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2020 visions: forecasts from the past

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With 2020 just round the corner, we turn the clock back to revisit 20 technology predictions made about our future and ask if past predictors really had 2020 vision.

1. Wired for sound

The prediction

Shortly before his death in 1993, music pioneer Frank Zappa wrote in ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’ that he saw a future in which music consumers would store their tracks “in a central processing location and have them accessible by phone or cable TV, directly patchable into the user’s home-taping appliances, with the option of direct digital-to-digital transfer”.

Where we are at

Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify, YouTube Music, Tidal, Deezer, SoundCloud - digital music streaming services are with us in abundance and Zappa was right.

2. Monkey business

The prediction

In 1951, American chemist and Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg published his book ‘A Scientist Speaks Out’, in which he discussed the RAND Corporation’s prediction that “by the year 2020, it may be possible to breed intelligent species of animals, such as apes, that will be capable of performing manual labour”. Seaborg went on to prophesy that apes would be preferable to robots when it came to driving cars and would play a role in reducing accidents.

Where we are at

While autonomous vehicles are one of today’s emerging hot-ticket technologies, the idea of developing ape-driven vehicles, if it was ever a serious one, seems extremely unlikely.

 

3. Condensed communication

The prediction

Way back in the year 1900, when the Ladies’ Home Journal wanted predictions for the 21st century, the editors approached engineer and curator of mechanical technology at the Smithsonian, John Elfreth Watkins Jr for his views. One of his predictions was that in the future “there will be no C, X, or Q in our everyday alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.” He went on to say that we’d be using “condensed words expressing condensed ideas”.

Where we are at

The English alphabet still comprises 26 letters, as in Watkins’ day. Proposed reforms posit extending the alphabet to replace digraphs (such as ‘ch’) with entirely new single letters.

4.  E-commerce flop?

The prediction

In 1995, Newsweek carried the article ‘The Internet? Bah!’, in which US astronomer Clifford Stoll said that he was “uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community”, declaring “cyberspace isn’t, and never will be, Nirvana”. Stoll described e-commerce as “boloney”, asking “how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month?”

Where we are at

According to latest figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, global e-commerce stands at US$29tn (£26tn) per annum.

 

5. Destination Mars

The prediction

“In 2020, humans arrive on Mars. It’s an extraordinary event by any measure.” These are the words of Wired’s Peter Schwartz and Peter Leydon in their ‘History of the Future’ published in 1997. They describe how reaching Mars will help us to understand that the “divisions we impose on ourselves look ludicrous from afar. The concept of a planet of warring nations, a state of affairs that defined the previous century, makes no sense.”

Where we are at

ESA has long-term plans to send humans to Mars but hasn’t built a spaceship yet. Meanwhile, Nasa is under presidential orders to land humans on Mars by 2033. Watch this space.

 

6.  No need for futurology?

The prediction

“By 2020, predicting the future will be commonplace for the average person,” said Cisco’s former chief futurist, Dave Evans, in the late 1990s. His ‘Top 25 Technology Predictions’ include the idea that “by 2050, US$1,000 (£810) worth of computing power will equal the processing power of all human brains on Earth”. Does his prediction mean that he’s talked himself out of a job, and will future studies become a thing of the past?

Where we are at

Given that the Association of Professional Futurists has a membership of more than 500, from more than 40 countries, it seems there’s plenty of forecasting left in the tank.

 

7.  Cars go by pneumatic tube

The prediction

In 1957, Popular Mechanics magazine predicted that in the 21st century, every road in America would be “replaced by a network of pneumatic tubes”. The idea was that the late-19th and early-20th-century capsule pipeline technology that saw early use in telegram delivery over short distances – ‘pneumatic mail’ – could be scaled up for intercity car travel to save fuel and make driving on roads a thing of the past.

Where we are at

A white paper on Elon Musk’s Hyperloop hypersonic pneumatic train puts development costs for a large-diameter vehicle and passenger transporter system at $7.5bn (£6bn).

 

8.  The end of Apple

The prediction

Hard though it might be to grasp today, in the mid-1990s Apple Inc was merely weeks away from bankruptcy as stock prices plummeted due, in part, to the failure of the company’s Newton Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) products. Dell CEO Michael Dell famously said: “What would I do? I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.” Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold ventured that “Apple is already dead”.

Where we are at

Apple Inc is the largest technology company in the world by revenue. Its market capitalisation of $1tn (£811m) is higher than the GDP of 183 of the world’s 199 countries.

9. Telepathy and teleportation

The prediction

In the book ‘Shift 2020: How Technology Will Impact Our Future’ published in 2014, Michael J O’Farrell of the Mobile Institute confidently writes: “In the pending nanomobility era, I predict telepathy and teleportation will become possible by the year 2020 – with both commonplace by 2040.” And although it’s not clear how or why this will become commonplace or by what technology, lack of supporting scientific evidence means the phenomena are regarded as pseudoscience.

Where we are at

Nowhere. Serious scientists think that both phenomena are inconsistent with the laws of physics and are in the realm of self-delusion and wishful thinking.

