Predicting the Future is Hard

I’ve been on a bit of a sci-fi novel binge lately (I usually read nonfiction, mostly history) and I’m always struck by the predictions in those books, the authors’ extrapolation of current technology far into the future. Often they are remarkably prescient in some areas, while comically missing the mark in others.

For example, in David Brin’s Sundiver (written in 1981, set around the year 2200), our technology is sufficiently developed to fly into the sun and genetically enhance animals, but we still receive communications via fax, in often enormous stacks of paper. Brin foresaw the rise of genetic therapy (which, over 30 years after his book was published, is still only in its infancy) but completely overlooked the rise in popularity and miniaturization of computers.

Kim Stanley Robinson, in his Mars trilogy (written in the 90s, set from 2020 to 2200 or so), has his characters equipped with “lecterns”, portable computer screens that are ostensibly what we now call “tablets” – but they also still carry cameras. This isn’t a major oversight but it does highlight the often-overlooked effects of miniaturization. Digital cameras did exist in the 90s but they were so large that it would not have been obvious they would soon be tiny enough to be implanted into a tablet (or even a watch band!).

Isaac Asimov in the early 50s foresaw a “world encyclopedia” (Wikipedia?) and self-driving vehicles, but thankfully was more conservative regarding artificial intelligence than most of his contemporaries – he said that in 2014 robots will “neither be common or very good, but will be in existence”. That’s about right – current robots are great for simple mechanical tasks or those that require minimal AI (like vacuum cleaners, and even then our Neato XV-11 gets stuck everywhere) but fall on their face when presented with human-level tasks. We’re only just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with computers like IBM’s Watson, which is still imperfect and enormous.

And in closing, Arthur C. Clarke’s “Three laws of prediction”:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The third in particular always gets my imagination going. If I were to take a mundane modern-day object – my smartphone, for example – and go back 20 years in time to show it to my younger self, he would not believe his eyes. And that’s only 20 years! Who knows what the next 20 will bring?