[FoRK] Predicting the future

Jeff Bone < jbone at place.org > on > Wed Dec 6 16:20:41 PST 2006

On Dec 6, 2006, at 5:11 PM, Jeff Bone wrote:

> On Dec 6, 2006, at 4:11 PM, Luis Villa wrote:
>> I am most certain the authors of the Jetsons said the same thing.
> I am most certain that the authors of the Jetsons had never heard  
> of the law of accelerating returns, or even Moore's Law for that  
> matter.  If you doubt this, let me draw you a little timeline....

BTW, Luis --- I hope you're not really either (a) implying that the  
authors of the Jetsons were in any way serious futurists or had any  
basis other than whimsy and imagination for depicting an uncertainly- 
distant future the way they did, or (b) that you actually take those  
predictions seriously in terms of any future roadmap or expectations  
for technology development.  If either of those things are true, I'd  
say you've got a (Spacely's) sprocket loose in your think-o-tron, and  
should take it in for a tune-up. ;-)

Predicting the future is hard work, with a disastrous historical  
track record.  But perhaps comparing previous methods and their  
results to current efforts is a bit of an apples-oranges sort of thing.

It's only in relatively recent history that any attempt has been made  
to measure and quantify previous trends and current developments in  
order to extrapolate from them in any serious way.  Moore's Law is  
just past its 40th birthday, and has done pretty well in terms of  
predictive accuracy so far.  Other similar extrapolative "laws" ---  
Metcalfe's, Gilder's, Kurzweil's Accelerating Returns, Poor's Law  
(network density growth), and so on are much newer.  Ideas about and  
study of the forces that drive or hinder innovation and the adoption  
of new things (the Bass Diffusion Model, for example) are coming out  
of a discipline (marketing) that's only now beginning to apply  
quantitative methods and scientific rigor to its subject matter.

Nonetheless, Kurzweil, Saffo, Ian Pearson of BT, and so on (not to  
slight anyone by leaving them out) are serious guys with decent track  
records so far...  and one thing common to almost every serious  
investigation of the subject is agreement that the derivative rate of  
change is itself changing.  Whether this reflects an exponential  
curve or, say, an s-curve is open for debate, as is figuring out what  
it's going to mean even a little further down the curve.

My earlier comment about the past being an unreliable indicator of  
the future merely stems from the recognition that, any way you look  
at it, we're in a steep part of the curve, and getting steeper.  That  
makes prediction difficult.  Four or five generations or more ago, a  
man could pretty much predict what the prevailing technological  
conditions would be throughout his children's lifetimes.  My own  
paternal grandmother, though, saw all of the following during her  
lifetime:  broad-scale rollout of the telephone to "every" home;  the  
advent of the mass-produced automobile; the birth of talking films,  
color photography, and television;  the birth of flight;  man's first  
steps on the moon;  the invention of the personal computer and the  
early days of the Internet (though I doubt she was much aware of the  
latter.)  That's in one single lifetime.

I'm not betting that it will plateau out at any time soon;  I'd bet  
even-money on technological Singularity in my lifetime, assuming that  
we don't kill ourselves first or otherwise set ourselves back due to  
the side effects of oh-to-human memetic viruses (war, religion,  
macroeconomic waste, social instability, failure to focus  
appropriately on various addressable existential risks, etc.)  That's  
my own bet, and indeed it is perhaps wishful thinking.  But if the  
vast majority of Americans can be excused for wishfully thinking that  
the universe is controlled by a malevolent sky-god, hopefully you can  
indulge me just a bit.  At the very least, I'd say my vision (at  
least of what *could* be) seems a bit more pleasant. ;-) :-)


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