The future is now

Eighteen leaders and luminaries share their thoughts on where we're headed and what we'll see when we get there.

By Jerry Useem, Fortune

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- The Future Is Now: In Lessons From Our Future, a brilliant history that's never been written, the authors conclude, "If the future teaches us anything, it's that it hasn't happened yet." That has held true throughout the years and helps explain why visions of the future - from home robots to hovercraft - have always looked so, well, futuristic. But lately something's changed.

The present has started to look awfully futuristic. Which raises a question: Are we living in the future? It's not impossible. In 1972, Redskins coach George Allen took an ailing franchise to the Super Bowl by declaring, "The future is now" - a ruling that was overturned by the Miami Dolphins, 14 - 7. But the '72 Dolphins are history. Today you stroll into Circuit City (Charts) and see two kids playing something that, from a distance, looks like an actual NFL game. It's clearly from the future. Then you fly to Shanghai on Google (Charts) Earth, where a 101-story tower that should be a sci-fi rendering is really being built. You may not have an avatar in Second Life, the imaginary online world. But Reebok has a store there, built of pixels but charging real money for shoes that look great in Windows, Mac, or Linux. And we used to need Orson Welles to blow our minds!

If the future is upon us, though, what's ahead? Our prediction: Hannah Montana (a.k.a. Miley Cyrus), the 14-year-old Disney star whose brand will extend from television, music, and Nintendo to the virtual realm Disney is building. The long-term outlook: more future. It's never in short supply. And it's coming at us ever faster, like the accelerating levels of a videogame. At these speeds, anticipating what lurks around the corner becomes a challenge of eyesight as much as insight. What's ahead is what 18 top leaders and thinkers (and one duck) see on their horizon, from 3-D printing to $100 billion private-equity deals. And if cellulosic ethanol (think cars powered by wood chips and weeds) sounds like the last scene of Back to the Future, remember Doc's words: "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads."

Peter Chernin

President and COO of News Corp.

Some 90% of the profits of the media and entertainment companies come from old media. We feel it's important to stake our claim in profitable new businesses. MySpace was our way of staking out that space in 2006. In 2007 it's mobile entertainment. Mobile is the largest distribution platform on earth. There are two billion cellphone users, vs. one billion Internet users and one billion television users. Our most interesting acquisition in the mobile space is a 51% stake in Jamba, which sells ringtones and other features for personalizing cellphones. This is a nascent medium, but Jamba is already in 30 countries. Jamba allows us to deliver our content - such as Simpsons clips, which we'll launch soon - directly to mobile consumers.

Mike Eskew

CEO of UPS (Charts)

Globalization started as a trend for large multinational companies, but it is increasingly becoming one for small and mediums. We see 2007 - our 100th anniversary - as the year when small and medium-sized companies push harder to go global. They look as big on the Internet as anyone else. They look as if they can do as much. Technology virtualizes their location and camouflages their size. And they are asking us to expand their markets so that they can sell anywhere.

David Rubenstein

Co-founder and managing director of the Carlyle Group

Success in the private-equity market probably can't go on as it has. A cataclysmic event could scare investors, a major buyout could fail, or the economy could slow. But even in an economic downturn, the private-equity industry will not implode because it's been transformed. The organizations doing deals today have huge financial resources and can deploy management talent like David Calhoun and Lou Gerstner and Jack Welch. In 2007, I think a $50 billion buyout deal will get done. Two years out, a $100 billion deal.

Mitchell Baker

CEO of Mozilla

We are in a phase where the web is going from text-based to multimedia-based. We used to think of hypertext links as amazing, but that was a flat world. Now we're entering a spherical world. We'll see dramatic experiments as the web integrates audio and visual elements.

Eli Broad

Founder of SunAmerica and KB Home

America's long-term problem is competitiveness, and I think 2007 will bring a wake-up call. We'll finally do something about public education. There will be a move to national standards, at least in science and math.

While education is my biggest concern, my personal passion is art. The art market has gone up 10% to 30% a year for five years. Nothing goes up in a straight line forever. There has got to be a correction. I am paying more in insurance for many of my paintings than I did for the art itself.

Bill Richardson

Governor of New Mexico

My policy in Iraq would be to set a date for withdrawal in 2007, coupled with a political agreement between the three ethnic groups in Iraq. We should engage in hard, face-to-face bargaining, send tough messages, and try to reach diplomatic agreements that protect America's interests. Our obsession with Iraq has caused us to neglect diplomatic efforts to improve not just our ties with allies in the fight against international terrorism, but also our bargaining with rogue states like Syria and Iran.

Martin Sorrell

CEO of WPP (Charts)

China and the Internet are still the two biggest opportunities. I went to China six times last year. The government always underestimates growth. The government says China has 1.3 billion people. I think China actually has 1.5 billion people. The difference equals one Indonesia, or 32 Britains, or two-thirds of the U.S. So I think the opportunity in China is greater than most people believe. China Mobile has 300 million subscribers. Think about it. That's the population of the U.S.

