Are the Most Influential Futurists Those Who Put in the Work to Make Their Visions Real?

We'll take a short excursion into ranking futurists for today, prompted by a recent article that offers a (transhumanism-slanted) opinion on the identity of the most important futurists of the past few decades.

The Most Significant Futurists of the Past 50 Years

Our visions of the future tend to be forged in the pages of science fiction. But for the past half-century, a number of prominent thinkers, activists, and scientists have made significant contributions to our understanding of what the future could look like. Here are 10 recent futurists you absolutely need to know about. Needless to say, there were dozens upon dozens of amazing futurists who could have been included in this article, so it wasn't easy to pare down this list. But given the width and breadth of futurist discourse, we decided to select thinkers whose contributions should be considered seminal and highly influential to their field of study.

Those selected include Robert Ettinger, one of the founders of modern cryonics, and Aubrey de Grey, who presently works to make his SENS roadmap to human rejuvenation a reality. Ray Kurzweil is notably absent from the list.

It isn't mentioned as a selection criteria in the article, but I think that ranking the importance of futurists by how effectively they help to create the future that they envisage isn't all that bad of an idea. Advocates and popularists play a needed role in moving from vision to reality, but progress also needs people to perform and orchestrate the actual work of research and development. Kurzweil, for example, is a popularist and an advocate with respect to his futurism: beyond the books and films and persuasion his day job as an inventor and entrepreneur is so far largely irrelevant to the future he envisages. I don't think anyone can argue that he isn't important in the arena of ideas regarding machine intelligence, accelerating change, and how this will all play out in the decades ahead. But how much more important would Kurzweil be if, for example, he had decided a decade or two back to create a company like Zyvex as a long term play to advance molecular manufacturing, or something equivalent in AI work?

In contrast Ettinger and de Grey both founded successful organizations devoted to realizing their particular visions: the Cryonics Institute and the SENS Research Foundation. Both were instrumental in creating the groundwork and the early community of supporters to enable a new industry and branch of research in applied medicine. That seems like the best approach to futurism to me: not just persuasion, but also working to create the change you want to see in the world.


Not sure I agree with ranking them by their creative input is a good measure. There is only so many hours in the day and any one futurist would only be able to make a very limited number of predictions (maybe only one) if they were then required to be the boots on the ground in making it happen before qualifying as a futurist of importance. Full credit to those that do such as Aubrey. Poor Ray couldn't be expected to contribute to his wide variety of predictions. Having said that, he has a pretty good track record for inventing things anyway and most recently picked up a shovel by joining google to create his 'mind' so it sounds a bit harsh to rate him as 'irrelevant' to what he envisages (largely being AI these days).

Posted by: Wayne at May 17th, 2013 2:15 AM

A serious article wouldn't have included Timothy Leary, who predicted back in the 1970's that we would have become "immortal" by now. His druggie buddy Robert Anton Wilson made similar predictions. How has that "immortality" worked out for these guys lately? I met Leary in the early 1990's, and I just didn't see why he had a cult following. Bohemians generally don't age well, even if they seemed edgy and cool in their youth. Look at, say, Hugh Hefner for a similar example.

And I think the time has come to call b.s. on Eric Drexler's whole "nanotechnology" fantasy, because that has gotten nowhere in the past 30 years. Spare me your talking points and excuse-making because I've already heard them before.

Posted by: Mark Plus at May 17th, 2013 9:42 AM

I'm surprised, but am pleased that Kurzweil was excluded from the list. I agree with your reasoning on why.

I'd like to point out that you - Reason - are a futurist and are also working to move the world closer to the future you predict. Perhaps not in the same was as De Grey, for example, but in a smaller way, day by day you are helping the cause. Thank you.

Posted by: Dan C at May 22nd, 2013 12:28 PM
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