Why the future of technology is so unpredictable


They don’t make technology predictions like they used to. Just look at the astonishingly prescient wish list of technologies scribbled down in a note found after the famous chemist Robert Boyle’s death in 1691:

“The restoration of youth, or at least some of its hallmarks, like new teeth, new hair, new hair color in youth.” View.

“The Art of Flying.” View.

“The Art of Sustaining and Functioning Underwater for Long Periods of Time.” View.

“A Practical and Deterministic Way to Find Longitude.” View.

Finally: “Potent drugs to alter or enhance imagination, lucidity, memory, and other functions, as well as to soothe pain, induce innocent sleep, harmless dreams, and more.” Check out…cautions.

I think Boyle would be happy with 21st century dentistry, colorful hair dye, scuba gear, submarines, routine flying and GPS. He’d definitely like to try our LSD.

He also predicted “extended life” – but there, he may have disappointed us. We’ve made solid progress in preventing people from dying of infections when they’re young, but haven’t yet figured out how to keep most people alive beyond the age of 100.

Futurists’ recent predictions haven’t been as accurate, perhaps because they’ve relied too much on extending the latest and greatest technologies into new domains. Ray Kurzweil, one of the most famous living futurists, predicted back in 1999 that by 2019 robots would be educating us, conducting business transactions for us, adjudicating political and legal disputes, We do chores and have sex with us.

Even someone as smart as Kurzweil can’t imagine that by the end of 2022, MIT Technology Review’s major feature will be headlined: “Roomba records a woman going to the bathroom.” How the screenshots appeared on Facebook ?”

To make matters worse, Roomba is still not as good at vacuuming as hardworking humans.

Technology writer Edward Tenner recently wrote “The Efficiency Paradox” about the limitations of big data and artificial intelligence. We had a long discussion about the difficulty of predicting the future of technology, and why, today, the future seems very late and not quite what we ask it to be. He explained that there are three problems with predicting which technologies will change the world.

The first is what he calls reverse protrusion—a persistent bottleneck that could explain why we still don’t have a universal cure for cancer, we haven’t extended human life beyond 100 years, and—even if fusion can achieve Amazing breakthrough – we’re making such slow progress on clean energy.

ChatGPT, which debuted this year, looks like it may have broken through the barriers of human-like AI, but Tenner says it’s really just sucking in a vast ocean of existing information. “It’s plagiarism by scale, where other people’s ideas and writing are sliced ​​up and repackaged.”

To illustrate what it lacked, he asked it to consider the meaning of the phrase “a rolling stone grows no moss.” It opts for the most common Western interpretation of the proverb — that moving forward in life is a good thing.

“On the other hand, in the Japanese aesthetic, moss is really beautiful… so you could say that people who are free and not really committed to anything — they don’t have this natural treasure,” Tanner said. Said. ChatGPT never considered this point of view.

There are still bottlenecks to useful and trustworthy AI, Tenner said. “A lot of AI right now is really a black-box process, where the AI ​​can’t really explain and defend why a decision was made.” ChatGPT can be very eloquent, even creative, but we probably don’t want it to be responsible for anything important.

A second problem with predicting the future of technology is that some inventions do not beat competing technologies in the market. A good example is the new refrigerator designed in 1926 by Albert Einstein and another physics genius, Leo Szilard. How could an Einstein refrigerator be lost? It was in great demand because the poisonous gas used by refrigerators of the time sometimes leaked, killing entire families.

The Einstein-Szilard refrigerator used an electromagnetic field and liquid metal as a compressor, which solved the toxic gas problem but apparently created annoying noise problems. By the 1930s, scientists had discovered chlorofluorocarbons that were stable and safe for the home—but, as the world learned decades later, it was accumulating in the atmosphere and destroying Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Other examples abound, from Thomas Edison’s direct current being replaced by alternating current, to the Segway mobility scooter, which was supposed to change the world but never really gained traction — despite today’s e-bikes and Mobility scooters are very popular.

One final problem with predicting the future: Sometimes social, cultural and psychological factors prevent predictions from coming true. In the years after the first sheep was cloned, predictions were everywhere that clones would soon appear. But society doesn’t really like the idea of ​​human cloning.

Likewise, fears of using gene editing to create “perfect babies” may be overblown. Even if Crispr technology somehow makes this possible, perfect babies may not grow into perfect adults, Tenner said.We don’t agree on what we think is perfect—”You can imagine a wave [engineered] Babies … when they grow up, they’ll be obsolete,” he explained. Perhaps tomorrow’s parents will try to clone Einstein’s brain, only to have their child Einstein miss out on the revolution in physics and invent a Brilliant but forgotten refrigerator.

This year, the forecast reflects the mood of our pandemic era — gloomy. Earlier this month, The New York Post listed the technologies that could bring a dire dystopian future to life. The first is a quantum computer, which could potentially break all current encryption systems and allow everyone’s money to be stolen. Then there’s geoengineering — which could save us from climate change, or kill us all — and killer drones.

Last on the list is the same thing Boyle put at the top of his list in the 1600s: extended lifespan for the super-rich, illustrated by a photo of a giant rat superimposed on Jeff Bezos. I think Boyle would be more intrigued than intimidated, though he might as well be surprised that one of the wealthiest men of the 21st century isn’t investing in “a new hair color for youth.”

More views from Bloomberg:

• New year rings in with quick Covid tests: Faye Flam

• Google faces serious threat from ChatGPT: Parmy Olson

• Saving the bees is not the same as saving the planet: Amanda Little

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a science columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She is the host of the Focus on Science podcast.

More stories like this can be found at bloomberg.com/opinion

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