The future is 30 years away

I’ve been a full time futurologist since 1991, part time since I started work in 1981 on missile systems that didn’t enter use the late 90s. I am irritated when people say you can’t predict the future, because in some areas driven by basic technological progress, it is obvious that you can. With experience you can get 85-90% of it about right at the ten year horizon. The downside of thinking about the future full time is that the present is way behind in terms of what it offers, so it is hard to be content with today’s gadgets and services, and of course there are far fewer surprises in life. The upside is that when stuff finally does arrive, it is already much more familiar so takes much less getting used to.

But the pace of change is usually much slower than the imagination in the short to medium term, and faster in the long term. For example, the new ipad from Apple is pretty much the sort of coffee table tablet we have been talking about since 1991. It is still too thick, hard, heavy and underpowered compared to what we knew even then will one day be routine. We knew that because of Star Trek.  We knew it would take a long time to implement, but it has actually taken a bit longer than we thought, and it still isn’t quite there. In IT, the pace of change is falling slightly behind what should have been the case. Mobile phone capability has run way ahead of our expectation curve in the last 20 years, but bandwidth and AI are falling behind, while memory, processing speed and storage capability are pretty much as expected (though poor software badly lets down the speed of computing actually delivered to the user). But perhaps the biggest surprise during my time as a futurologist is the lack of surprises. Mostly, tech has rolled out more or less as we thought it would.

Devices like the ipad will be very common when the technology is mature and costs have fallen, and general purpose interactive displays will lie on surfaces all over the place. That will be nice, but not surprising. It will be another decade before this trend fully catches up with early 1990s expectations. That puts the future as 30 years away. Obviously just for the ipad in this case, but perhaps that figure applies elsewhere. Let’s check a few areas. Virtual reality, first uses in military in the early 1980s, civil world by 1990, still only embryonic due to display limitations today, but promising perhaps to finally hit the big time in a decade or so, boosted substantially by its cousin augmented reality, 30 years again.

When I was at school, doing religion O level, we did a project on euthanasia, picked up by our teacher as an area we would have to deal with during our careers. He explained that although it would be a long time before it would be legal to kill people who were in pain or suffering, it might eventually be allowed. UK law started allowing assisted suicide in some circumstances last year, after a few years of unclarity. 1976-2009, just over 30 years again.

Genetic modification is another area that entered serious public debate in the late 80s/early 90s, now commonplace. 30 years

Car design follows suit. The sci-fi comic cars of my childhood became the standard shape of most new family cars about 30 years later.

So the 30 year period applies in some areas. In other, such as android and AI technology, the imagination has been more powerful. We still don’t have the machines envisaged in the 60s, so we have past the 50 year mark already and still at least 20 years from some of those visions. Visions of direct brain-machine links go back to the 60s at least and although there are some primitive connections today, the whole thing won’t be a reality this side of 2040 and it won’t be common till the 50s or 60s, 100 years after the imagineers came up with it. So I guess the 30 year period is actually quite a short horizon for futurology.

Satellite navigation is probably an exception though (in normal civilian life). We saw very little expectation of its impact before the mid 1990s and it is already quite mature. So it has only really taken 15 years. Maybe that is because it was important in military and aviation prior to that.

Of course there are always some smaller scale surprises, people invent new things every day. Most of these are incremental improvements on stuff already around, or eventual implementations of things thought of decades earlier, where the technology has finally caught up and it is possible to build it. Things like the ipod and memory sticks are examples of this. So when new things appear on the net, they are usually well expected in terms of kind, it is only the specifics that vary. Social networking was very well anticipated 25 years ago, but implementations such as Twitter or Facebook are just more recent instances and still very far from mature. I think we need at least another 15 years of development before electronically mediated social networking can be considered a mature technology. 40 years, but then it’s a big field. Some may argue it is limited by social rather than technological evolution, but actually the technology isn’t anywhere near mature yet either, and people have actually been fairly quick to adapt to what capability there is. But I am waffling. Back to the point.

The point is that apart from a few big areas well developed in science fiction such as robots, brain-machine links and AI, most things we can think of are not very far away, just 3 decades. Using my favourite analogy, futurology is like looking through fog. Some things are visible quite far ahead such as bright lights, but details are not visible until you get close. We could argue that a few bright lights such as full machine-brain links, conscious machines and electronic immortality are visible now even though they are several decades away, but mostly we are limited by imagination at that range. Our mental fog limits futures reasonable visibility to about 30 years. And visibility is excellent at 10 years.

