How to suss out bad tech predictions.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
March 2 2010 5:26 PM

That Whole Internet Thing's Not Going To Work Out

How to suss out bad tech predictions.

(Continued from Page 1)

People are very amenable to changing their habits, sometimes astonishingly quickly. One day not long ago, nobody you knew had a cell phone; a couple years later, everyone did. At the beginning of this millennium, few of us would have considered posting our family pictures online. Now we do it routinely. Sure, there are limits to the pace of technical change, but they usually involve price and infrastructure, not obstinate people.

New stuff sometimes comes out of the blue. You can't fault Stoll for thinking that the Internet would always remain a chore to navigate. How would we ever find the good nuggets amidst all the useless documents flooding the Web? Lots of search companies were investing lots of money in addressing that problem, but it wasn't clear they could come up with anything that worked. It also wasn't obvious that we'd find a way to create good content online. How would ever we know if some document we found provided an accurate account of the Battle of Trafalgar?

And then a few magical things came and changed everything. The date of the Battle of Trafalgar? It took me a second and a half to find out that it took place on Oct. 21, 1805. Thank you, Google and Wikipedia.

What Stoll missed here was the potential for collective intelligence to arise out of the online cacophony. Google's founders saw that they could suss out good content from bad by looking at linking patterns; Wikipedia's founders saw that by letting people edit each other's content, they could create a reference that was both comprehensive and uncannily accurate.

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But Google and Wikipedia weren't predictable. Before they were invented, no one would've believed such technologies could work so fantastically well. And that's the thing about the prediction business. Some of the most important developments of our lifetimes couldn't have been anticipated. Rather, they came about because a few innovators had brilliant ideas that no one else had foreseen.

These days it's best to err on the side of optimism. The bad predictions we remember most often are those that were too optimistic—the space-bound future of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 or George Jetson's mile-high suburb. Stoll's forecast is unusual for being too conservative; he thought the future would most likely resemble his present. Perhaps there's a lesson in that. In the digital age, the future is approaching faster than we think. As a result, the tech that comes tomorrow will probably be far more awesome than you can imagine today.

Recent history supports this theory. Many of the technologies that we now take for granted—online social networks, Web video, and photo libraries—weren't invented a decade ago and were only in their infancy five years ago. (YouTube celebrated its fifth birthday this month.) In a decade from now, I predict, we'll be using gadgets and tech tools that nobody has conjured as of 2010.

In the realm of outlandish predictions, I feel more comfortable with the extreme optimists. Ray Kurzweil—the acclaimed technologist who in 1990 correctly predicted that a computer would beat the best human chess player by the end of the decade—believes that humans will soon "transcend biology." He says we're on the cusp of "the singularity"—a point when technology will have advanced so far that human beings will essentially become immortal. It's hard to believe. But Kurzweil's predictions are based on current trends, and nothing about them seems really impossible. I doubt the singularity is just around the corner. But, hey, maybe he's right.

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