I LOVE seeing past predictions of our present (or near enough). And besides the schadenfreude of seeing the ways they are inevitably wrong, I think that it’s genuinely helpful to understand our biases and shortcomings. So, seriously, if you can find reasonably ambitious predictions (preferably more than 3 years out), send them my way!
Here’s an example of the genre. Let’s analyze it.
2015 – Teleportation is Developing
We are probably at least 50 years away from teleporting humans from one location to another, a concept commonly found in science-fiction stories like those told in the “Star Trek” films and TV series. But British astronomer David Darling writes convincingly in his 2005 book, “Teleportation – The Impossible Leap,” that we are close to being able to teleport individual atoms and molecules – the first step toward human movement. Next would come the teleportation of macromolecules and microbes, which would eventually lead into the teleportation of humans.
Note the major caveats. The authors are suggesting that teleportation of molecules would be possible, not of macroscopic objects. None the less, I don’t see any sign that we are one iota closer to teleportation in late 2014 than we were in 2005.
2015 – Genetic Profiling has Many Uses
According to a projective study by experts at the RAND think tank, by 2015 genetic profiling will be used in new ways in security and law enforcement. Genetic engineering will be used to modify more plants, insects and animals in the food chain. Organisms will be further engineered to produce and/or deliver therapeutic drugs and organic compounds. Plants may also be further engineered to optimize their pollution-fighting properties and help the environment.
I don’t think that genetic profiling is used by law enforcement in any more novel ways in late 2014 than it was in 2005. It’s basically identity, identity, identity.
The rest of this prediction is mixed. We are seeing lots of genetic modifications in plants, mainly for crop yields or pest resistance, and we do see genetically modified organisms of various kinds producing some therapeutic processes. In general, the misses here are less about technology per se and more about our social environment: we aren’t loosing GMO plants into the wild to fight pollution or whatever not because that’s beyond our ability to do, but because people are pretty opposed to mixing genetically modified organisms into what’s seen as a natural ecosystem. That is also to some degree why we aren’t doing much genetic modification of insects or other animals — unlike food crops, they don’t stay in place.
All that said, it seems like overall, we’re seeing a little less progress in genetic engineering than the general spirit of the prediction seems to imagine.
2015 – Human Cloning is Taking Place
…Most studies of the future by think tanks and UN-funded organizations project that fringe individuals or groups will probably be cloning humans (for those willing to pay a great deal for it) in unregulated nations or in illegal black-market operations.
Cloning in regard to engineered agricultural products, livestock and research animals is expected to be much more common and create significant changes by 2015.
Nope, no human clones as of yet. Honestly, again, the limitation is more social than technological. Which is more or less what this prediction assumes, it’s just an even stronger consensus than it imagined.
Part of this is that there’s not really any reason to clone people.
2015 – Autopilot Vehicles Common
It is expected that by 2015 a number of models of popular cars and trucks will be equipped to drive themselves at least part of the time with the help of on-board computers, GPS satellite navigation, and sensors, lasers and video cameras that will detect other objects around them. However, most experts say that people will generally want to retain control for some aspects of driving and manual options will still be included in vehicles.
Someone is going to argue that this prediction is true, but I don’t think it is. You certainly couldn’t describe autopilot technology as “common,” yet — in terms of consumer tech, even the advanced stuff that you could to some degree call autopilot (parallel parking, adaptive cruise control) seems both more limited than what they imagined in 2005 and less common.
Of note: I feel like this prediction could easily be said right now, about 2020 instead of 2015, and get lots of nods. It didn’t come true by 2015. It will eventually, but this change, despite some exciting news in the past few years, is moving more slowly than expected.
2015 – Smart, Adaptable Materials Evolve
Scientists are working on making materials that have one or more properties that can be dramatically altered. At left is a smart fluid developed at the Michigan Institute of Technology. A new generation of “reactive” building materials and coatings equipped with sensors, actuators and computers will allow development of such things as:
- Aircraft skins that can adapt their shape to offer the best response to airflow.
- Prosthetic arms and legs that allow growth of natural tissue around them.
- Small robots that mimic the actions of birds or insects and can be used for exploration, research or spy missions.
- Retro-reflective material that can make it possible for clothing to make the wearer invisible – seemingly transparent.
Also, buildings, bridges and roads may be equipped to sense changes in the weather and respond, and they may also be made to detect cracks or other flaws and possibly self-repair them.
This all seems like it’s pretty much exactly as far off now as it was 10 years ago. That is, do you occasionally hear about these kind of technologies in labs? Absolutely. But have any of their proposed technologies happened? Nope.
2015 – Customized Food/Smart Packaging
Everyone has wondered how long they should heat something up in the microwave, and sometimes a wrong guess can lead to an explosion. By 2015 food may come with microchips in the packaging that communicate with kitchen appliances regarding complete storage and preparation instructions. Nutrition scientists also project that developments in food technology and engineering may enable marketers to offer convenient healthy snacks that are customized at the point of sale to meet each individual consumer’s nutritional requirements and personal preferences.
Nope. In fact, this seems less likely now than it was in 2005. It’s just not a huge pain point, and to the extent that home automation wants to advance to automatic preparation of meals, it seems like there are probably other, smoother ways for that to happen than smart packaging.
The upshot of all this is the usual upshot of the predictions game:
- Most predictions are overly optimistic.
- Most of the predictions seem not just wrong, but kind of… quaint. They don’t accurately find the most interesting changes of the future, which are always the crazy left turns. There’s nothing in here about using the internet to mediate a variety of person-to-person transactions, whether it’s rides a la Uber/Flywheel, hotels like AirBnB, or jobs like TaskRabbit. The materials tech they’re interested in is reactive materials, where now the hotness is all in static metamaterials and super materials like graphene. And, of course, from a post that was only 2 years before the original iPhone, nothing about the proliferation of the mobile internet.