I’m sure there is a deeper point in this, I’m just thinking out loud at the moment. I’ll blog the rest when the fog clears a bit.

47 responses to “The future is 30 years away

  1. I know this sounds kind of freaky but I have had vivid dreams and interacted with people and situations and upon waking realized my dreams were in a much more far advanced place in the future…Then many years later I saw technology that was in my dream many years ago…

  2. well, still a good read nonetheless. looking forward to the rest of your thoughts on this.

    http://www.tracyzhangphoto.wordpress.com/

  3. These are great observations and the fog analogy creates a perfect visual.

    I notice the longer lag technologies you mention (android, AI, brain-machine links) tend to emulate humans or interface with part of our minds/bodies. Given our tendency to anthropomorphize, maybe we find it easier to imagine devices like ourselves, extending the distance between conception and realization?

    • Yes, I think you’re right. Anthropomorphising probably slows us down because it creates prejudice in the engineering approach. We’d be faster if we had no idea what the outcome was meant to look like.

  4. Awesome. Interesting. Any idea about cure for cancers?

  5. Great post! I agree with a lot of what you said, and really enjoyed reading it.

    But I’m curious what you think of the rate of technological evolution increasing so exponentially? To me, it seems like the rate of innovation is increasing far quicker than it’s ever done before. So doesn’t that make the future sort of unfathomable? I mean 20 years ago, you may have figured most people would have cellular phones by now. But would anybody have guessed that these phones would be able to do even half of the things they can actually do now?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love thinking about the future. But I feel like, at one point in recent history, it would have been really arrogant to assume I can predict where we will be, technologically speaking. Whereas now, I feel like it’s ignorant to assume the future will be anything short of technology that is (to our present brains) seemingly miraculous.

    • Well, Arthur C Clarke write that a sufficiently advanced technology appears like magic. I think we are heading towards such an Age of Magic, where a tiny elite of engineers and scientists have some idea how bits of the stuff around them work, but most of the population has no idea, and just treats it as if it were magic. Dangerous.

      A lot of the future is unfathomable, and the 30 year limit will get shorter probably. We shouldn’t worry though. The market depends on people wanting stuff, and they only want stuff they know how to use, and that limits the rate of introduction significantly.

  6. Interesting Blog, Thanks for sharing :)

  7. The future may be closer than you think…

  8. Thank you; I enjoyed your well-written perspective. Perhaps when you get to your “deeper point,” you might consider that in more and more areas, technology/science is intersecting with the metaphysical? (I DON’T meant religion.) That intersection has been a study of mine for over 40 years, and I’m finding it fascinating. I heard physicist Dr. John Hagelin speak about that 8 years ago, and the convergence is accelerating–I think that might be an unaccounted variable in futuristic predictions? Something I ponder…

    • You are right of course. I agree that the human cultural world includes much that is not directly based on the geo-physical world around us, and that that will greatly influence the direction of development in cyberspace, which itself is also only partly related to the geo-physical world. It will be fascinating to see how fast humans can accelerate their vision development. We have only tickled the surface of cyberspace so far, and have no real idea of its full potential, since our concepts are limited by our education and experience. Perhaps AI will develop most new ideas and introduce us to them, dragging us kicking and screaming into the future.

  9. Great post. I say 30 is bang on. Pretty much in line with the Singularity theorists.

  10. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for the post, some great thoughts. I am one who would say (generally) that we cannot predict the future, as such a statement is usually uttered by those who want to see exact examples for the purpose of ROI and “cashing-in.” As a futurist, you know that discontinuities, disruptive technology, and complex interactions (CAS, in a transdisciplinary fashion, becoming more prevalent now than in previous decades) make exact prediction near impossible. However, I do like your nod to approximating prediction within certain timeframes, and especially how these “predictions” are aided by various forces or conditions. I have been investigating and modeling the ability of creating holoptic environments (social, organizational, governmental, etc.) in order to facilitate more natural foresight climates and mindsets, as well as being able to produce prediction through group insight, collective consciousness, and creation of a new entity known as the “whole,” better acknowledging the future due to having an clearer integral and holistic (as well as corporate) view of the organizational, social, or governmental direction and purpose. Thanks for the post, very much looking forward to more!

  11. What about peak oil, and the energy changes necessitated by climate change?

    How will climate change– the portion that is already in motion regardless– change the world?

    Thanks for writing so far– keep going!
    (First time here, I’ll visit again).

  12. Agreed, the future is close. New technology is coming at us at a fast rate. Communication is getting extremely complicated. Nobody uses the phone anymore for example.

