Tech forecasting is a perilous endeavor. No one wants to be a false prophet with a prediction so immediate that it can be easily proven incorrect in short order, but long-term predictions can be even harder. And yet even though people know predictions can be a waste of time, they still want to know: What’s next? Wishy-washy tech timelines only makes prognostication more difficult, as entrepreneurs and researchers stumble around in the dense fog of developing prototypes, performing clinical trials, courting investors, and other time-consuming steps required for marketable innovation. It’s easy to hit a wall at any point in the process, causing delays or even the termination of a project.
Slate has noticed a wily hedging mechanism among Silicon Valley soothsayers to circumvent these uncertainties—make predictions for “five to 10 years out.” It hits that sweet spot: just close enough that people can begin to taste it, but just far enough away that (almost) no one is going to call you out if it doesn’t become true. A review of press releases and tech articles stretching back to the 1990s finds that these Goldilocks forecasts are abundant. We’ve compiled a list of 81 predictions for innovations coming in “five to 10 years” to illustrate the cliché.
While the sample size is admittedly too small to make any definitive conclusions, there are a few trends that stood out in the data. One of our most striking findings is that scalability is a common trap. Many a tech oracle seems to conflate the invention of a device with its widespread adoption. For instance, virtual reality has indeed been packaged as a consumer product, as many people have anticipated. But the cost is prohibitive for most people: An Oculus Rift headset costs about $360.
And some predictions did eventually become true, just not in the manner that people expected. A particularly poignant piece in Wired from 1997 reads, in part: “Skorman says that in the next five to ten years technology will allow film fans to download movies instantly, directly into their TV or PC screens.” So far, so good, right? But then it continues: “And you can bet Reel.com will be one of the first video-on-demand outlets at the starting gate.” Oops.
Take a look at our list of “five to 10 year” predictions below. Each includes the publication (or company press release) from which it came, the person who made the prediction (sometimes a journalist, sometimes a person quoted in the piece), the date it was made, and the prediction itself.
New York Times, Department of Energy, Aug. 21, 1991:
The Department of Energy announced on July 30 that it would put $5 million over the next two years into research on making liquid fuel from coal. The goal is to reduce the cost to $30 a barrel over five to ten years.
New York Times, Universal Display, Nov. 2, 2003:
Universal Display estimates that pholed lighting technology will be available to consumers in five to 10 years, initially in the form of glass panels.
MIT Technology Review, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, May 12, 2006:
But it’s a challenging task [‘to modernize the country’s power grids by installing telecommunication, sensor, and computer technology into the existing power infrastructure’], which will take researchers, technology companies, utility companies, and policy-makers working together for five to ten years to implement.
MIT Technology Review, Jud Ready, April 17, 2007:
If all goes well, some version of the technology [solar panels that have two peaks of efficiency] could be commercialized in five to ten years, Ready says.
MIT Technology Review, Roy Kornbluh, Aug. 23, 2007:
But it could be five to ten years before the system [wave power] can be ramped up for large-scale electricity generation.
Popular Science, Exxon/J. Craig Venter, Aug. 13, 2009:
The newest venture on the block [oil from algae]—a collaboration between Exxon Mobil and geneticist J. Craig Venter—has admitted that commercial viability is at least five to ten years off.
USA Today, Dan Klear, July 14, 2010:
In the next five to 10 years, Klear predicts, solar and wind power will become “standard fare for a new home.”
The Gazette (Montreal), Susie Inouye, Dec. 11, 2010:
Experts say power LEDs are poised to replace all the lighting in commercial, industrial, and institutional spaces within the next five to 10 years.
New York Times, Scott E. Rickert (chemical engineer/thin-film researcher), June 3, 1987:
[Rickert] predicted that the first experimental computers made solely from thin-film chips would be available in five to ten years.
New York Times, Boeing, May 6, 1990:
Prototype systems [of ‘smart skins’ that can detect damage] for aircraft are easily five to ten years away, and utilities and gas transmission companies are only beginning to express interest.
Wired, Stuart Skorman, Nov. 1, 1997:
Skorman says that in the next five to ten years technology will allow film fans to download movies instantly, directly into their TV or PC screens. And you can bet Reel.com will be one of the first video-on-demand outlets at the starting gate.
