Daily Archives: April 23, 2010

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.