Around this time of the year there are plenty of predictions of the hottest tech trends. This year they featured the Internet of Things, Big Data, 3D printing and the cloud. Not to pick on the researcher, but Gartner’s top prediction for 2015 is “computing everywhere” based on the proliferation of smartphones and wearables. It’s a little “bah humbug” of me but these technologies are available now, so are they really predictions?

These lists are prime examples of a core human failing: we find it hard to see beyond the world we live in. Even our greatest experts and innovators can get caught: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Paul Krugman all went on the record with statements that made sense at the time but turned out to be superbly wrong.

But not every seeming gaffe has actually been said. In my research, I discovered that some widely quoted comments had been taken out of context or edited and the real meaning had been lost. For example, there is no evidence that IBM chairman Thomas Watson said in 1948: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Watson reportedly said later, at a shareholders’ meeting in 1953: “IBM had developed a paper plan for such a machine and took this paper plan across the country to some 20 concerns that we thought could use [it] … we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.”

The following are a selection of the best underestimates and misjudgments in technology; these are the original words.

“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.” (1903) The president of the Michigan Savings Bank gave this advice to Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, trying to convince him not to invest in the Ford Motor Company. It’s worth remembering that when cars first came on the scene in the early 20th century, they were called “horseless carriages” and looked remarkably similar to existing forms of transport, without the horse. Engineers even kept designing a space for the whip holder in the car, before realising it was not needed. Fortunately, Rackham ignored the banker’s advice and bought 50 shares of stock worth $5000. He sold his investment 13 years later for $12,500,000.

Insight: Viewing new technologies through the lens of dominant existing technologies (e.g. horses) can lead to undervaluing new solutions, as they’re often regarded as merely incremental substitutes for what we have.

“The coming of wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.” Guglielmo Marconi, the visionary inventor of the wireless telegraph, made this prediction in Technical World Magazine in October, 1912, believing the invention would be used for peaceful means. He based his forecast on the premise that the telephonic connection would make it easier than ever before to share information across even distant borders, thereby giving us a wider picture of the world and a greater understanding of each other. Two years later, World War I started, eventually killing more than 37 million people.

Insight: Increased connection does not necessarily lead to increased understanding. Ethan Zuckerman, MIT Center for Civic Media director, wrote about disconnection: “The challenge for anyone who wants to decipher the mysteries of a connected age is to understand how the internet does and does not connect us. Only then can we find ways to make online connection more common and more powerful.”

“Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” On June 8, 1959, in an attempt to highlight the US Post Office Department as a pioneering organisation, Arthur Summerfield, the US Postmaster-General at the time, ordered the flight of a guided missile stuffed with 3000 letters from a navy submarine. Racing along at around 965km/h, the missile arrived 22 minutes later at a naval station in Mayport, Florida 161 kilometres away. It was the first and only missile mail experiment.

Insight: We can often predict the end benefit well ahead of being able to conceive the delivery mechanism. It’s likely that Amazon’s drone delivery will be considered as ludicrous as rocket mail by 2065, because we can’t yet imagine the solutions that will move goods.

“By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.” (1998) For Time magazine’s 100th anniversary edition, Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman was asked to write a piece as if someone was looking into the past from 2098. He forecast the growth of the internet would “slow drastically” as people realised they had nothing to say to each other. Krugman explained how the internet would not have much economic effect on our lives. “Ten years from now, the phrase, information economy, will sound silly,” he wrote. It’s worth remembering that Krugman’s thinking is largely grounded in Keynesian economics that states there is a diminishing return to technological progress over time.

Insight: We often only appreciate the aspect an innovation that is immediately apparent (e.g. information sharing) and miss its long-term benefits or unintended consequences that could emerge (e.g. new markets).

“Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” (1995) Robert Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet technology, founder of 3Com, and creator of Metcalfe’s law (networks become exponentially more valuable as they expand), is undeniably a tech pioneer. In one of his controversial columns for InfoWorld, Metcalfe made the point that the internet was growing far too quickly for the technology to be able to keep it stable and secure. Indeed, Metcalfe promised to eat his words if the forecast turned out to be wrong. He kept his promise literally. During his keynote address at the International World Wide Web Conference in 1997, Metcalfe put a print copy of his column into an electric blender, pured it, and drank the pulpy paste in front of a cheering crowd!

Insight: Predictions related to doomsdays and calamities often underestimate the inherent resilience of systems, specifically the capacity to successfully adapt to threats and, in fact, improve their capacities as a result of coping with extreme load and risk.

In his book, Black Swan, Nicolas Taleb explains why it is so hard to make predictions of highly improbable events. He believes that all major discoveries are “black swans” – which, evaluated after the fact, are relatively easy to point to and say, “that was bound to happen”. As Taleb writes: “Things, it turns out, are all too often discovered by accident but we don’t see that when we look at history in our rear-view mirrors.” The problem with most tech predictions is they focus on what already exists and fail to avoid current biases and uncover the real potential of a breakthrough, even if it is not yet quantifiable or even fathomable.

“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” Sir William Preece, British Post Office chief engineer, 1876.

“The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” William Orton, 1876

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

“I’m dubious that Amazon and many other internet retailers will ever generate the huge profits that their stock prices suggest.” Thomas Friedman, 1999

“The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model, and it might not be successful.” Steve Jobs, 2003

“Two years from now, spam will be solved.” Bill Gates, 2004
Reposted from the Australian Financial Review

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