MIT Technology Review, Gregory T. Huang, Sept. 1, 2005:
Five to ten years out, holographic storage could become a mainstream consumer technology—or a colossal flop.
Computer World, Stacy Collett, March 27, 2006:
Some people believe that 256-bit keys like 3DES will become obsolete within five to 10 years.
MIT Technology Review, Kevin Kelly, March 12, 2007:
In five to ten years, he says, the technology could find its way into consumer products, allowing tiny mobile-phone cameras to produce high-quality, poster-size images.
CNN, Nasser Peyghambarian, Oct. 7, 2008:
So, if this project is realized, you really could have a football match on your coffee table, or horror-movie villains jumping out of your wall. Peyghambarian is also optimistic that the technology could reach the market within five to ten years.
MIT Technology Review, Mark Zuckerberg, March 25, 2014:
Of course, Zuckerberg doesn’t expect us to start going on virtual reality vacations with our Facebook friends overnight. He said in the analyst call that it could take five to ten years before virtual reality is commonplace.
TechCrunch, Roy S. Kaufman, Aug. 12, 2016:
Only this time, with changes [in 3-D printing] perhaps as long as five to 10 years down the line, manufacturers have time to prepare for it and pivot.
Wired, Google, March 6, 2017:
Within the next five years, Google will produce a viable quantum computer. That’s the stake the company has just planted.
USA Today, Panagiotis Artemiadis, March 6, 2017:
Artemiadis is conducting experiments that will allow a human to control a swarm of robots, or drones, with the brain. ... “I would say five to 10 years from now we could see it in practical applications,” Artemiadis said.
New York Times, Robert Weinberg, April, 2, 1999, on converting stem cells to repair bones, tendons, and other complex tissues:
With the exception of certain special cell types like skin, the ability to reconstruct complex tissues is still years ahead of us, but work like this will be viewed as pioneering five to ten years down the road.
MIT Technology Review, Umar Mahmood, Sept. 1, 2003:
The technique [cell-level imaging] could make it possible to avoid many colon biopsies in five to ten years.
MIT Technology Review, Gregory T. Huang, Feb. 1, 2004:
If all goes well, such human-assist machines [clothing that will assist with giving wearers additional strength] might hit the market in five to ten years.
MIT Technology Review, John Fakunding, June 1, 2004:
If the trials go well, in five to ten years, leg-muscle-cell injection [into the heart to strengthen it] could become an approved therapy.
Economist, Cynthia Kenyon, April 20, 2006:
Cynthia Kenyon, a researcher at the University of California–San Francisco, and a co-founder of Elixir Pharmaceuticals, another company looking into anti-ageing drugs, believes that molecules such as resveratrol are likely to be approved in the next five to ten years, for use as prophylactics against age-related diseases.
MIT Technology Review, Charley Della Santina, Daniel Merfeld, Aug. 8, 2006, on implants to improve virtual reality and help people with vestibular disorders:
So far, both Santina and Merfeld have tested their implants only in animals, but they say a human-testable version could be developed within the next five to ten years.
Economist, April 21, 2012:
[A machine that will make pills out of raw materials] is producing a copy of a standard Novartis drug, although not for use yet because the system is still five to ten years away from commercial operation.
USA Today, Jan Vinjé, Jan. 24, 2013:
Researchers are working to create a vaccine for norovirus, but nothing is ready for the market, Vinjé said. “I think in the next five to 10 years, probably closer to 10,” he said.
Slate/the Conversation, Sadie Creese, Oct. 7, 2013, on in-body devices to treat chronic diseases and improve overall health and appearance:
The truth of the matter is, [implanted devices are] kind of already here but mainly for significant conditions. Give it five to ten years and we’ll all be wandering around with devices.
USA Today, Sean Slovenski, Nov. 24, 2013:
Five to 10 years from now, it could be an all-in-one device [to monitor the elderly in their homes so they don’t have to use assisted living]. But technology has to catch up to the dream.