John Mack

Chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley (Charts)

In the past few months I've had conversations with [British Chancellor of the Exchequer] Gordon Brown, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, [Mexican President Felipe] Calderón, and a number of U.S. Senators. They're all worried about protectionism. In the U.S. it's a huge concern. In Europe it's continuing - and in Germany it's growing. Look, we have this wonderful global market - as good as it gets. We have a lot of liquidity. What will throw the market off track? A terrorist attack, of course. But long term, protectionism could get us off track.

T. Boone Pickens

Founder of BP Capital

I think oil in 2007 will average around $70 a barrel. You've just about reached peak production for the world, and demand continues to go up.

Five questions

Vinod Khosla, Venture Capitalist

You got on the ethanol bandwagon early. What's on tap for 2007?

This will be the year of cellulosic ethanol - fuel made from grasses, wood chips, and other underutilized biomass. New fuels like butanol will also come along. I wouldn't be surprised to see biogasoline either. We'll see biofuels move from their role as an additive to gasoline to a primary fuel for automobiles.

What still stands in ethanol's way?

You'll see critics, often funded by the petroleum interests, increase their attacks on biofuels through surreptitious PR campaigns, while publicly supporting these renewable fuels. We might even see oil prices manipulated down to thwart this transition, which is essential for our planet.

What other areas of alternative energy should we be watching?

Coal. We will continue to see a push for "clean coal," as it's a way for a few of the traditional power-generation firms to delay action. Clean coal will be in a horse race with wind and solar. I'd personally handicap solar thermal, not photovoltaic solar or clean coal to win.

How will Congress and the presidential candidates affect the equation?

The biggest leverage will come from the similar positions of the presidential candidates for 2008. Most of the rumored candidates already support an aggressive biofuels policy, as do the Democratic majorities in Congress and the Bush administration.

Where are you investing, outside of green tech?

We're excited about mobile applications and see breakthroughs in semiconductors and batteries.

Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Kaplan Thaler Group

Your new book, The Power of Nice, talks about using niceness as a business tool. Is that really a trend?

People are fed up with greed and opportunism. Look at Enron, Hewlett-Packard, and most recently Home Depot's CEO. It hasn't been profitable to be nice. But I think the Internet is a very big part of it. You can't un-Google yourself. Gone are the days when snappy campaigns could mask bad behavior.

How would you rebrand the U.S.?

When you think of the U.S. as a brand, Bush would be our celebrity spokesperson. If he's not popular, then America's greatest asset would be Americans. In particular, it's people in business. They are our ambassadors around the world. Every positive interaction [they have] is a vote in favor of supporting our country.

You've worked on political campaign ads in the past. What will we see in the run-up to 2008?

I believe candidates will be less concerned with generic "feel good" ads (which will be easily "TiVo'd" out by bored viewers) and instead create targeted messages that are demographic-specific.

What will they look like?

Education-related ads will run on Lifetime or Oxygen, and youth-oriented messages will go on YouTube or MTV. But they'll all have to ante up the "E" factor: We have become an entertainment-centric society, where the path of least resistance is the one that amuses or startles us most.

Why is a duck able to sell insurance?

The Aflac duck is a microcosm of how we feel in society. No one seems to notice us. We need to be heard.

Kiril Sokoloff, Founder of 13D Research

You've said before that America's growing dependence on foreign oil could soon become a crisis.

Petropolitics is becoming a dangerous game. Witness Putin, Chávez, Morales. The Middle East is a powder keg. Anything could go wrong there tomorrow.

What signs worry you most?

In the 1980s we had a very large unused capacity of oil production - about 14 million barrels. Leaving the warm weather aside, it is now down to around three million and at the same time production has become dangerously concentrated. Over 192 countries are dependent on oil. But only 30 countries produce most of the oil, and only 17 of those export more than 500,000 barrels a day. And some 71% of production comes from state-owned oil companies.

Is the U.S. to blame?

Actually, since 2000, 85% of world energy demand growth has come from emerging economies.

Which countries are you most concerned about?

China now has roughly 33 million automobiles, and it is projected to increase to 130 million by 2015. Right now 70% to 80% of China's oil demand comes from trucks and freight transportation, not from cars. And the Chinese government is building an 85,000-kilometer equivalent to our highway system that we built in the 1950s.

What's it mean for investors?

This story is going to play out over decades, and the key to long-term investment themes is staying power. The key to staying power is a good entry point. We had two good points last year. Now we have the prospect of a warm winter, so it's wise to wait and see if it weakens the entire sector, in which case the late spring, if not before, could represent a superb buying opportunity.

Patricia Sellers, Jenny Mero, Adam Lashinsky, Stephanie N. Mehta, David Stires and Julie Schlosser contributed to this article. Top of page