Tech Predictions Are Imperfect


By Samuel Greengard

It's intriguing to hear futurists speculate about how technology will change our lives in the years ahead. I'll preface this discussion by pointing out that a great many past predictions have been spectacularly wrong. For example, in 1894, The Times of London predicted that in the next century, cities would be buried under nine feet or more of horse manure.

Then came the automobile.

In 1943, IBM Chairman Thomas Watson predicted, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

That number now stands in the neighborhood of 1 billion.

Today, analysts, futurists and others boldly offer predictions about what the world will look like by mid-century and beyond. They envision robots everywhere, 3D printers in every house and radically different business models. Some say that tools such as Google Glasses will usher in an entirely new era of augmented reality by putting computing interfaces, well, on our faces.

Other technologies will also take root. These include gesture interfaces straight out of the film Minority Report. Heck, I have enough trouble dealing with people yammering into Bluetooth devices in public without considering the possibility of people flailing their arms around. But I digress. These interfaces will further change computing and the way we interact with devices.

In fact, it's already happening. Our smartphones are our constant companion. Robotic devices are seeping into the mainstream of society. And 3D printing is rapidly emerging as a viable technology. It promises to reshape retail and many other industries by allowing consumers and businesses to interact in ways that weren't imaginable a few years ago.

What we don't know is where all of this will lead. As the pace of innovation accelerates and the power of technology reaches greater velocity, all bets are off.

It's tempting to make predictions based on linear trends: For example, we'll print everything at home and retailers will shrink their stores. But we've been down this road before. During the dot.com era, grocery stores were supposed to vanish because we were going to have scanners in our refrigerators, and companies like Webvan, Kozmo and UrbanFetch were going to deliver everything to our door.

That vision of the future stumbled into the reality that automation isn't always better (or profitable), and most people like to go to the mall. So, when experts say that we'll be using goggles and gesture interfaces, printing clothes at home and using LCDs to display what we look like in an outfit before we buy it, believe it. Just don't buy into the Jetson-like predictions about how all of this will play out in the real world.

Otherwise, you may find yourself—or your company—buried under 9 feet of digital manure.