How to Predict the Future Better than a Dolphin
Imagining What’s Next. Reviewing ‘The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight’
Dolphins are smart. To test how smart, researchers gave a pair of bottlenoses a series of puzzles with escalating difficulty. For the basic test the dolphins had to gather nearby rings and drop them in a container, which they did one ring at a time, for a fishy reward. Researchers then separated the rings and container by 150 feet, forcing the dolphins to get creative.
Instead of tackling the problem one ring at a time, they got their treat faster by gathering multiple rings and cutting their swim time. The dolphins could, in other words, imagine future actions and results well enough to optimize their behavior in the present. But there was a limit to their planning.
Forecasting Like a Dolphin
Another puzzle required the dolphins to deposit a weight into a box and then insert a nearby stick to trigger the reward. But, as Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, and Adam Bulley recount in The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight, “there was a twist. The second step was only possible for about fifteen seconds after the weight had been dropped, before a sliding door sprang shut and prevented further access.”
The dolphins aced the initial puzzle, but the researchers upped the ante. They moved the stick eighty feet away, a distance far enough for the dolphins to exhaust the fifteen-second window before they returned with the necessary object. Write Suddendorf, Redshaw, and Bulley,
When the door kept shutting before they had returned, they simply gave up. With a little more foresight, a simple solution would have presented itself: go and get the stick first, glide back at a leisurely pace, and only then, with the stick at the ready, put the weight into the box. The dolphins did not get it. They did not prepare.
Dolphins are smart—but not when it comes to imagining the future. “They may plan in some basic sense,” say Suddendorf, Redshaw, and Bulley, “but even after much experience, they act far from optimally and often fail to come up with even simple two-step solutions when required.”
Compare that humble reality to this picture of Margaret Hamilton, NASA’s lead software engineer for the Apollo Project, standing alongside code she wrote for America’s mission to the moon.
The code developed by Hamilton and her team worked across multiple systems, factored endless contingencies and failsafes, and allowed the astronauts and ground crew to navigate all eventualities. How? Because her team both foresaw so many—even in never-before-experienced conditions—and equipped those in space and on the ground with the ability to pivot to new plans should predictions prove inadequate.1
We’re in the same solar system but a universe away from the dolphins’s catch-as-catch-can solutions. Hamilton’s software both utilized and enabled a uniquely human trait: foresight.
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The Human Difference
Of course, animals do act with regard to the future. Chimps and crows can use tools, indicating the ability to imagine alternate outcomes. Predators wait to ambush possible prey. Squirrels store up food for winter. But even seemingly advanced animal planners can’t keep up with human children.
Imagine a tube that forks at the end. A prize dropped at the top will go one of two ways at the bottom. The authors trained chimpanzees and orangutans to catch the prize dropped in a straight tube (one entry point, one exit point). Once the apes got the idea, the authors gave them the forked tube.
“They tended to cover only one of the potential exits when preparing for the drop, and therefore caught the reward only around half of the time,” report Suddendorf, Redshaw, and Bulley. “Even after many additional trials, they did not seem to understand that a single event can have two mutually exclusive outcomes.”
What about humans? When tested, kids as young as four quickly realize they should place their hands at both exit points. None of the apes figured it out, even after the Suddendorf, Redshaw, and Bulley replaced the original tube with a clear plexiglass rig, rendering the entire process fully visible. “Their problem was not in their hands,” they write, “but in their minds.”
This isn’t to denigrate animal intelligence, only to highlight our own remarkable abilities with foresight. Most species adapt for particular environments; they learn to thrive in certain niches with limited variables. Thanks to foresight, humans have thrived in almost every environment on the planet, including wildly complicated man-made environments (e.g., Manhattan), and some off the planet (e.g., the International Space Station).
By projecting cause-and-effect-relationships into the future, foresight allows us to adapt and then adapt again to the results of our adaptations. Where does this singular skill come from?
Accessing the Fourth Dimension
Our robust ability to foresee is based on our rich facility to remember. Our brains take the raw data in our episodic memory and project them into the future—imagining future scenarios based on prior experiences, supplementing them by creative inclusions and reconfigurations of what we know or guess. “Memory is,” as the author say, “for the future.”
The authors refer to this imagined future as the fourth dimension. Accessing this fourth dimension allows us to teach and train, customizing our lessons to the needs of individual students. It also allows us to innovate, to adapt solutions to problems and both retain and develop them; without recognizing the future utility of solutions, we would never adopt and adapt those solutions. In combination, innovation and teaching provide the basis for every cultural and technological development we see around us.
Among those innovations are tools that further enhance our foresight. Writing, calendars, clocks, and other innovations enable humans to either improve their memory for future projections or place themselves in more certain relationship to the future for improved planning.
Yes, squirrels store up food for winter. But humans can construct heirloom seed banks, save for retirement, draft a last will and testament, establish a trust, empower their stockbroker should Company A purchase Company B, exercise to stay fit, undergo preventative surgery, practice music for a future performance, and on and on and on. In fact, a single human can do all that and more. Collectively, our foresight can power economies and build entire civilizations.
Naturally, that’s also where the breakdowns become the most obvious.
Limits to the Magic
As failed investments and emergency room visits show, individuals mispredict all the time. But it’s a the macro level our failures of foresight become the most vexing. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “No one can be entirely sure that any solution he proposes will not contain its own woes and pains by way of unintended consequence.”2 For lack of a less triggering example, consider American politics.
Many of our problems go back to the challenge of foresight. Proposed policies have both primary effects and knock-on effects. Cost-benefit analyses rarely take sufficient account of the knock-on effects, resulting in unpredicted negative outcomes.3 The war on drugs remains the paradigmatic case to my mind, exacerbating many of the ills it was supposed to ameliorate and causing others beside.
Of course, we know better. We can all point to such examples and remind ourselves the exercise of foresight benefits more from humility than hubris. Say Suddendorf, Redshaw, and Bulley, “Much of the power of foresight derives from our very awareness of its limits.”
Four books that work well in conversation with The Invention of Tomorrow, all reviewed here at Miller’s Book Review 📚: Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan, The Hidden Half by Michael Blastland, Framers by Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, and Francis de Véricourt, and Wild Problems by Russ Roberts.
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Alice George, “Margaret Hamilton Led the NASA Software Team That Landed Astronauts on the Moon,” Smithsonian, March 14, 2019.
Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian (Basic Books, 2001), 62.