We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.

-Charles F. Kettering, inventor and long-time General Motors Corp. executive, in "Seed for Thought."

The story of the world is littered with old predictions which in retrospect look awfully dumb.

Some classic blunders:

A four-year study commissioned by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella reported in 1490 that a voyage to the West Indies by Columbus was impossible.

Thomas Tredgold, a Britist railroad designer, declared in 1835 that "any general system of conveying passengers-at a velocity exceeding 10 miles per hour, or thereabouts-is extremely improbable."

A week before the Wright brothers lifted off at Kitty Hawk, the New York Times ridiculed the notion of human flight.

Vannevar Bush, former president of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, in 1945 offered some advice to President Truman on the atomic bomb. "The bomb will never go off," Bush declared, "and I speak as an expert on explosives."

So much for crystal balls and bold predictions. But if there is one thing those who gaze into the future have learned, it is that tomorrow need not look like the past. Undaunted by the embarrassments of yesteryear, the guessing game on the future is prospering again-in, of all places, the practical here-and-now world of business and industry.

"The field has exploded in the last five years," said Peter Schwartz, head of futures research for SRI International, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based consulting company. "It used to be we couldn't sell our service. Now we're swamped."

The service that SRI is selling-and services like it being offered by a proliferating number of other futures firms-is a professionally packaged forecast of future earth. And not just the world's economic or technological future. Increasingly, futurists are drawing outlines of tomorrow's political and social landscapes as well.

The growing interest in futures studies stems from a variety of things. One is the quickened pace of change. Another is the diminishing supply of natural resources. A third is what might be termed the world-is-a-crazier place syndrome, which began to take hold somewhere in the midst of Vietnam, Watergate, OPEC, Jonestown and Iran.

Together, these concerns have heightened present-day anxieties and prompted the desire to know ahead of time what is likely to happen in a future blink of time. Knowing-or thinking one knows-may not make any real difference, but it seems nonetheless to be a compelling pursuit among some.

Evidence that futurists have at last gained the mantle of professional legitimacy is apparent not only in the expansion of predictive consulting services. A number of firms-Monsanto, General Electric, IBM, Coca-Cola, Alcoa, Security Pacific Bank and General Mills, to name a few-have inhouse staffs whose primary assignment is to dream up what tomorrow will be like.

Future-think also has spread to such diverse groups as Hallmark Cards, the Kitchens of Sara Lee and the American Baptist Church. Recently when Weyerhaueser, the tree company, dedicated a research center, the keynote speaker was not a scientist but a futurist.

In government, too-particularly in the federal government-futurism has carved a bureaucratic niche for itself under the banners of the Office of Technological Assessment and the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future (publisher of the monthly newsletter, "What's Next?"). The World Future Society, located in Bethesda and chief representative for the field, reports a recent surge in membership to 50,000.

Which is not to say everyone has been smitten by the forecasting bug. Serious futurology is practiced still by only a small fraction of organizations, and mostly large or organizations at that.

Corporate managers generally remain preoccupied with the short term and regard any thinking about the long term as a luxury. This preoccupation has a way of rising and falling with the ebb and flow of corporate profits-the richer a company is, the more likely it will be to indulge in long-range planning. Futurists maintain that this relationship is backwards. They say their skills can be of as much-and sometimes more-benefit to a company in depressed times as in prosperous ones.

The impetus behind today's interest in the study of the future dates back to the end of World War II, when the U.S. turned new attention to national security concerns. H.H. "Hap," Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Force, ordered what was perhaps the first major forecast of future technological capabilities and set up what was probably the first "think factory," forerunner of the well-known Rand Corp.

The space program, the technology explosion, international political conflict and new concerns over the limits of economic growth all contributed in later years to an active interest in figuring out what tomorrow would bring before it happened.

"By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that two important changes were occurring in people's outlook on the future," Ed Cornish, president of the World Future Society, wrote in "The Study of the Future." "First, they were becoming convinced that it was possible to study the furure . . . [And second, they recognized] that the future world is plastic, [that] human beings are not moving toward a predetermined future world but instead are active participants in the creation of the futur world."

Along the way, futurists changed their approach. Their game had been prediction. But as the world grew more complicated and unpredictable, the game got more varied. "Futurists today don't forecast new inventions and developments down the road," Cornish said in an interview. "It's more subtle than that."

In place of predicting, the emphasis now is on coping with uncertainty. "We rarely give one alternative," said SRI's Schwartz. "Instead, we offer up several different ones. We're much more interested in challenging existing perceptions, in getting people to think hard about the furure."

This new focus has led to new methods that have the appearance, at least, of sophistication. Gone is the crystal ball. Today's future-gazers rely on a bagful of techniques, including:

Extrapolation of current trends.

Scenarios that require planning for several possible outcomes.

Delphi surveys. Working on the two-is-better-than-one principle, this is a special method of polling experts, eventually yielding a consensus on the future.

Computer modeling. Now standard in setting economic policy, this method places its faith in a mathematical representation of the future.

Morphological analysis, relevance trees, mission flow diagrams and cross-impact matrices- mentioned here to show that the study of the future has given rise to a strange jargon all its own.

In fact, though, the methods themselves are simple and easy to learn. The trick comes in making sense of the result. In the end, what a futurist counts on most, say those who practice the art, is intuition. "To use a radar analogy, you're really pulsing your way through the future," said GE's Ian Wilson.

Nor does it seem to matter much to some futurists whether their estimates prove right or wrong. "Our aim is not to come up with a right answer," said Shell Oil's Norman Dunca. "It's to encourage management to think creatively about the future. It's sort of a learning process."

Often there's resistance. For instance, after the 1973-74 Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries embargo rendered worthless the predictions that oil companies-and everyone else-had been making about energy resources, Shell switched to a scenario-forecasting approach. But division managers later objected that planning for several contingencies required too much busywork, and so the oil giant went back to single-line extra-polation.

At Security Pacific National Bank in Los Angeles, futurist Hank Koehn found it "almost impossible" at first to get bank officers to imagine a world of national bank branching-and to plan for it. "They had been working in the same mind set for 20 or 30 years," Koehn said. But after 18 months of gentle prodding, bank executives accepted the notion-and now are scouting for acquisitions to prepare for the day Congress approves it.

To skeptics who say the future can't be predicted, so why bother, futurists insist there's really very little hocuspocus involved. "Technologies cast a long shadow," said John Vanston, of Austin-based Technology Futures Inc., which teaches seminars on the subject. "By being alert to these changes, you can get a sense of what's coming."

The same holds for political and social forecasting, according to Graham Molitor, who started Public Policy Forecasting Inc. here two years ago. Molitor periodically travels to Europe where, he says, many issues make head lines before jumping the Atlantic and taking root here.

Operating on the theory that ideas appear in print well before they start to produce real change, a number of programs have sprung up-known loosely as "early warning systems" or "business intelligence programs"-that comb publications for future signals. The American Council of Life Insurance, Ford Motor Co., Hoffmann-La Roche Inc., SIR International and Washington's Center for Policy Process have such programs.

When all is said and done, futurists like to fall back on a quote by one of their most prominent writers, Arthur C. Clarke, who said: "If you take my forecast too seriously, you'll go broke. If your children don't take it seriously enough, they'll go broke." CAPTION: Graph, The 4 Periods of the 20th Century, By Robin Jareaux-The Washington Post