10. The rise of cryptocurrency

The prediction

Following American cryptographer David Chaum’s idea of an anonymous cryptographic electronic money called ‘ecash’, in 1999 American economist and Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences Milton Friedman predicted the “one thing that’s missing, but that will soon be developed... a reliable e-cash”. In other words, what we today see as decentralised digital assets in the virtual form of cryptocurrency, untraceable by governments or banks.

Where we are at

Recent estimates suggest there are more than 1,600 cryptocurrencies in existence with a total market capitalisation in excess of $100bn (£81.1bn). Bitcoin is the largest at $41bn (£35.5bn).

Friedman’s prediction – “That kind of thing will develop on the Internet” – was spot on.

11. The flying car

The prediction

The idea of a flying car has been with us ever since the first Model T Ford rolled off the production line. Henry Ford predicted we would one day be in airborne automobiles, and started to tinker with designs in 1923, still believing his prediction in 1940.

Where we are at

There are countless prototypes such as AeroMobil, X-Hawk, Terrafugia Transition, Skycar, Xplorair and SkyRider, but no production models yet.

12. The end of food

The prediction

In his 2005 book ‘The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology’, inventor-futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that “Nanobots capable of entering the bloodstream to ‘feed’ cells and extract waste will exist (though not necessarily be in wide use) by the end of 2020s. They will make the normal mode of human food consumption obsolete.” Compelling stuff by the best-selling science author on Amazon.

Where we are at

While nanorobotics is an emerging technology field, they’re a long way from feeding us.

13.  Steel houses

The prediction

In 1911, Thomas Edison predicted that: “The house of the next century will be furnished with steel, at a sixth of the present cost... of steel so light that it will be as easy to move a sideboard as it is today to lift a drawing room chair.” He also said that books would be made of sheets of nickel ten times thinner than paper, making the Encyclopedia Britannica six inches thick.

Where we are at

With the patent for stainless steel granted in 1919, it has been with us for a century and is now ubiquitous in our homes, but not how Edison thought.

14. Transparent luggage

The prediction

In 2009, the Independent published ‘The world in 2020: A glimpse into the future’ in which it predicted that airports would radically change. “Paranoia about terrorism has pushed security to new extremes: ‘naked’ X-ray detection technology has become the norm at airports and see-through suitcases are compulsory.”

Where we are at

We have the technology, but due to privacy issues you can (theoretically) refuse a scan and opt for a ‘pat down’, while transparent luggage remains a fashionable option.

15. Social media

The prediction

“Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email are now seen as middle-aged obsessions. People under the age of 25 like to talk to their friends directly,” predicted the Independent. This was part of a prediction about how to connect Generation Z with electoral propaganda.

Where we are at

No surprise here. According to latest statistics from the Pew Research Centre, 18-29-year-olds are by far the heaviest users of social media.

16. Wearable computers

The prediction

In his 1998 book ‘Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century’, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicted that by 2020 there would be wearable computers, based on his assumption that Moore’s Law would still hold. He also predicted that computing, networking and sensing would break away from their platforms to create smart spaces.

Where we are at

It’s no exaggeration to say that the era of ‘wearables’ is here to stay.

17. New age of alchemy

The prediction

In 1911, Edison predicted the return of alchemy, which includes the changing of ‘base’ metals into ‘noble’ metals. He stated: “We are already on the verge of discovering the secret of transmuting metals, which are all substantially the same in matter, though combined in different proportions.”

Where we are at

Scientific American says: “All you need is a particle accelerator, a vast supply of energy and an extremely low expectation of how much gold you will end up with.”

18.  Surveillance

The prediction

In the 1980s, a group of US schoolchildren were asked what the world would be like in 2020. Thirteen-year-old Joe Garcia of Castlerock Junior High, Washington, showed wisdom beyond his years: “Cameras will be all over the city... If [they] saw robbers or vandals, the computer would eliminate them.” There is no record of what Joe meant by “eliminate”, but we get the picture.

Where we are at

In London there are an estimated 500,000 CCTV cameras.

19. Future TV

The prediction

A BBC television programme made in the 1960s called ‘Britain in the Future’ makes for quaint viewing in that it overstates the speed of change. But on one subject – televisions themselves – it has this to say: “We can expect the screen to get bigger, but the set to get much slimmer. In fact, it’s sometimes said now that it might be possible to make the television set so slim that it could be hung on the wall.”

Where we are at

To mount your flat-screen TV to a wall, you will need a bracket. The global market for the wall brackets alone is currently $3.4bn (£2.8bn). So, it’s safe to say that they’ve caught on.

20. Speedy trains

The prediction

In December 1900, John Elfreth Watkins Jr penned: ‘What may happen in the next 100 years’. When it came to trains, he had a nose for the future. “Trains will run two miles a minute, express trains 150 miles an hour. There will be cigar-shaped electric locomotives hauling along trains of cars.”

Where we are at

The top speed for a commercial train in the UK is 186mph (300km/h), while the average speed is 60-65mph (95-105km/h). For a long-range forecast, this is uncannily accurate.

 

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