4. “New technologies could allow astronauts to live off the land as they explore the ancient valleys of Mars. The capability to manufacture breathable air, rocket fuel, water and more may forever change how we explore space.”
Who made it: Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems Division, in a Sept. 27 press release.
Why it’s an important prediction: The quote speaks to the ambitions of the Mars 2020 mission, which is itself part of President Barack Obama’s goal of sending astronauts to Mars by 2030. The next step in getting boots on Martian soil is developing a new rover capable of detecting signs of past life. The rover would also give scientists an understanding of how hard it would be to collect carbon dioxide and turn it into fuel, a key piece of information if we ever want to get the people we send to Mars back home.
BUT: If history is any guide, we’re not going to Mars. We still don’t know the scope of the technical or practical challenges to getting there.
Also, it’s worth remembering that Obama is not the first president to make bold promises about the U.S. space program. Nor is he the first politician to date those promises far enough into the future as to escape any accountability for the failure of said space aspirations to come to fruition. George H.W. Bush forecast a manned mission to Mars by 2019. His son, George W. Bush, took expectations down a notch promising a return to the moon by 2020. In the late 1960s and ’70s, various politicians and NASA managers believed it possible to send a human to Mars by the mid-’80s. The cost of the Vietnam War and the Great Society programs relegated such ambitions to the backburner. Even during the Reagan boom years, the United States never did get around to building that Star Wars defense shield.
Bottom line: If we continue to invest in space exploration, we will soon know a great deal more about the history of Mars, its ability to sustain human life, and the feasibility of a manned Martian mission (with a return home). But don’t pack your bags just yet.
5. Big business decisions will be made not be experts or intuition but by big data and predictive analytics
Who made it: Virginia Rometty, CEO and chairwoman of IBM, speaking at the Council of Foreign Relations on March 7.
Why it’s a strong prediction: She's right. Big-data analytics is poised to grow from a $14.87 billion market in 2013 to a $46.34 billion market by 2018, according to the research group MarketsandMarkets. And we will also be producing a lot more data—4,300 percent more in 2020 than we did in 2009, according to the research group IDC. Big data flouts the laws of basic economics: It becomes more valuable as more of it exists, because it's useless without the ability to collect, analyze, and execute on it.
BUT: The firm Gartner says that big data is just cresting the hype cycle. It’s currently in a position Gartner calls the “peak of inflated expectations.” Following the peak comes the “trough of disillusionment” (and then Mordor). Enthusiasm for big data could wane in 2014. But I’m still bullish.
Bottom line: Big data will heavily shape the next era of humanity and will determine tomorrow’s winners and losers. But there will be losers.
6. Nissan will sell self-driving cars for the public by 2020.
Who made it: Nissan Executive Vice President Andy Palmer.
Why it’s a strong prediction: He’s right—and his comment shows courage. The emergence of self-driving cars promises to change the way we live, work, and design cities. For instance, we’ll need a lot fewer parking spaces in dense neighborhoods when cars can drive themselves to a spot a few miles away. We'll have less traffic when our vehicles can communicate with one another. But, first and foremost, wide adoption of these systems will radically change the auto industry.
Self-driving cars can be shared much more easily since they can drive themselves wherever they are needed. That’s why some researchers believe that in an autonomous vehicle era, we may need just one-tenth as many cars as we do today. Not surprisingly, many car manufacturers, such as Ford, are resisting the change. Nissan is making the hard choice to embrace a smaller market. It has some company: Audi and Tesla have also pledged to make self-driving cars available within the next eight years.
BUT: The resistance to autonomous vehicles doesn't just come from companies worried about selling fewer cars. Many groups, from taxi drivers to street pavers, may soon start fighting to keep robot roadsters out of the United States.
Different countries and cultures will react to unmanned vehicle technology in a variety of ways. Japan is more comfortable with autonomous systems of all types, and there are far fewer legal restrictions on them. Also, forget Jeff Bezos’s announcement that Amazon will begin delivering goods via drone within four or five years. Chinese entrepreneurs are already using unmanned aerial vehicles for the delivery of food and merchandise—albeit not always legally.
Bottom line: The self-driving cars are coming, but the United States may not be their first stop.
7. Bitcoin is doomed to fail.
Who made it: Reuters economics editor Edward Hadas in the New York Times on Nov. 27: “The developers of bitcoin are trying to show that money can be successfully privatized. They will fail, because money that is not issued by governments is always doomed to failure.”
Why it’s a strong prediction: At the time that Hadas made that prediction, bitcoins were on a tear, rising from $200 per coin around Nov. 1 to a high of $1,200 per coin on Nov. 30. (It was at $1,000 on the day of his statement.) In recent weeks, the digital currency has been the default method of exchange for all futuristic goods and services of recklessly overhyped value, everything from tickets on Virgin Galactic to electric cars. Take that exuberance to its irrational extreme, and you arrive at a future when bitcoins are financing the manmade islands of Silicon Valley super villains.
Not long after Hadas’ prediction, China’s central bank issued a warning that while individuals were welcome to play with cryptocoins, the government was not going to accept them as a method of payment and warned financial institutions to stay away. Bitcoins quickly lost more than half of their value.
BUT: Bitcoin still has plenty of buyers, and not every analyst agrees with Hadas, or with the Chinese. On Dec. 5, Merrill Lynch issued a report assessing the value of a bitcoin at $1,300 and a maximum bitcoin market of $15 billion.
Bitcoin itself may not be the gold of tomorrow. (Remember when everyone thought Facebook credits were the cat’s pajamas?) But it has competitors, and virtual currencies, which began primarily as a means to exchange goods in massively multiplayer online role-playing games, have exhibited a far steadier rise as a group. The research firm Javelin Strategy has charted the climb of the virtual currencies in the United States from about $600 million in 2009 to $4.65 billion in 2012 and projects it will top $10 billion by the end of 2013.
Bottom line: Invest in bitcoins the way you would in an extremely volatile stock. A basket of virtual currencies might be a smarter move. Just know that the government is actively looking at the tax implications of e-money, so if you think you can hide your digital fortune from Uncle Sam, you may soon be in for a nasty surprise.
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An All-Female Mission to Mars
As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.