An Interview with Paul Saffo
Photo of Paul Saffo

Interview by Jill Wolfson, San Jose Mercury News; and Shally Shen

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer

Shally Shen

Shen :   You've been called a futurist, but you say you hate that term. Talk about that.
Saffo :   I dislike the term because it's not an not an accurate description of what I do. For me, futurists are people who are excited about the future. And typically what you discover with people who describe themselves as futurists, they usually have an agenda of some sort. They have a particular opinion about how the future should unfold.

What I am is something more boring. That is, I am just a forecaster. I forecast; I don't predict. And basically what my job boils down to is mapping a cone of uncertainty that extends out from the present.

We all forecast. And I happen to do that for a living in a slightly more systematic way than most people do.

We all forecast. You get up in the morning, you look out the window, and when you decide what jacket to put on, you've made a forecast about the weather. When you buy a house and you say, 'I'm going to get a variable rate loan instead of a fixed-rate loan, you've just made a massively integrated forecast about the future of the global economy and its impact on the United States, its impact on the local region. So, we all forecast. And I happen to do that for a living in a slightly more systematic way than most people do.

I'm a technology forecaster, and I spend most of my time looking at ... electronic technologies. So I'm looking at information tech very largely and typically out 5 to 10 years, sometimes as long as 30 years, depending on the project.

Gemperlein :   And what do you look for when you're looking ?
Saffo :   Well, it varies. I mentioned that cone of uncertainty. At any given moment in time, you have time, and uncertainty increases over time. If I said to you, "What's the weather going to be tonight." You'd look out and say partly cloudy; I doubt it's going to rain."

Even though you don't have a formal meteorology background, you know what the weather's like locally. So you could get it pretty well. If I asked: "What's the weather like tomorrow? Well, that's going to be broader. And if I said a month from now, then that'd be very hard. So the cone expands.

And, in fact, at some point, there is in effect a curtain of good information beyond which, if you venture out there, it's just so uncertain, you can't figure out what's going on.

One thing I do look for is things that don't fit, things that have changed.

My job is to examine that cone. What's in it? What are the outcomes? What are the possible range of outcomes in a given situation going from the present? And I try and push that curve out further than, say, an economist or that sort of person.

We have a bunch of different methodologies we use. But, as an example, the one thing I do look for is things that don't fit, things that have changed. The something that is odd, that doesn't make sense. And those things that don't fit give you hints that really define the edge of this cone.

Here's a real specific example in information technology, a very odd thing that did not fit about 2-1/2 years ago. In Los Angeles, the most popular thing to steal out of automobiles at the time was air bags. Not radios; not cell phones. Radios are too cheap to steal; why bother? Cell phones? Not a good idea to steal them.

But why were air bags popular to steal? I was wondering about that. Well , that funny little event a couple of years ago kept rolling around, and, combined with some other things, led me to realize -- or jump to the conclusion here -- that we're right on the edge of a fundamental shift in information technology in the next decade.

That technology is cheap sensors. Basically, eyes, ears, and sensory organs that will give our computers and our networks an awareness of the analog world around them. And it all led from this, from noticing that air bags were being stolen.

What are the personal qualities that make you good at what you do?
Curiosity. What else?

By the way, the reason was that an air bag sensor today is this complex analog device that only a German engineer could love. It's sort of a filing machine. Have you ever seen pictures of those old Chinese seismographs, the balls with the dragons mouths, little ball bearing in the mouth? The idea that the quake hits and the little ball bearing falls down and you get a rough sense of where it came from. That's basically the principle of an air bag sensor today.

Gemperlein: Were common thieves stealing these?

Saffo: Yes. They sold them to auto shops. As people's air bags would go off, they'd need them replaced. And they wanted a cheap replacement. Dishonest auto shops went to the thieves (to buy a stolen one cheaply.)

Shen :   Who pays you to do this? Do you work for companies who need this information?
Saffo :   The Institute for the Future is a not-for-profit foundation that does work for private companies and government agencies. A whole variety of different folks pay us to help them understand things. And we also do pro bono work.

Being a not-for-profit foundation, our basic mission is to encourage stakeholders in society to think systematically about the long-range future. The heart of what we try to do is convince people that it is not a pointless exercise to think systematically about the long-range future.

You're not going to be able to predict the future, but you can narrow that cone of uncertainty. And we do specific work for large computer companies, telecommunications companies, companies that are heavy users of information systems, and then government agencies that are effected by it.

Shen :   What are the personal qualities that make you good at what you do?
Saffo :   Curiosity. What else? Being comfortable with uncertainty. Because forecasting is really nothing more than applied common sense, the same qualities that make for a good forecaster are the same qualities that make one successful in anything. Being flexible, being curious, being open to change. And not allowing one's mind to close. Too often, what happens is people happen across one idea and they seize upon it, and they pursue that to the exclusion of everything else.
Gemperlein :   You've mentioned that your organization wants to stay small. Why?
Saffo :   It has to do with community. Our unit of work is the team. And you need to have high levels of trust and cooperation among team members. People need to really like and trust each other.

Our response to new technology, today, is really not all that different than it was, say, centuries ago.

And I think that's true in Silicon Valley too. You think about how small companies get successful; they grow large; they die. But if we're real lucky, just before they die, they throw off employees, like a dying oak tree throws off acorns. And then around the corpse of that rise the new little companies.

Gemperlein :   How important is history in what you do?
Saffo :   It's tremendously important. It is the secret to my business.. What I really am is a historian of technology who spends most of his time looking at technology that doesn't exist yet. And the reason why the history is valuable is that amidst all the seeming change going on, the constant is human behavior, individually and collectively as cultures. And our response to new technology, today, is really not all that different than it was, say, centuries ago. And so there are lots of lessons from history. Just have to make sure you pull the right lessons and not the wrong ones.