Group Dreams of Guessing the Future

George Kubik spends his time imagining possible futures teeming with nanotechnology, advanced robotics and alternative power sources.

The University of Minnesota professor is a member of the Minnesota Futurists -- a group of enthusiasts following local trends in economic, technological and political developments to project societal changes the future might bring.

This year the group is starting a new program aimed at getting more college students interested in futurism, The Minnesota Daily reports.

David Keenan, the society's president, said the group hopes to expand its ranks by using its university connections to reach out to students. Like Kubik, a few of the members also teach within varying departments at the school

Futurists visualize "possible, probable and preferable" futures and are sometimes employed by the federal government in national defense and environmental protection, Kubik said.

Their methods include analyzing trends, taking surveys of experts and running simulations. Based on the current findings, the group is projecting leaps in robotic technologies, new fuel sources and computing.

"We cannot make predictions. Instead, we make forecasts to discuss possible futures and how to prepare for them," Kubik said.

Studying the future requires "a great deal of expertise in many fields" to better understand present trends and make plausible forecasts, he said.

"What might the Minnesota workforce look like in 25 years?" Kubik asked, adding the university will have to consider implications of preparing students for work in a changing economy.

Minnesota Futurists was founded more than 40 years ago by Earl Joseph, who died in 2007. Joseph, a university graduate and an instructor, taught futurism courses and discussed the digital revolution and medical advances long before they were realities.

Now, the university is one of only three schools nationwide offering futurism courses.

The school used to offer a futurist doctorate degree, but it was cut when the Department of Educational Policy and Administration was established in 1986.

But courses discussing future societies are still available to graduate students. About 120 students enroll per semester, with a University Honors Program section in the works, said Arthur Harkins, a professor at the University's Department of Organization, Policy and Development.

Harkins said he thinks more students should be exposed to future studies before they get to college so they know it's out there.

"Students we encounter have never thought about the future that much," he said.

Harkins' foray into futurism started with an interest in science fiction in elementary school and eventually turned into a job with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency lunar base project. In the military, he gained a stronger interest in technology and science trends.

He said he prefers a future where wars are reduced to a smaller scale minimizing civilian casualties, the global economy is drastically improved and the environment is cleaner. He would also like to see extended life expectancies, though he said that could be taxing on global resources.

Kubik said new innovations rapidly changing societies and cultures are giving futurists a lot to consider.

David Levinson, a civil engineering professor, teaches evolution of transportation for the University's Department of Civil Engineering.

Levinson heads the Nexus Research Group at the University, which studies the impact of technological developments on city transportation and infrastructure.

Levinson said he sees a future with fully automated cars that remove human error from driving. Traffic fatalities have been declining as technology improves, he said, and the future will bring about safer commutes.

He said he also sees "green cars" as luxury goods rather than a practical solution to reducing pollution and lowering energy costs.

Levinson, who blogs prolifically about futurism, said mankind should leave for the stars by 2301 and "try to avoid destroying the Earth (or) solar system before then."

Personal space travel is another frequent topic of speculation. Virgin Galactic started offering $200,000 space flights recently to anyone willing to pay for a trip aboard one of its star cruisers.

However, Levinson said personal space travel, while possible, is unfeasible due to cost, and he predicts it will become a niche market for the wealthy.

"(The) future is becoming almost impossible to predict, and harder by the day to forecast," Harkins said. He wants to see more imagination brought to the study of trends at the university.

"There are an infinite set of possible futures," Kubik said, adding it's important to choose the best ones.

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