I was recently revisiting the works of Samuel Beckett, one of my favorite authors, when I picked up a factoid about the writer that I hadn’t known before: He quit teaching at Trinity College in Dublin after four short years because “he could not bear teaching others what he did not know himself.”
If those of us in academia followed Beckett’s example, there would be very few college professors. This is not because we do not know anything — we know a lot about our subject areas — but because people are inherently bad at predicting the future, largely because they themselves are unpredictable.
Nowhere is this truer than in my own area of research interest — artificial intelligence and society. Dozens of articles come out each week predicting either rosy or dire scenarios about what artificial intelligence will do to society. We will either live in a glorious utopia of cured diseases and self-driving cars or a dystopia of false information and constant surveillance.
The reality is that we have no idea, but our social media culture tends to encourage people to try to be Cassandras. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was cursed by Apollo with the gift to see the future, but the inability to convince anyone of her prophecies. In the constant search for Facebook likes and Twitter retweets, users make bold assertions about a future they are convinced they see while excoriating disbelievers who won’t listen. For example, thousands of Twitter followers are predicting a dire economic recession is imminent. While recessions are inevitable, the ability to predict when they will happen is not.
Another characteristic of human beings is their inability to know they can’t predict the future. For proof, look at 1950s portrayals of what the future would look like. I’m still waiting for my flying car and jetpacks! This doesn’t mean that we can’t use our knowledge of the past and of tendencies in human behavior to make “educated guesses” about the future. It just means that we need more humility about our predictions. As for me, I’m comfortable teaching others what I don’t know myself. It may be the most important thing to teach.
Jose Marichal is a political science professor at California Lutheran University.