During the holiday I had the opportunity to revisit a couple interesting posts and articles discussing the future of computing. As an avid science fiction fan and technologist, it is always fun to see what other curious minds think is “next.”
There are certain predictions that we can make with some degree of safety. Processing power, memory, and bandwidth will undoubtedly get cheaper. Information will become more ubiquitous. The distinction between man and machine will continue to become more blurred as the fields of genetics, computer science, and robotics advance. Although these predictions are exciting, they are high level and fairly obvious. Simple economics ensure that they will come to pass. Market demand will lead firms to create better technologies to improve our abilty to communicate, interact, and live longer.
When future-casting becomes really interesting is when we try to make more specific claims. China will be the next world super power and Mandarin, not English, will be the world’s language. We will connect to computers via neural interfaces and live in cyberspace. Although this is an excellent exercise and has served to fuel the creativity of generations of young innovators, it is really hard and–often–wrong. Why? Because future-casting is fundamentally flawed in nature.
Human beings are boundedly rational (Herbert Simon–see the pic!). We overestimate the effects of popular trends and underestimate the effects of disruptive technologies. Any sci-fi fan worth his salt is familiar with the impetus placed on the role of space travel and atomic power in the work of Arthur C. Clark, or Issac Asimov. I currently do not travel to space for vacation. And, contrary to popular belief, I do not have an atomic belt that powers my wearable devices. We overestimate our ability to move in a short-run horizon and wildly sell ourselves short in a longer term horizon. During the dot-com boom many folks thought that pervasive computing would happen overnight, but within this same century machine-powered flight was widely accepted as impossible. My entire life is not automated by online software agents (yet), but I most certainly know that I can travel anywhere in the world in a matter of hours via cost-effective air transportation.
Because we are boundedly rational, we make predictions in the face of imperfect information. More importantly, perhaps, because of this state we ignore innovations in fields outside of our domain that will radically impact our lives. IBM most certainly did not fear the transistor when it was a huge clunky, kind of working, mess in Shockley’s lab. DEC did not fear the PC when Altair released a hobby kit that essentially let you automate a bunch of flashing lights. The phone company did not fear that some small companies laying coaxial cable to deliver television signals more effectively than antennas would threaten their dominance of voice communications.
As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, however, this may change. Pervasive computing promises to extend our collective intelligence. We will no longer function as boundedly rational beings. Instead we will be a community with access to an ever-growing corpus of collective knowledge that allows us to overcome the mental limits nature has imposed upon us. This will lead not only to a better understanding of where we can go, but also accelerated progress towards a better future. Perhaps there may be a future for future-casting after all.