Futurists, don’t you love ’em? The first one I met worked for Sperry Univac. Then I came across another employed by BT.
In the 70s, forward-thinking companies started to appoint resident Futurists. Mostly they did external work – speaking at conferences as a way to show how future-looking the company was.
It seemed the ideal job – the money was good, the work was undemanding, there was zero accountability for the accuracy of the predictions, the travel was first-class and publishing books added to income and prestige. Futurism seemed God’s own job.
Now, like so many things, Futurism has become automated. Péter Érdi at the HungarianAcademy of Sciences in Budapest leads a team which has developed a software programme which analyses the frequency with which patents are cited by other patents.
The programme plots how the frequency of the citations changes over time and shows that patents can be grouped into related clusters which evolve – sometimes branching into new disciplines, sometimes merging with one another.
The Hungarian software charts this evolutionary process and can extrapolate, from the rate and type of citations, whether particular technologies will combine or diverge to drive new areas of innovation.
The team tested their software on historic data about agriculture, textiles and food at the US Patent Office found that it predicted the emergence of a field recently created to cover nonwoven textiles – fabrics whose fibres are squeezed or forced together, often using solvents as bonding agents.
The snag with the Hungarian approach is, of course, that the raw data represents the collective thinking of the scientific community.
It can’t factor in inspiration.