20 Lists for 2020 (6 Part Series)
"I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past."
-- Patrick Henry, Colonial American Orator and Politician
Frequentist inference uses the past as a simple predictor for the future. If the Sun has risen in the east for 1.6 trillion out of the past 1.6 trillion days, then it's very likely it will do so again tomorrow. When statistical trends move slowly with little noise (say, the number of minutes of daylight througout the year) or not at all (the area of the sky in which the Sun rises), it's very easy to make a very accurate prediction of where those trends will go in the future. But when things change quickly, especially when new and unexpected events occur, it can be difficult -- if not impossible -- to make any decent prediction at all.
Frequentist statistics is often contrasted with Bayesian statistics, which offers a more nuanced prediction, based on prior knowledge about the conditions surrounding the event to be predicted. You can read a great introduction to Bayesian statistics here.
This is why predictions about the future of humanity over the past ~300 years or so have typically been very poor. The global population has been increasing exponentially since the turn of the 19th century; there are nearly 10 times as many people alive today as there were in 1800. The industrial and scientific revolutions of the latter half of the last millennium led to inventions that would have been unthinkable to the average person in the Middle Ages; telecommunications, air and space travel, modern medicine -- all of these would seem incredible, if not supernatural to people less than 20 generations ago.
Computing has gone through a similar revolution over the past ~80 years. Inventions like the transistor, the integrated circuit, and the microprocessor have accelerated the advancement of computing hardware to a breakneck pace. Moore's Law predicts that computing power will double every 18-24 months. This law has held true since at least the 1970s, and will likely continue with advancements in quantum computing, highly multi-core processors, graphene batteries, and more. The average smartphone today can wield more computing power than all of the combined computational resources of NASA in 1969. Imagine where we'll be in another 50 years.
This is why predictions about computing are notoriously bad, and why they'll likely continue to be. We simply have no idea what is possible in the future when every 10 years we have more than 10 times as much power at our disposal. Our brains are wired to expect that the future will just be basically the same as the present, and reality often proves us widly inept at forecasting.
"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
-- Henry Ford, famous horse hater
Here are the 20 most impressively terrible predictions I could find about computing and technology in general (in no particular order, emphasis mine):
"No one will pay good money to get from Berlin to Potsdam in one hour when he can ride his horse there in one day for free."
-- King William I of Prussia, famous train hater
"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication."
"Don't waste time on foolish ideas. Radio has no future, X-rays are clearly a hoax, and the aeroplane is scientifically impossible."
-- Lord Kelvin, President of the British Royal Society
"Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings, or ten thousand for one which started with no wings at all and had to sprout them ab initio, it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years..."
talkies are for nitwits, ya see?
"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
-- Harry M. Warner, President of Warner Brothers Pictures
"...it is very possible that ... one machine would suffice to solve all the problems that are demanded of it from the whole country."
-- Charles Darwin, grandson of the famous naturalist, predicting a global market for, oh, about 100 computers
"Where a calculator like ENIAC today is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1½ tons."
-- Popular Mechanics, March 1949 issue
It's true. My laptop has almost no vacuum tubes at all.
"Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years."
-- Alex Lewyt, President of a (non-nuclear) vacuum manufacturer
"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."
-- Editor, Prentice Hall
"There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service inside the United States."
-- T. A. M. Craven, Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
"Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop."
"But what... is it good for?"
-- An engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems
Division of IBM, commenting on the microchip
"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."
-- Ken Olsen, referring to home automation
"640k ought to be enough [memory] for anybody."
"...the idea of a wireless personal communicator in every pocket is 'a pipe dream driven by greed'."
-- Andrew Grove, CEO of Intel, quoted in The New York Times
"The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works."
-- Clifford Stoll, in Newsweek
"...Apple [is] a chaotic mess without a strategic vision and certainly no future."
-- TIME Magazine, February 1996 issue
"The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in 'Metcalfe's law' -- which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants -- becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet's impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine's."
-- Paul Krugman, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University
"Everyone's always asking me when Apple will come out with a cellphone. My answer is, 'Probably never.' ...It just ain't gonna happen."
"Let's look at the facts. Nobody uses those things."
-- Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, on apps, predicting the failure of the iPhone
In 2007, Ballmer was also quoted as saying that the iPhone was unappealing because "it doesn't have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine".
What predictions do you think we'll be laughing at in 10 or 20 years? Flying cars? Something about Bitcoin? Or the colonisation of Mars? Let me know in the comments!
Whatever you do, thanks for stopping by!