Failed Technology Predictions

It drives me crazy when Congress and the President try to legislate new technology. One perfect example is President Bush’s to require 35 billion gallons of year of ethanol, 20 or so billion of which from cellulosic ethanol. Twenty billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol is a lot, especially for something that only exist in the lab and not in real-world applications, let alone a single commerical scale operation.

The problem is that we don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know which future technologies will work. If you have any question about that, just read this list of Failed Predicitons.

Sometimes we think that if we just let really smart people choose technologies, everything will work out. But from reading the list of failed predictions we see that isn’t true. Here’s what William Briggs has to say about what  we should learn from this list:

Here’s #2, from Mr Bill Gates, a well known rich person who lives near Seattle: “We will never make a 32 bit operating system.” And #8 from Lord Kelvin, who was a mathematician and physicist, and president of the British Royal Society, 1895: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

Ho ho ho, we say to ourselves when we read these prognostications. How stupid can they be! We experience mirth. But that is exactly the wrong emotion. You might despise Bill Gates, but he is an incredibly bright person, an expert among experts in his field. Kelvin, who you probably haven’t heard of, was one of the smartest people who ever lived (not at the top of the list, to be sure, but ahead of all of us). These, and the other people with quotes on the List Universe page, were masters, yet they made remarkably huge mistakes.

You must also remember that when these men, superior in perception to their peers, made these predictions, there were not hosts of others saying the opposite. Most people believed the predictions, and with good reason. These experts had often been right before. What we should take away from this list is an increased skepticism, a belief that experts are not nearly right as often as they’d like us to think they are. Doubt, therefore, is the proper emotion.

Experts can’t predict the future. That’s the message.