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Silicon Valley ‘foresight trainer’ on exploring the future

Working at the Institute for the Future, one American woman is less about life-changing ideas and more about thinking of a world yet to come and how to shape it. THEO PANAYIDES meets her

The breakfast room of the Amathus Beach Hotel – which is where I meet Rachel Maguire, the morning after her lecture in the ‘Life Changing Ideas’ series at the University of Nicosia – isn’t the most obvious place to discuss the future of humanity, then again there is no good place to discuss the future of humanity; not because it’s bleak, necessarily, but because it’s so uncertain. For the first time in human history, our collective future runs the gamut from extinction all the way to immortality. Both are “plausible scenarios” as they say at the Institute for the Future, where Rachel is Research Director.

‘Life extension’ is dramatically close, by all accounts, the technology of cellular systems having got to the point where scientists can start intervening in the ageing process. In his bestselling book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari (a favourite of Silicon Valley, where the Institute is based) gives an idea of how such a future could work: “Every 10 years or so we will march into the clinic and receive a makeover treatment that will not only cure illnesses, but will also regenerate decaying tissues, and upgrade hands, eyes and brains”. Then again, even Harari isn’t sure this could happen anytime soon – he’s just citing the various true believers who insist we can live to be 500, or more – and of course a very different future is also dramatically close: last month, an IPCC report projected a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 (unless something is done, of course), which would usher in the worst effects of climate change.

Where does Rachel fit into all this? To be honest, she does and she doesn’t. Anyone expecting grand pronouncements will be disappointed – and indeed, the Institute for the Future doesn’t actually claim to know the future. “We don’t predict,” she cautions. “One thing we don’t do is to say ‘This is what will happen’.” Her main role seems to lie in what she calls “foresight training”, guiding people – mostly the large corporate clients who consult her employers – in thinking about their future, and allowing them to “take more agency” in shaping it. The windows of the Institute are adorned with a telling quote by Buckminster Fuller: “We are called to be the architects of the future, not its victims”.

She herself is refreshingly grounded, a tall, pale, cheerful 42-year-old with blue eyes and rather angular features. She’s made an effort to fill her plate from the breakfast buffet – rye bread, salad, a sliver of feta, a hunk of smoked salmon – but doesn’t even touch it as we speak, only taking sips from a glass of latte; she doesn’t have much appetite in the mornings. Last night’s lecture was on a very specific subject, ‘The Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships’ (aka Will the robots take all our jobs?), a subject on which she’s cautiously optimistic – but the point, she repeats, isn’t to proclaim what humanity’s future might be, but to get people comfortable in discussing it: “To talk about the future,” as she puts it, “in the same way we talk about the past”.

It’s a weird idea, seemingly counter-intuitive. The future, after all, is impossible to pin down. The past exists, albeit in different versions; the future keeps changing. “It’s sort of chaos theory,” notes Rachel, insofar as talking about the future automatically affects that future. “Like, for instance, this notion of machines taking our jobs. Once that was identified as a plausible scenario, actions have been taken now that are either going to accelerate that future or decelerate it”. Then again, that’s the point – the totemic power that exists simply in giving voice to possible outcomes. “As a futurist think-tank,” she explains, “I think our job is to help people re-imagine –” she backtracks, trying to phrase it more precisely – “help people imagine a different future”.

Does it matter, though? Never mind humanity, take Rachel herself as an example. Is her life now the way she imagined it at 18, for instance? She pauses, frowning. “No,” she admits. “As an 18-year-old, I planned to live in lots of different countries and – you know, everything was about adventure, nothing about stability… I didn’t understand why someone would want the house, and the car, and the kids and the day-to-day.” The future has a way of sneaking up on you – because now, of course, she does have a house and a car, not to mention a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl. I’ve already met her husband Adrian (he works in ‘FinTech’, or financial technology), and wonder if the kids too may be lurking around somewhere – but in fact they’re with their grandparents in Mexico City, she and Adrian having taken advantage of Thanksgiving (and Rachel’s speaking engagement) to take that most mythical of beasts for Americans, a week’s vacation. Their immediate future looks bright, including a trip to the Troodos mountains and a half-marathon in the Cyprus Challenge.

It’s funny how the three planks of life – past, present and future – work in tandem to explain the whole, whether it’s society or an individual. Most of us, especially in Cyprus, are rooted to a place, usually the place where we grew up – but Rachel had a very particular childhood, growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, a small, icy city with a sense of a new frontier and a rather transient population who’d all come from somewhere else; her dad was from New York, her mother from Michigan. None of her family stayed in her chilly hometown. Dad – now widowed – lives in Seattle, Rachel’s sister in Oregon, her brother in Washington DC, Rachel herself in Austin, Texas. (Shouldn’t they all have met for Thanksgiving? “It’s rare for my family to get together for Thanksgiving, because we’re so distributed across the US.”) One shouldn’t grant too much importance to the past, of course – yet one also has to wonder if this rather free-floating background helps her in imagining a free-floating future, a bevy of ‘plausible scenarios’. And of course her parents’ sense of adventure, moving to the middle of nowhere for no obvious reason, rubbed off on her, at least in her 20s.