Wired, Tina Nova, April 21, 2015:
We’re moving forward with [using blood samples as a liquid biopsy to detect cancer] at an exciting pace; in the next five to ten years, it’s going to make a tremendous difference in how we practice medicine.
Digital Trends, Qadeer Arshad, Sept. 7, 2015:
We are confident that within five to 10 years people will be able to walk into the chemist and buy an anti-seasickness device. It may be something like a machine that is used for back pain. We hope it might even integrate with a mobile phone.
CNN, Vijay Chudasama, Feb. 26, 2016:
He believes that in five to 10 years, his research will eliminate the need for chemotherapy—and its sometimes horrifying side effects. Chudasama is working on a treatment that exploits biological vehicles (i.e. antibodies) to discriminate between healthy and diseased tissue as a way to selectively deliver toxic compounds to cancer cells.
Economist, the Economist Explains, July 7, 2016:
But over the next five to ten years the era of personalised medicine could see enormous progress in making cancer survivable.
USA Today, Mary Morris, July 16, 2016:
I’m really optimistic that we will treat [food] allergies in the next five to 10 years.
CNN, Abidemi Bolu Ajiboye, March 28, 2017:
Even though the system [a device to help the paralyzed to control their muscles with brain power] would not become immediately available to patients, Ajiboye believes that all the technical hurdles can be overcome within five to 10 years. “We actually have a handle on everything that we need. There are no significant novel discoveries we need to make for the system,” he said.
USA Today, Jian Zuo, April 16, 2017:
The study findings mean that, theoretically, scientists someday could use a virus to deliver the right genes to cells in the inner ear to instigate the regeneration [of ear hairs to help restore hearing lost from chemo]. But that's still a long way off—at least five to 10 years.
New York Times, Ford, Oct. 25, 2000, on in-car camera systems, “bumper-mounted air bags” to protect pedestrians, and “six-speed automatic transmission” for fuel economy:
Ford executives and engineers refused to say when the safety gear would go into mass production, a common tactic among automakers for competitive reasons, and acknowledged that some of the equipment could be 5 or 10 years away.
USA Today, Alan Mulally, July 10, 2007:
He predicted that the industry will see plug-in hybrids, which combine electric motors with gasoline engines, in showrooms within five to 10 years.
Wired, Eurocopter, Feb. 24, 2010:
The largest helicopter maker in the world has announced it is committed to developing a diesel-powered helicopter in the next five years.
Wired, Kaveh Hushyar, Feb. 4, 2011:
You may not think things like 4G or multicore processors have anything to do with cars, but you’d be wrong. They have everything to do with what driving will be like in the next five to ten years.
Wired, Steve Rapp, Aug. 9, 2011:
I could see these bikes in the next five to ten years, maybe less, going faster than some of the fastest gas bikes.
Computer World, Sergey Brin, Sept. 25, 2012:
Such “autonomous vehicles” will be a reality for “ordinary people” in less than five years, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said Tuesday. He also said autonomous cars will be "far safer" than those driven by humans, and he envisioned a world in which office parking lots become a thing of the past, with cars instead dropping off their owners and driving off to park themselves somewhere else.
Economist, April 20, 2013:
So it seems clear that driving will become increasingly automated in the next five to ten years.
Swiss Post press release quoted in Slate, July 20, 2015, on a demonstration of a drone delivery service:
In the [press] release, the organizers of the event speculate that “specific applications will be realistic within five to ten years.”
USA Today, Eric Garcetti, Nov. 17, 2015:
It’s autonomous cars that will dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road at peak times, Garcetti says. We’ll start to see them in the next five to 10 years, “and 20 years from now, they will be the norm,” he adds.
Washington Post, Matt Redifer, June 17, 2016:
“If batteries continue to be on the same rapid increase in energy density that they have been on over the past 10 years or so, one can envision five to 10 years out in the future, the battery technology would be such that this particular aircraft could be enabled for a commercial-type aspect,” said Matt Redifer, the chief engineer on the project.
Digital Trends, Aug. 22, 2016:
Driverless ride-hailing cars are likely to be the biggest money-makers for companies in the business. Fully driverless ride-hail cars are probably five to 10 years in the future and even then they’ll likely be employed only in larger cities.
