Figuring Out The Future

Image: US Army

Can you figure out the future in just five days?

This week, the US Army kicked off its five-day SciTech Futures exercise, which aims to explore how advancements in science and technology will change the world as we know it and how those developments can be used to change how the Army works to achieve its basic objectives. The exercise, which runs June 20-25, consists of web-based games that explore how science, trends in technological progress, and the erosion of US technological advantages might play out in 2040. Some of the insights from the first day included deployable insects, participant “investment” in ocean farming and real pushback on the viability of drone swarms.

The Army’s approach, which it has used before, is unique for a multitude of reasons. First, the Army really is taking the long-view by projecting out to 2040, five years beyond the National Intelligence Council’s forthcoming Global Trends 2035 report. Second, even though there is an emphasis on global security and military concerns, issues clearly within the government’s authority, the exercise invites contributions from non-government actors. Third, and related to the second point, the Army is relying heavily on crowd-sourcing from a variety of industries in order to encourage innovation. Not only is the Army actively seeking out ideas from non-government actors, it is inviting participation from any individual willing to register an account.

The game has three central areas: an Imaginarium, a Workshop, and a Marketplace. The Imaginarium features various “sparks,” which are questions or ideas that users review and can add themselves. One “spark,” for instance, poses a question that many people surely have been pondering on their own—“What will be the next silly putty?” From there, users can “react” by choosing to label the idea or question important, cool, novel, and/or a realistic possibility within the next 30 years. If the “spark” inspires the user, she can press a “eureka” button to create an idea that will move to the Workshop. The user gives the idea a title, description, and, ideally, electronic references. Users are free to post any content (including photos and articles) in the Imaginarium that might spark ideas about future technologies.

The Workshop is the place where ideas from the Imaginarium move once an idea is saved and where users can go to submit an idea that was not inspired by a “spark” in the Imaginarium. In the Workshop, ideas are discussed, rated, and, if they reach a score of at least 100, moved to the marketplace, where they sink or fly by attracting investors. (At the time of drafting, silly putty of the future had a score of 50, so, sadly, no one can invest in the idea yet.) Many of the suggestions, which often feature colorful images capturing the essence of the proposal, are interesting and potentially useful, such as using floating hydroponic systems for farming, owning and militarizing areas of outer-space, and creating human-implantable alertness devices that determine when the human operator becomes drowsy, either alerting the individual of their condition so they can seek out treatment or, alternatively, automatically providing energy to its user once it detects fatigue.

Once ideas reach the marketplace, users can invest in an idea by relying on a daily (also imaginary) budget of $10,000. Users then indicate why they are investing in the idea at the level they are—the options are feasibility, utility, and novelty. In true competitive spirit, the Army has added a leaderboard with user rankings, a hierarchy of individual scores computed based on general game participation, such as interactions with and additions made to Imaginarium “sparks” and ideas featured in the Workshop.