That 18-year-old’s itch to travel was no idle dream. Rachel roamed the Americas as a young backpacker then settled in Mexico for some years, working for the Ministry of Health (her background is in health-care policy). Was she happier in her 20s, or now? “I’ve never really thought about these questions,” she shrugs – “but I enjoyed my 20s very much. When you only needed enough money to pay for whatever you were going to do that day, or to get a bus ticket to the next place… I liked mapping out where I would go next, trying to find a way to make a few dollars in every place where I showed up”. She lived, in other words, for the present, which is what young people do – just like many older people tend to live in the past. No wonder the future gets sidelined.

What’ll it be, immortality or extinction? Will we vanquish death, or die in heatwaves and hurricanes? But she doesn’t say, and in fact we don’t talk much about grand ideas – though, as already mentioned, she reckons “there’s a little bit of over-hype on what machines can do at a systems level, what they can do consistently and effectively”. (Translation: the robots won’t be taking all our jobs, at least not for a while.) We probably talk more about mundane things like working hours and the joys of parenthood, and whether nine-year-olds should have smartphones.

Hers doesn’t, anyway. It’s odd, admits Rachel on the subject of kids and phones, she spends her professional life urging people to improve their “digital literacy”, yet “I don’t parent that way. I don’t actually let my children spend very much time around technology… I know you can make an argument that it’s good to introduce them, so they’ll learn how to moderate – but I don’t think children are very good at moderating anything, you know? They want the whole cookie!”. This may be a trend, people in the know being spooked by what she calls “the dopamine economy”, i.e. addiction. We’ve already heard about some elite schools going ‘no-tech’ and Silicon Valley executives not letting their kids play video games – and indeed, says Rachel, many of their clients at the Institute are tech companies, worried by the impact their products are having in our new connected world.

Is that the way the future’s going to go? The human brain re-wired by too much social media? But again, she doesn’t really say – both because we can’t know (at best, it’s a plausible scenario) and also, I suspect, because Rachel Maguire isn’t the type to make pronouncements. She is, as she puts it, “linear-minded”, albeit in a field where she’s often surrounded by “non-linear thinkers” and other creatives. She doesn’t go in for apples-and-oranges metrics like comparing happiness in her 20s and 40s, nor does she share the utopian Silicon Valley belief in a solution to everything – which is partly why she left for Texas, finding the Valley “too much of a bubble” (another reason was that rents were exorbitant). Silicon Valley types tend to embrace the extreme as an article of faith, subjecting themselves to starvation diets in pursuit of “wellbeing” and pouring billions into medical advances that’ll let us live for hundreds of years. Rachel, on the other hand, keeps fit and happy by running – she’s a runner, has been since her teens, hence her interest in the Cyprus Challenge – and is wary when it comes to life extension, viewing it mainly as a pet project for those in the ‘bubble’. “I’m interested in systems-level change, and I don’t know how many people across the globe actually want to continue to live the life they’re living for 150 years,” she notes slyly. “If you’re not going to figure out drinkable water, and yet you want [people] to live 150 years…” She shrugs, letting the sentence tail off. That’s the other thing about the future, it’s not monolithic; her employer should really be called the Institute for Eight Billion Different Futures.

That’s a big issue, though, the increasing divide between elite and underclass. We do talk a bit about that, Rachel musing that democracy may fall by the wayside (“Will democracy look the same way it is? Will it fundamentally be a democracy?”) and the future, whatever it brings, may be less egalitarian than the present – which is already pretty unequal, especially in the US. “I think there are so many forces converging over the next two decades that make it a really ripe opportunity to re-think our economic structures, at the largest scale possible,” she says, decorously hinting that capitalism may no longer be fit for purpose. And what of universal basic income? What about those robots? Cyborgs? Cloned babies? What about all the old clichés, “flying cars, food in a pill”? So many futures, so little time.

It’ll come, one way or the other; like death, it’s unavoidable (unless of course we manage to pull off immortality, and avoid extinction). But meanwhile there’s the present – which, for Rachel, seems quite agreeable. Not only does she work from home but Austin is two hours ahead of Palo Alto, meaning she can see the kids off to school and still be at her desk in good time. She bills around 40 hours a week, which is not excessive. She runs a lot, and also reads a lot (most recently Bad Blood, the true story of fraudster Elizabeth Holmes). It wouldn’t be right to call her non-political – diversity, especially gender diversity, is one of her Causes – but she doesn’t come across as an ideologue. Her role, as we sit in the noisy breakfast room, isn’t that of Silicon Valley guru. She’s more like a devotee of some mildly arcane practice (some new form of yoga, say), trying to demystify her practice and explain how much better the world would feel if they adopted it.

We can’t know the future, of course we can’t – but it’s vitally important to explore it and talk about it, ‘foresight training’ helping in the way that a History course might help in making sense of the past. Her plate of breakfast remains untouched, and Adrian is waiting to set off on their trip to the mountains. “To just hand over the future and let it be built by – y’know, corporations, governments, people in power, I think that’s – we’ve done that for too long,” concludes Rachel Maguire. “I think more of us need to feel empowered to create the future that we want”. We shake hands then part, each to their future.

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