Why the future ‘ain’t what it used to be’ by the time we get there and what that means for your business

Futurists are always wrong.

That’s a rock-solid truth I’ve learned over the years.

This is particularly important at our current point in human history because many of our highest profile business leaders have become futurists. This is because many of our highest profile business leaders are also technology leaders, and technological developments prompt envisioning the future.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve read many tech-business leaders talk about how humans were going to become obsolete because virtually every productive activity that currently depends on humans will be taken over by robotics of artificial intelligence.

By the way, I just saw a video of a robot assembling an IKEA chair, and when it comes to that task, I say, “Amen! Let the robots do it!” But interestingly enough, I also just read an article where Elon Musk declares, “Humans are underrated!”

You see, Musk is having fits getting his Tesla Model 3 electric car automated assembly line to work. It’s currently shutdown and has never come close to any of the production targets Tesla has set.

I’m glad we have men and women who are enthusiastic about the changes they see in the future of human history, but futurists always let their enthusiasm get the best of them. Their predictions always take far longer than anticipated or they just never materialize. Flying cars are the classic example. The plastic “house of the future” is another good example.

Are drone deliveries our version of the flying car? Will that underrated human behind the wheel of a delivery van always be more cost effective than swarms of drones clouding city skies? I should also note that enthusiasm over self-driving cars has dimmed a little in recent months as questions have been raised about their safety.

Even the phenomena that we label as “disruptors” aren’t really technological breakthroughs as much as they are new recipes that combine modern technology with existing business models or human customs.

For example, I was reflecting on the popularity of text messaging among young people (who really established the commercial validity of text messages) the other day and it occurred to me that it was just a modern upgrade to the age-old tradition of handing secret notes back and forth between classmates (instead of listening to the teacher). If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when these little scraps of paper were clandestinely passed between friends during class. You would add your response below what the other person wrote, sneak it back, and the conversation would continue.

Today, instead of hiding these little notes, kids hide their cellphones in their laps or up their sleeves so they won’t be caught by their teachers. Cellphone text messages also allow kids to “pass notes” between classroom walls.

For business leadership, I believe the message is to keep making incremental improvements. Don’t expect tomorrow to be much different than today, don’t bet the farm on a pie-in-the-sky technology, and don’t underestimate the power and productivity of the individual human being.

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