CNN, Uber, April 25, 2017:
Uber believes that investing in flying cars is essential to protecting its business, and envisions full-scale operations of a flying car network launching in 2023.
Wired, Brett Berk, May 7, 2017:
New powertrains and new technologies are likely to makeover the automotive interior far more in the next five to ten years than anything seen since Cadillac brought out the first enclosed car in 1910. Cars are learning to drive themselves and starting to talk to each other. They are running on electricity and ditching the family garage.
Computer World, Gary Ottenjan, April 2, 1990:
“Five to 10 years from now, there are going to be people who will work eight hours or more a day at a keyboard,” Ottenjan said. “They will need to be able to adjust the tabletop, arrange the seating, remove the glare from the screen.”
Wired, Willie Williams, Nov. 1, 1997:
Williams predicts that within five years, large buildings—particularly in splashy urban sprawls like Las Vegas—will serve as mutable canvases for electronic muralmakers.
New York Times, Eric Chan, May 4, 2003:
At first, Eric Chan’s shape-shifting knife looks pretty normal. But use it for a few seconds and the handle eerily reshapes itself, molding to match your grip. Set it down for a few hours and it reverts back to its “neutral” shape. And that cutting board? Using the same materials, it will “self-heal”—filling in any nicks and cuts on its surface every time you wash it. Chan figures his inventions are 5 to 10 years away from actual production, but the futuristic materials he plans to use are being tested in labs now.
Computer World, Sophie Vandebroek, March 17, 2008, on how the office would be different in the coming five to 10 years:
Vandebroek: “Just the notion of having an office might not exist in the future. Everything will be connected, so it doesn't matter if you are physically in an office or around the world. It will be easy to communicate and collaborate and connect to the right experts and the right partners.”
Digital security magazine CSO, Microsoft, June 9, 2011:
Here’s a closer look at the Microsoft Home, courtesy of Microsoft, and some of what Microsoft envisions future smart homes will be like in the next five to ten years. Inside a teenager’s bedroom in the Microsoft Home: “In the teenager’s bedroom, every surface is an interactive display. The room’s design can change to match the mood, with immersive experiences, entertainment and social connections seamlessly integrated into the environment.”
CNN, Steven Keating, May 2, 2017, on 3-D printing buildings:
The MIT researchers want to deploy their system in remote regions, such as in the developing world or in disaster relief areas, for example after a major earthquake, to provide shelter quickly. But that could be five to 10 years away, Keating, the paper co-author, told CNNTech.
Lifestyle routine changes
New York Times, Richard Grasso, June 16, 1991:
Because the participants in the market are being spread around the world, rather than only in the United States, there will grow in the next five to ten years a desire to trade in hours beyond the traditional session.
Wired, Claus Holm, Feb. 10, 1998:
Thirty to 40 percent of the gas stations in North America could have [full automation] in five to ten years.
New York Post, Andy Cohen, April 24, 1998:
“It’s a $300 billion industry, and we’re just at the tip,” Cohen said. “Whether it’s in five or ten years, all ordering [of groceries] will be online. It’s cheaper, more convenient and more accurate.”
USA Today, Google/Stanford, Dec. 15, 2004:
Stanford has partnered with Internet search giant Google to digitize library books, which eventually will be searchable from dorm rooms. ... [I]t’s expected to take five to 10 years for it to become a reality.
Network World, Robert C. Weisman, July 14, 2010:
“I don’t think laptops will be around in five to ten years, at least in the form they are today,” he says. While he notes that the BlackBerry has limitations as an application platform, he says “these aren’t phones, they’re handheld computers.”
New York Times, Chris Hughes, March 9, 2012:
Five to 10 years from now, if not sooner, the vast majority of The New Republic readers are likely to be reading it on a tablet.
TechCrunch, Terry Gou, Feb. 21, 2013:
Terry Gou, CEO of Foxconn, has said that the company’s goal is to “see the first batch of fully automated factories in five to 10 years and to eliminate simple and repetitive processes through automation in the new few years.”
USA Today, Robert Cole, June 26, 2014:
Despite the challenges, he says most hotels will adopt keyless entry in the next five to 10 years.
