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Into the Future (Gwen Moritz Commentary)

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I am pretty good at spotting patterns, which is how I recognized decades ago that I am terrible at predictions. As a result, I don’t gamble and I don’t invest in individual stocks.  The only predictions I make these days are 1) Republican spendthrifts instantly transform into hair-on-fire deficit hawks the minute a Democrat is in the White House and 2) an as-yet-unidentified household expense is looming.

My predictions, as you probably noticed, are really just recognition of long-established, undeniable patterns.

Because making actual predictions seems terrifyingly bold, I made a point of listening to a presentation by a self-proclaimed “global futurist” named Shawn DuBravac at a recent symposium celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. And while his talk was entertaining and thought-provoking, I have to say that he did not make many specific predictions.

Instead, DuBravac applied the patterns of the past to present situations and extrapolated from there. On his website, DuBravac also describes himself as a “trendcaster,” which may not be an actual word but suggests an ability to recognize how an identified pattern will play out. For ACHI’s audience, he predicted that artificial intelligence will move from the macro realm of big data to the micro of our day-to-day lives, just as other technologies have.

His presentation started with 19th century photographs of huge slabs of ice being harvested from frozen lakes for storage until warm weather created an eager market. Gradually natural ice was replaced by ice manufactured by giant commercial machines and delivered to individual customers. In the 1930s, at-home refrigerator-freezers began to replace iceboxes in middle-class kitchens.

DuBravac illustrated this progression with a midcentury appliance store display of refrigerators with those sleek, curved lines that Italian manufacturer SMEG is making a mint replicating. (One model was from Norge, the defunct appliance maker whose name evokes an early “Saturday Night Live” skit, but you are pretty old if you know what I’m talking about.) This discussion reminded me that “cold” is one of the “six innovations that made the modern world,” according to Steven Johnson’s excellent 2015 book, “How We Got to Now.”

Other technologies similarly have progressed from commercial-scale to personal: motion pictures, computers, department stores. A small but rapidly growing number of Americans have started depending on solar power rather than the traditional electric grid. Predicting that AI will follow the same path is not terribly risky.

As applied specifically to health care, DuBravac expects AI to supplement rather than supplant the skills and experience of professionals. That’s comforting for the professionals who still need gainful employment, but also for those of us who suspect that human intelligence and artificial intelligence work better together. Anecdotal evidence: As Google Docs offers me more and more predictive text, more and more of its predictions are incorrect — but it doesn’t make the typos I do. I can easily see how an experienced clinician could be even more effective with AI to do the gruntwork and check for common errors.

Being a futurist may be more about recognizing patterns than I realized. Or maybe DuBravac will turn out to be just as wrong as I usually am. As he noted, we still don’t have flying cars.

Gwen Moritz is a contributing editor at Arkansas Business Publishing Group. Email her at gmoritz@abpg.com.
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