ride looking out over a city with cloudy skies on the horizon
PHOTO: Irina Iriser

Welcome to the season of predictions. You know, the time of year when prediction articles appear in droves, “just in time for the holidays.”  You can identify these articles by their screaming headlines about how experts predict that within a few years’ robots will replace humans, cars will fill the skies, and people will be colonizing Mars. The articles usually contain exciting ideas and it’s easy to get lost in the anticipation about how these breakthroughs can change our lives. But who goes back years later, to validate these predictions, and to point out how far off the mark they (mostly) were? 

I don’t think humans have ever been good at predictions. Unforeseen events always throw a monkey wrench into the pathways of progress. Even inventors of historic technology like radio, television, the telephone and the PC didn’t have a vision about the ways their inventions would ultimately be used. See for yourself:

Bad Technology Predictions From Days Gone By

The Telephone

Early marketing efforts for the telephone focused on using the technology to broadcast news, concerts, church services, weather, and store sales announcements, deliver sports scores, train arrival times, wake up calls, and enable night watchmen call-ins. Other useful ideas included delivering lullabies and long-distance Christian Scientist healing.

Radio

Radio was initially conceived as a high-tech method for conference calling. Long before the CB radio, in the early 1900s, "wireless" enthusiasts used radio to converse over the ether. It was only the advent of World War I, about 15 years after the introduction of the radio, when governments worldwide nationalized radio frequencies, that radio became the broadcast medium we recognize today.

The Personal Computer

The original PCs were originally advertised to deliver a wide variety of capabilities that seem ridiculous today. A 1977 ad for a Honeywell computer pitched the housewife: “Her souffles are supreme, her meal planning a challenge? She’s what the Honeywell people had in mind when they devised our Kitchen Computer. She’ll learn to program it … simply pushing a few buttons to obtain a complete menu organized around the entrée.” Another popular idea was to use home computers to help balance a checkbook. Apple suggested its Apple II could help you “organize, index and store data on household finances, income tax, recipes, and record collections.” It would even chart your biorhythms (remember those?).

The Laser

The concept of a laser was first proposed by Albert Einstein in 1917, but an actual working model wasn’t built until 1960. Unlike the other inventions listed here, the laser was the product of a physicist’s imagination, rather than an engineer’s tinkering. So perhaps it’s not surprising that a laser pioneer, Charles Townes, called the laser, “a solution looking for a problem.” Another inventor, Gordon Gould, envisioned uses such as spectrometry, interferometry, radar and nuclear fusion, which indeed were applied, but the popular uses we recognize like grocery store bar code readers and CD laserdiscs took almost 15 years to see the light of day (pun intended). Besides a brief appearance as a death ray in the 1964 James Bond movie, Goldfinger, the laser primarily remained a scientific and military instrument for over a decade.

Related Article: Vannevar Bush Points the Way to a New Era of Computing

Are We Any Better at Predicting the Future Today?

We can write off all those nutty predictions because that happened long before we, the internet and mobile-savvy generation, arrived on the scene. Today, with all the information we have at our fingers, surely, we are much smarter. Think so? Let’s take a look at some recent predictions.

Self-Driving Cars

In 2015, the Guardian posted an article entitled “Self-driving cars: from 2020 you will become a permanent backseat driver.” The same year, the World Economic Forum’s predictions were more conservative. They predicted that “by 2020, 30% of new cars will have a self-driving mode.” In fact, many car makers, including Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, Renault-Nissan, Volvo, BMW, Daimler, Tesla, and Fiat-Chrysler predicted over the last decade that they would have autonomous cars on city streets or the highway by 2020. 

Prediction Score: Ubiquitous autonomous vehicles are not going to appear on the roads in 2020 and probably not for years to come.

AI and Robots

The industry analyst firm Frost and Sullivan predicted in 2012 that “robotics will soon enter into the realm of personal relationships acting as a slave, companion and even a decision maker in 2020.”

In 2015, the World Economic Forum predicted that “by 2020, 60% of device interactions will … allow people to use information from intelligent systems and machine learning.”

Dr. Hossein Eslambolchi, venture partner at CloudScale Capital Partners predicted in 2017 that “by 2020, 30% of leading organizations will implement a Chief Robotics Officer.”

Prediction Score: Way off the mark.

Related Article: Artificial Intelligence: There's Still Hope for the Human Race

3-D Printing

In 2015, uber-inventor Ray Kurzweil predicted that “in the 2020s, 3-D printing designs will be open source and free so you can live extremely well and print out everything you need, including printing out houses.” This is the man Business Insider calls “Google’s Genius Futurist,” who claims his predictions are correct 86% of the time. While his prediction for printing houses didn’t specifically mention 2020, I still think this one will fall in his 14% of failed predictions.

The same year, 2015, the World Economic Forum predicted that, “additive [3-D] manufacturing technologies will enable produce-on-demand scenarios for more than 10% of all consumer product purchases. And, over one-third of these products will be completely customized to match the buyer’s needs and price sensitivity.”

Prediction Score: Not likely to happen in the next few years.

Virtual Realty/Augmented Reality

Analyst group Frost & Sullivan predicted in 2012 that “computer-simulated environments will govern businesses, healthcare, education, mobility and even personal relationships in 2020.”

In 2011, Mike Liebhold, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, predicted that by 2020, augmented reality (AR) glasses would live up to their hype, saying that “by 2020, AR position sensing, GPS locating, and image positioning should be mature to the point that even when you're moving quite fast (say, riding a bike down the street) the AR can keep up with the real world.” 

Prediction Score: AR technology is limited to niche applications, at best. 

What Does This All Mean?

So here’s my prediction. Most, if not all of this year’s technology predictions will be way off the mark. History shows that technology carves out different paths than those conceived by its creators. Which is good news. It means you can relax and ignore the doomsday prophets. Think about the good things you have to be thankful for. Put down your phone and your computer and be present with the people around you, at least for the holidays. You will be much happier for it. 

That’s my prediction and I’m sticking to it.

Happy holidays.