Our Turn To Make Predictions

26 March 2017

Let’s hope we do a better job of it than these guys.  Their dismissals of newfangled ideas appeared one day on my computer and fit perfectly with my bafflement at today’s new inventions whose names I don’t even understand.  Will we one day prove to be as comically stuck in the present as these men were in their time?  Let’s look at both.

1864 – “No one will ever pay good money to get from Berlin to Potsdam in one hour when he can ride his horse there in one day for free.” – King William I of Prussia.

1876 – “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be considered as a means of communication.” – Western Union.

1883 – “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”  Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society.

1878 – “The Americans have need of the telephones but we do not.  We have plenty of messenger boys” – Chief Engineer, British Post Office.

1878 – “When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.” – Oxford professor Erasmus Wilson.

1903 – “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.”  President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.

1921 – “The wireless music box (the radio) has no imaginable commercial value.  Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?”

1936 – “A rocket will never be able to leave the earth’s atmosphere” – The New York Times.  That one was accompanied by a picture of our astronaut standing on the moon while saluting the American flag.

1943 – “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”  – Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM.

1946 – “Television won’t last because people will get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”  Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox.

1954 – “If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.” – W.C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute.

1955 – “It’ll be gone by June.”  Variety on Rock n’ Roll.

1959 – “The world potential market for copying machines is 5000 at most.”  – IBM founders to Xerox.

1977 – “There is no reason for anyone to have a computer in his house.”  Ken Olson, president and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation.

There is a wonderful documentary that shows Bill Gates and his team visiting IBM to convince them his work would one day be important.  No luck.  What’s next, we wonder, what’s inevitable?  The only certainty:  don’t waste time denying the future.  Have some fun trying to figure it out.  And remember the new truth: we are already on the pathway to a robotic world.

One problem is that any initial product is apt to be faulty, oversized, or unreliable in its early stages.  When our fledgling family company bought an early computer, we had to build a special climate controlled room to hold it while management and employees saw it as a glorified typewriter.  Then came desktops, still for secretaries only – “What else could you do with it except write business letters?”

Looking back through eight decades, the process is clear.  New products lead to several years of fixing quirks, then to an exciting variety of workable variations, and finally to new cultures.  A palm size invention born of the first room size computers of decades ago.  Two dropouts changed the world in a very short time.  Aren’t we lucky Bill Gates didn’t listen to IBM? And because of that, people aren’t making fun of the approaching robotics world.  The big question there:  will humans be able to adjust to being friends with a robot?  How will they deal with robots that are smarter than they are?

A sad part of invention is that inevitably the products will be used for both good and bad purposes.  But because of the extraordinary human brain, nothing will ever stop people from thinking of new ways to do things. Here are just a few now in development.

Drones for policing, surveillance, surveying, firefighting, espionage.

LiTraCon – for construction of skyscrapers, towers, sculptures.

Metal Foam – for hulls, space colonies, floating cities.

Nano materials – an elevator into space.

3D displays – Images are no longer confined to a computer, TV, or movie screen.

Flying cars, Hover boards.

Electronic Nose – for detecting spoiled food, chemical weapons, cancer.

Devices for life extension.

In vivo pregnancy – out of body artificial uterus.

That list is just the beginning.  As usual, all will pass through the developmental processes that cause eye rolls among natural born naysayers, but these emerging technologies will inevitably evolve and create new cultures as they go.  Right now the field of life extension has enormous appeal for me.  I wonder why.

Think about one unexpected treasure we see already.  The Millennials, and now the generation nipping at their heels, have embraced the new culture by working for startups.  They won’t spend a minute in training programs working their way up in companies.  By soaking up the technological culture, they are already ahead of the managers who once held power.  Even 30 year old Millennials say to me, “Ask a younger person about that, it wasn’t there when I was young.”  As businessmen are marginalized by technology, the excitement of success is going to the very young.

The fact that most of us won’t be around for it doesn’t matter a whit.  The fun of all this lies in imagining the pathways younger people will follow as they develop the ideas.  They are the only ones who have the tools.  The seed of possibility takes root in some young brain in the current culture and is nurtured and developed as it influences the next.  The visionaries and the naysayers butt heads in the oldest tussle of all.  Guess who wins?