Predicting the future — A historical overview

(Of failing to see the potential in new technologies)

Resisting new technologies — the early days

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.

[1830] —High speed trains

[1876] Telephones

[1878] — Electric street lights

Demonstration of Yablochkov’s arc lamp on the Avenue de l’Opera in Paris (1878), the first form of electric street lighting

[1883] — X-Rays

[1889] — Alternating current

Nikola Tesla vs Thomas Edison (AC-DC electricity war)

[1901] — Sub-Marines

[1902] — 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.

Early predictions were that Henry Ford’s horseless carriage was simply a “fad”

[1905] — Planes

Da Vinci’s first plane designs

[1913] — 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

Telegraph kills live communication (prediction from 1907 — took 100 years to come true)

[1916] — Tanks

[1917] — Cinema

[1926] — Rockets

The first rocket which could fly high enough to get into space was the V2 missile which was first launched by Germany in 1942

[1932] — Nuclear energy

[1946] — Televisions

[1947] — 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.

ENIAC: “Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator” (30 tons calculator)

[1959] — Xerox photocopiers

IBM said to the founders of Xerox that photocopier had no enough market production.

[1977] — Personal computers

Altair 8800 — First personal computer introduced in January 1975;

[1981] — Storage

[1982] — Cell phones

[1995] — 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)

[2003] — Music streaming

[2007] — Iphones

Ballmer Laughs at iPhone

[2008] — Google and amazon

[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)

Arthur Clarke predicting the internet in 1964

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.

A policemen under a traffic light (in 1953). The city of New York was able to reassign all of its 6,000 officers working on the traffic squad after replacing them by automated traffic lights; this saved the city $12,500,000.
Disruptive technologies —first disbelieve, then hype cycle, then slow adoption, then ubiquitous phase where we ask ourselves: how did we live in a world without this technology before?

Interested in artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks, data science, blockchain, technology, astronomy. Co-founder of Datathings, Luxembourg