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They Got It Wrong

It’s often amusing to look back at famous figures from the past (and sometimes the not too distant past) who have made what we now see as ridiculous claims about the future (their future, our past or present) but which have turned out to be badly wrong.

There are plenty of lists of these on the internet so I thought I might look at a few of them and figure out where they went wrong and how this might affect some of the predictions of the future we might have today.

I classified the errors into several categories so without further preamble, let’s get started…

Quote 1: “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” – Lord Kelvin (1883)

Quote 2: “I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones fell from the sky.” – Thomas Jefferson (1790s) after hearing reports of meteorites.

Quote 3: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” – Lord Kelvin [again], British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895.

Quote 4: “Man will not fly for 50 years.” – Wilbur Wright, American aviation pioneer, to brother Orville, after a disappointing flying experiment, 1901 (their first successful flight was in 1903).

So what went wrong here? I think these people suffered from a case of excessive skepticism. As you might know from my blog, I class myself as a skeptic and it is good to exercise a certain amount of healthy doubt when it comes to many of the claims that people make, but obviously it can go too far!

That’s one type of error. What other types of mistakes have been made in the past?

Quote 5: “By 1985, machines will be capable of doing any work Man can do.” – Herbert A. Simon, of Carnegie Mellon University, considered to be a founder of the field of artificial intelligence, speaking in 1965.

Quote 6: “Before man reaches the Moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” – Arthur Summerfield (1959) U.S. Postmaster

Quote 7: “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years.” – Alex Lewyt (1955), president of Lewyt Corp Vacuum Company.

These are bit like the opposite of the first examples. These people aren’t skeptical enough and have excessive confidence in a particular new technology. If you look at the bigger picture it is possible to predict an overall rate of progress, but it’s much harder to say where that progress will be fastest.

Consider two technologies such as flying cars and computers. Both have been predicted to progress greatly but only one has. I don’t know if anyone would have predicted the internet, iPhones, and cheap but powerful computers 50 years ago but many people thought we would have flying cars. So where are they?

And technologies go through cycles of popularity too. For example, at one point nuclear power was seen as the solution to all the world’s problems so why would it not be used to power your vacuum cleaner? If you were president of a company which produced that particular item you would naturally want to get involved with the new technology. Just imagine how much suction power that baby would have!

Now for the most common type of error…

Quote 8: “But what… is it good for?” – IBM executive Robert Lloyd, speaking in 1968 microprocessor, the heart of today’s computers.

Quote 9: “Radio has no future.” – Lord Kelvin [yes, him again], 1897.

Quote 10: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” – H. M. Warner (Warner Bros) talking about sound in movies.

Quote 11: “It would appear we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology.” – John von Neumann (1949), computer scientist.

Quote 12: “Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value.” – Marshal Ferdinand Foch, 1911.

Quote 13: “Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” – Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

Quote 14: “There will never be a bigger plane built.” – A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people.

Yes, this is the classic “failure of imagination”. People got locked into the present and couldn’t see that multiple changes – technological, scientific, and societal – would make the future unrecognisable and be different in qualitative ways as well as quantitative.

I have also come across a common attitude to change where defending the current technologies, which people are already comfortable with, means they have to reject the obvious advantages in what might reasonably be expected to be achieved in the future.

And notice that these people are not just prominent in their fields, they would often be thought of as the exact type of person who would be thinking of the future. I could possibly see why an executive (who is primarily interested in management and profit) would fail in these predictions but plenty of scientists and engineers (who presumably are striving to create advancements) make exactly the same error.

So what else goes wrong?

Quote 15: “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” – Simon Newcomb (1888), astronomer.

Quote 16: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” – Lord Kelvin [for the third time – a brilliant scientist but a lousy predictor of the future], 1900.

Quote 17: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles H. Duell (1899), head of the US Patent Office.

I classify these as failures due to overconfidence. These people really thought that we had reached a point where all the important problems had been solved, where all the important discoveries had been made, or where everything of significance had already been invented.

Well let’s just pick on poor old Lord Kelvin again. He was suggesting that there would be no further major scientific discoveries, but the two most important modern theories (Relativity and Quantum Theory) were just a few years ahead. Both of these theories didn’t really do anything new, they just improved classical theories, so I guess there is at least some (but not much) justification in his claim that future science would be about improving the accuracy of what is already known.

So finally we come to my last category of errors…

Quote 18. “So many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.” – Committee Investigating proposal for an Expedition by Christopher Columbus (1486).

Quote 19: “We will bury you.” – Nikita Krushchev, Soviet Premier, predicting Soviet communism will win over U.S. capitalism, 1958.

If you want to get something wrong probably the best way to achieve this is to start with a false belief or attachment to an idea. There are numerous examples of this in history and many really competent people have been victims.

The two examples above show this phenomenon. In the first a prediction is made that Columbus wouldn’t find any new lands because the person believes in the Biblical creation. In fact I would think that the true age of the world woud make this even less likely, but clarity of thought and religious belief don’t really belong together so I guess we should not expect this to make sense. In the second Krushchev makes a prognostication based on attachment to a political ideology rather than a rational analysis.

In reality even the most clear-sighted people cannot predict the future reliably. People tend to be optimistic regarding the short-term but pessimistic regarding longer time periods. Given this bias here are some of my predictions for the medium term future (about 50 to 100 years)…

Prediction 1. Computers. Practically everything, from light bulbs to cars, will have built-in microprocessors which exchange data on a global network, and that network will be wireless and ubiquitous. And people will “merge” with their digital devices and be able to interact through thought alone. Instant communications with any other person or information source will be possible.

Prediction 2. Energy. All forms of energy will be practically infinite and free. Electricity will power almost everything and nothing like fossil fuels will be in use except in rare and specialised cases.

Prediction 3. Medicine and Biology. Ageing and most disease will be preventable and people will only die from extremely severe diseases and accidents, and by choice. It will be possible to easily engineer completely new artificial species for specific purposes.

Prediction 4. Politics and Society. Our current economic and political systems will be replaced by new ones (based on the information and automation age rather than the industrial age as we are at present) which don’t require long work hours and most people will only “work” by choice. Machines will replace humans in all physical work and in most intellectual work as well.

Prediction 5. The Ultimate Prediction. However crazy any of what I have said above sounds there will be something totally unexpected which makes all of my predictions look rather tame!

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