As a boy in Texas, Tom Conger daydreamed about boarding a time machine and warping into the future, to a city right out of "The Jetsons."
Now, 25 years later, Conger makes a living peering into the future, helping government agencies, health groups and private corporations wade five to 20 years ahead in time.His is a world filled with debates on genetic breakthroughs, watches that monitor a person's vitamin deficiencies, cybercompanions that teach doctors to perform surgery and smart toilets that perform a health analysis on whatever they hold.
He's a futurist.
"You always get a raised eyebrow. They ask `Are you in commodities?' " Conger said, referring to the futures market and adding that he understands the confusion.
"I had no idea people could earn their living like this."
A handful of companies - from the Institute of Alternative Futures in Alexandria, Va., where Conger works, to the Global Business Network outside Oakland, Calif. - delve into the future full time. The best-known futurists can command $15,000 for a seminar lecture. Conger won't reveal his salary but acknowledged $70,000 per year is closer to the norm.
The University of Houston offers a master's degree for the study of the future, with about 60 people in the program. Ask professor Oliver Markley to look to the year 2018 and assess the amount of technological change and he sucks in a gasp.
"It'll be huge," he said.
Other futurists said 80 percent of all the chemists, engineers, doctors and anthropologists who ever lived are alive today. Most of them are on the Internet, exchanging ideas and discussing ways to turn possibility into reality.
Some pop futurists - the ones Markley refers to snidely as soothsayers - will have you believe the change is all good: tremendous growth with tremendous gains.
Markley, who looks at political, social and economic aspects as well as technology, snorts his disagreement.
"If you do the most careful, level-headed estimates, you'll see that we are deeply damaging the ecology more than leaders are willing to openly recognize," he said. "The truth is that there is far more uncertainty than can allow us to say how things are definitively going to be."
That's why futurists avoid making predictions. Instead they provide clients with several possible scenarios. They look for constants that mark the different alternatives and use those to offer advice.
Put out an Internet request for information on technological growth 20 to 30 years in the future and Dave Morris responds. He's the founder of a company that makes X-rated computer software called "Girlfriend" designed to seduce its users.
Morris claims artificial intelligence software will allow the creation of virtual companions that could fly an airplane or even stand in for its owner and deliver a speech.
Futurist Adam Gordon said Morris' scenario is typical of people who try to do the crystal ball routine with the future.
"There's no end to the people who do the thumb-sucking and are happy to tell you what they're stuck on, but it doesn't mean it carries any weight," Gordon said. He has a master's degree in future studies and works for a futurists' firm in Washington, D.C.
But other professionals note that while Morris' scenario may be far-fetched, the concept of cybercompanions is becoming more real. They say there will soon be computers programmed to simulate trials for wannabe lawyers and surgeries for medical students. Every detail, even the feel of the organs, will be nailed.
"You could whack years off a doctor's education," said Charlie Thomas, vice president of The Futures Group in Glastonbury, Conn.
Computers will be so small and commonplace people will regard them the same way they view electronic appliances today.
"I'm convinced that in 10 to 15 years, when people go in for a job interview, they and their computers will be interviewed together," Thomas said, explaining an employer will want to assess an applicant's computer files and organizational skills.
Turn to health care and futurists talk about technology that could make invasive use-a-scalpel-and-cut surgery less common, replaced by arthroscopic techniques and CT scan-like devices that would assess, say, the colon for defects.
Conger said that in 50 years research could produce microscopic machines that would be placed in the bloodstream, designed to battle and control high cholesterol. Even sooner could come devices worn around the wrist that would monitor a person's health, down to vitamin deficiencies.
Already, Japan has produced a smart toilet. Capable of performing a medical analysis of waste products, it brings up a key question about technological advancement.
"Is that something we all want?" Conger asked with a chuckle.
With the changing technology will come a new, growing breed of ethical challenges.
Put cloning and protection of a person's DNA at the top of that list, said Stephen Millett, a futurist from Columbus, Ohio.
In as soon as 10 years, people could have access to their own DNA profiles, Millett said. What do you do to keep that information out of other people's hands?
"Basically, our understanding of DNA is where nuclear physics was about in 1938," he said.
Alternative futures are referred to as probable, possible and preferable scenarios.
Conger said the goal is to focus on the common elements of all three scenarios to shape the future toward that third P.
Instead of letting the environment shape reality, he said, futurists do the sculpting themselves.