What could be

Futurists to converge on Boston with forecasts on religion, terror, and medicine

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / June 21, 2010

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Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil sat in his Wellesley office late last week, confidently spinning scenarios with timelines that stretched to 2020, 2030, and beyond.

But the near-future was also on his mind: WorldFuture 2010, the annual conference organized by the World Future Society, scheduled for July 8-10 at the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel. Kurzweil will deliver a keynote address at the event.

“It’s very refreshing talking to people who’ve gotten beyond a sort of first-level surprise at what the future might hold,’’ he said.

The conference, which rotates among a number of North American cities, was last held in the Boston area in 1994. The society, founded in 1966 as a nonprofit educational and scientific organization, is based in Bethesda, Md., and has about 25,000 members. Roughly a thousand people are expected to attend next month’s event, bouncing among dozens of sessions ranging from “The Future of Terror’’ to “Challenges and Opportunities in Space Medicine.’’

Although the conference draws its speakers from a global pool of futurists, and the audience is international, the Boston area will be well represented. At least a dozen locally based futurists, in addition to Kurzweil, will speak, and many more will be in the audience.

“Boston is a particularly fertile area for futurists,’’ said Timothy Mack, the group’s president.

Certainly the Boston-area futurists speaking at the conference will provide plenty of variety, from forecasts on the future of religion to advice on how to better anticipate crimes and accidents.

Kurzweil is probably the best-known futurist on the roster, though he considers himself “an inventor first and foremost.’’ He said that early in his career he realized “timing was important to the success of an invention, so I came up with a methodology that could say something about the future so that I could time my own inventions.’’

Now he makes projections about what the world will be like in 10, 20, or 30 years, “so I can invent and write about things for 2020 and 2030.’’

His method has led to a number of notable successes: a reading machine for the blind, an early music synthesizer, and speech-recognition products. He is working on e-reading software called Blio, as well as a computerized hedge fund.

Along the way, Kurzweil has published widely on artificial intelligence and life extension.

At the conference, he plans to talk about “how information technology grows exponentially, not linearly,’’ and his forthcoming book on “reverse engineering the brain,’’ titled “How the Mind Works and How to Build One.’’

“My talk is going to move pretty fast,’’ he said, “because this crowd is already familiar with many of the basic concepts I’ll be talking about.’’

Other topics to be addressed by Boston-area presenters include future corporate strategy, religion, and crime.

Alison Sander’s job title alone is probably enough to get her preferred admission to the conference. She’s director of the Center for Sensing & Mining the Future at the Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm. But Sander is already on the inside: She’s a member of the conference’s program committee, and she will be participating in a panel discussion on “Foresight in the Corporate World.’’

“Many corporations are realizing that the 12- to 24-month view is not enough,’’ Sander said. “We have clients who are focused on 2015, 2020, even 2030.’’

When Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in South Hamilton, attended his first World Future Society event in 1989, he said he was worried that the group’s members would be “new age, sci-fi types.’’

Instead, he found “educators, politicians, and engineers who favor real data over ordinary speculation.’’

To illustrate the difference between the two approaches, Johnson cites the widespread prediction in the 1960s and ’70s that traditional religions were disappearing.

“That was the conventional wisdom,’’ Johnson said. “But it was just speculation. It was a cultural blind spot.’’

In fact, organized religion has continued to grow, a trend Johnson predicts will continue.

“It’s really quite simple,’’ he said. “The rise of religion has to do with three factors: number of children, conversions, and immigration. Conversely, a decline in traditional religion is attributable to deaths, defections from organized religion, and emigration.’’

By projecting how those factors are likely to change, a futurist can reliably predict how the major religions will grow, or shrink.

Johnson has been a professional member of the society since he attended his first session in 1989. He is also a member of the Christian Futures Network. At the Boston conference he will participate in a panel on “The Future of Religion.’’

The topic is significant, he said, because, for example, an accurate predicting of the demographic impact of the Christian and Muslim religions could help the environmental movement target their messages.

“If you could mobilize Muslims and Christians around environmental causes from their own world views, that could be important,’’ he said. “Future studies can help you figure out if it will be worthwhile to reach out to those religions. Will they be big enough to matter?’’

Debra Piehl, a member of the World Future Society and the much smaller Police Futurists International, said she studies the future to anticipate technological advances by two groups: law enforcement and criminals.

Piehl is also president of the Massachusetts Association of Crime Analysts, and she has worked for the Newton Police Department and Massachusetts State Police. She is under federal contract with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and working in partnership with the National Institute of Justice to help police departments implement data-driven approaches to crime and traffic safety. At the conference, she will be on a panel discussing the future of policing and public safety.

“At the heart of what I do, I’m a crime analyst,’’ Piehl said. “Studying the future allows me to anticipate what we are likely to be facing.’’

Staying ahead of “the incredible pace of technology’’ is important, she said, because criminals are attempting to use technology to their advantage.

“Just look at the terrorists who used mobile technology to coordinate the attack on Mumbai in 2008,’’ Piehl said. “We have to be prepared for that.’’

“The ultimate goal is fewer victims,’’ she added. “The more we can predict, the better success we’ll have in reducing the number of victims.’’

At past World Future gatherings, she said, discussions with Defense Department analysts have given her many ideas, particularly about planning and strategy, that she has adapted to domestic police work.

“The good thing about the conferences is that it forces me to think about the future, and stay ahead of it,’’ she said.

D.C. Denison can be reached at