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It Did Happen!

[Written in August 2002 for the September/October issue of The Voyageur. Copyright © 2002 Peter de Jager.]

When we attempt to make predictions we can put our failures into two baskets. In the first one we place all those predictions that state "This will happen" and then it doesn't. Into the second basket we place all those statements that stated "This won't happen!" but then it did. Here are some classic examples:

"You could put in this room... all the radiotelephone apparatus that the country will ever need"
—W. W. Dean, President of Dean Telephone Company, 1907

"I think there is a world market for about five computers"
—Thomas Watson, Chairman of the Board of International Business Machines (now IBM), 1943

"640k ought to be enough for anybody"
—Attributed to Bill Gates, 1981

These are a perfect example—or symptom, if you prefer—of the fundamental flaw in the way we think about the future. Despite our painful awareness of the rapid pace of change, when we look to the future we imagine it's going to be pretty much identical to the way it is now.

What is peculiar about the speakers above is they should know better. The irony is, they were directly involved in creating a reality decidedly different from that of their parents, and yet they failed to see how their children's lives could be significantly different from their own!

This failure to clearly perceive the future doesn't arise out of arrogance. It's not that they believed they were the pinnacle of technological prowess; it's that they believed the constraints they operated under in their day would remain in place in the future.

Moore's Law states that computing power doubles every 18 months. That wasn't defined in their day, but Moore's Law is nothing but a formal statement of something we've known for a long time: The primary difference between the past and the future is that in the future we become more "capable" than we were in the past.

When Thomas Watson stated there would only be a market for about five computers he was making several intermingled assumptions. He was assuming that cost, size, computing power, reliability, complexity of use and operating costs would remain the same. These assumptions combined to create the belief that the public could not justify and therefore would have no need of a product suffering from these constraints. BUT...as we have seen time and time again...remove the constraints and a market will make itself known. Both W.W. Dean and Bill Gates made the same sort of assumptions.

Costs always decrease; size changes in the direction we want it to go; speed is a goal we strive for and achieve within the limits of diminishing returns; quality always goes up; ease of use increases and operating costs will diminish...these mini-statements are true for ALL emerging technologies. Any prediction that chooses to ignore these "Laws of Technological Maturation" will most likely be inaccurate.

So what? If the above is true, then we should be able to make some predictions about some emerging technologies. If we can't, then all of this is just navel-gazing. Here are two "predictions" that take the above ideas and apply them.

First, an easy one. Within 3 to 4 years, wireless computing will be the norm. This is a no-brainer. Wi-fi components are dropping to the price level where they will become standard on all laptops and PCs. Once this happens the operating systems will integrate them seamlessly into routine activities.

Too easy. Here's one that pushes the envelope a bit. The Star Trek replicator will become a household device within 5 to 10 years. You'll be about to buy a fully functional replicator for about $1,000 to $2,000—possibly less.

Yes, I mean the replicator that allows you to build three-dimensional solid, usable objects. The technology is all in place...but typically costs about US$70,000; the unit is a bit big; it's a bit complicated to use; the materials are expensive and maintenance is a bit of a chore.

What would people use them for? It doesn't matter...you don't have to think of that in advance. The creative urges at the foundation of model building, do-it-yourself, arts & crafts and other hobbies will take care of the usage...all we have to do is to get the price and size down.

Send feedback to Peter de Jager.


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