The Perils of Prediction

And here’s an example from the opposite end of the spectrum. In 1959, on the 50th anniversary of the first flight across the English Channel, a hovercraft made the same crossing. The future looked bright for a craft that could travel much faster than an ordinary boat and even had limited amphibious capabilities. Yet they are only used in limited military and ferrying roles today.

Four Technology Success Categories

Let’s summarize these four categories of technology success:

  • The calculator was a surprise success. It came out of nowhere and quickly reached maturity. Also in this category: the worldwide Web.
  • Computer graphics has been a long-term success. After decades of steady progress, it has become increasingly useful. Computers are also in this category.
  • Artificial Intelligence has been a long-term disappointment. Big predictions have repeatedly been wrong. Progress continues, but at an unsatisfactory pace. Fusion power is also in this category.
  • The hovercraft is a failure. That’s not to say that it has no applications, but that it hasn’t lived up to initial promises and probably never will. Many would put the Segway personal transporter in this category.

    We are left with the challenge of sifting future winners from losers. What is the future of robotics, genetic reengineering, quantum computing, nanotechnology, tourist space travel, virtual reality, or solar power? Is that new technology another computer graphics, to be blessed with steady progress, or is it another AI, with great appeal but maddeningly slow progress? Or will it simply fail?

    Forbes magazine advised, “Whenever you get the urge to predict the future, better lie down until the feeling goes away.” Prediction is inherently difficult. Let’s applaud the effort to see the future more clearly. But let’s also be skeptical of those results.

    Bob Seidensticker is an engineer who writes and speaks on the topic of technology change. A graduate of MIT, Bob has more than 25 years of experience in the computer industry. He is author of Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change and holds 13 software patents.