Never Say Never

The deluge of end-of-year related media seems to take two forms: recaps of the past year and predictions for the future. (Interestingly, there aren’t a lot of year-end reports along the lines of ‘and here’s what I’m doing RIGHT NOW’) Many predictions involve technology: will 2014 be the year of the 3-D printed, cloud-neural network quantum-computing autonomous cars?!?!?! (Answer: No.)

For everybody who thinks fusion powered utopia is just around the corner, it seems there are at least ten naysayers who think technological optimists are just indulging sci-fi daydreams. Although anecdotes aren’t proof, many very smart people, through their own pessimism, have inadvertently offered up counter-evidence for a pessimistic viewpoint. Check it out:

  • “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” — The New York Times , 1920.
  • “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan , winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in physics, 1928.
  • “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”  — Scottish mathematician and creator of the Kelvin temperature scale William Thomson, Lord Kelvin , 1895.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olsen , founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977 .

(Quotes from this long article on the Motley Fool) 

The anecdote usually mentioned in this context – the patent officer claiming in 1902 that everything useful had already been invented – is apocryphal.

You should be skeptical of any tech prediction more than five years down the road, and ‘never’ is about the most far-off prediction there is.

So how do you strike a balance between deluded optimism and stick-in-the-mud pessimism? Don’t just predict a future, choose the one you want the most.  Work backwards to the actionable item for the next year to make your future a reality starting in 2014.

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Some Quotes

Due to moving and having my computer locked in my advisor’s office for the evening, a short post consisting mostly of the words of Freeman Dyson from Infinite in All Directions. The book is chock full of ideas that are still relevant today, 25 years after it was first published. In that way, it’s like extremely technical science fiction. Time has rendered some subjects less relevant (nuclear weapons) and others untrue (predictions of an awesome outer-solar-system bound mission launched in 2014) but the core has pivoted to still ring extremely true a quarter century later.

On space colonization:

“Some of the first questions which come up in any practical discussion of space colonization are questions of economics…How do we make a living? What can we expect to export in order to pay for necessary imports? If space colonization makes any sense at all, these questions must have sensible answers.”

This is a huge question that bugs me all the time. I think that an answer will only emerge if we just go out and try.

On the limits of AI (actually a quote of a quote from Sir James Lighthill):

“Valuable results flow from the integration of intellectual activity with the capacity to feel and to relate to other people. Until this integration happens, problem solving is no good, because there is no way of seeing which are the right problems.”

Computers have gotten much better at solving problems since 1988, even ones where they don’t know the problem beforehand. However, I don’t think that computers have gotten any better at defining the problem to be solved. I suspect this is an area where humans may always be relevant.

On why genetically engineered crops are not aberrations:

“Farmers have been growing wheat in open fields for thousands of years, and wheat is also a product of human manipulation, just as artificial as genetically engineered Escherichia Coli

(I would also note to the paleo folks that almonds were domesticated after wheat.)

On why “quick is beautiful”:

“The nuclear industry is not the only one which has suffered from a hardening of the arteries and has lost the ability to react quickly to changing conditions and changing needs. The difference betwee n a three-year and a twelve –year reaction time is of crucial importance.”

Not only does this apply almost everywhere, I think three-year vs. twelve-year is a great rule of thumb to keep in your back pocket when evaluating technology predictions or project proposals.

And that is just a small sample of Dyson’s insights. Since the expected duration of ideas into the future is roughly proportional to how long they’ve survived so far, I expect these words to stay relevant for at least another quarter century. You should read the book. Yes, you.