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The Future Is Ours

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Predicting the future is an activity fraught with error. Wilbur Wright, co-inventor of the motorized airplane that successfully completed the first manned flight in 1903, seems to have learned this lesson when he noted: "In 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for 50 years. Ever since I have … avoided predictions." Despite the admonition of Wright, faulty future forecasting seems a favored human pastime, especially among those who would presumably avoid opportunities to so easily put their feet in their mouths.

What follows are some of the more striking exemplars of expert error in forecasting the future of technological innovations.

  • "Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
    Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology, 1872
  • "The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon."
    —Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon to Queen Victoria, 1873
  • "Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax."
    William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), English physicist and inventor, 1899
  • "There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will."
    —Albert Einstein, 1932
  • "Man will never reach the moon, regardless of all future scientific advances."
    —Lee De Forest, Radio pioneer, 1957

Computers and information technologies seem to hold a special place in the forecasters’ hall of humiliation, be they predictions from the media, business, politicians, scientists, or technologists. Here are some examples:

  • "This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
    —Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
    —Thomas Watson, chair of IBM, 1943
  • "The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it."
    —New York Times, 1949
  • "Where … the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons."
    —Popular Mechanics, 1949
  • "Folks, the Mac platform is through—totally."
    —John C. Dvorak,
    PC Magazine, 1998
  • "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
    —Ken Olson, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
  • "640K ought to be enough for anybody."
    —Attributed to Bill Gates, Microsoft chair, 1981
  • "By the turn of this century, we will live in a paperless society."
    —Roger Smith, chair of General Motors, 1986
  • "I predict the Internet … will go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."
    —Bob Metcalfe, 3Com founder and inventor, 1995
  • "Credit reports are particularly vulnerable … [as] are billing, payroll, accounting, pension and profit-sharing programs."
    —Leon A. Kappelman, on likely Y2K problems, 1999

It is into this ring of forecasting fire that I too throw my hat, again. The fact is predictions that fail to come true may not actually be bad predictions at all. Often, such predictions serve as admonitions to steer us away from undesirable futures. Take your parents’ warning, "Get out of the road, you’ll be hit by a car," or the pessimistic predictions about the Y2K problem that resulted in appropriate action being taken.

Both overly pessimistic and optimistic forecasts are frequently faulty as a result of oversimplification. Moreover, prognosticators of all persuasions often fail to take into account the difficulty of predicting human behavior, as well as the element of surprise, "acts of God," and "wild cards." Thus, we have examples of inventions that never caught on, such as the video phone, introduced by AT&T at the 1964 World’s Fair; and the U.S. Department of Labor’s 1929 forecast that "1930 will be a splendid employment year," until the stock market crash of 1929 triggered the Great Depression.

Humans in general are ill-equipped for soothsaying. We too readily project our own views, motivations, and biases onto others, and tend to place too much emphasis on current experience. The latter, sometimes called "recency bias," when combined with extrapolation and oversimplification, results in conclusional leaps such as tulip manias, stock market bubbles, and predictions like those warning that everyone in the U.S. would have to become a telephone operator; 50 years later it was computer programmers.

My personal favorite jumped conclusion is the New York Times headline of August 27, 1911 that read "Martians build two immense canals in two years," after an astronomer reported seeing two previously unnoticed lines on the surface of the red planet.

The fact is our future is largely a function of our past, our present, and the choices we make. It might be simpler if the "gods" were in control and we humans merely at the mercy of the fates. But no, it is our own choices that largely determine the destiny of our species and our planet, as well as the rest of its inhabitants. And technology, much like all the other tools at our disposal—money, guns, nuclear fission, fossil fuels, automobiles, software, hardware, and all the rest—have only a potentiality for good or evil. It is humans that effectuate their deployment, humans that take the risks, and humans that reap the rewards, or retributions.

So what promises might technology hold for us, and what curses might we use it to bring about? The possibilities are nearly limitless, in either direction. I’ll leave the hand wringing and prognostications to others, and instead focus my attention on the place between our ears. For it is here that our fate will literally be decided. It is the quality of our thinking, the completeness of our decision models, and the ethical basis of our decision criteria that will seal our fate. It is not our technological artifacts, but the ways we choose to use them that will determine our future.

May each and every one of us choose wisely.

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