    The future isn’t always the best for man. Where do we draw the line?
    Remain.Simple

  13. Enjoyed your post. As an economic forecaster, this breathes truth. The fog is a great metaphor for explaining how the future is predictable, but only to a certain degree: we will only know how exactly things will shape up until the fog is clear, and only until then, the future will already happen.

  14. For thinking out loud, this is pretty damn good. I hate trying to predict what the future will be or what it will look like because I always have a grim version of what the world will look like.

    For some reason, when it comes to advancement, human beings always seem to shoot themselves in the foot and end up paying for it somewhere down the line.

    There’s always an insatiable appetite for more within the human consciousness. This manifests itself in the area of science and technology. Once something gets implemented it’s sort of hard to take away… It’s like opening Pandora’s Box on many of these things.

    The future 30 years from now – it’s just something I’d rather not think about.

  15. Colin L Beadon

    Ian,
    Certainly most interesting perspective. My concern is that we are forceing life’s pace. We are literally being swept away, or off our feet, gazing into screens, pressing keyboards, downloading gigantic amounts of information almost impossible to assimilate.
    The real true lovelyness of much of the world, is slipping by outside our windows, and we are glued to a screen, stopped, in a virtual world, convinced, this is the new way we must live.
    I don’t know what shall become of us, or if we shall ever be able to lay under the shade of a tree, and hear a stream trickling by, or the voice of a robin above out heads again.

    • I think that some of this is a passing phase. Technology at the moment is very immature and changing fast, but our basic human nature hasn’t really changed much yet. We still want the same things as our distant ancestors, we just achieve them differently. Most people learn after a long phase of techno-addiction that happiness comes from better balance in life, and that the net isn’t everything. I love my PC and my xbox, but I still enjoy getting out and being in nature. The sound of a stream is wonderful, and it is hard to beat it. But after a few days of that, I also yearn to be back with my tech again. Nature is wonderful, and is actually extremely advanced technology, but in some ways it lacks the depth of human culture, and I also need the stimulation I get from watching others’ creativity in a pop video, or a computer game, or on a blog. We need both, but it takes each of us a long time to find the right balance for ourselves.

  16. Very interesting blog, but i have to say, you see vey pessimistic? Do you see the future as bright or bleak? I know what you mean when you talk of technology advances being slow. There was a programme I used to watch as a child called the jetsons, based on a technology inspired future in space, I wonder how long it will realistically take us to catch up to this idea? Surely it cant be that far off. x

    • Yes, I like the Jetsons too, but I prefer Futurama. A few of the ideas in such cartoons are realistic in the far future, but many aren’t of course. I often get accused of being to pessimistic, and equally often of being too optimistic. I believe that the future will be broadly the same mix of good and bad that we have today, just different things. We may be a bit happier or a bit less happy, but I don’t think it will change very much in those terms.

  17. Hello Ian:
    While thirty years makes a lot of sense for tech innovation, some frames are longer, like demographics or environmental change. yet the further we go out, the more we rely on alternative trend lines.

    To support your theory, I’ve heard it said that futurists primarily see events that might occur within our lifetimes. You could easily call that the thirty year time frame. Maybe forty years. Generally, that idea supports your theory. We see as far as we are responsible.

    Is something different going on right now though that creates this frame?

    I think the thirty year frame may be tied to this era. Since the futures profession is only a few decades old, with our methods we are more constrained by data and trend analysis, than say, Nostradamus or HG Wells, who operated as visionary seers, more like science fiction writers do today – and who actually do look far beyond the thirty year time frame. (Almost entirely in a post-apocolyptic universe, I might add.)

    So I wonder, is it our imagination that hampers us, or our need to have data, a grain of proof in our analyses?

    Second idea: I wonder if there are other times where futures seemed to view further ahead, and times when vision became shorter? For example, during the Dark Ages, I imagine that the long view was virtually dead. The world population and cities shrank, ideas and inventions largely stopped, and military conquests ruled. Even the royalty only seemed to see as far as the next execution.

    In contrast, I think ancient Egypt and Greece saw centuries ahead, inventing and dreaming far beyond their lifetimes. Their infrastructure projects spanned hundreds of years, perhaps by long vision, or by accumulated implementation. they had a belief in progressive change.

    I am not sure that the thirty year frame was in effect during those eras. And then wonder, when did it happen, supposing that it did?

    Two concepts: computers and quantum physics created a certain time frame; a transformational change in the 1900s. And peak world population around 2050 creates another sort of cliff in this century. All the mid-century talk of the population bomb – no doubt from early professional futurists – has changed history fundamentally.

