Long Bets: Putting Money Where Your Predictions Are

Would you wager on your vision of the future?

Think you know what will happen in the future? Would you care to make a wager on that? Since 2002, Long Bets has served as an arena for prognosticators of all calibers to make predictions, challenge others, and place bets on whose vision of the future will ultimately come true. Before you go running to gamble on sports or celebrity outfits you should know that the website only accepts predictions of “societal or scientific importance.” Also, unlike with real gambling, the wagers made on Long Bets aren’t given to the winners, but to a charity of their choosing. While many of the predictions on Long Bets will take decades to see an outcome, others are resolved each year – Netflix’s expansion of its video-on-demand services recently decided a $2000 wager. Under the guidance of President Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired, Long Bets is aimed at providing a place where futurists can be held accountable. After all, if you’re trying to get others to believe in your predictions, shouldn’t you be willing to put some money on the line?

One of the great parts of Long Bets is that predictors (and those that challenge them to a bet) have to include a brief written explanation for their beliefs. Some of the bigger names in futurism and modern technology have already put their thoughts down “in stone” on the Long Bets site. Ray Kurzweil and Mitchell Kapor (founder of Lotus) have a $20,000 bet on whether or not a computer will pass the Turing Test by 2029. Craig Mundie (CTO of Microsoft) and Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) have a $2000 wager on whether or not we’ll have pilotless planes by 2030, with Schmidt playing the pessimist. Kevin Kelly has predicted that the global population in 2060 will be less than it was 2003. When these issues are eventually decided we’ll not only know who was right, we’ll also know what they were thinking when they made their wager.

The potential for embarrassment is palpable. Ted Danson took down Mike Elliott (editor at large, TIME) for betting against his beloved Red Sox winning the World Series. Vint Cerf predicted that 50% of all books sold worldwide would be digital by 2010 (the numbers are closer to 8.5 to 10% by volume). Add to these the dozens of bizarre predictions and bets about BigFoot, Steve Jobs for President of the US, and the Shroud of Turin and you get a cornucopia of statements that are going to prove pretty awkward for someone in the future. Especially when you consider it takes $50 to register a prediction in the first place.

When looking through the predictions and wagers on Long Bets, a few jump out for their seriousness (financially and philosophically). Warren Buffet has a $1,000,000 wager with Protege Partners LLC that the S&P 500 will outperform hedge funds over ten years (2008 to 2017). Martin Rees (a professor at Princeton) expects a bioterror (or biotech accident) to claim the lives of one million people in a single event by 2020. Pessimists and optimists argue over whether the world will make progress with humanity’s grand challenges such as food, access to clean water, health, education, and the price of energy. There’s even a wager on whether or not the Large Hadron Collider will destroy Earth. I wonder if those predicting the LHC’s destructive power realize that they will have a hard time celebrating if they win.

In general, I’m in favor of the philosophy behind the Long Bets site. It’s important to provide a location for futurists to clearly state their predictions and be held to account when those predictions fail or succeed. The wagers are a good sign of commitment to a train of thought and their donation to charity is a fortuitous outcome no matter who is declared the winner. The Long Now Foundation, who runs the site, takes a fairly sizeable cut (half of all interest on wagers held on behalf of the contestants), but they’re a charity aimed at fostering long term care and guidance of our civilization so I’m willing to look the other way.

It will be interesting to see if Long Bets starts to shape the discourse on futurism as more of the wagers on its site come due. Every year, a few more debates are settled, and a few more people are vindicated in their beliefs. By 2030, there will be dozens of highly impactful events that will have either occurred or not. While those events themselves will be more important than the predictions surrounding them, records like Long Bets will give us a better idea of who to listen to in the future. I’m thinking about predicting that the Singularity won’t arrive by 2050. If I win, I win. If I lose, we all win. Seems like a good bet to me.

[image credit: Bradley Spencer]
[source: Long Bets]