Predicting the future — A historical overview
Every new year, astrologers make predictions about the future, so do scientists, engineers, researchers, inventors and investors. Despite the vast information that researchers and industry insiders have had at their fingertips, many failed to see the potential of some technologies and made some pretty terrible forecasts over the years. Due to survivorship bias and selection bias, history remembers the most, those predictions that demonstrate spectacular misjudgment or stubbornness to defend old-fashioned-soon-to-be-outdated technologies.
Below I’ve created a timeline of the past 2 centuries (from 1800 till now) to show that even industry leaders don’t always have enough faith, vision or imagination to see the potential of the technology in their (in terms of possibilities, disruptiveness, market impact and adoption).
The pattern is simple: first, people don't believe in the impact of these technologies, then after a while, when these technologies prove themselves and become widespread, people can't understand how someone in the past would have ever made such terrible forecasts.
[1800 ]— Steam ships
The French Military leader Napoleon Bonaparte said that, it is impossible to come up with a ship that can sail against the wind.
“How, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.” — Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton’s steamboat
 —High speed trains
“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” — Dr. Dionysius Lardner
 — Telephones
“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” — Western Union internal memo
 “The Americans don’t need telephone because we have plenty of messenger boys.” — Sir William Preece
 — Electric street lights
“When the Paris Exhibition (of 1878) closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.” — Oxford professor Erasmus Wilson
 — X-Rays
“X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” — Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society
 — Alternating current
“Using alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it ever.” — Thomas Edison
 — Sub-Marines
“I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea.” — HG Wells, British novelist
 — Cars
The chief of the Michigan Bank advised the Henry Ford’s lawyer Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company because automobiles are just a fad and they can never replace horses.
“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.”
 — Planes
“It is complete nonsense to believe flying machines will ever work.” — Stanley Mosley
Heavier-Than-Air Flight Is Impossible
When I was a child, my parents posted a yellowed, faded page from a newspaper on our refrigerator door. It was filled…
People kept skeptical about flying till the very last week before the wright brother experiments.This even dates back to 15th century’s Da Vinci for his unsuccessful flying machines designs. The basic argument was: If God had meant man to fly, he would have given him already wings.
 — Radio
“Lee DeForest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public … has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company …” — a U.S. District Attorney, prosecuting American inventor Lee DeForest for selling stock fraudulently through the mail for his Radio Company
 — Tanks
“The idea that cavalry will be replaced by these iron coaches is absurd. It is little short of treasonous.” — Comment of Aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Haig, at tank demonstration.
 — Cinema
“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” -– Charlie Chaplin
 — Rockets
“For a man to ride a spaceship, travel to the moon and come back to the earth is a wild dream”. — Lee De Forest
 New York Times prints that “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere”
 — Nuclear energy
“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
 — Televisions
“Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox
Similarly the father of Radio himself Lee DeForest (previously mentioned), said in 1926: “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”
 — Calculators
In their early days, calculators were equipped with 18,000 tubes and weighs 30 tons. Some people predicted that in the future, it will have only 1000 tubes and weighs only half ton.
 — Xerox photocopiers
IBM said to the founders of Xerox that photocopier had no enough market production.
 — Personal computers
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM
Similarly Ken Olsen said that there is no reason of having a personal computer in every home.
 — Storage
“No one will need more than 637 KB of memory for a personal computer. 640 KB ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, co-founder and chairman of Microsoft.
 — Cell phones
“Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.” — Marty Cooper, inventor.
 — Internet
Newsweek magazine predicted that the internet will fail. 17 years later newsweek become a purely digital magazine. Read the hilarious article here. It’s unbelievable how they actually predicted the lack of every single famous internet website currently (Google, amazon, wikipedia, ebay, paypal)
For the web’s 28th birthday, we red-penned this laughably inaccurate Internet essay
In less than 30 years, the world wide web, an offshoot of a thing called the “internet,” transformed a series of…
Similarly, Robert Metcalfe, inventor of the Ethernet predicts that the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and catastrophically collapse in 1996
 — Music streaming
“The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model, and it might not be successful.” — Steve Jobs
 — Iphones
“Everyone is always asking me when Apple will come with their phone and my answer is, probably never.” — David Pogue, The New York Times.
“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO
 — Google and amazon
“I made the wrong decisions on Google and Amazon, We’ve looked at it. I made the mistake in not being able to come to a conclusion where I really felt that at the present prices that the prospects were far better than the prices indicated… The problem is when I think something will be a miracle, I tend not to bet on it. It would have been far better obviously if I had some insights into certain businesses.” — Warren Buffet, most famous investor
 — Uber
“You are going to have to fight all the taxi associations, and all the transportation organizations in each city and every state” Mark Cuban on why he didn’t invest in Uber
[2019-…] — What’s next?
In the light of these historical failures, I am curious to see what will be the next biggest failures in predicting the future. Obviously not all technology-related predictions happened. We still don’t have flying cars everywhere, neither self-aware robots.
The most impressive past success
On the other hand, some predictions were quite accurate. Arthur Clarke was without any doubt, one of the most impressive in predicting successfully the internet in 1964 even before the first personal computer! (See the transcript/video below)
Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation because the prophet invariably falls between two stalls. If his predictions sounds at all reasonable you can be quite sure that in twenty or most fifty years the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle, a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far fetched that everybody would laugh into scorn. This has proved to be true in the past and it will undoubtedly be true even more so of the century to come. The only thing that can be sure of about the future is that it will absolutely fantastic.
I’m thinking of the incredible breakthrough which has been made possible by developments in communications, particularly the transistor and above all the communication satellite. This things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other where ever we may be. Where we can contact our friends anywhere on Earth even if we don’t know their actual physical location.
It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London. In fact, it will proved worthwhile almost any executive skill, any administrative skill even any physical skill could be made independent of distance. I’m perfectly serious when I suggest that one day we may brain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand. When that time comes the whole world will have shrunk to a point, and the traditional role of a city as a meeting place for man, would have cease to make any sense. In fact, men will no longer commute, they will communicate. They won’t have to travel for business any more. They only travel for pleasure. — Arthur Clarke
Predictions are a risky business. Even more so if they’re about the immediate future. Once shown to be wrong, the words return to their origin like a boomerang, and the quotes go on to forever haunt the speaker (source here)
The next big failures at predicting the future
Currently the hottest technological topics are: cryptocurrencies, decentralized systems, blockchain technologies, genetic modification, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence. So if I have to place my bets, I am predicting that the next big failures at predicting the future will happen in these domains. Many people will fail to believe that paper money, traditional banking system, the very expensive-outdated-slow stock trading institutions, and the current notarial work can be disrupted.
The common point with all technologies is that: things go from impossible to inevitable in a short period of time
Many people still think that fully autonomous self-driving cars and trucks are very far from reality and it’s impossible to upgrade the current transportation system. What about all the jobs that will be lost?
It’s always easier to mock past failures in prediction rather than to dare to dream, imagine, build and see the potential in the next big things.
In your opinion, what will be the next big failures in predicting new technologies?