It’s not easy to make predictions about technology. Who, after all, could have foreseen the Internet revolution, the advent of the smartphone or the ubiquity of connected devices? It’s an industry which can surprise even those at the very heart of innovation, including IBM Founder, Thomas Watson, who once proclaimed that there was a global market for “maybe five computers” and “5,000 copying machines”.
Watson wasn’t the only one to get things wrong, of course. Yet, despite others’ failings, tech experts continue to prophecise on the digital landscape of the future, with many marking 2020 as a year by which things will have changed. So, have any of these predictions come true?
The revolution will be automated
Fears that automatrons would take over jobs, society, and eventually the entire human race have existed for decades, helped along by media representations like The Terminator, RoboCop and iRobot. But as recently as 2006, Elon University noted that by the year 2020 “robots and artificial intelligence… will almost completely take over physical work.”
Similarly, futurologist Ian Pearson predicted in 2005 that it would be possible to make a “conscious computer with superhuman levels of intelligence before 2020”. He said, “it would definitely have emotions. If I’m on an aeroplane I want the computer to be more terrified of crashing than I am, so it does everything to stay in the air.”
Well, we’re here in 2020 and so far our planes have a distinct lack of emotion. Reflecting on his predictions, Pearson estimates that AI has progressed 35-40 per cent slower than expected. While we perhaps didn’t meet his timeline, the predictions that technology will displace human jobs are still coming thick and fast. We may have held back the robot revolution but – to paraphrase The Terminator himself – they’ll be back.
Fly me to the moon
In 2009, the co-founder of Space Adventures, Eric Anderson, said that “by 2020 you’ll have seen private citizens circumnavigate the moon”, while SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, said that there would be “serious plans to go to Mars with people.”
Space tourism started to take-off during the last two decades, with some businesses, such as Virgin Galactic, actually selling tickets for the handsome fee of £200,000. This followed the very first space tourist, Dennis Tito, who paid $20 million to visit the International Space Station.
Still, “space” is a long way from the moon, and the moon is millions of miles from Mars. Recent reports predict that the first manned space flight to the red planet is unlikely to take place until the 2030s, so it may well be that we return to this article at the end of this decade.
Entrepreneurs in space tourism, however, are still optimistic that there will be private-citizen space travel in the next few years.
Beam me up, Scotty
Though it still seems a long way-off, technology expert, Michael J. O’Farrell, predicted that 2020 would be the dawn of the “nanomobility era” and that both teleportation and telepathy would be possible by now.
In his 2014 book, Shift 2020, O’Farrell claimed that teleportation would be “commonplace” by the year 2040. Although this seems more like science-fiction than reality, researchers in China have proved that teleportation is achievable – in 2017, a photon was teleported from the ground to a satellite orbiting more than 500km above. So, while we don’t yet have the available technology to teleport, it’s not outside the realms of possibility.
And that is a common theme running through these predictions; the theory is there, but the timing of the practical realisation of that theory is off. We don’t yet have personal instant travel to a far-off destination, weekends-away in space or robot butlers, but we do have proof of concept, billions of dollars of investment and assistant automatrons in the form of Alexa and Siri.
So, while it’s tempting to scoff at these past predictions which leave the experts slightly red-faced, it might still be the prophets who have the last laugh. In the case of these forecasts, the big question is not “if” but “when”.