    Because of this likely demographic cap and our sense of environmental limits, we are changing our ideas of progress. We are, or this era is, in effect, products of the scientific method we practice.

    Consequently, I think we become part of the cycles where we live, and adopt the frames based on our lifespans and the patterns of innovation. Perhaps that is thirty years and it may be unique to today.

    ramblings, the influence of Friday afternoon musings…

    best regards,
    Cindy

    • Yes, interesting. Maybe the 30 year rule applies now because of the current pace of technology, whereas in ancient times development was so slow it was possible to see further ahead. I’m not sure it actually is possible top predict the environment more than 30 years away any more. 30 years from now we will have a great deal of environmental intervention and management technology so maybe it will be whatever we want it to be not long after that. I certainly don’t buy the current doom-mongering that seems to assume that we can’t do anything except cut back on energy use or build wind farms. I think it is more likely we will have an energy glut in the long term and a cleaner environment. I agree we are products of our technology now, and even more so ahead. I do think the demographic limit is a purely organic one though., We may stop breeding, but we will surely start to make cyber-entities that will greatly increase our population. If people can have multiple versions of themselves, then some will.

      Could be the 30 years frame will shrink as it all accelerates.

  18. I invite you to my group FOCUS ON COLOMBIA 2020…from Linkedin…

  19. I’ve been watching the ‘burndown’ of one of the most modern drilling rigs of our time off the LA coast. For 45 years, the oil industry and drilling/ production, has been my field. If you have not seen the fireball, you should look it up. It shows modern technology humbled by Earth-natural events.
    Just at the moment, thinking of that now sunk rig, and what will shortly happen to Hubble ( our eyes on the Universe) , I’m not too sure I’ve much interest in more modern gimmicks to come, or where out minds might reach in virtual space. After all, we need to drill, still, for the energy we need to drive Earth the way we have decided to live, and oil is a commodity like forests and fish stocks, on their way out. Only atomic Fusion might give us a chance, if we can grow enough food, and conjure up enough water to drink.

  20. 30 years, eh? I have to say, that e.g. I was not aware that ipad started as a “coffee table tablet” etc. but makes sense, these ideas and technologies etc do not just appear from out of nowhere…veru interesting read!

  21. It’s amazing what the human mind can conceive and how quickly things improve once they are born. I have seen it with so many things. I am sure everyone has. I know that in the 1800s a science fiction writer predicted satellite dishes made of bricks. Well satellites happened, but now their made of other things. Great post. I loved reading it.

    • Most science fiction writers try hard to stick to science as far as their story allows. Not very sure how well a satellite dish made of brick would work. Still, could be artistic license I guess.

  22. I want my flyin car!

  23. Great post, thanks! :)

  24. The future sucks man! I use to look forward to the year 2000 for what? Nothing good has taken place., we are fat, we have no spare time and prefer to voice our thoughts in a blog rather than in person. I predict that we are in the future we are goint o run out of oil, the sun will die and humanity will be extinct.

    • Oh dear, I can’t agree with that. Sure, we have some problems but we have made huge progress. There are more people alive, the environment is far cleaner, we live longer, healthier lives. Oil won’t run out, most will be left in the ground as we will develop alternatives that are better and cheaper long before it runs out. The sun won’t die for another few billion years. We will also figure out soon how to eat without becoming fat. The future is no utopia, but neither will it be hell.

  25. Nerds..

    There’s also something like war…

    Buy gold.

  26. You should invent something…

  27. Thank you for sharing. I know this is silly and a bit off topic, but it reminded of this video I saw on youtube. Don’t mean to spam you with videos, though: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pGbMJrXvLo&feature=player_embedded

    Anyhow, interesting post, I’ll check out what else you have on your blog as well.

  28. dude this is awesome. great post. im definitely adding this to my hat list at http://thehatlist.wordpress.com/

  29. Article: The Future is 30 Years Away…

    The issue this article raises is whether it is possible to “accelerate” innovation? Is it possible to educate or train individuals to enhance their ability to innovate?

    Charles.Stowe@gmail.com

  30. Sorry, but this blog content was all but useless. He wrote a huge number of words, but told us in a vague way NOTHING we did not already know.

    Nothing he said gives us any steps or specific actions to take. No guidance of any kind. Just hot air.

  31. Pingback: The future is 30 years away « Blog on the Run: Reloaded

  32. I found your site from the WordPress.com page which has several sites that are strong enough to make the page. Your site is wonderful and beautiful.
    Thanks,,

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