Friday, May 04, 2007

Hindsight

Forecasting is very difficult, especially if it's about the future. For this reason, he who lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass. ~ Edgar Fiedler

There are no shortage of lists of predictions of the future that didn't work out quite how the predictor thought they would. You can find some here, here, and here. In fact, this blogger even had some previous fun with IT predictiions. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, so making fun of some prognostications is fairly easy. It begs the question, though, as to how supposedly intelligent people come up with these ideas.

Interestingly, many of the predictions in these lists tend to have been negative, in the man-will-never-fly mold, rather than optimistic ones that never occurred. For example, there were the visions of flying cars, domed cities under the ocean, settlements on the Moon and Mars (by 2000 or even earlier), and abundant energy from nuclear or solar power. The negative predictions, at least where science and technology are involved, tend to be a denigration of a new invention or theory.

For instance, Thomas Edison, proponent of direct current, said of George Westinghouse's alternating current scheme, "Just as certain as death, Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size." Edison himself was on the receiving end of this comment from a committee of the British Parliament: "...good enough for our transatlantic friends ... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men."

Of course, much of this comes from either ignorance (when a non-technical person or group is offering the criticism), vested interest (like Edison), or sour grapes because the scientist or engineer didn't think of it him or herself. Some of comes from a sincere belief that the new theory or invention just isn't going to work.

But what of the wonders that never happened? Consider the flying cars.

If there's one thing my wife is disappointed about, it's that we don't have flying cars. Personally, I'm happy about it. Consider the problems associated with the air being filled with vehicles. People who can't drive properly where lanes are marked clearly aren't going to follow air lanes. There's also the problem of what happens if you have an engine problem. In most cases, there's no slowing down and pulling over; you crash and burn. With technology as it currently stands, flying cars are impractical.

The dream I've been carrying for years is the car that runs on an autopilot, allowing the driver to relax and leave the driving to the car. There are two ways to approach this. First you can implant cables in the road that are followed by devices in the vehicle. Couple this with controls that keep a safe distance between vehicles and maintain the speed limit, and you have a relatively simple system.

The problem with this is that you need an infrastructure put in place to provide the vehicle guidance. There is a considerable cost in this sort of implementation, even if roads are repaved relatively frequently, for planting cable and piping a signal down those lines. The alternative is a car that has sufficient sensors to drive itself without such an infrastructure. But, you still need to have lines painted and upgraded signs, involving more infrastructure improvements.

There is the additional issue of those who would override the automatic systems to speed through traffic, no doubt causing wrecks just as such drivers do now. So, even though we probably have the means to provide some sort of automated driving, without some sort of legislation and driver re-education, it would be difficult to implement.

Difficult, but hardly impossible.

The lesson in this is that the dream predictions often overlook practical obstacles that have to be overcome. Just as the nuclear power advocates forgot about the costs associated with dealing with the radioactive wastes, we neglect to think about those annoying side issues that have to be addressed before a dream prediction can come true.

That doesn't mean that we should smirk at the dreamers. Even impractical dreams can lead to practical advances. What we need to do is change our attitude about overcoming the obstacles. It seems that we always can think of reasons why an idea won't work, but we seldom turn to ways to overcome the negatives. Rather than laughing at the extreme ideas, we should think about their potential.

It's more fun to chuckle about the naysayers who were wrong than to have to wish for what might have been.

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