated human champions on Jeopardy! for the first time.
  • Last October, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee wrote the e-book "Race Against the Machine," which talks about, among other things, how we're just now hitting the fat part of the innovation curve as we reap the benefits of decades of Moore's Law compounding.
  • Three weeks ago, Google (GOOG) showed a video of a blind man "driving" one of their autonomous vehicles.
  • Two weeks ago, Google unveiled its "Project Glass," glasses that use technology they call "augmented reality." The video has gotten over 13 million views on YouTube.
  • Last week, at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, a digitally-created hologram of Tupac Shakur performed alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
  • Also last week, DARPA showed a video of a robot climbing stairs, walking on a treadmill, rotating its torso, and doing push-ups, in visuals that are reminiscent of something out of a Terminator movie.
  • Karl Smith of Modeled Behavior, who's been on the futurist beat for awhile, laid out a vision yesterday of a wild future involving smartphones, autonomous vehicles, and improved batteries that would reshape our transportation system.
There's been some griping about how the technological innovations of the past decade have been little more than trivialities, status updates and Instagrams for a self-obsessed generation. But seeing where we are now with the technologies above and extrapolating them out five, 10, or 20 years, it's beginning to feel like we're really entering into an age dreamed about in The Jetsons or Back to the Future.

This has coincided with a slow expansion of societal time preferences. Minyanville contributor Peter Atwater, at the 2012 Socionomics Summit in Atlanta last weekend, talked about what he calls "horizon preferences"; the idea that when we are afraid, the only thing we care about is "me, here, now." When we are ebullient we care about "us, everywhere, forever." We're finally moving in the direction of being curious, and maybe even a little optimistic, about the future.

We're seeing this in pop culture. The biggest movie of 2012 so far is The Hunger Games, set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future. Also on tap for later this year is Ridley Scott's dark futuristic Prometheus, and a remake of Total Recall, set "in the far dystopian future in the year 2084." This is a contrast from the blockbusters of the past decade, series like the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or the Twilight movies which were pure fantasy. Maybe thinking about a dystopian future isn't as fun as the more upbeat social mood environment we'll likely have in five years, but it's an improvement over "me, here, now" or a retreat into a fantasy world.

Interestingly enough, this pop culture infatuation with the future happened in 1982, the beginning of the last big bull market, as well, the release year of sci-fi classics like Star Trek II, Blade Runner, Tron, and of course, ET.

This renewed interest in the future couldn't be coming at a better time, as Facebook's looming IPO next month signals, if not the peak, then the mainstreaming of the Web 2.0 era. We're bored with it and are looking for the next big thing. I remember reading Bill Gates's The Road Ahead in high school and dreaming about what computers and the Internet would eventually do for society. And you know what? A lot of it happened, and it's been great. But it's time to think bigger, time to figure out which companies other than IBM and Google are making big bets on futurism. In 2022 we'll all have wished we spent more time learning about robot technologies in 2012 and less on Spanish banks.

Twitter: @conorsen
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