Cloud Tech News, Eclipse Internet, Jan. 29, 2015:
It’s expected that 50% of IT will be in the cloud within the next five to ten years.
USA Today, Kevin Weitzel, Aug. 16, 2015:
Online grocery sales account for about 2 percent of total store sales. “It could grow to 10 percent in five to 10 years,” Weitzel said.
KXAN, Michael McCaul, Aug. 25, 2015:
We see a vision of five to 10 years walking through a corridor without these machines but rather sensor technology where you can just walk through a hallway and not have to take off anything.
TechCrunch, Maria De La Croix, March 7, 2017, on stores without employees:
I believe in five to 10 years, all stores will look like this.
New York Times, Sam Bengston, July 25, 2017, on microchip implants for employees to swipe into a building, pay for food, and perform other functions requiring ID:
In the next five to 10 years, this is going to be something that isn’t scoffed at so much, or is more normal.
USA Today, Howie Choset, April 12, 2006, on snake-like robots that would be available for use in search-and-rescue disasters:
Choset said the robots may not be ready for use for another five to 10 years, depending on funding.
World Economic Forum, Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory, June 27, 2016, on robots widely useable for pollination or search and rescue operations:
Eventually the engineers want to move RoboBees out of the lab environment into the real world, but it could take another five to 10 years before they are able to fly and swarm on their own.
Digital Trends, Selman Sakar, July 26, 2016, on flexible robots that will be able to enter the body to both look around and perform surgery:
“Completing animal testing and proceeding to the clinical trials can take another five to 10 years,” Sakar said, “but it is definitely on the horizon.”
USA Today, Ian Simmons, Aug. 2, 2016:
A new wave of collaborative robots will likely be introduced at [car] plants operated by Magna over the next five to 10 years, Simmons said Monday during a talk at the Management Briefing Seminars.
CNN, Eric Spackey, Oct. 11, 2016:
If we can automate production on the sewing side, I can see big robots in textile plants in the next five to 10 years.
MIT Technology Review, Dave Churchill, May 19, 2017:
When could a future AI bot trounce a professional StarCraft player like Byun or Lee? Churchill estimates within the next five to 10 years, but adds, “If you had asked Go AI experts a month before AlphaGo came out, ‘How long before AI can beat the world champion at Go?’ most people would have said, ‘Five to ten years.’ ”
Digital Trends, Richard Yu, June 20, 2017:
He said over the next five to 10 years, there will be an, “intelligent revolution,” where all things will be connected, and be able to sense their environment. Our phones, he said, will be more like robots, and move past being simply smart phones, to become intelligent phones.
MIT Technology Review, Jason Holt, June 12, 2006, on carbon nanotube–based membranes to purify water and other liquids:
Holt estimates that these membranes could be brought to market within the next five to ten years. “The challenge is to scale up so we can produce usable amounts of these membrane materials for desalination, or gas separation, the other high-impact application for these membranes,” he says, adding that the fabrication process is “inherently scalable.”
The Guardian, Harvard Medical School, Aug. 31, 2012, on a DNA coding method to store digital information:
The researchers claim that the cost of DNA coding is dropping so quickly that within five to 10 years it could be cheaper to store information using this [DNA-coding-based digital memory] method than in conventional digital devices.
CNN, KeyGene, Feb. 14, 2013:
Scientists hope that in as little as 5 to 10 years, rubber tires like the ones on bicycles will be able to be produced from latex harvested from dandelions.
USA Today, Harriet Miller-Brown, Jan. 25, 2015, on texting, Skyping, or Facetiming 911:
Harriet Miller-Brown, the 911 state administrator for Michigan, said she's optimistic the next generation [of “calling” 911] will be available in five to 10 years.
World Economic Forum, Julien de Wit, July 25, 2016:
In five to 10 years we will be able to say if they [far away planets] are habitable, to check if they are the right temperature and with water.
TechCrunch, Garrett Reynolds, July 27, 2017:
Garrett, who researched machine learning and artificial intelligence at UCLA and was on PlanGrid’s machine learning team, says that in five to 10 years, architects may be able to draw up blueprints and see immediately if they are code compliant.